The Education of a Poet

Our first few steps into Great Meadows establish a host of false expectations. 

Two red-winged blackbirds greet us with their trills and a sunning bullfrog croaks a big fat welcome from his lily pad.

My daughters are delighted, of course, but I find it a bit unsettling — how am I going to secretly train them to become poets if the treasures of nature reveal themselves so willingly? 

I brought them here this morning so that we could practice slowing down, sit by the banks of the marsh and observe the nothing that is not there, as Stevens writes, and the nothing that is.

But my five-year-old is skipping up and down the dirt path, twirling in her dress, looking at some spotted turtles that just happen to be plodding across the path.

And my three-year-old is on a mission to see how many pebbles she can stuff into my pockets when I’m not looking.

But just as I begin to worry that my kids aren’t properly learning to suffer the boredom of childhood, my five-year-old sulks on over — we’ve been here ten minutes already and she still hasn’t seen a muskrat.

I sense an opening, the chance to teach her the quiet pleasures of sitting still with heightened attention.

But after five minutes of watching the reeds not rustle, she looks dejected.

Even when a large black snake finally slithers by all she sees is not-a-muskrat.

And I’m beginning to worry, now, that seeing a muskrat will only disappoint further, that the elusive Rodent Of Unusual Size in her mind can’t compare to an actual small, semi-aquatic rat with a peculiar smell.

All of these complex and nuanced emotions are, of course, the baseline for great poems, but I’m not sure that my daughters are ready to think of disappointment as the tenth muse. 

And I know, too, that to make it as a writer you have to be able to overcome failure and rejection, have to constantly focus on all the small successes.  So I start listing all the wonderful wildlife that we have seen: frogs, turtles, snakes, mosquitoes —

Walruses, my three-year-old says.

Walruses? I say.

Little walruses, she says.

My five-year-old starts cracking up and as I watch her return to her joyful and curious self, I realize that I might be going about this all wrong.

I’ve been trying to teach my daughters to pay solemn attention to the world when I ought to be celebrating the wonders of their imaginations, their unwavering belief in the absurd.

After all, if there is such a thing as transcendence, then this is it — all three of us skipping up and down the dirt path, twirling, weighed down only by the pebbles in our pockets.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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by Ben Berman


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