Poetry Friday: Poetry 180

The start of the semester has everything buzzing at school—it’s a nice feeling, even though it’s also exhausting.  Today in particular, despite all the university trappings around me, my mind was drifting back to the days when I taught in a public high school: a former student dropped by (very unexpectedly, given that I taught him in Washington but I now work in Illinois) just to see me and wave before rushing off to the airport for home, and later in the day I chatted a little with a new colleague who also once taught in the public schools, and we agreed that some of this start-of-year exhaustion feels very familiar, the bone-tired teacher getting home at the end of the day feeling both drained and happy at how much has been done.  So it set me to thinking about Poetry Friday in the light of all this, and I realized I’d never acknowledged or commented on one of the better things I think has happened for poetry in the last decade—a school-focused project spearheaded by the Library of Congress called Poetry 180.  The notion is a simple one—for each of the 180 days of the typical American school year, there’s a poem that teachers are encouraged to share or use somehow.  Generally brief, accessible, memorable, and thought-provoking, the idea is that starting on the 1st day of the year, there’s a poem that potentially every schoolchild in the country is pondering, talking about in class, mentioning to their parents over dinner, etc.  The reality falls short of the ideal, of course (when doesn’t it?), but I still think it’s an attractive notion, and one that has the ability to help revive poetry’s place in our culture and our everyday lives a little, if we let it.

So today (and perhaps again, off and on) I’ll simply share what I think of as “today’s poem” from 180 and talk about it a little—it was the 10th day of the semester for me today, and for many other students in my city and elsewhere, so let’s have a look at the 10th poem from Poetry 180, William Stafford‘s “At the un-national monument along the Canadian border“:

“This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.”

Stafford was born in the Midwest, but he spent most of his adult life and career in the place I lived most of my life, the Pacific Northwest, where he taught at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, and lived out his days until his death at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon.  This brief, beautiful poem is (has to be) a reference to the border between my home state and British Columbia.  It is also, for me, always associated with the Peace Arch, and the parks that surround it on both sides, where the major interstate highway crossing into Canada passes on its way from Seattle and Bellingham up to Vancouver, B.C.  I have always loved it, and Stafford captures the loveliness of this borderland here in an almost perfect economy of words, starting with the curious adjective “un-national” to acknowledge the curiosity of this structure built intentionally on two countries’ soil in honor of their shared respect for each other.

So many lovely (and awful) poems have been written about battlefields and the grass marked with blood, some in praise of death with honor, death for freedom, and some in horror at the meaninglessness, the pointlessness of this waste of human life.  And so Stafford can afford to be so simple and direct here—this is “the field where the battle did not happen, / where the unknown soldier did not die”.  It’s like an undoing of history, a tape on rewind—the image of the unknown soldier returning home to his family to live and grow old and be known is moving.  The grass here is not bleeding but united.  Yes, I know, I attach the Peace Arch to this poem even though Stafford says that “no monument stands” here—I don’t know how to explain the line.  Perhaps he is thinking of another place along this border, but for me it’s so hard not to see the arch as I read.  Maybe I interpret him to mean something very technical here—monuments commemorate people or events, but the Peace Arch commemorates an absence, in some ways, of these things.  It is an ode not to any one person or moment, but to the sustained willingness of two nations to stand in friendship beside each other.  There is nothing heroic about the arch, in that respect—it does not make wild the blood, it cannot be abused by politicians in jingoistic speeches, it will not serve as a rallying point for the vigilante or the demagogue.  Perhaps I misread him.  If so, he is referring to the rest of the border stretching east for the Cascades and, beyond them, the Rockies — the long open space, largely unfenced, including towns that straddle the border so that Canadians walk into America to buy groceries or post a letter, and vice versa.

I love the tranquility of the second stanza—the quiet of the seabirds holding themselves in place on the breeze or zipping from country to country, the quiet of a soil untroubled by violence or murder, the peace of the place so quiet, in fact, that its name all but disappears and is forgotten.  We may murmur “Gettysburg” at times, or “Pearl Harbor”, “D-Day”, “9/11”, all these dark days—they’re rallying cries, times and spots we can never let go of.  There are no such handles on the borderlands he’s talking about: no ominous label hovering and demanding our attention.  I’m grateful to Stafford for this quiet, today: a poem that refreshes and inspires a little hope.  I wonder if it worked that in any child’s mind today, if a teacher used this to ask questions about peace and war, about nations and struggles.  Poetry has this kind of enduring power, at its best, and I’m glad the LOC is still working to keep it fresh in our ears and eyes.

English: The Peace Arch on the US-Canada Borde...

The International Peace Arch, in Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An American walking north into Peace Arch State Park sees emblazoned on the arch this motto: “Children of a common mother”.  A Canadian walking south into Peace Arch Provincial Park sees this: “Brethren dwelling together in unity”.  This September, maybe more than most months, I hope that for the nations—not just these two devoted friends, but all nations.  War is easy.  Peace is hard.  But if we remember who we are—all of us, us children of a common mother—it is easier to build.


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