Monday, September 24, 2012

Tom Dooley and Me

Virginia's new poet laureate, Sofia Starnes, is compiling an anthology called The Nearest Poem Anthology, designed to be a collection of poems and short essays about how one poem you didn't write affected your life.

I’ve never thought of myself as someone influenced by poetry. Drama, yes. Fiction, no doubt. But a poem? I just never considered how one poem had become a refrain in my life.

From when I was three onward until about seven or eight, my grandmother read to me every night before bed. We didn’t have a television at first, and even when we did, she still read to me. First, little Golden Books, then more books for older children. By first grade, I was reading three grades ahead of my peers.

We read Black Beauty and Old Yeller, Sand Dune Pony and My Friend Flicka, all the Nancy Drew books. Hardy Boys, too. She believed a good story was written for children, not for boys or girls. Her personal favorite was a collection of American poems. I didn’t know a poem from Adam at that time, but I liked the rhythm of the language, how it sounded when she read it. She read some poems to the point where some of the lines were permanently imprinted on gray cells deep in my brain.

By middle school I read about archaeologists and missionaries and doctors working in strange, exotic lands. I wanted to dig in the dirt and find dinosaur bones. Before long I knew the difference between an archaeologist and a paleontologist. Later, I found some books about a doctor who worked in Indochina building hospitals and treating the native people. I had to look for Laos and Indochina on my globe, because I had no idea where they were.

My mother brought home three books about Dr. Thomas Dooley, who helped found what we now call a non-governmental organization, an NGO. Called Medico, the charity sought to establish hospitals and treatment centers in Communist-controlled territory. He wrote with passion and humor, often passing off the dangers he faced with a flip of the pen.

I read and reread these books. Something pricked my brain. Cadences in the language were similar to poems my grandmother read aloud. I began searching for more memories. I opened the second book, The Edge of Tomorrow, and found a chapter title that was screamingly familiar: “But I Have Promises to Keep.” I knew that line. I’d heard my grandmother read it so many times.

I rooted in our bookshelves until I found her battered anthology of great American poems. I curled in a chair and thumbed the well-loved pages until I found Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening.” And there were the words from the chapter title, parts of the refrain that appeared without attribution in Dr. Dooley’s books, and distant memories of my beloved grandmother, reading to me with me lying in her lap.

I studied comparative literature for years. I read Shakespeare and the poetic language of Chaucer. I read the romantic poets, the American iambic pentameter poets that made me seasick. I read Tang poetry and Han Shan in Chinese. I read Basho in Japanese, but the only poem that continues to influence decisions is a humble poem by Robert Frost.

I can't write a decent poem to save my life, but I can appreciate the work of others. Starnes' new anthology will be a welcome addition to my bookshelves.


  1. I wrote poetry in college, but haven't tried that in years. It's so important, I think, to have books in the house and to buy books for your kids. Both of mine are avid readers now.

  2. How wonderful to have such a grandmother!

    Mary Oliver is my favorite poet, and her "Wild Geese" is like a refrain or background in my life. It speaks to me and for me.

    I used to write a lot of poetry and have recently started writing a little again. It's such a wonderful way to enjoy words.

  3. I don't know of poems that influenced my life, but one I keep coming back to is Robert Frost's Mending Wall.

  4. I had to take a poetry course in college for my major. Other than that, I read it usually if it's pasted inside a fiction book but don't go out of my way to read it. I don't know why.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. I've always loved poetry and write it from time to time.

    Never cared for the Robert Frost poetry but had to study it in school--Death of the Hired Man remains etched in my brain!


  6. Nice post.
    I wasn't as blessed as you were when I was very young. Books or any reading was scarce. But no excuse. I've been trying to catch up since I came to this wonderful country.