I’m not one for souvenirs. T-shirts, magnets, and other trinkets bearing the name of the town can stay on the gift shop shelves. I like to imagine that, like Wordsworth, I can drink deeply of my vacations, particularly those rich in nature, “…not only with the sense/Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts/That in this moment there is life and food/For future years.”
I make one exception.
For the last several years, since about the time I became a high school administrator and left teaching English, I’ve made it a habit to search out a used bookstore wherever we’re vacationing and buy a volume of poetry.
Sometimes it’s a local poet, sometimes a writer new to me, and sometimes a collection I hadn’t known from a name familiar.
As a high school principal, my world from August to June can be a hurricane of activity and obligation. Decisions begin before the towels have dried from July’s last trip to the beach and don’t stop until the mortarboards take to the air. Poetry helps me keep perspective and coaxes me to slow down and see the world stanza by stanza and line by line. I believe reading poetry makes me a better educator. I know it makes me a better human.
The bookstore in Morro Bay, California, familiar to me from repeated visits, is a beautiful independent shop with books tucked sideways atop rows of volumes, two deep in some places and stacked to the ceiling. They even have a section marked PIRATE BOOKS.
We arrived in town for spring break on the opening day of the major league baseball season, so it was natural that free association led me to a book by Robert Pinsky that included “The Night Game,” a poem so very much richer than I might describe, about baseball and much, much more. Sometimes a book whispers to us as we browse, as this one did to me, so I put down my $7.50 and left lighter than I’d been walking into the shop.
I spent the next several days with The Figured Wheel, reading on the balcony of our hotel, watching the gulls and the boats on the bay moving with the tide.
The father in me delighted in the truth of his paternal observations, as in “Daughter” when Pinsky notices that “Like most children/ She paints openly and well/ Somewhat like Henri Rousseau.” I thought as well about the murals with which my students are filling the construction fence back on campus. Their unencumbered joy in color and creativity remind me of the importance of celebrating the exuberance of youth.
Pinksy’s poems took me through history, personal and political. I couldn’t remember having read “Exile” before, but this time it struck me with its soul shuddering insight. It was as if the poem had been written to me.
And just as I was marveling at the way poetry can speak so directly to us from across time and place, Pinsky’s book provided another surprise.
I flipped the book open to the title page and saw, written in blue ink beneath Pinsky’s name, an inscription:
Very good wishes
and good luck in
Words not written to me, but mine, now, for $7.50.
It was yet another reminder of the joy of the unexpected. I know that Robert Pinsky hasn’t read a lick of anything I’ve put on paper, but I felt a strange boost nonetheless from his inscription.
I’m back at my desk now, spring break miles away, and I’m not sure what the world will bring to me in the months ahead as time speeds up and life on campus hurries to its natural completion. I do know that it will be the customary blur of activity, bringing those of us who work with students a satisfying conclusion, and our graduates a rich and hopeful beginning to something wildly new. I also know how important it is for all of us to slow down, at least a little bit, savor the verses of our lives, be open to surprises, and take inspiration where we find it.
I know Pinsky didn’t write those words on the title page to me, but just as his poems feel as if they are mine in some way, I’ll take them as encouragement from a universe that is, at its heart, poetic.