One of the great things about working in a public library is that you really don’t ever know what you’re going to get asked. The other day, the phone rang and it was a woman who was looking for something meaningful to put in the newspaper as a memorial for her husband. He died a couple of years ago and she likes to put a short notice each year. She was tired of the usual passages and wanted something special. She said that her husband’s favourite flowers were roses, and that in his work he used the “Happy Face” symbol a lot, so if we could find any quotations or poetry that incorporated roses and smiling or happy faces, she’d be grateful. She said she’d be here in an hour.
My coworker Remi and I set off to shake the library down. We felt like we were contestants in an obscure Japanese game show or something. The clock was ticking. We scoured all our usual sources, from paper poetry tomes to online poetry databases and even good ol’ Google and came up with several things that might be appropriate. We compiled a varied list that included everything from Robbie Burns: “My luve’s like a red red rose” to Poison: “Every rose has its thorn” with a little Bette Midler thrown in between.In our searching, I came across a poem that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It was by e.e. cummings, a poet I first encountered in Jr. High. Our english teacher told us that we needed to memorize at leasteight lines of poetry and present it in front of the class. Within about five minutes, Brad put up his hand and say he was ready to go. None of us could believe it. Brad always came across as a bit of a dumb jock. How could he have already memorized eight lines of poetry? A few days later I clumsily presented the first stanza of John Keats’ “To Autumn”.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
But Brad had other ideas. He stood up at the front of the classroom and proudly recited:
“That’s actually nine lines!” Brad proudly stated as he went back to his seat.
Our English teacher had a bit of a grin on his face and said, “Okay. You got away with that, but no one else gets to choose e.e. cummings!”
I learned two things that day. First, I learned that you really shouldn’t judge people by their looks. Brad was way smarter than I had given him credit. Secondly, I was introduced to a new poet that would soon become one of my favourites.
His poems break all the strict grammar rules that we had been slavishly following up to this point, and there was a delicateness to the way he arranged words on the page that made you look at things a little differently. Some of his poems have a dry wit to them that appealed to me, and some of them just were really sweet and romantic.
The one that came up on our “roses and smiley face” search is called “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond“. It also plays a significant role in a scene from my favourite Woody Allen movie, “Hannah and her Sisters”.
I don’t know which poem or lyric that woman eventually chose. She came in an hour later and picked up the pages and silently left. What we took as an interesting assignment was a real labour of love for her and I think we kind of got caught up in the fun of it without realizing this woman was remembering the love of her life and wanted to do it right.
If it were me, I would have totally gone the e.e. cummings route, although I bet the editor at the newspaper would try to “correct” it by inserting some grammar and punctuation.
Anyway, here’s the original poem. Enjoy, and Happy Valentine’s Day!
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands