A Poetry Friday Post Lacking an Actual Poem

February 3, 2011 @ 8:25 pm | Filed under:

OK, so every week as Poetry Friday approaches, I think: I should tell the caged birds story. But I never get around to it, because the story pretty much begs the posting of the poems the story is about. Which means I’d need to canvas my grad-school chums to see if any of them would let me share their poems-from-the- story here (if they can even find copies); and my own poem- from-the-story is about a mile long, and that’s a lot of typing.

Plus it’s always a bit agonizing to copy out a piece of your own writing, especially one from long ago—you keep finding things you’d like to tinker with, improve, polish up. At least, I do.

AND YET. It’s a great poetry story. So I’m going to tell it after all, and then maybe later I can ask some of my classmates for permission to share their poems, and maybe I’ll dig up my own poem-from-the-story for a future Poetry Friday.

So all right, one night during grad school (this was at UNC-Greensboro), a bunch of us MFA students were at a party together. Music, laughter, merriment. One of the poets—I think it was Susan Collings, or maybe it was Elizabeth Leigh Palmer? (now Hadaway)—was telling us about Moses Cone, 19th-century philanthropist, entrepreneur, and prominent citizen of Greensboro. One year, it seems, Moses gave his wife the rather remarkable present of twenty-five miles of carriage roads.

That’s what Susan (or Leigh) said, but one of the fiction writers got an intensely puzzled look on her face and said, “He gave her twenty-five miles of caged birds?”

We all laughed, but we were struck, too, by the image. Twenty-five miles of caged birds. For a moment we all fell silent, picturing it, I think, or savoring the magic of the strange phrase.

“It’s like something from a poem,” one of us said. And an idea seized us, a kind of game, a quiet joke we could play on our workshop professor, the brilliant Alan Shapiro. We would each write a poem that included the line “twenty-five miles of caged birds.” And we would all turn them in for workshop the next week, without saying anything about the exercise: we’d let Alan discover the repeated phrase as he read through the poems.

Well, we all went home and did exactly that. There were around ten of us in the workshop. Each of us wrote a poem, working the caged-birds phrase in somewhere, and turned them in for the next class’s discussion. Mine was, as I have mentioned, quite long: it was a framed story about a girl recalling a fairy tale her grandfather had once told to her mother, a variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” The girl actually hears the story from her aunt, not her mother, and that’s part of the tension of the piece. In the grandfather’s version of the tale, the Emperor, having fallen in love with the exquisite song of the nightingale in his vast garden, orders up a hundred replicas in bronze, mechanical birds who sing mechanical songs, placed

“…at intervals in the garden from sea to palace:
twenty-five miles of caged birds and belled orchids.”

The morning of our workshop I was making photocopies in the writing program office when in ran Alan Shapiro. Alan is a dignified and serious person, not prone to running in excitement, but in this moment, he was both running and excited. He had read the first three or four poems and had been so struck by them that he just had to come share the moment with someone. Our program director, Jim Clark, was there, and I don’t remember if we had filled him in on the joke or not, but I remember his eyes twinkling as Alan explained his excitement. He’d read the first poem, and an odd line, the caged birds thing, had jumped out at him as a curious turn of phrase. In that first poem, he wasn’t sure to make of it, but in the next one—I remember he said this one was by Mary Elder, who wrote beautifully spare verses full of startling images—there was the same odd phrase, used in such a way that he decided it must be a figure of speech he was somehow unfamiliar with.

He described reading the next poem, and there it was again, and by now he was wondering what was up. And then he hit my poem, the fairy tale—and he thought, Oh! This must be the origin of the idiom! “Twenty-five miles of caged birds,” this peculiar figure of speech he’d never heard before, must have originated in the Andersen tale my poem reinterpreted.

As you can imagine, this tickled me no end, especially since the miles of mechanical birds were my own twist; in Andersen’s story there is the single artificial bird brought into the palace to outshine the real nightingale.

Well, Alan went back and read the rest of the batch of poems, and it didn’t take long before he realized he’d been pranked. We all howled like crazy at his recounting of events in workshop that afternoon. Our joke had come off even better than we hoped.

But the best part, really, was hearing all the poems—all so incredibly different, carrying the peculiar words into contexts that were oceans apart from each other. As fine a story as Moses Cone’s gift of carriage roads is—how delighted his wife must have been!—it was nothing compared to the distance traveled and the worlds conjured by those caged birds.

This week’s Poetry Friday roundup can be found at Dori Reads, about twenty-five miles down Caged Birds Road.

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21 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. MelanieB says:

    Oh what a delightful story! I do hope you track down some of those caged bird poems. My curiosity is definitely piqued. And I’m eagerly awaiting your Nightingale poem.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I love this. What a wonderful story and a great idea in the first place.

  3. Tabatha says:

    Love this story! Thanks for sharing it, even without the poem accompaniments.

  4. Heather @ Books for Breakfast says:

    Oh, how I would love to read each and every one of them.

  5. tanita says:

    THAT is awesome.
    But, what’s hilarious to me is that I read that as twenty-five miles of carriage rods. And I thought, “what the heck would she do with that? And what are CARRIAGE RODS!?

    Oy, the dyslexia, or whatever it is I have.

  6. Karen Edmisten says:

    Love, love, love this!

  7. Carlie says:

    That is about 25 miles beyond cool. I wish I had been part of your cool group of MFA friends. That sounds extremely fun. So much fun in fact, that I think I’ll write my own to join the party; many, many years too late sans MFA. 🙂

    And yes, please post the poems.

  8. Rachel says:

    Oh how fun!! I can’t wait to hear more 🙂

  9. Chari says:

    oh! This is a great story! I am glad I came to read it…..the “twenty-five miles of caged-birds” line pulled me in 🙂

    Gotta share this with Anne! She will so appreciate it!

  10. Amy Ludwig VanDerwater says:

    Oh, Melissa! That is the funniest story…and I love imagining that your MFA colleagues and professor are still telling it too. What a bright spot on Poetry Friday! The image of 25 miles of caged birds may haunt many dreams tonight… A.

  11. Blythe says:

    I am flat out in awe and in love. Alan Shapiro at the Museum of Coincidences.

  12. Rebecca says:

    That is a great story. It brings me to a question I have been wanting to ask you as a fellow homeschooler and avid reader (but not a grad of a writing program). How do YOU teach writing to your children? Do you follow the Charlotte Mason written narration philosophy? Do you using something structured like Writing Strands? Would love some tips.

  13. Nancy says:

    fantastic story! the background is awfully interesting . . . so nice to here that writers/poets like you don’t sprout from the ground, but study and work and become. I’d love to hear more of that. and maybe a “where are they now” of your classmates. (gosh, I’m loving the Mystery Class and all its potential. we now have those 11 beginning points, just waiting to become lines on a graph, and then, places in the world. so very, very groovy.)

  14. Nancy says:

    ack! a typo in my very first comment! “so nice to *hear*” of course.

  15. Theresa says:

    What a great story! Love it! And I’d love to read those poems!

  16. MotherReader says:

    Great story! Thanks for sharing it.

  17. Mary Lee says:

    What a fine literary prank, indeed!

  18. Jeannine Atkins says:

    It’s a great prank, but the poems sound as if they were pretty wonderful, too.

  19. sarah says:

    Do you have any idea how much I envy you? It must have been deeply and endlessly wonderful to have been part of such a group.

    By the way, that phrase has stayed with me since I first saw it, and created all sorts of fabulous images in my mind. I’d love to have a go at my own poem with it. And I’d love to see the others.

  20. Anna says:

    What a fun memory. Thank you for sharing it.

  21. Melissa Wiley says:

    Carlie and Sarah (and anyone else!) (coughAMYcough)—I hope you DO write your own caged bird poems, and share them with us! I would be delighted.

    Tanita, it is positively delicious that the carriage roads fostered yet another confused mishearing. I think a series of poems about twenty-five miles of carriage rods would be considerably more difficult than the caged birds, who offer such rich possibilities for metaphor and imagery.

    Blythe, do you know Alan in person, or his work? He was incredible as a workshop instructor. Sharp-eyed, wry, unflinchingly frank. Taught us tremendous things about how syntax should mirror meaning, and oh so much else. His critiques were so clear and incisive that I can still hear his exact words and inflection almost 20 years later. (I entered the program in 1991/92, Alan’s last year at UNCG–SO LUCKY to have that year with him!) There was one time he praised my description of a pronghorn antelope skimming across the prairie like a low comet—“God must have come down and kissed you on the back of the head,” and then in the next breath, with my face still burning from the joy and marvel of having received such high praise from him, he added, “But this line *here*—I don’t know WHAT was kissing your brain at that point.” And an actual shudder. LOL. He was right; it was a dreadful simile comparing a road cutting through the prairie to a shaved strip down a full head of hair. I’m shuddering too, now, recalling it. 😉 Sometimes I will sit down to revise a draft of a work in progress and happen upon a phrase clearly indicating the dread kiss of the Appalling Simile Monster. I will be forever grateful to Alan for his no-nonsense manner of instruction: never harsh or cruel, but never hesitant to utter the plain truth—which is the best sort of reader a writer can hope for.

    And Sarah, yes, it really was an incredible gift, my two years in that writing program. I could write volumes about it—since the first day I set foot on campus, I have been heart-glad *that* was the MFA program I attended, not one of the cut-throat, contentious ones I’ve heard countless tales about. We got to study not only with Alan, but with the great, the astonishingly great, the courtly, the kind, the wise Fred Chappell, to whom I dedicated DOWN TO THE BONNY GLEN. And Jim Clark, the program director then and now, infuses the whole thing with a sort of magical warmth and hospitality. My classmates were lovely people, many of whom I am still in touch with and some are my very close friends indeed. I am forever grateful for the experience.

    Rebecca, I’ll tackle the writing/homeschooling questions in a bit. 🙂 Short version: yes, I take a sort of loosey-goosey Charlotte Mason-inspired approach.

    Nancy, you are right, it would be extremely fun to write a post about the poets and writers I studied with! Several of them have made appearances here on the blog in days past—or their books have, at least. Rowan Jacobsen and Julianna Baggott come to mind.

    Argh, like I said, I could write volumes about the place. 🙂