Originally published at Eunoia Solstice in 2013.
Though not often, I have written commemorative poems. Composing this way can be stressful, but also inspiring. It connects to ancient traditions, to times when the bard’s song was a monument as important as statuary. The specificity of the audience, rather than the imaginary, amorphous readers that I hope are out there, provides a unique challenge. I hope to make something that I am pleased with artistically, while staying true to the event at hand.
This week I finished writing and read a poem for a colleague’s retirement. She’s a retiring art teacher, but she’s memorized more poems than I have. I’ve heard her recite Chaucer, Browning, Coleridge, and Whitman from memory. She’s been supportive of my writing and once told me, “Poetry is the height of human expression.”
So, yeah, no pressure.
About a month ago, I talked to her about her favorite artists. She mentioned Elizabeth Barrett Browning and “Sonnet 43.” She mentioned Debussy and La mer. (I realize now that she may have said “Clair de lune” and I goofed this thing from the beginning. I could only meet with her when one of us had cafeteria duty and couldn’t hear that well.) I tried to bring these artists together and say something meaningful for her. I hope she was as pleased as she seemed. I was honored to be a part of an event for such a kind and unique person. The poem I read and presented to her is below:
Instead of Staring at the Sea
Instead of staring at the sea
(With interest steadily waning),
Debussy reportedly said
That he’d prefer a painting.
And then for the first edition
Of his symphonic sketches
Depicting the sea, he chose
“The Great Wave,” which stretches,
In this particular view,
Even above Mt. Fuji.
It’s possible Hokusai
Captures the “ends of Beauty”
Mrs. Browning mentions. The white
Spikes of foam, like clawed hands,
Growing from the blue and black
Depths could crumble Holy Mountains.
And Browning also wrote of
The limits of “Ideal Grace”—
Only the sublime can kill the sublime.
I wonder if Debussy traced
This earthly power that stands
Over the little men in the little boats,
That reminds us we must risk
Drowning in order to float.