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A Passion for Poetry, and the Cyclic Trends of Life

Monday 10 April 2017 at 01:15 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 27, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It’s interesting how life moves in cyclic trends, -- at least that’s true for me. When we first moved to East Bernard, I was the gardener in the family, planting shrubs, flowers, and trees. Now, my wife is the gardener, planting shrubs, flowers, and trees. The yard is more pulchritudinous during her cycle.

            When I was in elementary school, I had a passion for comic strips and cartoons, and wanted, more than anything else to be a cartoonist when I grew up. This cycle lasted almost through high school, when writing features and columns for the school newspaper became important to me. Journalism became my passion until my junior year in college when I discovered the excitement of writing plays and directing them.

            My passion for poetry did not begin until I began working on a Master’s Degree in English (essentially, English Literature), when my yen for drama came together with a love of poetry in the plays of Shakespeare. It also marked the beginning of my desire to write poetry. My “need” to write poetry not only continued but intensified as an English teacher at WCJC.

            It was spurred on by a new development in my career, when I became the faculty sponsor of the college poetry club, called first “The Bards of Pegasus,” and later, “The Try-Pens,” and involved the production of Try Magazine. Several students had gone to their English teacher and asked her if they could organize a poets’ club on campus, she, in turn, went to the English Department Chairman, and the Chairman asked me if I would be willing to organize and sponsor such a club. And so I did.

            It was a great idea, because the first group of Bards included students like Susan Carper Hanson, now author of a book, Icons of Loss and Grace, whose excellent writing egged on my desire to be a poet.

            After retiring from teaching, my poetry-writing cycle ended and my new passions were painting with watercolors, creating wood sculptures, and theology. I must add, however, that throughout my life, from retirement as a teacher on, I have worked in journalism and have written over a thousand newspaper columns (which at this time in my life I am putting together into a book).

            While, during my current cycle, as a pastor, I am still very much into theology, my ardor for poetry has been rekindled, both reading poetry and writing it. After recently reading the amazing poetry of Pushkin (Russian) and Rilke (German), I realized it was the translator’s poetry I was reading in English and would never be able to read Pushkin in Russian.

            But rather than return to Shakespeare and the other English poets, I began re-reading American bards, including Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Then I thought, ‘OK, I want to write poetry, but I’m not Russian, nor German (other than DNA), nor British, nor from New England or New York. I’m a Texan; I need to read Texas poetry, in the idiom of my geography. So I re-read Susan’s book, which was officially written in prose, but is sheer poetry, every line of it.

             My current “read” is Dave Oliphant, who has been called by James B. Hall in New Letters as “probably the most broadly gifted poet in Texas.” Oliphant has published over 25 books of poetry, jazz history and criticism, literary criticism, and translations of Chilean poetry. He retired from teaching at the University of Texas in 2006. Born in Ft. Worth, he earned his first two university degrees in universities in the Lone Star State, so here we have the quintessence of a Texan writing poetry.

            Well, I’m not sure I will have time to read all 25 of his books of poetry, but I have begun, for the first time, Oliphant’s collection of poems entitled, Memories of Texas Towns and Cities. The book contains 30 poems, each one written about a town or city in Texas. Reviewers seem to focus on the poem or poems they like the best in the collection, with “Austin” getting some good reviews. I began with the city (“Houston”) and the town (“New Gulf”) nearest to where I live, and then read “Serbin,” the little town where my maternal family history began. Naturally I thought I could write a better poem about Serbin, because I would have written it with more passion. But his “Houston” was a powerful poem, -- I don’t think I could compete with the power of that poem. His “New Gulf,” about a company town where my neighbor used to work and the WCJC faculty used to have retreats, is also strong but very long.

            I think it was a good decision “to go Texas” with Dave Oliphant, but he is more of a realist, more like Carl Sandburg than I. Robert Frost, whose poetry displays realism, but has an almost romantic sensitivity, touches me more. When I finish Oliphant’s 30 memories of towns and cities, I think I will look for another Texas poet, one, like me, who even borders on sentimentality.

 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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