Poetry on Planes, part 3 of 3

Perhaps you have been wondering if part 3 of this series would ever arrive.  It would have posted a couple of weeks ago,  but I went to Costa Rica on business.   Yes, while much of the U.S. was enduring its first bitter cold spell of the winter, I was enjoying a few days of beautiful weather, like a reprise of summer.  I felt pretty smart that I had decided to park in a covered lot when I returned to the airport and found a couple inches of snow that I didn’t have to clean from my car.

Perhaps you’ve also been wondering about the photo I keep using with this series of posts.  You may be able to tell that it is a view of the airport in Vilnius, Lithuania.  It was taken a few years ago as we were getting ready to leave Vilnius.  Which, by the way, is a great place in summer–lots of outdoor cafés, beautiful architecture in the Old Town , charming parks, many festivals in the parks.   I’ve been there twice in summer and never in winter, so I can only vouch for summer.

In this photo, the check-in area is below the viewer and to the left, and the gates are past security, beyond the arrival and departure screens you can see in the middle of the photo.

The thing about airports is that they each have their own personality.   If you travel enough, the airports that you frequent begin to feel like well-known extensions of the places you travel.   I know where are the best restaurants in Atlanta’s airport for a sit down meal, and where to go if you want the shortest line for coffee (usually). And where they tend to hang all the most interesting artwork.  In Paris, in De Gaulle, I can tell you the easiest place to get a snack and also where the most duty free shopping options are to be found.  In Kansas City, I know where the tornado shelters are (underground, yes, used them once) and in Dallas-Fort Worth I can tell you the best place to watch storms sweep in over the distant open plains.  In Rio de Janeiro, I know where to get little cheese filled rolls and a drink.

Atlanta feels like a city, as does De Gaulle.  DFW feels like Texas itself, open and sprawling.  Kansas City’s airport feels like a way station, not a destination at all but a place on the way to another place, the modern equivalent of the stagecoach stop.  Vilnius feels old-fashioned with a modern layer– like the little airport that could.  It has much in common with the many smaller airports in the U.S. — Akron-Canton, OH, New Orleans, LA, Albany, NY .  All the necessary facilities, parking an easy walk, none of the crowds.  It’s so easy to use these airports.  That’s one of the things I liked about the Vilnius airport.  It’s just so easy.

Of course, the best part of airport travel is people-watching.  Everyone has a story.  I’m private (shy?) by nature so usually I imagine the stories of the people I see, but the shared sense of between-ness sometimes moves even me to strike up conversations with strangers.  Well, sometimes.

One of the things you still see in these smaller airports, that you no longer see in Atlanta’s busy check in areas or terminals, is parents bringing children to the airport for a visit.  I discovered from colleagues on my trip to Costa Rica that not all parents thought — as my parents thought — that the small (and very small) airports were a destination.  A place for an afternoon excursion.  Someplace to go get a grilled cheese sandwich and hang out while watching the planes land and take off.  However, in Vilnius, with the viewing area above check-in, seemingly specifically designed to make it easy to visit without being a traveler, you still see parents bringing kids to show them the planes.

Of course, reading poetry while traveling leads to writing poetry while traveling.  So the above is a long way of introducing the following poem:


Airplane Ahead


The boy sits on his father’s shoulders
clutches the man’s forehead
watches the concourse from the departure level
above and outside the security line

He thinks he will fly on a plane like the one hanging
at his eye level but it won’t be a small plane
won’t be red or have propellers or hover over the strangers
he thinks are numerous enough to call a crowd

His father points to jets outside the windows
taller than any windows the boy has ever seen
jets that land and roar toward the windows
The boy points and waves like he waved this morning

at the red-capped farmer on the rusty green tractor
that drives each morning and evening past the chain-link fence
that yesterday kept the boy out of the world
The boy thinks he will enter a plane

and touch controls as the pilots must touch
tomorrow when he leaves his rolling farmlands for Babylon
like another Daniel before him
but this Babylon will be full of motorcycles and race cars and Pizza America

which are two of the polite words he can say in English
The boy doesn’t know anyone who has flown anywhere
except his father and people he has seen on television
but he believes it is possible

and will be like riding a bus except faster
He doesn’t know you can’t park by the runway fence
doesn’t know he won’t return here
because of something called moving and adoption

doesn’t know what it feels like
to be held above the ground by only sky and theory made real
A lady with a tiny dog in a tiny soft cage
hugs a man standing now by the boy and his father

The lady lines up below them
walks through security carrying
the tiny dog like a tiny piece of the man
disappears through a door in the corrugated metal wall

The model plane hangs above the line of people
like a dream of someday
It is a mystery what happens beyond the door
You can’t see anyone after they leave

can’t see if they enter a long metal walkway
and buckle themselves into tomorrow
can’t see the woman and her dog
and the others different but just the same as her

can’t see where they go
can’t even be sure they are gone


To all of those who may be stranded in the north-east U.S. today by the winter weather, trying to go to family or back home from somewhere in time for Thanksgiving, I hope you also have a story or two to take with you from your time in the airports.

Poetry on Planes, Part 2 of 3

Sometimes I’m thinking about poetry itself, not reading a specific poem.  On my last trip I found myself arguing against what I remember as a definition of  poetry as “strong emotion recollected in tranquility.”  Of course this argument was all inside my own head, thus relieving the passengers nearby of listening to me skewer my own logic and talk myself in circles.  Why only strong emotion?  Is there nothing of value in less strident feelings?  Must it always be emotion, or are there ideas, circumstances, which are of more interest than the emotion itself?  Don’t poems also make statements on culture, technology, ideology?  And can’t the emotion be projected, supposed or surmised?  Must it always be recollected? Turns out, I was arguing with myself for no reason.

Let me explain.  Do you ever remember something just slightly off from the factual truth?  Or have trouble remembering a situation?

A friend posted on Facebook a photo of a small waterfall in a state park.  I saw that photo and had immediate, vivid recollections of climbing the shale ledges along that waterfall as a GirlScout.  Or,  perhaps I was camping there with my family.  I’m not sure anymore.  It could have been either, or, given the location, both might have occurred in the same summer.

Similarly, those in law enforcement know that witnesses aren’t always as reliable as they might seem, no matter how much they may insist they know what happened.  Many factors influence memory recall: stress, time, focus on part of a scene, differences of culture and paradigm.  Witnesses remember what they think they saw, and the human brain is so good at connecting the pieces of information it receives into a cohesive whole, that the witnesses often have no idea how wrong is their recall.

But, sometimes, we are just wrong.  I can’t tell you where or when I heard the quote about “strong emotion recollected in tranquility.”  During the time I was in Atlanta changing planes, I looked up the source of the quote, only to find that I either heard it, was told it, or remembered it incorrectly.

The source is William Wordsworth’s introduction to Lyrical Ballads, published in 1800:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind

Note that he speaks of powerful feeling, not strong feeling.  Powerful feeling has a better ring to me.  Powerful feelings might be weak on the surface but create an intense situation or response.  Powerful feelings remind me of the adage ‘still waters run deep,’ whereas strong feelings seem strident, harsh, or out of control.

Wordsworth also talks about the poem having origin in the recollection in tranquility, not being equated to the recollection in tranquility itself.  Nitpicking?  Maybe.  But Wordsworth is speaking to process, not definition, here.

I still take issue with the idea that the origin must be an emotion, as opposed to an idea.     Also, I take issue with the concept of spontaneous overflow as described, since the creation of that overflow requires a process not spontaneous at all.  However, I have a much better opinion of the quote now that I see it accurately, and in context.  How I got the corrupted version (like a corrupted computer file) stuck in my brain, I’m not sure.  But I sure am glad to get the uncorrupted version installed.

Now that you’ve seen Wordsworth’s description of poetic process, what is your point of view?  Do you agree with his process or see it differently?