Monday, October 19, 2009


Although I'm impatient with the idea that all poetry should be expressed simply (if it's a complicated idea, the poet will need a complicated way of expressing it), I do like the idea behind Poetry 180--to expose more readers to some of the most accessible poems from today's poets.

One of today's poets whose work is represented there is Naomi Shihab Nye, who recently read her poems to an audience that included Amanda of The Zen Leaf, not a regular poetry fan. I was going to tell Amanda about some of my favorite Nye poems, and realized that I'd never written about one here. So today's the day:


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to the silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it,
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men,
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

. . .
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it did.

Often when I feature poems here, it's because I'm feeling something described in the poem, and that's not so much the case today. I wish this poet would use the word "infamous" to complicate her poem a little more. Right now I'm a little impatient with the kind of "fame" this poem is celebrating. I've had years of being the one children remember because she smiled back. Yesterday at the haircut place while my son was getting his hair cut I had some smiles with a happy 9 or 10 month old whose parents didn't really notice. Total strangers--adults--comment on my smile sometimes; I'm a smiley person in public. And sure, there's a bit of satisfaction in merely being noticed.

Right now it just doesn't feel like enough to me, as it is in the poem. I want to be more like Wallace Stevens, finally revealed as a genius in his forties, than Emily Dickinson, whose genius was discovered in her drawers after death.

What I've got right now is a desk covered with papers to be graded and a yard full of cats who are well-known to the local taunting birds but whose fame has not spread far enough abroad to be known to all the local chipmunk families.

Wait. Perhaps I am feeling something described in the poem after all. Perhaps it's unrelenting everydayness that channels people off the quiet path that leads to fame and onto the easy and instant path of infamy. Maybe if I can hold out one more day without claiming my child has floated off in a balloon or something, I'll be one day closer to revealing the ideas famous only to my bosom.

Maybe as a blogger I should feel satisfied enough because on some days Subliminal Intervention and an unidentified person in Australia make my visitor map look more interesting. And you're reading this, right? Right?


FreshHell said...


My ass is famous to my office chair. Hugely famous.

lemming said...

i hate conferences because of the egos. Sure, there are 40 people in this room who might have heard of you, and perhaps another 100 who skimmed your article. Congrats - you are a big fish in a very small pond, a pond so small that most folks can't find it. Don't let your ego trip you on the way out.

However (to push the image far too far) I think of the many pools in the wood in Magician's Nephew - the jump and the adventure, even on a small scale, but which is so large to those who take it.

Teaching conveys immortality in a very small pond. Promise.

Anonymous said...

Fame is overrated. I've finally figured out that I prefer to be a wonderful secret which very few people know about. It's very like what the poet is describing, but the attitude makes all the difference.

kittiesx3 said...

Well I am reading this, and while that won't bring you infamy or fame (sorry), you're getting some great conversations in the comments section, and stirring some brain cells--mine.

Re the smiles, I have a little game I play here in Boston when I run. While living in KC, I'd smile and nod at fellow runners in passing. After all we are all out there sweating (or freezing/sweating as was the case today) and a smile just acknowledges the shared experience. Well I guess New Englanders pride themselves on never smiling, at least not while running. So I've made it my mission to get at least one return smile each run. The other day was a banner run--I got three smiles and a "morning."

readersguide said...

I'm going with the "one more day without pretending to send my child off in a balloon." Also, I am famous to my cats. Their days revolve around me -- when will I get up? when will I come home? when will I sit so invitingly on the couch? when will I eat a bowl of cereal? Maybe I'll go outside!!!!

PAJ said...

Of course I'm reading your blog. And loving the following: "Emily Dickinson, whose genius was discovered in her drawers after death."
Surely you're famous as the one with the interestingly named blog.
Today I'm famous to the steering wheel of my car. (Why does our world allow teenagers to have a social life before a drivers license?)

Amanda said...

Frustrated. I can't understand that poem in print form. I'll have to get Jason to read it aloud for me later.

Harriet said...

My unfolded laundry is famous to the top of my bad and is likely to stay famous for a while as I am not so inclined to fold it. Lemming, amen to your remarks on conferences. Most days, I'm happy to be famous to my friends and family. But every now and then, I admit that it's nice to feel a little bit more famous than that. And now I'm off to be famous to my desk.

Cathy said...

You bet I'm reading. Just try to keep me away!

Ron Griggs said...

I have a mug on my desk that says:

"Just because you're necessary doesn't mean you're important."

A good reminder for the ego. I agree with GreenEyedSiren that fame is overrated.

Anonymous said...

And all of you are famous since I, a New Englander with 3 cats, have read your comments and marveled at your abilities.

Care said...

You are famous to me. Great poems, great thoughts. Thank you.

Jodie said...

Yay I love this poem (how about 'What Travel Does' huh?). Totally here reading and I kind of like the vast blogging community because although you're not all famous, you're genuinely good (like that band the people who like McFly will never appreciate).

kittiesx3 said...

Anon, are you me? I live in New England and have three cats . . .

Dreamybee said...

Awww, the fact that I make you feel famous makes me feel a little famous! =)

Some great comments here-people are cracking me up AND making me think. Love that!

Do you find that perfect strangers will open up to you in public and share things that might not normally be shared with a stranger? My aunt is kind of a smiley person, and this happens to her all the time, like in line at the grocery store.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, so your fame is spreading?

Lemming, you sum up the feeling so well with the conference example--I was thinking of the phrase "famous poet" myself! And I love your "on the other hand"! Also the compliment.

Siren, it is all about attitude, isn't it?

Elizabeth, I like your smile game. It probably improves some peoples' days.

ReadersGuide, it's actually a bit impressive to be famous to one's cats. I have one lying at my feet at the moment; very satisfying.

PAJ, sorry you're so famous to your steering wheel. That really has improved around here since Eleanor got her license!

Amanda, reading poems out loud is always a good idea. And it's always good to be famous to one's husband.

Harriet, I love your Freudian slip (bad for bed). You got what I was feeling about wanting a little more than domestic fame some days.

Cathy, I won't try to drive you away!

Ron, yeah. I love that mug. Wonder who gave it to you?

Anonymous, wow, I do feel kind of famous when people I don't know read what I'm saying!

Care, thanks for the ego boost!

Jodie, I think what you're saying oh-so-delicately is that my poetry offerings can be something of an acquired taste!

Dreamybee, glad to oblige! And yes, total strangers do come up to me in public and ask me things (most often "honey, can you reach that for me from the top shelf?")

Karen said...

Despite the title, this poem leaves me with the impression not of fame or even of being remembered....but of wishing for myself the condition of never forgetting what I do/what I am/who I am. Clarity, constancy, identity so known that it is past awareness. Who needs to be famous, if you can have that?

Jeanne said...

Karen, No one who knows who they are "needs" fame. I think we're considering that it would be the icing on the cake, for some of us, and merely a matter of perspective, for others.

Karen said...

I wasn't accusing you of needing fame. Actually, my response to reading this yesterday was focused, as your commentary, on the issue of "famousness."

But this morning....I think more of the condition of being so myself as to be entirely uninterested in fame. How nice that would be to experience.