April is National Poetry Month. Yipee. Check your local listings for a full schedule of the wild celebrations. Not. Poetry is a Piper Cub compared to the jumbo jets on the American cultural radar screen—TV, movies, and the various genres of popular music. Arguably, even fiction, theater, and classical music—also small blips on that screen, are more visible. Yet our nation has a Poet Laureate, while no similar figurehead exists for any of the other arts. Clearly, we know it’s important, maybe because we’ve all encountered poetry as children and know that it can speak to us as no other art.
I am neither qualified nor interested in speculating on why poetry’s voice is so hard to hear, or even find, in today’s cultural cacophony. Rather, I want to introduce, or re-introduce, a poet well worth your time. Thomas Lynch’s newest book, Walking Papers, is a slim volume of poems he wrote between 1999 and 2009. Lynch, whose day job is serving as a funeral director in the small town of Milford, Michigan, has published a number of other books of poetry and prose including The Undertaking, essays about his work experiences and meditations on death and dying. Many of the poems in this collection are about the same topic.
we have our day and others after us,
into their sparkling moment and out beyond.
We have our little say and then are silent.
In the title poem he writes;
Listen—something’s going to get you in the end.
The numbers are fairly convincing on this,
hovering, as they do, around a hundred
percent. We die. And more’s the pity.
As you can tell from the humor in the above lines, Lynch, while always honest, is never gloomy or morbid. And he’s not a one-trick pony. There’s much here that’s not about death and dying; hilarious lines about how and why he came to name his donkeys Charles and Camilla, and equally uproarious, though also sobering, even angry, poems about former President Bush and the Iraqi war.
Lynch’s language, while deeply learned, is never academic, always plain and direct. I came across “Local Heroes” the day after the horrific shootings in Tucson in January. The poem, possibly written about 9/11, helped.
Some days the worst that can happen happens.
The sky falls or evil overwhelms or
the world as we have come to know it turns
towards the eventual apocalypse
long predicted in all the holy books
Lynch ends this poem with:
But here, brave men and women pick the pieces up.
They serve the living, caring for the dead.
Here the distant battle is waged in homes.
Like politics, all funerals are local.
While the phrase “walking papers” refers to getting fired, or terminated, the poems in Lynch’s Walking Papers can also serve as guides on the paths of our lives.
The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance—
All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?
At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.
That’s the word that comes to me too. Thanks,