Spring Burial: The Legend of the Service Tree

We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world: the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George explained. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that may be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, and a sweet little fruit comes out of it when the weather warms up. It’s also the first tree to blossom in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, it has the most delicate perfume.”

“Our ancestors had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew that the ground was soft enough.”

That touched me deeply.

Picture1
The serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest, and there was the service tree. And I tried—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days— to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I made it and sometimes I didn’t, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. It ended:

 

 

 

Humankind calls out for compassion

For one’s self and then the other

The spent perfume of the petals

Of the service tree

Fall to the forest bottom

When earth loses its chill

Back in the hospital room, George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality.“I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.”

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.

 

Related event: Spring Writes Literary Festival – May 3 to May 6, 2018

POETRYOF

About the author of this blog post: Steve Zeitlin is the founding director of City Lore, and the author or co-author of ten books on America’s folk culture. He has documented, recorded and fallen in love with carnival pitches, children’s rhymes, family stories, subway stories, ancient cosmologies, and oral poetry traditions from around the world.

You can purchase his latest book: The Poetry of Everyday Life, here

 

 

Advertisement
Spring Burial: The Legend of the Service Tree

Inspiration for poets: a behind-the-scenes look at Yeats’s creative process

IMG_2266IMG_2268

The poetry of a great master such as William Butler Yeats marvels us. His written words leap off the page and dance. Evocative images and subtle emotions emerge from the act of reading it.

His poem “The Pilgrim”, from New Poems, is short and succinct but delves deeply into Yeats’s journey for the meaning of existence. In his pilgrimage, Yeats searches everywhere for answers, from worldly pleasures to the realms of spirit, but his questions are never answered in anything other than a nonsensical phrase – “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” Embracing what he has been given, he decides in the last stanza that this absurd wisdom is the answer he was looking for the entire time.

The ultimate understanding that Yeats was striving to comprehend can never fully be expressed in words alone. “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” is as good as any other answer when using the limited tools of language. It bypasses our logical side and opens us up to the great mystery that this life is. And it can also be used as a mantra when we are at work. Similar to one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, the phrase can lift you out of stuck spot and inspire you to take a completely different direction. It can even be used to simply get you started on a creative endeavor.

The spirit of “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” is proudly anti-perfectionist. Not that it doesn’t admire an ideal, but it doesn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The wisdom lies not in the content but in the process. The Cornell Yeats volumes allow us to see this by providing us with Yeats’s unpublished drafts and manuscripts. Peel back the curtain on the creative genius of Yeats and take a look at the initial drafts of this poem:

IMG_2258IMG_2259

It’s a bit of a mess.

The additional pages are no better, with large sections crossed off and revamped:

Even the more orderly type-written final draft got revised:

Now let that sink in. The creative process of one of the greatest poets in history is messy. Chaotic. Confusing. Just like yours.

So embrace the mess, embrace the chaos, and the confusion. Let go, embrace your creativity and follow its meandering path to see where it leads. And if you run into obstacles in the road that stop you in your tracks, you now know the words to move yourself forward . . . “Is rol de rol de rolly O!”

Suggested post-reading watch:

 

About the author of this blog post: Jonathan Hall is the Digital Marketing Manager at Cornell University Press. He embraces chaos with his trusty saxophone, Taoist martial arts, and mountain biking.

 

 

 

 

Inspiration for poets: a behind-the-scenes look at Yeats’s creative process

Won’t you celebrate with me? 31 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

It’s National Poetry Month and the Academy of American Poets have come up with 30 different ways to celebrate it. The ideas are creative and include subscribing to a daily digital poetry series featuring more than 200 previously unpublished poems, chalking a poem on a sidewalk or memorizing one, and listening to Mark Doty’s talk, “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now.” NPR has claimed that “you can bet we’re not letting April slip by without a nod to the art of the verse,” inviting listeners to submit a 140-character poem on Twitter together with the hashtag #NPRpoetry, and at Cornell University Press, we feel the same.

Our 1869 podcast interviewing author Susan Eisenberg on her latest book, Stanley’s Girl, a collection of touching poems about gender inclusion, sexual violence and women in the workplace, has inspired us to add one more idea to the list. And for that purpose, we have invited two women at the Press to contribute their own poetic visions of the world. The result is insightful and exciting, and together with our selection of fine poetry books, they make us part of what has become the largest poetry celebration in the world:

 

Baltimore, You Are a Pocket Full of Copper Nails

by Cheryl Quimba

A lot of the time I want to push people

into giant manholes then fly down

to save them, introduce myself as their

long-lost sister who has finally sold everything

to come home. They would be confused but then

so happy for having found something they didn’t know

was lost, and it would feel like a piano playing

beams of colored light against the wall.

In your poems I’m always sad and saying

sad things but in real life I say I am the mountain

sitting on this park bench, so small a microscope needs

binoculars to find me. Baltimore is filled with dirty bathrooms

but no one cares because fun is happening.

Where I live the places where

people die are marked with stuffed animals tied

to lamp posts. There is a store called Hair Strategies

and little kids push strollers filled with

cans of soda up and down the medians.

I like to cross the street like

I’m walking through a casino.

The bells are ringing and ringing

and ringing goodbye.

Quimba, Cheryl. (2015). Nobody Dancing. Publishing Genius Press

 

Meticulous Landscaping

by Ana Carpenter

Here in the passenger side lie Wendy’s bags crumpled by boots

The gentle pungent mulch compacts beneath each nail

Picking at the leather seats to stroke the tattered brail

And decode Dad’s lesson of the day like stringed stray roots:

The ones you mulched over the mornings of summer through July.

Disembarking the diesel F450 with silver smokestacks,

You’re mapping on your hands the clay-dried, thorn-bruised cracks

Wiping the Wendy’s grease on your sister’s off-brand “Nike” slacks

Step out into the cicada-thick air where, like Wendy’s, you fry.

You let the grass prick your bare calves and adjust in the sticky bed

Wiping soil across your forehead, swatting away flying things

And quietly recoiling from the grubs unearthed as dad sings,

Something he beat-boxed under his breath about marriage and rings-

Wash your hands in the cold hose-water until they turn Wendy-hair red.

 

80140106652980L
Order Stanley’s Girl here

 

Other suggested media for our readers on #NationalPoetryMonth:

 

Cheryl Quimba is the Publicity Manager at CUP. She eats, sleeps, and breathes books (but loves a good movie or music debate any day). Follow her on Twitter @ cheryl_quimba.

Ana Carpenter is a member of the Cornell University Class of 2019 and Student Publishing Associate at Cornell University Press. In her free time she likes to sing, salsa, be in the company of dogs of all shapes and sizes, and collect mugs to home-brew cheap coffee.

 

Won’t you celebrate with me? 31 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

Love in the English Language: A Valentine’s Day Missive

zeitlin
By Eva Pedriglieri

A story. It is said that once when the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman was playing a concert in Carnegie Hall, a string on his violin snapped. His playing came to an abrupt halt. The audience expected the violinist to disappear backstage to restring his instrument. Instead, he motioned to the conductor to begin the movement again. Then, through sheer genius and determination, he proceeded to play the entire length of the piece on only three strings. The audience was stunned. He silenced them with one simple sentence: “The challenge in life is to make music with what remains.” Continue reading “Love in the English Language: A Valentine’s Day Missive”

Love in the English Language: A Valentine’s Day Missive

BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?

1200px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2) copy.jpg
Lord Byron at his computer

By  Bob Holman and Steve Zeitlin

John Keats might have called the computer “a thing of beauty.” Or perhaps “an unravish’d bride of quietness.” Coleridge’s question, “Is very life by consciousness unbounded?” could just as aptly apply to the computer.

What Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats did with pen and paper is still accessible 200 years later. But can our new computers help us write in the style of the Romantics? Can the zeros and ones of digital technologies collaborate with us to write poetry? Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of Esquire, says Yes.

Along with Jamie Brew of the Onion’s satirical website the ClickHole, he founded the app company Botnik, which is “very semi-seriously” looking into this question. Its new app Predictive Writer can harness the vocabularies of Seinfeld episodes, recipes, Bob Dylan, country music, and more to create playful word games that enable you to write in different styles. When you go to the Predictive Writer app, you can select from a number of idiom-specific “keyboards” that the Botnik community has uploaded:  Seinfeld season 3, cooking recipes,  Savage Love (a syndicated sex-advice column), and the Romantic poets that we ourselves suggested to them. Say you want to write a poem in the style of Keats. You choose the Keats option, enter a word or two into the app, click on the eighteen choices they offer for the next word à la Keats, and on it goes. Try it at apps.botnik.org/writer/.  But why, pray tell, would anyone want to do this? Continue reading “BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?”

BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?

November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek

Five-term congressman, film director, and bestselling author Robert J. Mrazek will be presenting three book talks this month to discuss his coming-of-age-tale set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, And the Sparrow Fell.  Mrazek, a Cornell alum and Ithaca resident, will discuss his new novel, a vivid and urgent story in which many of the characters and events are informed by his own personal experiences, particularly his time at Cornell University. Ithaca landmarks such as the State Theater, Fall Creek, and the Chapter House are featured throughout the book.

Please take advantage of this unique opportunity to hear Robert Mrazek speak locally in Ithaca. He will be discussing his new book at the following times and locations:

We do hope you can attend one of these events. Continue reading “November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek”

November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

Escher-good.jpg
Mapping the directions of John Cleese’s Escher-like mind. Drawing by Julia Smith.

By Dean Smith

In the fall of 2015, Cornell University Press hosted a folk concert in our offices at Sage House with author and Cornell history professor Richard Polenberg to celebrate Hear My Sad Story, his new book about the true stories of folk songs like “Casey Jones,” “Stagger Lee,” and “John Henry.” Sixty people showed up for the free event. Folk music enthusiasts jammed the foyer and sat knee-to-knee on the staircase all the way to the second floor. Polenberg played four songs on his acoustic guitar and the crowd sang along with him—a magical Ithaca moment—as the sunlight shafted in from all sides after a cold rain.

After the concert, I noticed three women at the top of the second-floor steps. We’d roped off access to the offices on the second and third floors. I asked if they wanted a tour of what had been Cornell benefactor Henry Sage’s mansion and the university infirmary for most of the twentieth century. I showed them our carved oak bats and owls, stained glass windows, and fireplace tile sequences featuring fairy tales such as Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin. Our managing editor’s fireplace is adorned with Arthurian characters such as Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

At the end of the tour, one of the women, Gerri Jones, told me that Professor John Cleese would like a place like this. At first, I didn’t think I heard her right. Continue reading “Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book”

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

The Bell Tolls for Ringling

image001
Ringling Bros. circus performer Gleice Gillet on the lead elephant

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

This past spring I bought two tickets to the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, scheduled for May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. The iconic three-ring circus, mother of all American circuses, was closing its doors after 146 years. At the time, my friend the circus historian Richard Flint was busy researching a book commissioned by Ringling Bros. to commemorate the history of the famed circus for its 150th anniversary in 2021. Ringling didn’t make it that far. 

“People call it the Greatest Show on Earth,” Richard told me, “but it literally was the greatest show on Earth.” A large, profitable circus, Ringling was able to deliver grandeur no other show could match. Not just horses, acrobats, and clowns. Not only numerous elephants, but lavish costumes, state-of-the-art lighting, three rings, five weeks of rehearsals, Broadway choreographers to help train a bevy of showgirls and clowns, original music composed annually for each season. As Richard’s friend said to him, “Ringling’s demise is something like the Catholic Church shutting down.” Continue reading “The Bell Tolls for Ringling”

The Bell Tolls for Ringling

Outbox: Smart Books

smartbooks.jpg
Top L to R: Unbuttoning America by Ardis Cameron, The Borscht Belt by Marisa Scheinfeld. Bottom L to R: Where the River Burned by David and Richard Stradling, The Angola Horror by Charity Vogel, Under the Surface by Tom Wilber

By Michael J. McGandy

A couple of months ago I was recording a segment for “1869: The Cornell University Press Podcast” and our marketing director, Martyn Beeny, asked me what I meant when I talked about “smart books.” I had used the term in association with the sort of titles I wanted to acquire for our new regional trade imprint, Three Hills. “Smart” sounded like a good word, even a smart word, but what did I mean by it?

I paused, and audibly gulped. (You can listen here; the gulp comes at 2:06.) While I pulled myself together and said something about books that were “well-researched,” “informed,” “fair,” and “searching”—all good words, too—the truth was that I was not sure what I meant when I used the term “smart.” I felt that I knew what a smart book was but, when asked by Martyn, I realized I did not have a handle on what was obviously an intuitive feel for the sort of title I wanted to sign for the imprint.

A lot of work in publishing is, in fact, done by feel and intuition. That is part of the peril and fun of what we acquisitions editors do when we make judgments about quality and determine what we want to publish. Yet my failure to be articulate on this topic bothered me, and so I thought more on it. I use the term most often when I am talking about my trade and academic-trade titles—books that are meant to appeal to broader audiences—and that sense of readership plays into the concept of smart that, after some reflection, I struck upon. Continue reading “Outbox: Smart Books”

Outbox: Smart Books

Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

image001
Sahar Muradi

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

In a bedroom she shared with her three siblings in Elmhurst, Queens, 9-year-old Sahar Muradi snuggled up to her mom.  Sensing her daughter’s pensive mood, her mother asked, “Is there something on your mind?” Then her mom reached for the magical red book. Sahar remembers, “I can picture it—the book was leather-bound, frayed from overuse. It was small and fit perfectly into my little hands.” This was Hafez’s Divan, the collected works of a revered fourteenth-century poet from Iran, where great poets are considered seers. Hafez’s sobriquet or nickname is lesān-al-ḡayb, or The Tongue of the Unseen. Continue reading “Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration”

Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

Donald and the Arts

Mavis Staples
2006 National Heritage Fellow Mavis Staples; photo by Tom Pich

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

On October 2016, at the meetings of the American Folklore Society in Miami, I ran into Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont and the world’s leading expert on proverbs. He mentioned to me, as we shook our heads over the forthcoming election, that both candidates failed to take advantage of metaphors and colorful language in their campaigns. “Hillary Clinton,” he noted, “makes far more use of proverbs and metaphors in her books (It Takes a Village) than in her speeches.” He lamented that when she was asked about Obamacare, for instance, she didn’t have the proverbial sense to say, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” “On the other hand,” he said, “Donald Trump, with his limited vocabulary, really does appear to speak basically without metaphors or proverbial phrases.”

Many great presidents, he pointed out, have provided the populace with enduring metaphors (Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself can not stand”) as well as proverbs and turns of phrase (Theodore Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick”). So what are we to make of a president with little or no feeling for poetry, language, or art? Metaphors connect ideas—and sometimes people—through language. We find we need poetry at occasions like weddings, where words can create union; funerals, where they ease separation—and politics, where they span divides. Instead of calling on language and poetry to connect, Trump instead traffics in power relations. Power is hierarchical, a vertical line that severs other patterns, connections, and meanings. Trump’s linguistic creativity has been limited to insults and name-calling—Pocahontas, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Jeb “Low Energy” Bush. Continue reading “Donald and the Arts”

Donald and the Arts

Art and Protest: A Jewish Folktale

image1.png
Photo by Martha Cooper

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

A story. Once upon a time in the old country, there was a tiny town in a wine-producing region of Eastern Europe. The villagers in this region heard that a revered and renowned rabbi was planning to visit their town on a grand tour. So they called a meeting and said, “We must host a great celebration in the rabbi’s honor.”

Then one of the villagers suggested, “Since we all make wine, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a wine festival where the rabbi could taste the very best of our wine?”

And then someone countered, “But each family only makes a little wine each year. A big celebration would use up a family’s entire supply of wine for a year.”

So they devised a plan. They put a big oak barrel in the center of town, and every week, just after sundown on Shabbat, every household was to bring a small pitcher of red wine and pour it into the cask. Then, by the end of the months, they would have a full cask.


If everyone thought the way that Mendel and Rebecca did, what would that mean for the protests? Perhaps that’s why the election turned out the way it did—so many people stayed home.


In one of the village families, Mendel went home and said to his wife Rebecca, “Listen, you know that everyone is going to be bringing wine, and we’re not a rich family. There’s going to be so much wine in that one cask, ours certainly will make no difference. Why don’t we just fill our pitcher up with water? When I take it to the barrel—I’ll pour it right at the lip—I guarantee you that no one will notice.” And that’s what he did, every week. Continue reading “Art and Protest: A Jewish Folktale”

Art and Protest: A Jewish Folktale

The Poetry of Everyday Life #PlaceMoment Twitter Giveaway

PLACEMOMENT.jpg

Who are we without the drive to discover?

Steve Zeitlin, in The Poetry of Everyday Life, helps us to maximize our capacity for fulfillment and expression by tapping into the beauty and meaning inherent in everyday life.

In our “place moment” blog post we discussed some of the specific ways Zeitlin prompts his writing students to access their inner expressive selves—their “everyday poet”—and how these prompts can begin to make poetry accessible to those who may not otherwise believe they have the capacity to write creatively.

We at Cornell University Press believe that Zeitlin’s book can be a valuable tool for our local educators, not only to teach the practice of writing, but also to bring forward our community’s stories and therefore its identity. To that end, we’re planning to donate ten copies of his book to our favorite local educators and educational nonprofits.

Help us take part in this campaign to give back to our community! Quote-tweet any of our #PlaceMoment tweets by mentioning who you think should receive our contest prize: ten copies of Zeitlin’s book to use for their work. We suggest these organizations listed below, but you can nominate a worthy nonprofit in your own community.

After tweeting your choice, you will have created one entry for that organization to be selected at random to win. You must be following @CornellPress to enter. We reserve the right to grant prizes to multiple organizations. The contest will end December 23rd, 2016. Please contact us if you have any questions!

—Lexie

Alexis (Lexie) Farabaugh is an intern at Cornell University Press who loves to photosynthesize in the spring. Follow her on Twitter @lexievirginia.

80140100767700lThe Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness
By Steve Zeitlin
$26.00 hardcover

Buy this book

The Poetry of Everyday Life #PlaceMoment Twitter Giveaway

The Poetry of Everyday Life and Zeitlin’s Creative Writing Prompts

zeitlin-2.png
From the cover of The Poetry of Everyday Life. Photo by Martha Cooper.

Place Moments

“The places we care about are baskets that hold the perishable fruits of memory and experience. Take a notebook out to the places that you love, those places that are lush with low-hanging fruit. The moments when you encounter them mark the times when the experience is ripe for you. Savor them.” — Steve Zeitlin

Have you done it? Have you gone back to those places you once held close? Have you explored new places?

The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, by Steve Zeitlin, defines our own lives — all of our moments, no matter how small or big—as collections of beautiful poems. Poetry can exist in breathing: the simplest thing you can do as a human being. The writing exercise mentioned above is just one example of how Zeitlin, a folklorist who devotes his time to the beauty of human communication, uses his latest project to help educators, writers, and others discover the surrounding beauty in their everyday lives. He is also the founding director of City Lore, an organization that believes in the power of grassroots voices as they tell their stories of cultural heritage. Continue reading “The Poetry of Everyday Life and Zeitlin’s Creative Writing Prompts”

The Poetry of Everyday Life and Zeitlin’s Creative Writing Prompts