On the third and last morning of the conference, “Blue Ridge, Biltmore & Blooms,” Dr. Elliot Engel presented “Exploring the Bounty and Beauty of North Carolina Poetry,” after first pointing out that while we have been speaking for 250,000 years, we have been writing for only 5,000 years.
Poetry arose from the spoken or oral tradition of primitive people, making it the oldest of the four types of literature: fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.
People from past ages responded to the sounds of words — their rhyme and rhythm, and research indicates that babies in the womb can hear indistinct sounds. Even as young children, we respond to the rhymes and rhythms of nursery rhymes, enjoying their nonsense value as well. He used “Hey, diddle, diddle” as an example of the illogic of a “dish running away with a spoon” and a “cow jumping over the moon.” Engel said that poetry plays with language, and North Carolina poets excel at this word play.
TYPES OF POETRYEngel said the most common type of poetry, narrative, tells a story; the lyrical type expresses emotion; the descriptive poem paints a picture, and he used Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” as an example, which recalled our drive through rain and clouds to reach the conference destination; the didactic type teaches a lesson, as seen in Rudyard Kipling’s “If”; and the anecdotal or epigrammatic may be the poetry on tombstones or other short poems, usually evoking humor or wry commentary about life’s vagaries.
Engel’s favorite poet when he was young, Ogden Nash, specialized in the epigrammatic poem, like this one Engel cited called “The Termite’:
Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it and found it good,
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.
Another example of the anecdotal poem lies in Nash’s “The Panther”:
The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Dr. Engel’s references to Nash had me pulling our volume of the poet’s selected verse from the shelf to renew an acquaintance. In that small volume I found “Pediatric Reflection”:
Many an infant that screams like a calliope
Could be soothed by a little attention to his diope.
And in Nash’s “Reflection on Babies,” he wrote, “A bit of talcum / Is always walcum.” The poem displays the characteristics of all epigrams — short; succinct; having a surprising twist; and usually humorous, witty, or sarcastic. Even a poem’s title invites because of its humor, as in Nash’s “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Heart Trouble” or “Song for a Temperature of a Hundred and One,” perhaps too appropriate in these pandemic days.
Engel said that North Carolina poetry does not usually celebrate nature despite its mountains and ocean; instead, poets in our state engage in comic verse. Why? He quoted that adage about our state’s being the “vale of humility between two mountains of conceit” — referring to deficits of the past contrasted with Virginia’s and South Carolina’s bountiful cotton, rice, tobacco products and their deep-water ports. Engel posited that our humbleness produced a sense of humor reflected in some poetry he read and analyzed. Here’s one entitled “A Bowl of October” by Helen Bevington:
October is a breakfast food
With fields of shredded wheat.
The golden cornflakes lie on the lawn,
and wheaties lie in the street.
The puffed rice clouds, the grapenut hills,
Oh! The oatmeal skies abed
Have wakened me in the crispies air
And so I have breakfasted.
The poetry readings fit with the end of National Poetry Month and topped off an excellent series with humor, wit, and insight.
Our Asheville adventure was filled with the delights of scenery, meeting travelers from the past and present, dining with family members we had gone too long without seeing, having lunch with new friends made at the conference, shopping at the plentiful arts and crafts stores, visiting the sites for which Asheville is celebrated, and learning anew about authors and poets.
The conference, planned a year and a half ago but postponed a few times because of the pandemic, had to be limited to 57 instead of the usual 100-plus that attend. Participants, Engel’s loyal fans, came from 13 states to hear him and to enjoy Asheville — some for the first time. One friend I made at the DC conference drove nine hours from Ohio to attend (though she said that next time she will fly!). The attendees came from Texas, Washington state, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California, but the largest numbers were North Carolinians.
JOIN DR. ENGEL’S FAN CLUBCertainly the mark of a successful conference is that participants ask, “When can we expect a repeat of this experience?” Indeed, Dr. Engel and his faithful assistants, Darian and Bob Poliachik, are considering an Asheville II for those who didn’t make this first attempt. To find out more about this possibility and to receive Dr. Engel’s newsletter, sign up at professorengel.com. Click on the RED link at the bottom of the page. You will receive by email Dr. Engel’s brilliant, funny, and thoughtful essays, and you can learn about his Shelf Improvement Book Club.
Fifty or more of us in the book club enjoyed our study of “Rebecca,” which I bought on four CDs that keep me entertained on long trips. The next book proposed is J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” which I have read but never studied in-depth. A unique feature of the “Rebecca” series is that the fourth CD contains questions we readers submitted and Dr. Engel’s responses to them.
In hopes that this essay piques your interest in learning about authors and literature, in getting away from your routine, and in reading classical works, I encourage you to add yourself to Dr. Engel’s followers whose lives have been made richer and broader because of listening to him and traveling with him.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.