Every small town I have ever lived in, and I have lived in several, was divided by a Main Street. Every time I think of Stayner, ON, the town I grew up in as a teenager, the first lines of “Proem” by Mark Strand come to mind: “’This is my Main Street,‘ he said as he started off / That morning, leaving the town to the others,“.
I remember feeling back then as if life was happening somewhere else in larger cities to people far more interesting and heroic and cultured than me. I couldn’t wait to move away. That is why I find the presence of that town, that childhood landscape, over and over, so peculiar in many of my poems.
In a book of essays called The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, he contends that all private poets have certain triggering subjects “which ignite your need for words” and he uses the example of one’s hometown.
Larry Levis clarified this idea further in a brilliant essay about place and childhood in which he very astutely suggests the lion’s share of English poetry since Milton has been “preoccupied with the loss of Eden” and that poems about childhood landscapes compensate for a dramatic shift in our poetry away from this very public myth to a private one. Our hometowns, the places where we grew up, stand in for “Eden” and, if they are good poems, testify “not merely to private loss, exile and knowledge, but to a collective and generational loss, exile, and knowledge.” In essence, it is because we can never go back to those places as they existed that we write the poems that we do.
Here is a poem by John Koethe from his book Falling Water that captures this very idea:
From The Porch
The stores were bright, and not too far from home.
The school was only a half mile from downtown,
A few blocks from the Oldsmobile dealer. In the sky,
The airplanes came in low towards Lindbergh Field,
Passing overhead with a roar that shook the windows.
How inert the earth must look from far away:
The morning mail, the fantasies, the individual days
Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried:
The photos in the album of the young man leaving home.
Yet there was always time to visit them again
In a roundabout way, like the figures in the stars,
Or a life traced back to its imaginary source
In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book—
As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town
Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.
September was a modern classroom and the latest cars,
That made a sort of futuristic dream, circa 1955.
The earth was still uncircled. You could set your course
On the day after tomorrow. And children fell asleep
To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen,
While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine,
And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch.
- John Koethe
The poem opens with some fixed details or knowns about the town Koethe grew up in, “The stores were bright, and not far from home. / The school was only a half mile from downtown, / A few blocks from the Oldsmobile dealer.” These images are the initial glue that holds the poem firmly together but rather quickly Koethe moves away from them allowing his imagination to take flight which helps to create the immense distance he is looking to introduce as when he says, “How inert the earth must look from far away: / The morning mail, the fantasies, the individual days / Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried:”.
Next, he reminds readers that this poem is a myth, perhaps not a public one, but a private one as profound as any of classical mythology, which he makes a connection to in the following lines, “Yet there was always time to visit them again / In a roundabout way, like the figures in the stars, / Or a life traced back to its imaginary source / In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book— / As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town / Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.”
Finally in the poem’s conclusion, Koethe acknowledges that although he can faintly hear the familiar voices he associates with that period of his life, those people and those times are gone, “To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen, / While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine, / And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch”. If you enjoyed this poem, please pick up Koethe’s latest book Ninety-fifth Street published by Harper Perennial.