The poetry of bees

I am not a poet. My genre is essay, as readers of my journal will recognize. In fact, I didn’t read very much poetry at all for decades. When I became a college student, I learned to read and process information quickly. I had been primarily a recreational reader up to that point in my life. As a child, I would check out as many books as the library would allow, take them to my treehouse and read them one after another. I got into the habit of reading in my bed every evening. Over time, my brain made a relationship between reading and sleep. During my high school years I would read myself to sleep nearly every night. When I went to college I had to break that habit. I needed not only to read without going to sleep, but I had to be able to retain and use the information I was reading. I quit reading in bed. In fact, I developed the habit of reading in the library, sitting up at a library table in a hard chair. I still like to read that way. I often read while sitting at our dining room table and my study desk is a library table.

I have made an accommodation as I age and now have a very comfortable lazy boy recliner that sits next to the bookshelves in our front room. I enjoy sitting in that rocker and reading. I have a very good lamp that sits next to that chair that makes reading easy.

I eventually did learn to read poetry. I read a lot of poetry now. I have a shelf near my recliner that is filled with books of poetry. I’ve found that I prefer reading books that I own to reading ones from the library when it comes to poetry. The reason is simple. I read poetry slowly. I read it differently from the way I read other books. I learned to appreciate poetry in part by reading it out loud. As a pastor, I read the bible in public a lot. Most weeks I read a psalm to the congregation. I also read poetry from the prophets. I learned to read slowly when a poem presents itself. For example, I have a book of poetry that I bought in February that is sitting on my desk as I write. I haven’t read all of the poems in the book yet, but there are poems that I have read three or four times. I feel that I have the luxury of time when I encounter a book of poetry. I allow the poems to sink in. I return to poetry books that I have previously read over and over again.

OK, I’ll come clean. There are four books of poetry on my desk. My name is Ted and I am addicted to buying poetry books.

Of course not every poem needs to be read slowly. If you’ve read the Iliad and/or the Odyssey, you know that the story is carried well in dactylic hexameter, but you don’t need to read slowly to search for the depth beneath the words. Anyone who has encountered Robert Service knows that it doesn’t take weeks to get through The Cremation of Sam McGee. The story drives the poem and once you start, you rush to the conclusion:

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

I can sit down and read through a book of Billy Collins’ poetry as quickly as I devour a novel. And I have a volume on bee keeping that is not poetry that I am reading very slowly. The presence of verse isn’t the only factor in determining the pace of my reading.

I am not a poet, but that doesn’t keep me from trying. I am an occasional participant in a poetry group that meets every two weeks. Each week there is a homework prompt, given at the end of the meeting. Participants are challenged to wrestle with the prompt and produce a poem for the beginning of the next meeting. During the meeting there are two additional prompts and participants are given just a few minutes to write. The big prompt, however, is the one that allows time for a bit of polish. I can write something that resembles a poem in five minutes, but if I take a week to mull, re-write, edit, delete words, think up new words, and refine, my product is better. It isn’t good poetry, but it is better than the first draft.

The prompt that has been stirring me in preparation for next Monday’s meeting of the group was given by my wife. It is a quote from The Emmisary by Yoko Tawada: “The sliding door rattled like a freight train, and as Mumei opened up his eyes, morning light, yellow as melted dandelions poured in.”

As soon as I read the line, my mind went to the bees returning to the hive. They’ve been visiting a lot of dandelions lately and the hay field is full of butterweed. I stand near the hives and watch, mesmerized by the sound and sight of thousands of bees buzzing all around me. They rarely touch me at all, and they won’t sting if I simply stand or sit quietly. At the hive entrance, I can tell which bees are leaving the hive and which are returning. One signal is that the returning bees have their back legs covered in pollen and the pollen is as bright yellow as the flowers in the field. They approach the hive entrance with legs yellow as melted dandelions.

The bees create a certain poetry. It is like the volumes that I keep by my recliner. I return to them over and over again. Unlike the poems that I usually read out loud, however, I am silent when in the presence of the bees. Speechless and wordless, I’m unlikely to come up with a poem to share. The experience, however, is distinctly poetic. Were I a poet, I would have already captured the experience, but I am not and I am just a bit panicked trying to come up with something to share with the group. As pleasant as it is, watching bees is not putting words on paper.

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