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Familial Verses

The following story appeared in the April 1 edition of Volume One magazine, and is reprinted here with permission. 

By Barbara Arnold, photo credit Andrea Paulseth

The latest poetry discussion series hosted by Wisconsin poet laureate emeritus (and UW-Eau Claire English professor) Max Garland draws its inspiration from an insightful line penned by a legendary Russian novelist.

"I was thinking of Tolstoy's famous sentence, 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,' and I wondered if poetry verified, or contradicted that statement," Garland shared when asked about the upcoming four-session discussion series, Poetry of Family, which will begin April 6 at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. "I also thought of the poet Rilke's remark that anyone with a childhood had endless material for poetry. I thought it would be interesting to examine 'family' through the lens of poetry."

And according to Tolstoy, "the more dysfunctional the family, the more original the art," noted Garland, whose two-year term as poet laureate ended in January. 

Garland's first book of poetry, The Postal Confessions, is dedicated to his family, and covers his childhood and early life as a postman. He delivered mail on the same rural route that his grandfather before him did, just outside Paducah, Ky., a river town. "But my family life was not so bad, just the usual slings and arrows," he added wryly.

"The lives of ordinary people, not illustrious people, embody poetry," he continued. "Some of the poems covered in the series are 'Daddy' by Sylvia Plath, not exactly the Father's Day card you'd want to receive, and then Lucille Clifton's 'Wishes for Sons,' in which the poet wishes that her sons might someday understand what it's like to visit a gynecologist."

The free, four-week poetry discussion series will be held in the library's Chippewa Room. Registration is required, and due to Garland's popularity, the series is filling up fast. The first week will focus on traditional elegies and odes with featured poets being Ovid, John Milton, and William Blake. Week two's theme is modern poetic reflections, and participants will read poems by Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, and William Stafford. The third week will look at contemporary voices: poets, such as Galway Kinnell, Rita Dove, Louise Erdrich, and Yusef Komunyakaa. The final week will be devoted to original poetry inspired by readings from the previous weeks and written and shared by the discussion series' participants. 

Garland has been conducting poetry discussions at the public library for years, and in his opinion, it's the best kind of teaching. "It's fun to teach these seminars, because the participants are from all walks of life," he said. "There are community members there, most of who know more than I do, and all want to dive into the depths and intricacies of poetry, not available elsewhere." 

While Garland greatly appreciates the opportunity to conduct community seminars like these, he noted that we have in a crisis in the arts in Wisconsin. "We have the lowest per capita funding for the arts in the United States," he shared. "We're bombarded by false, cheap, self-serving language, and sales-pitches, and often from those who are responsible for leading us, even governing. The more trivial, or blatantly, duplicitous language (think Wisconsin politics), the more we need words of depth and beauty, the more we need the help of human imagination as it manifests itself in poetry." 

Poetry of Family, a discussion series led by Max Garland, Mondays, April 6, 13, 20, and 27, 10:15-11:45 a.m., Chippewa Room, L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, 400 Eau Claire St., Eau Claire, FREE, but registration required, 715-839-5004,