People pass away; it’s the circle of life. We all know it, and we also recognize that our beloved culture heroes are all getting one step and one day closer to the grave every time the sun comes up. As are we all…
I pulled over on the shoulder in a snowstorm on Dec. 8, 1980, on Interstate 465 of Indy’s northside, when the news came over the airwaves that John Lennon had been shot to death outside his home in Manhattan. It was dark and very cold; I thought about the senseless loss in the swirling snow. I cried like a baby when Walter Payton was unable to locate an organ donor, and died so young; and I also felt terrible for days after George Harrison died. In August 2014, I was in Paris with Hiroko during the Ferguson riots, for days watching on BBC as my city burned and raged — and to make matters even worse, the news broke that Robin Williams had gotten sick and tired of feeling sick and tired most of the time. He decided to leave this world for a while. No, I never met a single one of those heroes; but yes, I suffered almost as if a family member had died.
What do Richard Wilbur and Tom Petty have in common? Two poets — though their forms were slightly different. Wilbur’s great poem, “Lying,” reminds us that the day, the sun, the hills and the mundane details of our lives are always there before us, there whether we look to see them, or don’t. You can listen to one of the last, great masters of twentieth-century American verse recite this piece on-line — another of the great miracles enabled by this new-fangled WWW:
As great as Wilbur was, I became much sadder about Tom Petty. I have been trying to understand why . . . Petty reminds us all of “Learning to Fly,” even though we “aint got wings/ Coming down is the hardest thing.” He laments a friend who “lives like a refugee. . . . Somewhere, somehow, somebody must’ve kicked you around some…” So he inspires us to launch out, “Into the Great Wide Open. . . .”: and in Free Falling, he sings, “I want to glide down over Mulholland . . . I want to leave this world for a while.” Remember those luscious scenes of flight in La La Land? Remember the green witch defying gravity in Wicked?? Who doesn’t want to fly???
I’m not exactly saying Petty is equal to, or even in the same neck of the woods as Wilbur, poetry-wise. I’m just suggesting that I will miss both of them very much. As I say time and again in The Hemingway Files: it’s always about the “words, words, words.” Without the words, what might hold us all together? Without the words, can we really learn to fly?