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The power of poetry

As many emotions collide within each of us this holiday season, the words of poet Peter Meinke, which appear on this issue's cover, provide a haven for reflection and perspective.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 25, 2001

Nearly all commercial bustle ceases today, as families and friends gather at Christmas; even people for whom the day has no religious significance take time away from their usual busy-ness.

This time, the holiday season seems more solemn than jolly. Was it only two years ago that we so merrily raised our glasses to a new decade, century and millennium?

In planning this issue of Seniority, I first decided what not to do. For one thing, I didn't want to saddle readers with long examination of the immediate past, present and future. For another, even news junkies such as I are weary of 24/7 blather about world events.

I turned to bay area poet Peter Meinke and made a vague request: Could he write a poem, not too long, not necessarily about aging, something reflective of difficulty yet looking toward the future?

His offering is Treasure Island:

Treasure Island

By Peter Meinke

Along the beaches sand lies blank as snow
on Christmas evening Dying stars
fade in the foreign sky While children go
to dream of toys beneath the tree guitars
and gimmickry white boxes and red ribbons
we wonder what this Christmas day will bring:
not likely that our sins will be forgiven
not likely that we’ll hear the angels sing

Nor was there snow in Bethlehem that night
but sand like snow shifted beneath the bright
star guiding kings across the desert drifts
So goes the tale and even if they crossed
in someone’s dream and then got lost
we have our children still and we have gifts

In early December, I visited Meinke and his wife, Jeanne, at home in St. Petersburg's Driftwood neighborhood. A surprise package had arrived: James W. Hall's newest novel, Blackwater Sound, plus T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the title. Hall, an Eckerd College graduate, dedicated the book to Meinke.

Outside, their property is lush with live oaks, nine of them, and azaleas: more than 600 grown from cuttings since they moved into the place in 1970.

Indoors is spare and comfortable, wooden desks and tables glowing with the patina of use, little clutter anywhere. The Meinkes reared their four children here; as empty nesters, each has a room for work and study. Jeanne Meinke is an artist whose drawings have appeared in the New Yorker ("pre Tina Brown," her husband noted, referring to a former editor of the magazine). Peter Meinke's poems were published there, too ("pre Alice Quinn," the magazine's poetry editor).

"This house has been sort of a sweet trap," Meinke said, sitting outdoors on a sunny afternoon. If they'd been "braver," he said, they might have moved closer to New York, nearer publishers and a more extended artistic community.

Little dust has gathered under their feet: Meinke, who retired from teaching at Eckerd in 1993, traveled while he was a professor and has had nine extended academic residencies since. His 69th birthday is Saturday.

Last week, the couple were in New York celebrating their 44th wedding anniversary at the Algonquin Hotel, a literary landmark.

Of Sept. 11 and beyond, Meinke said: "I haven't been writing on it directly." He did start one poem "that began with leaves falling in the back yard; it expands from the neighborhood into the world.

"Poetry works best indirectly. Otherwise, it's propaganda. I think in that way all poetry is sort of anti-terrorist in the sense that all poets dig for extra meaning, and connection.

"I always think a poem has a mind of its own," Meinke said. "It takes a long time. I wait to see what it wants to be."

With Treasure Island, "I had this image in my head of sand blowing like snow. Because it was a Christmas poem, I wanted to write something traditional."

As he wrote, "The poem became darker," he said, as the word "forgiven" appeared to him as a near-rhyme with "white boxes and red ribbons."

I hope you enjoy this issue of the magazine. Rich blessings to all of you this holiday season and in the new year.

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