Poetry as part of the landscape
One dreary day in December, I stopped on a whim to walk the dog at Armstrong-Kelley Park in Osterville and stumbled into poetry.
We don’t often have poetry in our daily lives, beyond the occasional ad jingle or Internet meme. Usually, poetry is on a pedestal, something fancy to be reserved for special occasions or a rude joke. We read a favorite poem at a wedding or funeral, or, if we’re really hip, attend a poetry slam or a theater piece. Perhaps we even have a favorite book of poems on the nightstand, something familiar to soothe us in tough times. Most of the poetry we hear daily is in song on the car radio.
So it was a happy surprise to see poetry as part of a landscape.
Armstrong-Kelley is an 8 ½ -acre pocket park, a mix of woodland trails and lawn, that has been part of Osterville village since the 1920s. I strolled through its Garden of Verses, featuring a dozen or so poems placed as markers along the park’s memorial boardwalk, each poem sponsored by someone, presumably because it had special meaning.
There were some longtime favorites such “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost, and some that were so personal, such as Carol McCracken’s “The Morning Star,” an ode to her son. There were song lyrics to “The Rose,” written by Amanda McBroom and popularized by Bette Midler. You probably remember it, “Some say love it is a river that drowns a tender reed; some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed.” Or, if you need something lighter, how about the classic train poem by David McCord:
Wheels on the track,
This is the way
They begin the attack:
Click-ety, clack -ety,
I went back to the park a few months later in better weather. But the entire property was closed so it could get a make-over thanks to the Trustees of Reservations. The Trustees, which manage more than 100 properties all over the state, took over the park from the Cape Cod Horticultural Society in 2020. The big reveal was in June and by this summer it was clear that the dowager had been turned back into a debutante. The park now has annuals and perennials spilling over green lawns; wide, accessible paths; a donor board that’s retained the personal dedications from the rotting boardwalk slats; new memorial benches on the winding paths; and a pond brimming with lilies. A revived children’s area is in the works.
It was wonderful to see it so loved and renewed. But … there was only one poem still standing, “A Fairie Poem,” by William Cullen Bryant, tucked at the start of a woodland path.
I was crushed.
To quote my friend Kim Baker, who is a real published poet, “Poetry honors the ordinary in all our lives. Birth. Death. Autumn leaves. Community. Loneliness. The smell of coffee or a wet dog. Regret. And in honoring the ordinary, poetry brings our attention to life itself.”
Poetry at the park had definitely elevated an ordinary day for me. So I contacted the Trustees to see if it would be back. And, indeed, a Trustees spokesperson says the poems have been reprinted and will get new markers on the woodland trails – almost like a poetry scavenger hunt.
I suppose if I were really clever I would have written this piece as a poem, but I leave that to the experts. Instead I can merely quote one of the poems that seems not only appropriate for the park, but took me back to a memorization assignment in fifth grade. You might think of it as you stand under the park’s magnificent beech tree:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.