Poetry Dinner Night – A Quarantine Scene

Does she or doesn’t she?

Do you recognize this from the 1956 ad campaign? Does it elicit unsavory thoughts?

This Hall-of-Fame advertising slogan was used for Clairol’s Hair Color and within six years seventy percent of women were dying their hair. Maybe you remember these.


Betcha can’t eat just one

I’m lovin’ it

Plop plop, fizz fizz.

Stronger than dirt.

The happiest place on earth

Think different

Think small

When it rains, it pours*


I was surprised how many my three children knew. My husband worked through the list as we ate take-out from plastic Poké Bowls Saturday at the formal dining table. The family dressed for dinner to rekindle an evening of poetry and music, something we hadn’t done in years. Starting with slogans was fun, the poetry of profit, condensed and pithy and memorable.

My eighteen-year-old son Davis said, “Dad, I don’t think I’ve seen you in a tux.” Davis arrived in a fitting brindle sweater with Easter-green collar poking out at the neck, his mane of dark hair bordering on unruly. The effect was that of a professor-in-training minus the paunch.



After dinner my son sat down at the piano.

“The story behind this song goes like this,” he said. “[Rachmaninoff] walks up to a funeral and approaches the casket. When he looks inside, he sees himself.”

It was a dream he had, they say. The first section of the famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor builds to discovery, then the quick triplets of the Agitato section reflect his reaction, spinning out of control, the shock of realization that he is a ghost at his own funeral. The third and final section is a return to the first with its solemn three-note motif played in fortissimo fortissimo (ffff), a rare and explosive sound louder than loud can be played. Near its end, this resolves into acceptance of death, into incredible softness, piano pianissimo (ppp).

I’m not sure if the dream is true but it makes for a great tale. The music room was lit only by candlelight and Davis played from memory. A custom pewter candelabra from his uncle’s wedding sat on the coffee table with votives lit around the room. I had an eerie feeling like I was in a Vincent Price film.







Thinking of the composer Rachmaninoff in this setting reminds me of the Prince of Horror with his long face, its infamous scowl reminiscent of Munch’s painting The Scream. The Rach, shortened to one-syllable status, was a legend in his time at six-foot-six with the largest hands in piano history, which makes much of his music insanely difficult to play. The Prelude Davis performed had four staves in sections just to depict the chords. Rach’s hand could span thirteen white keys on the piano or twelve inches. I just checked the keys with my ruler. Tis true: 13 keys = 12 inches.

Research shows only a few NBA players’ hands reach 12 inches. Think on it, that’s stretching the length of a ruler pinky to thumb. According to Howtheyplay.com, Boban Marjanovic and Shaquille O’Neill have hands as large as the Russian composer.

There is a cast of Rachmaninoff’s hands, which is exquisite and massive. Similar to the comparison to other composers’ hands in the graphic photo above, the disembodiment from the body is a bit creepy.



I wore a skirt, blouse, and faux stole with silk scarf, not exactly black-tie but quirky enough to suggest bad taste. The last time we had poetry night the children were little and they recited classics. I had suggested we add music since poetry is song after all, and the teens have missed piano lessons during the pandemic.

I played Chopin and clipped a book-light to the music. It was familiar but I botched it in places, with a full-on break in performance to unclip the light and turn the page. The family laughed. The Nocturne in E Flat Major is his most famous, and the melody hung in the air.

When I finished, I had a new appreciation for my children who perform routinely. They memorized their pieces and were much better than I was.


I talked with my family about poetry, how its music are words on a page, brought to life in the reading. And, how poetry is about two topics, which they guessed. Can you?

Love and death. And music is the ultimate poetry, no words necessary. Anyone from anywhere can feel the force in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, the melancholy of Chopin’s nocturne, and the haunting sensation in Grieg which my daughter played. Music is universal poetry.

Later, Davis recited Edgar Alan Poe’s poem, A Dream, which was fitting for the evening and the pandemic. I was surprised he memorized it and he gave it a second go because it was short.  Here is the opening stanza.


In visions of the dark night

I have dreamed of joy departed—

But a waking dream of life and light

Hath left me broken-hearted.

Davis’s father also read Poe and his sisters read WH Auden, Stevie Smith, and a contemporary poet Pat A. Fleming. Here are lines from each poem.

Are they about love or death, or both?  You decide.



And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

WH Auden

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.


Stevie Smith

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.


Pat A. Fleming

People I loved,
Have come and have gone,
But the world never stopped,
And we all carried on.


I shared two poems, a short one first.


Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?



It is about a father. In the blueblack cold, with cracked hands, and love’s austere and lonely offices.  Love. It breaks your heart.

My second poem was written by a contemporary Scottish poet. Here is the opening.



The Garden

by Don Paterson

I had been ninety years on Thera, and still felt like an incomer.
They were kind to me, though,
and like any other local in the town, when my time came, I met
with the curator of The Garden
so I could choose the shape of my long sleep. In The Garden, you
are fixed at that second of your life
you were happiest, and reside therein forever. I got the guided
tour. There was a lot of fishing. Family tableaus, holidays;


It is a poem of death but is not sad. It’s comical even. Poetry surprises us, delights us, and as Poe is inclined to do, it terrifies us.


The children were reluctant to join poetry night and I’m glad my husband persisted. The gusto grew as the evening progressed and they dropped the veil, that sheath of routine and the hardened space between us. They gave openly and freely. They wrote poetry.  (Writing prompts national poetry month here)

Shed the screens and sit down together. Read poems, perform skits and plays, play music, write a poem, make art.  And let the humanity and goodness and character of others surprise and delight and terrify you.





*The poems are listed below.

*Slogans: Lay’s Potato Chips, McDonald’s, Alka Selzer, Ajax, Disneyland, Apple, Volkswagen, Morton Salt


A Dream

by Edgar Allan Poe

In visions of the dark night

I have dreamed of joy departed—

But a waking dream of life and light

Hath left me broken-hearted.


Ah! what is not a dream by day

To him whose eyes are cast

On things around him with a ray

Turned back upon the past?


That holy dream—that holy dream,

While all the world were chiding,

Hath cheered me as a lovely beam

A lonely spirit guiding.


What though that light, thro’ storm and night,

So trembled from afar—

What could there be more purely bright

In Truth’s day-star?


The Raven 

by Edgar Allan Poe

Click on title for poem


Not Waving But Drowning

By Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.


Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.


Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.


The More Loving One

By WH Auden


Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.



The Garden

By Don Paterson

Click on title for poem



My Credo Of Life

Published: April 2018

By Pat A. Fleming

Let me live within the moment.
Let me feel all that I can.
Let me cherish life for all it’s worth,
With everything I am.

Let me see what’s right in front of me,
With vision crystal clear.
And face what’s waiting there for me,
With no hesitance or fear.

May I wake each day with gratitude,
For all my life may be.
And always feel that wonderment
At the world surrounding me.

May I welcome any strangers
With an open heart and mind.
And always stand for what is right
With all the strength that I can find.

Let me forgive myself for my mistakes,
While forgiving others theirs.
And never grow indifferent
But always strive to care.

Let me not forget what matters
In the scheme of every day,
To live each precious moment
In a kind and loving way.

For this moment now is everything,
Nothing matters but today.
So I’ll willingly embrace it
And not let it slip away.

For it passes all so quickly,
And one chance is all we get.
And a life of wasted moments
Is a life filled with regrets.


The True Meaning of Life

by Pat A. Fleming

The Years have passed by,
In the blink of an eye,
Moments of sadness,
And joy have flown by.

People I loved,
Have come and have gone,
But the world never stopped,
And we all carried on.

Life wasn’t easy,
And the struggles were there,
Filled with times that it mattered,
Times I just didn’t care.

I stood on my own,
And I still found my way,
Through some nights filled with tears,
And the dawn of new days.

And now with old age,
It’s become very clear,
Things I once found important,
Were not why I was here.

And how many things,
That I managed to buy,
Were never what made me,
Feel better inside.

And the worries and fears,
That plagued me each day,
In the end of it all,
Would just fade away.

But how much I reached out,
To others when needed,
Would be the true measure,
Of how I succeeded.

And how much I shared,
Of my soul and my heart,
Would ultimately be,
What set me apart.

And what’s really important,
Is my opinion of me,
And whether or not,
I’m the best I can be.

And how much more kindness,
And love I can show,
Before the Lord tells me,
It’s my time to go.

Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/the-true-meaning-of-life

Apr 25, 2020


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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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