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Summer of Roses

By Naomi Shihab Nye

The beloved poet and translator Diana Der-Hovanessian wrote that I had been selected to receive the Golden Rose Award, one of the oldest literary awards in the country, and give a reading on the lawn of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I was shocked, certain they had made some mistake. The New England Poetry Club, of which Diana is president, gives this award. I couldn’t believe they would reach all the way south to the Yellow Rose of Texas city, San Antonio, and think of me.

Touring Longfellow’s beautiful garden and yellow house for two hours prior to the award reading this past Sunday, June 26, was mesmerizing. The home is well-preserved and filled with the Longfellow family’s own treasures. Henry’s bed was elegant, like a sleigh, or a boat, and seems very short. We saw the oven, his own books, his desk and chair—so many personal artifacts and treasures.

Longfellow house (Greenwillow)
Any of you going to Cambridge this summer will be well-advised NOT TO MISS THIS PLACE.

How many of us read Longfellow poems aloud to ourselves as kids? I used to sit in the resonant wooden stairwell of my great-grandparents’ home in Shelbyville, Illinois, repeating his words. Fifty years later I still carried my Little Leather Library edition of The Courtship of Miles Standish. I took it back to his lawn. It felt incredible.

I don’t think I knew about Longfellow’s life tragedies then—his first wife dying after a miscarriage, then his beloved second wife Fanny going up in flames in the very library of this calm home, while sealing curls of their children’s hair with candle flame and wax.

Somehow, partly thanks to the enduring and stabilizing effect of language, Longfellow was able to survive these terrible things. And his house has been able to survive centuries—George and Martha Washington lived in the same house, many years before he did. Emerson fans will be happy to see Emerson’s portrait hanging above Longfellow’s desk. They were close friends.

By the time I faced the lovely Golden Rose audience, I could barely remember what century I lived in.

Would Longfellow have liked any of my poems? I doubt it. But he might like very much that people still gather on his lawn to listen to poetry. It was nice to meet so many literate, gracious friends and view the Golden Rose even for a second.

I should have kissed it.

Honeybee (Greenwillow)Naomi Shihab Nye is the author of Honeybee19 Varieties of Gazelle (a National Book Award finalist), and other books of poetry. Her volume of very short short stories, There Is No Long Distance Now, will be published in October. She lives with her family in San Antonio, Texas.

3 Comments

  1. Suzanne Crowley says:

    Congrats Naomi!

  2. mwt says:

    “The Club continues that tradition by awarding the Rose to the poet, who by their poetry and inspiration to and encouragement of other writers, has made a significant mark on American poetry.”

    Nope, no mistake there, Naomi. I think they made a perfect pick. Congratulations!

    Megan

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