You are More Than Your Repertoire (Part one)

And like a thunderbolt he falls...He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

In 1969 I was booted out of my college poetry class for sticking tenaciously to the opinion that Tennyson’s Eagle would have a different resonance for someone who had experienced the soar and dive of said avian majesty.  “The import and meaning of the poem lies wholly within the poets words.” That or something to that effect was the considered and inviolable position of the esteemed professor.  That’s what he was clinging to and my dissent earned me my eviction. I had no experience of eagles at the time. But that was about to change.  It was experience I was after, not talk about experience, and after one more anthropology class that began with about four weeks of debate about functionalism vs. structuralism, I found myself hitchhiking to Seattle in the middle of the winter, and soon after on a ferry headed to Alaska.A month later,I was one of two white people in a small Haida fishing village, trying to learn my way around lines, nets, winches and for the first time in my life a culture not my own.

Not long after, I was taking a dreamy siesta on a rocky beach when I was startled out of my reverie as a bald eagle came swooping down almost directly over my head from his Douglas r perch- and made a stab at a herring 50 or so yards off shore.  The feeling was visceral and left me almost breathless.  A few years later on a remote island where I was doing field research for the Alaska Fish and Game Department, I had another even more visceral encounter with our national bird.  Perhaps it was the bright orange rain slicker that I was wearing. I was clearly something that didn’t belong. The eagle saw fit to editorialize by taking aim from about 500 feet, carefully calculating wind speed and current and anointed me with the remains of it’s fishy breakfast. But at least I was finally vindicated.  Tennyson’s poem conveyed nothing of the immediacy of the impact or aftermath. Nor so the words of that other great master of poetry and the English language, Steve Martin.

Pointy Bird
O pointy birds, o pointy pointy,
Anoint my head, anointy-nointy

Call it self serving or congratulatory but with an additional 40 years under my belt (and an expanding waistline to prove it) I clasp even more tenaciously to the proposition that experience mediates experience- that “been there, done that” deepens what I now look and listen for, how I reflect on and synthesize my experiences, what stories I choose to tell whether personal or folkloric, how I weave them together,  how I tell them and how they have come to subtly shape how I continue to lead my life.  In short and to borrow an academic term, my narrative intelligence has increased. To put it in terms I’m more comfortable with, more and more I am thinking like a storyteller and living a storied life.

Does this make me a better storyteller?  It depends.
I can’t help but think of the sign I saw a few years back on billboard for a building supply company.  (A modern way of keeping proverbs in the public eye)

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.

Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens- Highly Recommended!
Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens- Highly Recommended!

It depends whether I choose to bring myself to the edge of the story, to the heart of the story, to create a bridge to the next story, and of course whether I do this judiciously and skillfully.

It’s harvest time here in the mid-Rio Grande Valley now, a time I like to tell a story that appears in various  guises, but is best known as Tops and Bottoms.  Rabbit gets the best of Bear in three negotiations about the division of labor and the division of the harvest for a plot of land they share.  Rabbit generously lets Bear choose whether he’ll take his 50% from the tops or bottoms of the crop. Only after he makes his choices does Rabbit choose what to plant.  (I love Janet Steven’s picture book of this story)

Probably costs more than $5
Probably costs more than $5

When I was about 8 I was obsessed with such things as seashells, fossils, skeletons and perhaps because of a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Room, mummies.  So when Tommy (name changed in a generous gesture in case the author, editor and judge of The Book of Life is keeping score and has not yet apportioned Tommy’s place in eternity) sold me a sight must remain unseen genuine cat mummy for a very hard earned 1956 five bucks, I gladly forked it over. It was with great anticipation that  I reached  into the brown paper bag Tommy handed me and pulled out a very flat, and not totally dried feline specimen of not so vintage feline road kill.

Do I tell this story as a preface or postscript to Tops and Bottoms?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Again it depends.  But either way, the knowledge that I’ve been on the receiving end of an ill-considered deal, creeps into my telling.

One for the Storyteller One for the Listener One for the one that Heard
One for the Storyteller
One for the Listener
One for the one that Heard


Here’s a proposition fellow storytellers.  We are more than our repertoires.  Even with traditional stories, our willingness to bring more rather than less of ourselves into our tellings adds flavor, juice and sustenance to those three apples that fell from heaven.Take a bite of the most local apple you can   find- chew on it for awhile and let me know what you think!

(This is the first in a series of posts on “You are More than Your Repertoire)



  1. Bob,

    I’m still chewing on the food for thought you provided in your blog post (and thanks for the link!). My initial response is that my life experiences (or as the professor who mentored me liked to say, my experiential background) have deepened my telling. I wonder if those experiences have an impact on which tales I choose to tell….Your first example was especially interesting to me because I am a poet too, so word choice has always been important to me. In yesterday’s Op Ed section of the Pittsburgh Press, Samuel Hazo, local poet celebrity and founder of the International Poetry Forum (although he would not ever allow local poets to appear at his events other than as audience), had an article, “The Art of Being Complete”:

    “…New inventions and technological discoveries invariably open new scientific frontiers in flight, surgery, telecommunications or architecture.
    This is not the case with the arts. Every work of art is created complete, whether it be a poem, a song, a play, a painting or a sculpture. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was, is and always will be one of a kind — a work pristine and inimitable. The same holds true for Michelangelo’s David, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”
    “All of these were created just once in their entirety and endure in an eternal present because people who read, hear or see them find them unforgettable and return to them again and again. Always themselves in their original perfection, they outlive and continue to outlive the times and places of their creation.
    “This suggests to me that the essential difference between science and the arts is the difference between progress and perpetuity….”

    My first thought was that he is not a storyteller…because as you know, two tellings of the same tale are not identical, although I do agree with him that most poets cannot read their own work aloud well.

    Thank you!

    Still chewing…. –Barra the Bard

  2. If Tennyson’s poem was not entitled “The Eagle”, it would seem that he could have been talking about suicide! As you said later in your blog, eagles dive and soar, not fall..

    If I were writing it, my eagle would be this:

    He lurks upon the craggy cliff
    His eyes on the rippling surf below.
    In the wink of a moment
    his winged form lifts
    and dives with grace
    towards the ocean foam.

    His successful sweep
    leads to upward flight
    gracefully reaching toward the sky
    a silhouette upon a cloud
    powerful motion passing by
    back to its cliffside resting perch
    to pause again where it alights.

    Like you, Bob, I had a “moment” with an academic professor of poetry…

    The first one ever to say to me
    “There’s something wrong with your poetry”
    suggested that I write of a tree
    –he said my stuff lacked imagery…

    Well now tree, of you I’ll write
    though it may take all through the night
    to think of words describing an oak
    that I can say that no other spoke….

    Most recently, the tree that drew my attention was a Quince Tree in front of my recently deceased mother’s home. A friend asked about the crab apple shaped fruits that hung there. She was told that they were quince, that the fruit was far too sour to ever eat.
    Instead of walking away, she plucked over twenty hard round sour fruits from the tree, found and used a native recipe, and shared the outcome, quince paste, with me — an appetizer fit for a feast…

    Delicious, with the added flavor of a mother’s memory!!

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