In 2007, Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell went incognito to play six intricate Bach pieces on a Stradivarius worth $3.5 million during rush hour at a Washington, D.C., subway station.
It was part of a social experiment organized by The Washington Post, which wanted to know if people perceive beauty in an unexpected context and pause to appreciate it. Thousands of people streamed by Bell during his 45-minute concert, but only a few stopped.
The story so struck David Lee Garrison, Wright State University emeritus professor of modern languages, that he wrote a poem about it titled “Playing Bach in the DC Metro”:
…Partita No. 2 in D Minor
sang to commuters in the station
why we must live…
A café hostess who drifted
to the door whenever she was free
said Bach gave her peace,
and children waded into the music
as if it was water, listening
until rescued by parents
who had somewhere to go.
“All the children who came by were intrigued, drawn into the music,” said Garrison. “My poem is about the power of art, the power of music, the power of poetry. Poetry is all around us, but people aren’t always aware of it.”
Garrison’s poem has received a lot of attention. Most recently, the British Broadcasting Corporation has decided to read it over the air on Sunday, Oct. 16, as part of a program titled “Violins” on the London-based radio show “Words and Music.”
“Playing Bach in the DC Metro” can be heard on BBC radio Oct. 16 and for 30 days after that on the BBC website.
“People often don’t realize how powerful poetry is, what a force it is in their lives,” said Garrison. “They say they don’t like poetry, but they like music, they like songs. And songs are essentially poetry.”
Garrison believes poetry means finding an original way to say something. Once he comes up with an original idea and puts it into words, he repeatedly revises it to eliminate unnecessary verbiage so that the poem is all muscle.
For the most part, Garrison doesn’t wait for inspiration to write poems. He takes a workmanlike approach, trying to write poetry every day. Some poems take him a long time to write; however, he came up with the first draft of “Playing Bach in the DC Metro” inside of 30 minutes.
Garrison said some poems can be opaque and difficult, but “mine are easily accessible — you can understand them on a first read,” he said. “If I show someone a poem and that person doesn’t know what it’s about, I feel I’ve failed because poetry is about communication.”
“I started writing at 16 out of adolescent angst,” Garrison said, “and I still write about high school experiences sometimes.”
He took writing in earnest after a high school English teacher in his hometown of Bremerton, Washington, encouraged him.
“It’s much easier to write about things that happened 30 years ago because memory edits out the unimportant images and leaves you with what is poetic,” he said.
Garrison earned his bachelor’s degree in romance languages from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He taught Spanish for three years at Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland, and had notable students there, including the sons of Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, newscaster David Brinkley and Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
Garrison went on to receive his master’s degree in Spanish from Catholic University of America, his master’s in comparative literature from Indiana University and his Ph.D. in Spanish from Johns Hopkins University. He taught Spanish at Indiana University, Washington College in Maryland and the University of Kansas before joining the faculty at Wright State in 1979.
While at Wright State, Garrison wrote the lyrics to the Wright State Alma Mater after being approached by an administrator who said the university needed one. A colleague in the English department, Thomas Whissen, had previously written some music for an alma mater, but couldn’t think of any lyrics.
“It turned out that the words fit the music. So it seemed to be fated,” Garrison recalled.
For 30 years, Garrison taught Spanish, Portuguese and comparative literature at Wright State, and he chaired the Department of Modern Languages from 1999 to 2007 before retiring in 2009. His wife, Suzanne Kelly-Garrison, is a law lecturer in the Raj Soin College of Business and author of “Stolen Child,” a novel about growing up as an Irish-American in the Midwest during the Kennedy years.
Garrison’s work has appeared nationwide in journals and anthologies. Two poems from his book “Sweeping the Cemetery” were read by Garrison Keillor on “The Writer’s Almanac” and one was featured by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser on his website “American Life in Poetry.”
Sinclair College awarded Garrison the Paul Laurence Dunbar Memorial Poetry Prize in 2009, and he was named Ohio Poet of the Year in 2014 by the Ohio Poetry Day Association.
Garrison reads his poems on a WYSO public radio program called “Conrad’s Corner” and gives poetry readings at universities, libraries and coffee houses. He even read once to inmates at the Lebanon Correctional Institution, who received his work with enthusiasm.
The author of 12 books, Garrison is currently finishing a new collection of poems tentatively titled “Light in the River.”