April 2024

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

An Authentic Friend of Poetry

Karren Alenier

In tribute to an authentic friend of poetry, the Steiny Road Poet hereby offers this portrait. An original member of ModPo, John Knight, recently ascended The Carriage Emily Dickinson wrote about in her poem “Because I could not stop for Death.” Modpo is the Coursera MOOC Modern & Contemporary American Poetry founded and run annually since 2012 by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis. Here is Dickinson’s poem:

Because I could not stop for Death – (479)


Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.


We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –


We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –


Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –


We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –


Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses' Heads

Were toward Eternity –



John, an active 83-year-old who reveled in writing essays on Dickinson’s poems for ModPo, died March 6, 2024. He was a supporting member of a reading group that formed in association with ModPo. Often this in-person group would do its own discussions of poems featured that week in the 10 -week online ModPo curriculum. More interesting was that originally John and others, including Steiny, would show up at Washington, DC’s Politics & Prose Bookstore, commandeer a long table sandwiched between bookshelves, and start discussing poems that had been copied in advance of the weekly Saturday morning session. Anyone who queried, “What’s going on” would be invited to join. John advocated for no boundaries. The meetings were a Sit In for the love of poetry.

Before Covid struck he and another member usually made an annual road trip to Philadelphia to attend a ModPo Live session where John was often seen on camera so that his comments could be heard by the entire ModPo community. After Covid, the group, which Steiny began calling the Poetry Think Tank, migrated to Zoom. John fully embraced the platform and soon he was inviting others. Some of his invitees came from China, from a local university where he liked to take courses, and from a psychiatric community of specialists where he made new friends.

While ModPo pivots on the work of Gertrude Stein as it builds a bridge from Dickinson and Walt Whitman to contemporary poets like Rae Armantrout, Joan Retallack, Caroline Bergvall, and Charles Bernstein, John Knight loved to play gadfly and question what the contemporary poets were up to and whether these poets met his standards for poetry. Still John, who was a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), was a patient listener. His friends at the Poetry Think Tank will miss him. In his memory, Steiny offers this love poem from her book how we hold on:


the relevance of mint

    by Karren L. Alenier


I breathe mint

from his garden  preferring rose

hips and lemon verbena my lover grows

peppermint and spearmint for my tea


                             today I snip stalks and share

the aromatic feast with Jonathan and Beverley the new

parents of Johnny born eighteen days into June

anniversary of Etta’s birth the grandmother I lost

during my first trip abroad

                                                           much later at a table detailed

with red rose petals I savored the ceremony of Moroccan

mint tea but I fell in love with mint while I carried my son

Ivan his name is John too but in Russian I called my Russian

grandfather Honey because my mom’s mom Etta summoned

her husband Sol no matter his mistresses in that sweet way


the Lord is gracious and so it is that Johnny Jonathan Ivan

Hank Hans Ian Jack Jean Johan Juan Sean Shane Vanya

and Zane all mean John the Lord is gracious

                                                                                     I breathe mint

and mix honey into the tea I brew from the leaves my sweetheart

grew in his garden these fragrant leaves that sing he loves me



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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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©2024 Karren Alenier
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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