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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Number 316: Annie FInch "Winter Solstice Chant"

Winter Solstice Chant

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
now you are uncurled and cover our eyes
with the edge of winter sky
leaning over us in icy stars.
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

-- Annie Finch

Hap Notes: Annie Finch (born 1956) means for you to recite this and think of it as an actual chant. Here she is chanting/reading it for you:
A chant is repetitive and prayer like and is often used in rituals. Let's not forget that the meaning of the word "enchant" stems from the same root and originally meant to captivate by chanting or incantation. Finch's work often plows the rich field of rhythms whether of the word, the world, the spirit or the body and the cadences of their interconnectedness. This particular chant is quite enchanting, I think.

Born in New Rochelle, NY, Finch had parents who were tailor-made for a poet. Her mother was a poet and artist, her dad was a philosophy professor at Sarah Lawrence who studied Wittgenstein. Finch said that her parents met at a lecture given by W.H. Auden. She got her B.A. at Yale, graduating magna cum laude. She received her masters at the University of Houston and got her Ph.D. at Stanford. She currently teaches at the University of Southern Maine and is the author of some dozen or more books of poetry and essays.

She has her own website here:
Note the spirals with words to get to her poems– this, alone, is telling you something about her thoughts on nature and our connections.

Here's a good Finch quotation: "Unlike autumn, in whose complex and fertile imagery poets love to linger, winter, that stylized season, is often evoked as a single deft emblem in just a line or two—lines that can be cold and heavy with the press of everything not said."

and another: "I have always felt myself to be largely a religious poet, but until I became aware of paganism, I didn't know what kind of religious poet I was."

You can find more of her poetry at her website listed above.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Number 315: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "Christmas Bells"

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day 

Their old, familiar carols play, 

And wild and sweet 

The words repeat 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, 

The belfries of all Christendom 

Had rolled along 

The unbroken song 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way, 

The world revolved from night to day, 

A voice, a chime, 

A chant sublime 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth 

The cannon thundered in the South, 

And with the sound 

The carols drowned 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent 

The hearth-stones of a continent, 

And made forlorn 

The households born 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; 

"There is no peace on earth," I said; 

"For hate is strong, 

And mocks the song 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 

"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 

The Wrong shall fail, 

The Right prevail, 

With peace on earth, good-will to men."

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hap Notes: The story to this well-known poem is equally famous. Longfellow wrote these verses during the Civil War after his son had been severely wounded in battle. His son, Charles, had joined the army without Longfellow's permission and this news fell hard on the heels of the loss of his wife just months previous.

The poem has been set to music and used as a hymn. There are two fairly popular versions. Here's the popular Johnny Marks version: and and the Calkin version I grew up with:

I rarely think of this poem without remembering this very famous cartoon from 1939:

Here is where we have talked about Longfellow before:

and here:

The masthead is a charming vintage birthday postcard with Longfellow's picture and a verse from his poem "Maidenhood." Notice the use of the word "ruth" which gets little use now except when it is paired with paired with the ending"less." Ruth means a feeling of despairing pity. Did you realize that ruthless meant "unpitying" or "lacking compassion"?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Number 314: Ogden Nash " The Boy Who Laughed At Santa Claus"

The Boy Who Laughed At Santa Claus

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn't anybody's joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.

In school he never led his classes,

He hid old ladies' reading glasses,

His mouth was open when he chewed,

And elbows to the table glued.

He stole the milk of hungry kittens,

And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.

He said he acted thus because

There wasn't any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez

Was crying 'Boo' at little babies.

He brushed his teeth, they said in town,

Sideways instead of up and down.

Yet people pardoned every sin,

And viewed his antics with a grin,

Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,

'There isn't any Santa Claus!'

Deploring how he did behave,

His parents swiftly sought their grave.

They hurried through the portals pearly,

And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,

He sped to spread the rumor wild:

'Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes

There isn't any Santa Claus!'

Slunk like a weasel of a marten

Through nursery and kindergarten,

Whispering low to every tot,

'There isn't any, no there's not!'

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez' ribald mocking.

He sprawled on his untidy bed,

Fresh malice dancing in his head,

When presently with scalp-a-tingling,

Jabez heard a distant jingling;

He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof

Crisply alighting on the roof.

What good to rise and bar the door?

A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?

The fireplace full of Santa Claus!

Then Jabez fell upon his knees

With cries of 'Don't,' and 'Pretty Please.'

He howled, 'I don't know where you read it,

But anyhow, I never said it!'

'Jabez' replied the angry saint,
'It isn't I, it's you that ain't.

Although there is a Santa Claus,

There isn't any Jabez Dawes!'

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,

'Oh, yes there is, and I am him!

Your magic don't scare me, it doesn't'

And suddenly he found he wasn't!

From grimy feet to grimy locks,

Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,

An ugly toy with springs unsprung,

Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;

They searched for him, but not with zeal.

No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,

Which led to thunderous applause,

And people drank a loving cup

And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

-- Ogden Nash

Hap Notes: It seems that Nash wants us to pronounce this name Jay-beez so that it rhymes with "babies." But I think he wants us to pronounce "babies" as babbez, which is funnier, actually. It's a fun poem to read aloud.

It's typical Nash humor to list the boy's faults as going though doors marked "No admittance" (to rhyme with "kittens") and brushing his teeth the "wrong" direction and hiding the reading glasses of old ladies. Note how the town can forgive him all his bratty pranks except his crushing of the magic of Saint Nick.

Jabez means "he makes sorrowful" in Hebrew (yabetz, which is decidedly not pronounced Yay-beetz.) and a few years back much was made of a prayer that Jabez (in the book of I Chronicles in the Bible as a member of the lineage of the tribe of Judah) in which he implores God to keep him from harm and increase his territories. The book about it was called "The Prayer of Jabez" and it was a huge best-seller.

The Jabez story in the Old Testament is not to blame for what was made of it in the best-selling book about the prayer. But it is irritating when folks who claim to know God tell you what will make you prosperous. I just don't think the Bible is a very good tool for learning about economics, budgeting, investment opportunities and gaining monetary profits. I don't believe that is the point of the text. Prosperity, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. Some people never get enough. I choose to think of the Jabez prayer as a guy trusting that God is worth talking to about everything, not that God cares about wealth. Imagine, if you will, a deity so petty as to be concerned with what you own– what is he, a banker? And if Jabez was sure that God was going to answer his prayer, wouldn't it have been nice if he'd asked for something for everyone? And furthermore, in the case of the book, it seems to be an excuse to once again villainize the poor– they just haven't enough "faith" to be well off; a disgusting way of rationalizing greed and assuaging guilt.

Gosh, when I digress, I really digress... let's go back to the Nash poem, which is an open and shut case for the indictment of those who do not believe in Santa. Even if you don't believe in him, there's no sense in bragging about the fact that you have no imagination and heart. Shutting down people who believe in Santa does no one credit. In this poem, Santa has a little more backbone than he is usually pictured as having. He doesn't just give the offending, hard-hearted Jabez a bit of coal, he turns him into a broken jack-in-the-box (which seems very fitting, doesn't it?)

Nash's sense of humor is wickedly clever and the poem is primarily meant to amuse. However, the gravest things are said in jest and this poem is also Nash's way of warning us not to kick the magic out of everything in life.

Here is where we have talked about Nash before:

and here:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Number 313: Ezra Pound "Ancient Music"

Ancient Music

Winter is icumen in,

Lhude sing Goddamm,

Raineth drop and staineth slop,

And how the wind doth ramm!

Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,

An ague hath my ham.

Freezeth river, turneth liver,

Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,

So 'gainst the winter's balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,

Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

-- Ezra Pound

Hap Notes: First off, Pound is writing a clever parody here of the Middle English round written in 1225 A.D. called "Summer Is Icumen In." Here's that poem/song:

Sumer is icumen in,

Lhude sing cuccu!

Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,

Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteþ after lomb,

Lhouþ after calue cu.

Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,

Murie sing cuccu!

Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.

Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Okay, what the hell does this poem mean? Here's a fairly good translation:

Summer has arrived,

Loudly sing, Cuckoo!

The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,

Sing, Cuckoo!

The ewe bleats after the lamb

The cow lows after the calf.

The bullock stirs, the stag farts,

Merrily sing, Cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,

Don't you ever stop now,
Sing cuckoo now.
Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo.
Sing cuckoo now!

The stag farts? Did you read that right? Yep. It's thought to be a sign of virile health. Don't spread that information around, please. I've had enough purposefully flatulent boyfriends who did not need this kind of encouragment. Just sayin'. Here's what the round sounds like:

Pound was well-equipped to write this parody. He studied Old English as well as Romance languages in college. There is, was and probably never shall be anyone more knowledgeable about poetry than Pound was.

Pound himself said, "I resolved that at 30 I would know more about poetry than any man living, that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was "indestructible," what part could not be lost by translation and—scarcely less important—what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated.
In this search I learned more or less of nine foreign languages, I read Oriental stuff in translations, I fought every University regulation and every professor who tried to make me learn anything except this, or who bothered me with "requirements for degrees."

One cannot speak of 20th century poetry without mentioning the extraordinarily vexing and brilliant Pound.

Today's poem seems especially fitting if you are living in a part of the country that is snowy, grey, cloudy, windy, cold, rainy or (as in my case) all of the above.

Here is where we have talked about Pound before:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Number 312: Robert Frost "Christmas Trees"

Christmas Trees

A Christmas Circular Letter

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn't thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I'd hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I'd hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,
I said, "There aren't enough to be worth while."

"I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over."

"You could look.
But don't expect I'm going to let you have them."
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded "Yes" to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer's moderation, "That would do."
I thought so too, but wasn't there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north.

He said, "A thousand."

"A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?"

He felt some need of softening that to me:
"A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars."

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.
I can't help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Frost writes this poem as a Christmas letter or, at least, for inclusion in some Christmas Cards. He tells the story of someone wanting to buy his fir trees for Christmas trees but he, as usual, is saying much more about trees, life, value and, even Christmas.

First of all, living out in the country as I do, it's easy to relate to the idea of the winter withdrawing the city from the country. The snow and cold do not lend themselves to easy traveling or, for that matter, leaving a warm city home. So when a stranger pulls up, the country residents are surprised to find a city dweller who understands to wait for the residents to come out to them.

What do you think the city dweller is looking for, aside from the trees, that Frost mentions early in the poem "something it had left behind"- is it just the trees?

Were you as shocked as the narrator was when the offer was three cents per tree? Accounting for current inflation, that's still less than a dollar per tree in 2011. Did you think the narrator ever had any intention of selling the trees? Why or why not?

What is Frost telling us about the trees when he describes them as "the young fir balsams like a place /Where houses all are churches and have spires. "

Here's another telling phrase to ponder–"The trial by market everything must come to." Think he's just talking about trees here?

Here is where we have talked about Frost before: (this one will lead you to our other Frost poems covered.)

And now, because it's Saturday- cartoons, music and other miscellanea:

First Pluto's Christmas Tree from 1952, I think:

Here's one of those singing Christmas trees composed of people- this show a bit about the structure as well as the singers:

And this is Suzy Snowflake:

Ever seen these talking Christmas trees? They're sorta spooky. Here's one of them, Douglas Fir:

This was my favorite little cartoon station greeting when I was a kid- it's from CBS with Blechman drawings:

and another CBS Blechman:

Finally, the infamous "cigarettes as gifts" ads. The package was designed by Raymond Loewy no less!:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Number 311: Tony Hoagland "Bad Intelligence"

Bad Intelligence

is the reason the Chinese orphanage was bombed
It wasn't a stray piece of lint on a bombsight,
or the spastic movement of a twenty-year-old jet pilot
leaning forward to inspect a zit in a cockpit mirror.

No — someone had pulled the wrong map from the top-secret file cabinet,
had given the map to someone else in office Z-13,
who had circled the wrong building with lavender ink,
and passed it on,

and when the smoke rose from the successfully-demolished target
and the other kinds of fallout began,
the error had already been given a name by the damage-control guys,
which the radio announcers were murmuring over the airways,
and it was: Bad Intelligence.

Hearing it on the radio, driving to work,
I think, Yes, Bad Intelligence: that's what has guided me most of my life.
Like the lesson I got from my mother: Anticipate betrayal:
measure out your love in teaspoons, so you will never lose
more than you can easily afford.

Or the other one, about how a worried expression on your face
proves you are a Thoughtful Person;
Or the one about despising weakness.

Bad Intelligence. Bad intelligence
is why Candace always dated guys with snake tattoos.
Why the homeless woman said, "God will take care of us."
Bad intelligence is what tells the fat man in his kitchen
there might not be anything to eat tomorrow.

It's not that we are stupid,
but that we go on doing stupid things because we learned
never to believe the simple answer
never to rearrange the words in the sentence.

We're like the beautiful bodies of humankind, as drawn by William Blake:
muscle-bound in chains, gorgeous but imprisoned,
sealed in the caverns of the you-know-what — Bad Intelligence.

So it goes creeping through the tunnels of the blood
And it covers our lives like mold on bread, like fog
which seeps out through a crack in the human head.

Telling you never to apologize,
telling you to count your wounds
and nurse your evil in the dark —

I too followed the instructions I received from ghosts.
I bombed people with my love or hate,
then claimed it was an accident.
But then it was too late. Bad intelligence:
choices made someplace far away.
Words heard through earphones and repeated.
And little people far below
getting ready to suffer.

-- Tony Hoagland

Hap Notes: There's a lot going on in this poem stemming from "bad intelligence" that military euphemism for "unapologetic mistake." Hoagland starts out with the "accidental" bombing of civilians in an orphanage in China. This mistake leads him to think about other things that seem correct and are thought by reasonable adults and, yet, are sadly wrong.

In our everyday lives "bad intelligence"often rules. In our culture, we often see compassion as weakness, physical beauty as "good," sincerity as stupidity, smiling as somewhat facile and often false and happiness as monetary gain. All very stupid points of view or, as the damage control guys in the military call it, "bad intelligence."

You are an unending fountain of love and forgiveness if you want to be. Smiling feels good, looking "serious" in this world is actually pretty silly, and there is enough stuff in the world for everyone to have more than enough. Approval is something you only need from yourself- not your friends or your parents or the culture. It is this bad intelligence that holds us all back from fully experiencing life.

One supposes that there were reasonable things weaved into the bad intelligence that surrounds our lives. Running with scissors is unadvisable at best. It's a good idea to lock your car when you leave it. There are people who steal things, hurt others and are careless. But it seems we live our lives in fear- fear of theft, fear of violence, fear of loss, fear of hurt, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of loneliness. Most of this fear is based on bad intelligence– the bad intelligence that informed our parents and our grandparents and so on.

Where did we ever get the idea that the strong were tough and the compassionate were weak when the truth is that it is exactly the opposite. It takes more courage to be decent and thoughtful than it takes to be a brute. It takes more strength to be loving than to be guarded and suspicious. Pema Chodron calls the compassionate, "warriors." We need more warriors of love and kindness and less of those paper tigers who claim to be tough. Those tough-guy warriors are really just unhappy kids filled with bad intelligence.

Here is where we have talked about Hoagland before:

and here:

The masthead is a detail from William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Number 310: Miyazawa Kenji "Be Not Defeated by the Rain"

Be not Defeated by the Rain

Be not defeated by the rain, Nor let the wind prove your better.
Succumb not to the snows of winter. Nor be bested by the heat of summer.

Be strong in body. Unfettered by desire. Not enticed to anger. Cultivate a quiet joy.
Count yourself last in everything. Put others before you.
Watch well and listen closely. Hold the learned lessons dear.

A thatch-roof house, in a meadow, nestled in a pine grove's shade.

A handful of rice, some miso, and a few vegetables to suffice for the day.

If, to the East, a child lies sick: Go forth and nurse him to health.
If, to the West, an old lady stands exhausted: Go forth, and relieve her of burden.
If, to the South, a man lies dying: Go forth with words of courage to dispel his fear.
If, to the North, an argument or fight ensues:
Go forth and beg them stop such a waste of effort and of spirit.

In times of drought, shed tears of sympathy.
In summers cold, walk in concern and empathy.

Stand aloof of the unknowing masses:
Better dismissed as useless than flattered as a "Great Man".

This is my goal, the person I strive to become.

--by Kenji Miyazawa
Translated by David Sulz

Hap Notes: Miyazawa Kenji(1896-1933) –(Miyazawa is the family name which is often spoken first in Japan. Just like in China where film star Chow Yung Fat's name in America would be Yung Fat Chow. Chow is the family name)– was born to a well-to-do family in Hanamaki City in Japan. He studied agriculture in college and became interested in writing when he lived in Tokyo. He returned to the farming area where he was born and raised where he taught school, saved up his money and published his own poetry and collections of children's stories.

While his books were not particularly big sellers in his lifetime, he has come to be one of the most beloved Children's Literature authors of all time in Japan. If you are an anime fan you may know many of works. The anime films based on Miyazawa's stories include Night on the Galactic Railroad, The Acorns and the Wildcat, Matasaburo the Wind Imp, The Restaurant of Many Orders, The Biography of Budori Gusko, Kenji's Trunk, The Twin Stars, The Cat's Office, The Coat of a Glacier Mouse and the biographical Kenji's Spring.

Miyazawa was deeply interested in the natural world and was an authority in many of the sciences including biology geology and botany. He even learned Esperanto and translated his book into the "world language." He was an ardent believer in the value of all creatures, eschewed his family's business and inheritance and was integral in helping farmers from his local area understand newer agricultural methods. He was a staunch vegetarian and Buddhist and was one of those people who seem to live on the nourishment one gets from a good walk in the forest and healthy gulps of fresh air.

Today's poem, ("Ame ni mo makezu" in Japanese) used to be (and still may be) a poem all Japanese school children were required to memorize and speak in unison. It is said to be the most revered poem of the 20th century in Japan. It has many translations, so look around the web for your favorite one. I think this one does it justice. It is said this poem was one of the last he wrote and was found on his desk after his death from pneumonia at the young age of 37.

You can find more Kenji Miyazawa here:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Number 309: George Gordon, Lord Byron excerpt from "Childe Harold"

Excerpt from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.-

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean-roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown.

His steps are not upon thy paths-thy fields
Are not a spoil for him-thou dost arise
And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields
For earth's destruction thou dost all despise,
Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies,
And send'st him, shivering in thy playful spray,
And howling, to his gods, where haply lies
His petty hope in some near port or bay,
And dashest him again to earth: there let him lay.

The armaments which thunderstrike the walls
Of rock-built cities, bidding nations quake,
And monarchs tremble in their capitals,
The oak leviathans, whose huge ribs make
Their clay creator the vain title take
Of lord of thee, and arbiter of war;
These are thy toys, and, as the snowy flake,
They melt into thy yeast of waves, which mar
Alike the armada's pride, or spoils of Trafalgar.

Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee-
Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?
Thy waters washed them power while they were free,
And many a tyrant since: their shores obey
The stranger, slave or savage; their decay
Has dried up realms to deserts:-not so thou,
Unchangeable, save to thy wild waves' play-
Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow-
Such as creation's dawn beheld, thou rollest now.

Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty's form
Glasses itself in tempests; in all time
Calm or convulsed-in breeze, or gale, or storm,
Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime
Dark-heaving; boundless, endless and sublime-
The image of eternity-the throne
Of the invisible; even from out thy slime
The monsters of the deep are made; each zone
Obeys thee; thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone.

And I have loved thee, ocean! And my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy
I wanton'd with thy breakers-they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror-'twas a pleasing fear,
For I was as it were a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane - as I do here.

--- George Gordon, Lord Byron

Hap Notes: Well, to be honest, I was taking a week off of the blog for Thanksgiving and yesterday I was watching Turner Classic Movies (a constant at my house) and I saw Virginia Mayo in "The Girl From Jones Beach."

In the movie, Mayo plays a teacher in the film and Ronald Reagan plays a photographer/ad man. Reagan wants Mayo to pose for a fashion shoot (I'm truncating the plot) so he enrolls as a Czech foreign student in Mayo's American Citizenship class. Well, of course, Reagan asks her out (he's a handsome devil but his Czech accent is pretty horrible), snippets of Shakespeare quotes fly pretty thick and fast and as they are sitting on Jones Beach in the evening, Mayo quotes today's poem. As she recited it I thought,"Hey! Why haven't I ever used this poem before?" Answer: because it is an excerpt (which I tend to shy away from since it's not the entire poem) from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." What she says is "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean roll" and one supposes that the audience at the time (1949) knew what poem she was quoting... maybe.

Childe Harold is a long poem which is contained in four cantos. The whole poem is pretty wonderful in parts and you can read it here:
The poem gave rise to that mythic guy that all women want – that man who is handsome, dashing, sensitive, resourceful and a bit of a rebel. You know – fiction. Byron was worried about publishing it because he felt it was too autobiographical and this tells you worlds about Byron, his ego and his real life heroics.

Today's excerpt is particularly stirring. The ocean, the poet says, yields up both beauty and power. Byron compares the ocean to a beast and the almighty and tells us that man's might is a paltry thing when compared to the huge and powerful sea and gives us numerous stirring examples.

Here is where we have talked about Byron before:

and here:

(The picture in the masthead today is Virginia Mayo, just in case you did not recognize her.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Number 308: Anonymous "Thank God For Dirty Dishes"

Thank God For Dirty Dishes

Thank God for dirty dishes

They have a tale to tell

While other folks go hungry

We’re eating very well.

With home and health and happiness

We shouldn’t want to fuss

For by this stack of evidence

God’s been very good to us.

-- Anonymous

Hap Notes: Thought this was apropos for the day. For years I thought my Grandpa, Frank Mansfield, wrote this. He said he did. He could recite it and did at almost every meal. He even had it written down in his own beautiful cursive hand-writing on a piece of paper, framed and hung by the sink. I truly believed he wrote the poem until I ran into a woman from Peoria, IL (just across the river from Pekin, where I was born) who claimed that HER grandfather wrote the poem. Hmmm. Must be something about that area that breeds tale-tellers.

My grandpa also told me he was married to a Navajo princess (he owned a gas station in New Mexico at one time) and that a blanket I often napped with was a gift from her people. My grandma responded to this with, "Franklin Mansfield! You know I crocheted that blanket!"

He also told me that he hated coconut because of his days as a hobo. According to him, he and a bunch of his hobo companions, once raided a box car full of coconuts while the train was stationed close to a hobo junction. He said they all ate so much coconut he couldn't look at the stuff without getting sick. I still believe that one.

I am so very full of thankfulness today that I feel like Millay in yesterday's poem. One of the many reason I am thankful is due your kind attention to this blog. So, many many thanks to you.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

By the way, another fine poem to consider today is Charles Causley's "Timothy Winters" which we have already covered here:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Number 307: Edna St. Vincent Millay "God's World"

God's World

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Hap Notes: There is nothing to compare with the awe-struck terrifying feeling of being in love with the universe and all that reside within it. Millay is not just talking about thinking things are beautiful. She is talking about finding a religious ecstasy in the common uncommon gorgeousness of the world. She almost seems to be channeling Gerard Manly Hopkins here, doesn't she?

Millay swoons over her desire to be one with the universe like a Romantic poet in this poem. (Almost like Shelley's "Serenade" of yesterday.)She is swept away by the grandeur of creation, she is faint with the magnificence of nature.

I hope you, also, experience or have experienced this for yourself. There is no feeling that is more wonderfully scary and nothing will ever seem as important again compared to this universal magic.

Here is where we have talked about Millay before:

The masthead is a painting, "Bungalow Evening", by Kathleen Eaton, of whom I am an unbridled admirer. Here is her website:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Number 306: Percy Bysshe Shelley "The Indian Serenade"

The Indian Serenade

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright:
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Hath led me—who knows how?
To thy chamber window, Sweet!

The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream—
The Champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The Nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart;—
As I must on thine,
Oh, belovèd as thou art!

Oh lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;—
Oh! press it to thine own again,
Where it will break at last.

-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Hap Notes: Of course this is a poem of a spellbound captive of love and sex. Some speculate that the narrator is a woman, some argue that it is a man. There are no particularly direct hints here– people fainted all the time in Shelley's era, both man and woman, must've been all the mercury in the water or something. The singing Nightingale is male, obviously. I tend to favor that the narrator of the poem is a male.

The Champack is a fragrant small tree of India and a relative of the Magnolia. The Champack is often called the white jade orchid or the "Joy" tree because the world famous perfume Joy is made from the flowers. It is said that Joy smells exactly like Champack the way that Chanel #5 is reputed to smell exactly like it's botanical source, Ylang-Ylang. Joy used to be called the most expensive perfume in the world and Chanel #5 is the best selling perfume of all time.

In point of fact there is no creature within a few feet of the Champack that does not get inebriated with the scent. Insects of all kinds career drunkenly around its flowers, banging into each other and falling to the ground. Humans are known to swoon around its intoxicating scent.

My take on this poem is that the narrator could be an Indian Mayfly– besotted with the fragrance of the tree, it searches wildly and passionately for a mate before it dies. And Shelley liked insects, you know. He once said in a letter to a friend, "I think that the leaf of a tree, the meanest insect on which we trample, are in themselves arguments more conclusive than any which can be adduced that some vast intellect animates Infinity."

And you know, Shelley mentions 22 different kinds of insects in his works. The worm and the bee get the most references. Okay, it's not likely that this poem is actually about insects but, still, it could happen.

Those familiar with the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe will immediately recognize the sexuality in the flower of the Champack, as did Shelley, I am sure.

The masthead is a picture of the Champack. And here's a quote of Shelley's from his prose work, In Defense of Poetry, that is worth considering, "“A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

Here is where we have talked about Shelley before:

and here:

and here:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Number 305: Charles Causley " My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear"

My Mother Saw a Dancing Bear

My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.

And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.

They watched as for the Queen it died.
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
`Now, roly-poly! Somersault!'

And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.

They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin's aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.

-- Charles Causely

Hap Notes: Performing bears used to be a regular part of entertainment all throughout Europe in the 13th century. The place they were most common was India. A dancing bear does not actually dance, by the way (although who knows, they may do it in the wild...).

Usually the "dancing bear's" nose is pierced, a ring is put through it and a metal muzzle is put on the bear. The "dance" comes from the trainer's stick which is attached to the ring. You'll be happy to know that this practice has ceased most everywhere. Here is a news report talking about the release of the last of the dancing bears in India:

I know the "dancing bear" is a sad and stupid entertainment but no more so than cock-fighting or dog-fighting which still takes place in America.

Causley's mother and her schoolmates have a typical reaction– first, delight in seeing a bear, then, sadness at seeing how out of place it was, then shame for their part in the process.

Captain Kangaroo used to have a character named "Dancing Bear" but I believe all of us knew it was a person in an exaggerated, almost stuffed animal-like costume.

Here is where we have talked about Causley before:

and here:

and here:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Number 304: Billy Collins "Forgetfulness"


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

-- Billy Collins

Hap Notes: Again, this deceptively casual, conversational Collins poem holds a wealth of depth. On the surface, the poet is talking about the loss of memory, particularly as one ages. One can block things in the memory that are painful or traumatic but this poem deals with regular memory loss, which is usually associated with aging.

The description of memories retiring to a warm climate is amusing. It reminds one of older parents who retire in Florida or Arizona. Even more telling is the thought that one may often wish to be somewhere that has no phones, no stress. It's a picture of frustration for those trying to contact the phoneless residents, though. Note the use of the words "harbor" and "fishing village." The poet says he was the harbor for the memories, now it's somewhere remote.

The nine muses and the quadratic equation are somewhat obscure to most folks who don't spend time reading Greek poetry and literature or working on univariate polynomial equations (equations that have one variable with an infinite length as opposed to a linear equation which forms a straight line. That's enough math for me, now, otherwise I'll have to go lie down for a while until my brain stops smoking.) Suffice it to say that the quadratic equation is not a straight line- a lot of different variations exist. It is complex.

The muses inspire music, literature, history, dance, science and art. What would it mean to "kiss the names goodbye"?

It's amazing to count the things you had to know at one time, a state flower or the capitals of countries or information about your relatives and find that you no longer remember them. Some call much of this "useless information," a term I find particularly irritating. Most people don't use a hammer every day, some may have used one only a few times, some not at all – this does not make knowing what a hammer is to be useless information does it?

The spleen is an interesting organ to use for several reasons. First off, it stores blood for emergencies in the body. Baudelaire used the term "splenetique" to mean melancholy. However in English it usually refers to anger, as in "to vent one's spleen." In the four humours ( the Greek and Roman classification of the fluids of the body corresponding to illness and temper) the spleen is "Black Bile" or melancholy and crabby. [The other ones? Yellow Bile (choleric/bad tempered), Blood (sanguine/hopeful, happy and brave, Phlegm (unperturbed and unemotional. This is not to be confused with the four temperaments which are somewhat similar.]

Ah, now we get to the dark mythological river that starts with "L" which you should know from this blog is the river Lethe. Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology (breaking off briefly to point out there's a lot of Greco-Roman stuff in this poem, yes?) which flowed through the underworld. Virgil said that the dead may not be reincarnated until they have had a drink from the river Lethe which would erase all their memories. [The underworld has five rivers: Lethe (forgetfulness), Styx (hate), Kokytos (lamentation), Akheron (sorrow) and Phlegethon (fire). Always good to store this for future memory- until the forgetfulness sets in...]

In fact, Lethe is the name of the Greek spirit of oblivion and forgetfulness.

See how this Collins poem has a good deal of meaning on many surfaces?

Just a bit more fuel for thought– remember how people always say, "It's like riding a bicycle –you never forget"? And what would happen to one who forgot how to swim? How many times have you gone to look some fact up because you forgot it? Why is it so important that you find it again? What is the fear/irritation in this?

What does it mean when the moon reminds you of a love poem-–so familiar that you memorized it –but one that you cannot recall now? (There's a melancholy to this, too, yes?)

If all of this information has not made it clear– this poem is about the approach of death which follows all the loss of memories. Collins does not hit us over the head with it, but the melancholy one feels for one's own demise is solidly in there amidst the good-natured joking.

Here's where we have talked about Collins before:

The masthead today is Pollock's "Autumn Rythym" because I just didn't want to forget to use it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Number 303: Paul Laurence Dunbar "Merry Autumn"

Merry Autumn

It's all a farce,—these tales they tell
About the breezes sighing,
And moans astir o'er field and dell,
Because the year is dying.

Such principles are most absurd,—
I care not who first taught 'em;
There's nothing known to beast or bird
To make a solemn autumn.

In solemn times, when grief holds sway
With countenance distressing,
You'll note the more of black and gray
Will then be used in dressing.

Now purple tints are all around;
The sky is blue and mellow;
And e'en the grasses turn the ground
From modest green to yellow.

The seed burs all with laughter crack
On featherweed and jimson;
And leaves that should be dressed in black
Are all decked out in crimson.

A butterfly goes winging by;
A singing bird comes after;
And Nature, all from earth to sky,
Is bubbling o'er with laughter.

The ripples wimple on the rills,
Like sparkling little lasses;
The sunlight runs along the hills,
And laughs among the grasses.

The earth is just so full of fun
It really can't contain it;
And streams of mirth so freely run
The heavens seem to rain it.

Don't talk to me of solemn days
In autumn's time of splendor,
Because the sun shows fewer rays,
And these grow slant and slender.

Why, it's the climax of the year,—
The highest time of living!—
Till naturally its bursting cheer
Just melts into thanksgiving.

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar

Hap Notes: Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was a whiz-kid at Central High School in Dayton, Ohio; editor of the school newspaper, president of the school's literary society, class poet. So, of course with a scholastic pedigree like this after high school he took a job as an elevator operator. Huh? Oh, yes, did I forget to mention he was black? Discrimination could not hold him down, though, and he wrote poetry in his idle hours in the elevator. What is most poignant to me about Dunbar's story is that he first of all, could not be held down and second, that one had to be as immensely talented as Dunbar was to be able to rise above the constrictions of a racist society. What chance would a moderately talented person have? One had to be a comet of brilliance like Dunbar to even get noticed.

You know how the lives of some people elicit chills from some sort of universal vortex of historical destiny? Dunbar's life is like that. He spans an era that was rich with invention and historical watermarks. He was the son of slaves who had escaped. His father fought in the Civil War. In 1890, Dunbar edited and wrote for The Tattler, Dayton's first weekly African-American newspaper which was printed by a small printing company owned by Dunbar's high school pals Wilber and Orville Wright. See what I mean? Strange destinies swirling around this poet's short life (he died of tuberculosis when he was only 33.)

Today's poem is from his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, published in 1893 (when he was 21).
He was praised by James Whitcomb Riley, William Dean Howells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Fredrick Douglas and Booker T. Washington. He remained friends with the Wrights throughout his life.

Dunbar wrote in traditional English as well as dialect. A certain amount of controversy always pops up regarding the dialect. Some feel its use is condescending and/or obeisant while others see it as a natural vernacular well expressed. It's sort of like listening to rap music, especially that of the 90s. Is it an expression of the culture or is it something that holds its practitioners and fans back from true communication? Does it belittle or aggrandize the subject and the reader/listener? Dunno. I just know that Dunbar rises above it all and really longed to be accepted for his traditional English poetry when publishers often wanted the "African-American dialect" poems. Well, we won't solve this problem here. The dialect poems are moving and have flashes of brilliance. I tend to favor his traditional English poems, like today's.

Dunbar is right– autumn is a time of plenty and rich color. It has its grey days but even on the grimmest darkest day, that tree full of yellow or scarlet still blazes with color. The yellow grass, the electric blue sky, the rich rusts, oranges and browns of the leaves– none of this points to dull sadness but only to a change. The farther south one goes, the more one sees this, although Ohio is certainly not noted for its warmth weather-wise.

Dunbar published eleven volumes of poetry during his life. He also wrote fiction and plays. He was well-known in the early 20th century and was internationally famous.

Here's a bonus Dunbar poem. It has always been one of my favorites and has many depths to plumb.

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar

Here's an interesting Dunbar quote: "I am tired, so tired of dialect. I send out graceful little poems, suited for any of the magazines, but they are returned to me by editors who say, ' Dunbar, but we do not care for the language compositions.'"

You can find more Dunbar here:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Number 302: William Carlos Williams "Overture To A Dance Of Locomotives"

Overture To A Dance Of Locomotives

Men with picked voices chant the names
of cities in a huge gallery: promises
that pull through descending stairways
to a deep rumbling.

The rubbing feet
of those coming to be carried quicken a
grey pavement into soft light that rocks
to and fro, under the domed ceiling,
across and across from pale
earthcolored walls of bare limestone.

Covertly the hands of a great clock
go round and round! Were they to
move quickly and at once the whole
secret would be out and the shuffling
of all ants be done forever.

A leaning pyramid of sunlight, narrowing
out at a high window, moves by the clock:
discordant hands straining out from
a center: inevitable postures infinitely


Porters in red hats run on narrow platforms.

This way ma'am!

—important not to take
the wrong train!

Lights from the concrete
ceiling hang crooked but—

Poised horizontal
on glittering parallels the dingy cylinders
packed with a warm glow—inviting entry—
pull against the hour. But brakes can
hold a fixed posture till—
The whistle!

Not twoeight. Not twofour. Two!

Gliding windows. Colored cooks sweating
in a small kitchen. Taillights—
In time: twofour!
In time: twoeight!

—rivers are tunneled: trestles
cross oozy swampland: wheels repeating
the same gesture remain relatively
stationary: rails forever parallel
return on themselves infinitely.

The dance is sure.

-- William Carlos Williams

Hap Notes: There's a lot going on in this poem but certainly one of the primary exciting elements is the way in which Williams shows us a railway station as a sort of art gallery/theater/natural history museum. There are echoes of past civilizations as well as insect colonies in the verses.

While the images are not all cheery; one can't help but feel that the downward spiraling staircases (in addition to thinking of Duchamp's art) in parallel with Dante's inferno or the myths of Persephone and the underworld; still, there's a jazzy feel to the swift and slow syncopations of the train.

A quick note on the use of the word "colored" to denote race. First off, at the time (for what it's worth) this was the most respectful term that could be used. Second, it has always struck me as an odd way of describing anyone since we are all colored are we not? No person lacks color (at least on the outside)– there are no colorless people (again, not on the outside.) When I was a little kid and people would use the world "colored" I always imagined purple or turquoise people and that sounded so exotic to me.

I'll let you explore this poem on your own but let me give you a bit of food for thought. First off, the common name for a railroad station is a terminal. Brood on that a bit and see if you don't find just a few more insights into what Williams is telling us about life. Second, what do you think he is saying about time, both musical and mortal? Are we not all fellow travelers in this life?

This poem puts me in mind of a scene from Terry Gilliam's movie "The Fisher King." It's Grand Central Station and Robin Williams character is following the woman he loves from afar. Here it The masthead pic is Grand Central Station in New York, where Gilliam filmed the dance.

Here's where we have talked about Williams before:

and here:

and here:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Number 301: Wilfred Owen "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-- Wilfred Owen

Hap Notes: It was on this day in 1918 that Wilfred Owen's parents received the news that their son Wilfred had been killed in action in WWI. He had been killed by German machine gun fire just one week before the armistice. He was 25 years old.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) wrote poetry about the war graphically explaining what it looked and felt like. The fact that our wars continue leads one to assume that most people have not read these poems. Today's poem makes it clear that war is terrifying and confusing. I think it was one of the first poems I memorized when I was in junior high. The poem still makes me weep.

The Latin phrase at the end of the poem translates to "it is sweet and proper to die for one's country" and is taken from the Roman poet Horace.

Here's a good Owen quote: "My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity."

You can find more Owen here:

Number 300: Jeffrey Harrison "The Angel On The Table"

The Angel On The Table

She's losing her memory, isn't sure
who I am, is bothered by small things
like where that angel made from doilies
came from, the one she made herself
in the home's craft class. I remind her, but she
forgets again and in a minute asks again,
as if she's just noticed it for the first time.

The body is a doily twisted into a cone.
A doily cut and folded forms the wings.
The head is a Styrofoam ball, the hair a tuft
of cotton, the halo a gold pipe cleaner.
As simple and innocent as something
a child would bring home from school,
and in fact my daughter made one like it.

But this angel is a small torment to her,
perched on the table beside the photographs
of people she no longer recognizes–
but that doesn't bother her. It's the angel
she eyes with suspicion, even fear.
Where did it come from, what is it doing there,
what on earth does it want from her?

-- Jeffrey Harrison

Hap Notes: Harrison was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and studied under one of our favorite poets, Kenneth Koch (who was also from Cincinnati, by the way.) He is an award winning poet– okay, I'll name some– a couple of Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim and an NEA fellowship, and the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship.

He has published, to date, six poetry collections and his poems have appeared in a variety of periodicals including The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poetry and The New Republic. His teaching gigs include George Washington University, Phillips Academy and College of the Holy Cross.

This poem comes from his book Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, 2006.) Much of the focus of the collection is on illness, grief and loss. The poems dealing with his older brother's suicide are particularly moving.

In today's poem, we see a woman, possibly a grandma since she lives in a "home" where they have craft projects. Think of the strange, suspicious terror and disconcerting confusion that results from suffering from Alzheimer's as this woman obviously does. Why do you think an angel could be particularly frightening, even a crudely made craft-project one? Can you feel how terrifying this could be? And as an observer of this, let alone a relative of the sufferer, wouldn't this be, at the very least heart-rending and painful?

There is something else here, though. Why would "small things" be particularly bothersome to this woman? Why do the pictures of unrecognized relatives and friends bother her less than the angel?

Here's a good Harrison quote: "I believe that a poet must write what comes naturally, but I also believe (and this may seem contradictory) that there is a necessary restlessness to being a poet, and if a poet doesn’t have this quality, then he or she is destined to be reincarnated over and over in the same poem. One doesn’t consciously change the way one writes, it happens naturally over time, but the restlessness helps move the process along."

You can find more of Harrison's poetry as well as interviews and essays here:

(The masthead picture features a shot of the notorious "Black Angel" at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, IA. It was one of the legendary places of my youth and I've always thought the angel was equally comforting, mysterious and terrifying.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Number 299: Franz Wright "The Mailman"

The Mailman

From the third floor window
you watch the mailman’s slow progress
through the blowing snow.
As he goes from door to door

he might be searching
for a room to rent,
unsure of the address,
which he keeps stopping to check

in the outdated and now
obliterated clipping
he holds, between thickly gloved fingers,
close to his eyes

in a hunched and abruptly
simian posture
that makes you turn away,
quickly switching off the lamp.

--Franz Wright

Hap Notes: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright (born 1953) was born in Vienna and is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright (who was on a Fulbright scholarship there at the time.) They are the only parent and child to have won this award separately and one suspects it might be a while until that record is broken. Despite his upbringing amidst some of the iconic poets of the last century, and their cautionary examples, Wright has had to fight similar demons and is a recovering alcoholic/addict/manic-depressive.

Wright, a graduate of Oberlin College, has been the recipient of several fellowships as well as the PEN/Voelcker Prize for poetry in addition to his Pulitzer. His poetry usually deals with vulnerability; often about the inevitable conflicts with his dad or crawling back to life from addictions and breakdowns.

Read today's poem closely. The postman, we know, is not actually searching for a home, so who is? Why would the sight of a man, looking "hunched" and "simian" make someone turn away, turn off the light? What is going on? Fear? Repugnance? Denial? All three? How does that postman's tortuously slow progress, with an "outdated clipping," make the observer feel? Confused? Alone? Reading this poem with compassion, who are we more concerned for, the postman or the observer?

Side note: You know that expression " "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" for the post office? People often say it is the motto or creed or pledge of the U.S. Post Office. It is not. The Post Office has no official "motto" or "slogan." The quotation, written on the side of the James Farley Post Office in New York City, is from Herodotus' Histories and refers to the couriers of ancient Persia. By the by, if you have never read Herodotus' seminal work (it's a good read and is considered the first "study" of history, it is available here, free: If you don't think you have the time to read it, you can listen to it here, free: If you can't handle THAT (and now I'm getting a tad disgusted, sorry) you can read a summary of each chapter here: It's a rousing tale and it is as true as a history book ever is.

Here's a good Franz Wright quote: "When I write now, I feel like someone who came back from the dead."


"All true poets are visionaries and experience oceanic instances of seamless mingling with the infinite in the face of everyday things (astronomical perceptions, as Blake and Lorca put it, in the contemplation of very small concrete things; or as Flannery O'Conner said, only in and through sense experiences does a writer approach a contemplative knowledge of the mysteries they embody); and of course poetry, of all arts, is the most moral if we keep Kant's definition of morality in mind, as that act for which no possibility of compensation really exists. There is nothing to be gained from writing poetry (and everything to lose, come to think of it) if it is truly taken seriously." see the whole interview here:

You can find more Franz Wright here:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Number 298: Heinrich Heine "Death and His Brother Sleep"

Death and His Brother Sleep (Morphine)

There’s a mirror likeness between those two
shining, youthfully-fledged figures, though
one seems paler than the other and more austere,
I might even say more perfect, more distinguished,
than he, who would take me confidingly in his arms –
how soft then and loving his smile, how blessed his glance!
Then, it might well have been that his wreath
of white poppies gently touched my forehead, at times,
and drove the pain from my mind with its strange scent.
But that is transient. I can only, now, be well,
when the other one, so serious and pale,
the older brother, lowers his dark torch. –
Sleep is so good, Death is better, yet
surely never to have been born is best

-- Heinrich Heine

Hap Notes: This cheerful little poem is characteristic of Heinrich Heine's ( 1797-1856) depressing wit. Heine was a brilliant thinker who presaged the fate of Germany nearly 100 years before the zenith of the Nazi party. He was a prolific poet, journalist, critic and essayist and, in the course of his life, he knew many of the intellectuals, artists and writers who shaped his era. Much of Heine's work is punctuated by a sharp, ironic pessimism which sometimes is expressed with ironic humor and sometimes is just plain frustrated by human nature.

Heine was born in Dusseldorf, Rhineland, during the French occupation under Napoleon and Heine was a fan of Napoleon's expressed ideals in the Napoleonic Code; liberty, justice and equality. Heine was born a Jew but converted to protestantism because he wanted a teaching post and Jews were overlooked for such a position. In fact, his Jewishness stood in the way of his entrance to European culture. However, his conversion did not help him procure a position. In his university days Heine attended lectures by Franz Bopp, F.A. Wolf and the influential Idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

After studying at a variety of universities and writing some poetry and travel essays, Heine went to Paris, in part to escape German censorship laws. Heine had always been an outsider- one can feel this in much of his work. When he got to Paris he was as close to being happy as a thoughtful gloomy German could be. We often use the phrase "fish out of water" to express being out of one's element. The original expression started as "happy as a fish in water" and Heine said that the expression, when one fish would inquire about the other would have to be answered, "I feel like Heine in Paris."

Heine wrote essays, poetry and music criticism. It was he who termed the phrase "Lisztomania" in reference to the fainting and hysteria that followed Franz Liszt where ever he went. ( Sidenote: This was long before the milder, but every bit as wacky, Beatlemania of the 60s. Do you remember the Ken Russel film about Liszt, "Lisztomania"? With Roger Daltrey from the Who as Liszt, soundtrack by Rick Wakeman and Ringo Starr playing the Pope? It's a very odd film.) Heine was friends with Karl Marx (with whom he did not totally agree) and knew Liszt and Georges Sand (of whom he said was the least witty French woman he had ever met.)

Heine wrote an influential history of Germany, The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, in which he pretty much nailed the German political outlook that would grow over the following hundred years. He was a thinking philosopher-poet, not a political pundit, and he saw the writing on the wall more clearly than most. It will not surprise, then, that this book and many others authored by him were burned by the Third Reich. Heine himself wrote, in the 1800s, " ...where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also." Chillingly accurate.

Many of Heine's poems were put to music by composers including Schumann, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn just to name a handful. Here is Silcher's famous compostion for Heine's "Die Lorelei" (which all good students of German can sing)- this one is sung by the incomparable Richard Tauber:

In today's poem, Heine is talking about Thanatos and Hypnos, the twin brothers, in Greek mythology, of death and sleep. Hypnos and Thanatos are the sons of Nyx (Night) and Darkness (Erebos) and are often linked together. The poppies are their symbol from the flower's hypnotic reputation (and its opiate pharmacology.) Heine did not take morphine that I know of- this is strictly a poetic reference. Hypnos is often portrayed with wings around his face, Thanatos is depicted with dark wings and carrying an inverted torch (the extinguishment of life.) The last line sums up Heine's bitter sense of humor.

Heine was very ill the last eight years of his life. In 1997 a hair of the poet was analyzed and it was found he was suffering from chronic lead poisoning. He took to his bed for those last years and called it his Matratzengruft (mattress-coffin.) Friedrich Nietzche said of him, "“The highest conception of the lyric poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine. I seek in vain in all the realms of millenia for an equally sweet and passionate music. He possessed that divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection… And how he employs German! It will one day be said that Heine and I have been by far the first artists of the German language.”

Here's a good Heine quote: "Christ rode on an ass, but now asses ride on Christ."


"When words leave off, music begins."


"It is extremely difficult for a Jew to be converted, for how can he bring himself to believe in the divinity of - another Jew?"

You can find more Heine here:

(The masthead is Evelyn Pickering De Morgan's Night and Sleep)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Number 297: Alfred, Lord Tennyson "Tears, Idle Tears"

Tears, Idle Tears

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hap Notes: Tennyson said he wrote this poem while visiting Tintern Abbey, a place which draws the poetry out of many writers. One of the most famous poems written about the place is Wordworth's "Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." (The masthead pic today is a photo of part of the abbey.) So what is Tintern Abbey that it inspires so much versifying rumination? One supposes part of the appeal is that it was built in 1131 and was abandoned in 1536, so the ruins are haunted by hundreds of years of human history. When both poets visited the site it was more than likely festooned with ivy and vines, adding to its lonely beauty.

Tennyson said that he wrote the poem as he felt the memories of a bygone era around the abbey and that the poem was about "the passion of the past, the abiding in the transient." In the first stanza Tennyson makes it clear that there is a contrast between the "happy autumn fields" and the feelings that are arising within him. He is vividly recalling things from the past that move him as he looks on the current scene. How can the past feel so real in the present? And how can it be so real and yet so unreachable- one can remember so acutely and yet, it is as ephemeral as smoke.

Many composers have set this poem to music. Here is contemporary music genius Owain Park's version:

Why do you think Tennyson calls these tears idle? Have you ever teared up thinking about a happy memory of the past? Why do we do this?

There is an amusing and famous story about this poem in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. It seems that Tennyson was on a boating trip with some friends and in the course of a conversation about tobacco (which he loved) he mentioned that the first pipe he smoked in the morning was the best one of the day. To which Sir William Harcourt, traveling with the party, quipped, "Ah, the earliest pipe of half-awakened bards." Tennyson was not amused. (He loved this poem and had no sense of humor about it.)

Tennyson's fame put him under a great deal of scrutiny and he was eccentric in dress (with a big cape and a sombrero or beret) and tousled locks. In 1855 he was at the Oxford Theatre receiving an honorary D.C.L. (Doctor of Civil/Canon Law- it doesn't make him a barrister, it's a high honor reserved for heads of state and writers of exceptional distinction.) A voice called out from the gallery, observing his blowzy hair style (see inset pic) "Did your mother call you early, dear?"

Tennyson has always been one of my favorites and, in spite of some sentimental stuff that can embarrass one, he has also, I believe, written some of the finest poetry ever penned in the English language.

Here's where we have talked about Tennyson before:

and here:

and here:

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Number 296: A Penny For the Guy "Remember Remember"

Traditional Guy Fawkes Rhymes

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent to blow up King and Parliament.

Three score barrels were laid below to prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s mercy he was catch’d with a dark lantern and lighted match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip hoorah!
-- Traditional

AND (often added):

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.

A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.

Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.

Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!

-- Traditional

And another version:

The Fifth of November

Remember, remember! 

The fifth of November, 

The Gunpowder treason and plot; 

I know of no reason 

Why the Gunpowder treason 

Should ever be forgot! 

Guy Fawkes and his companions 

Did the scheme contrive, 

To blow the King and Parliament 

All up alive. 

Threescore barrels, laid below, 

To prove old England's overthrow. 

But, by God's providence, him they catch, 

With a dark lantern, lighting a match! 

A stick and a stake 

For King James's sake! 

If you won't give me one, 

I'll take two, 

The better for me, 

And the worse for you. 

A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, 

A penn'orth of cheese to choke him, 

A pint of beer to wash it down, 

And a jolly good fire to burn him. 

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! 

Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! 

Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

-- Traditional

Here's another:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
It's Gunpowder Plot, we never forgot
Put your hand in your pocket and pull out your purse
A ha'penny or a penny will do you no harm
Who's that knocking at the window?
Who's that knocking at the door?
It's little Mary Ann with a candle in her hand
And she's going down the cellar for some coal

Sometimes this gets added:

We come a Cob-coaling for Bonfire time,
Your coal and your money we hope to enjoy.
Fal-a-dee, fal-a-die, fal-a-diddly-i-do-day.
For down in yon' cellar there's an owd umberella
And up on yon' cornish there's an owd pepperpot.
Pepperpot! Pepperpot! Morning 'till night.
If you give us nowt, we'll steal nowt and bid you good night.
Up a ladder, down a wall, a cob o'coal would save us all.
If you don't have a penny a ha'penny will do.
If you don't have a ha'penny, then God bless you.
We knock at your knocker and ring at your bell
To see what you'll give us for singing so well.

Still, some say this:

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A fagot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!

--All versions traditional variations

Hap Notes: It's Guy Fawkes Day so bonfires and fireworks are the order of the day in Great Britain. Before Guy Fawkes, the word "guy" meant to lead or referred to a rope. After Guy Fawkes, the word "guy"first started to take on the characteristics of how we now use it, in reference to a person or group of people like "you guys" or that guy.

In 1605 Guy Fawkes was one of a group of Catholic conspirators who wanted to get the Protestant King James I off the throne (or any other Protestant who would take the throne- it was only slightly personal and mostly religious.) It was planned that a bunch of gunpowder would be lit to explode under the House of Parliament when James I was in attendance and take out the lot, more or less. The conspirators leased a room which was close to the House of Lords and from which they could tunnel under the legislative building. A full 36 barrels of gunpowder was smuggled into this room.

Fawkes was charged with guarding it, at some point he was going to light the fuse and then run like hell, escaping across the Thames river. Word of the conspiracy leaked out (one member of Parliament, Lord Monteagle, was warned in a letter to stay away from the building) the conspirators were aware of this, the servant of Monteagle told them about the letter, but they felt it would be dismissed as a hoax. And it would have been. Except. Monteagle was sort of freaked out by the letter and told King James I, who, also a little freaked, sent some men to investigate around the Parliament building.

The gunpowder was hidden under piles of coal and firewood. Fawkes, in the early morning hours of November 5, was caught coming out of the cellar and arrested. The piles of gunpowder and flammables were found and Fawkes found himself in the soup. (one always wonders why he was leaving. Bathroom break? Time for a smoke? A quick pint? A breath of fresh air?)

Just a quick word about Fawkes. Born in York in 1570, he later converted to Catholicism and fought in the Eighty Years War on the side of Catholic Spain. He often signed his name "Guido Fawkes" and, indeed, he did so when a confession was tortured out of him by James I's men. Fawkes, when asked what he was doing in the cellar of Parliament, spat out, ""to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains." Fawkes, until his final tortures, often spoke French to his captors, leading James to believe he was French. The conspirators hoped that Catholic Spain would help them but they would not.

Fawkes, especially to British children of the last several hundred years, was a figure of some dark and evil glamor. Clad like a gentleman, he reputedly answered his inquisitors with his head high and a bright wit. He gleams with evil, swashbuckling, rebellious dark magic. I don't know that British children see him like this now but for several hundred years he had this evil charming enchantment around his story.

Fawkes stoicism in the face of torture was much admired, even by James I. Have you ever heard or seen the expression" et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur "? It means, "and by degree proceeding to the worst." They started out torturing Fawkes with manacles, then eventually the rack. He was so beat up that when he climbed the scaffold for his hanging he could barely walk. He ended up giving out some conspirators names and signing a confession. It is said he suffered much in the way of torture, that it would take much to bow a bright and difficult and proud man.

He was found guilty and his sentence was to be hanged and then drawn and quartered. The actual sentence read that the conspirators should be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air". Fawkes avoided the torture of being even remotely conscious of this by jumping from the gallows and breaking his neck. His corpse was still drawn and quartered and his body parts were distributed throughout the land. (Um...eww! Seriously? Eww.)

Lest one get too romantic about Fawkes and his compatriots, I suppose it should be pointed out that their gunpowder explosion would have killed hundreds of people; in addition to killing off some spoiled inbred aristocracy it would have also killed dozens of serving people and working class folks who labored in the building as well. Neither cool nor noble, that. Fawkes, as he climbed the ladder leading to his death, asked for forgiveness from the king and God. Fawkes, by the way, was no means the leader of this conspiracy, he was just the one caught.

After the whole thing, the people in London were encouraged to celebrate the king's escape from this assassination plot with fireworks and bonfires. It was actually endorsed by Parliament as a day of thanksgiving and was officially a holiday until 1859. In the course of the celebrations, many are burned in effigy including the Pope, and sometimes, whomever was in power at the time (like Margaret Thatcher). Fawkes is most particularly burned in effigy, though. Children go from house to house collecting clothes for their bonfire effigy, begging for old clothes or a penny to buy newspapers and various items to fill out or finish their effigy. Then the effigies are burned in the bonfire.

In recent years, the movie "V is For Vendetta" has brought Fawkes to the forefront. The movie (and comic book series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd) is about an ailing society and a group of freedom fighters called Anonymous and an enigmatic fellow," V", who all wear Guy Fawkes masks. The mask has consequently been used by a variety of groups from Occupy Wall Street to anti-Scientology protests.

All this information on Fawkes may seem like historical trivia but it will come in handy for understanding a great deal of literature, not the least of which is T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men". Here's a good annotated version of it:

It's Saturday so here are our cartoons and music and other assorted amusing bits of junk:

This pretty much explains the day:

Here's the BBC's take on it:

Here's Cat Face on Guy Fawkes Day:

Here's Greg from We are Klang on cBBC (for kids- it's great though):

Did you see the Colbert Report with the Guy Fawkes mask?:

Here's Green On Red with "The Ballad of Guy Fawkes":

Here's the Krewmen with "Guy Fawkes":

John Lennon mentions today's poem in his song "Remember":

Here's a bit of The Penny Dreadfuls take on Guy Fawkes:

Here's Big Jim McBob and Billy Saul Hurok with the Farm Film Report: