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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Number 111: Elizabeth Bishop "One Art"

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

-- Elizabeth Bishop

Hap Notes: I promise this is the last villanelle for a while. And you can see (because now you are expert at spotting them) that Bishop plays with the form a bit.

Bishop is too thoughtful and self-conscious to be overly emotionally confessional in her poetry. Lowell exposes every raw nerve he has, Plath lets her anger and confusion and hurt flame out but Bishop is more constrained. As you read this poem, imagine you are at her home and she is pouring you a cup of tea. You are going to have a friendly, serious chat over a cuppa with her. As she pours out the tea, she says a few things about losing- keys, hours, a watch – casual things. Then she reflects on loved houses she lived in, places she liked living (she may even have pictures of these places around her study. She has books and maps about the places, too.) You notice her hand shaking now as she pours. As she reflects on the loss of a relationship, her eyes gleam with tears, she gets a grip on herself (being forceful –as if saying "face it and buck up, Elizabeth- don't allow it to master you, just admit it") and finishes her thought with a sad catch in her voice. The poem is casual and polite but it is a mask for loss, which she eventually forces herself to verbalize.

Of course we're not really having tea with her, I'm using it as a device, but I wanted to illustrate her careful progression and constraint in this poem in which she reveals important things. Remember she wants us to know this– it's a poem, not a casual conversation. This is part of her awesome writing mastery. Her vulnerability is hard won in this poem. Think, too, on the title of this poem. It's about writing as much as it's about life. The poem's inner core exposes itself masterfully with every thoughtful word. The poem's somewhat reluctant last stanza is purposely so. Do you see why?

Bishop's personal life remained properly personal but we do know that she had a lover, Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares, whom she lived with in South America for more than 15 years. When the relationship broke up, Bishop moved back to the U.S. from her much loved houses there. "Lota" Soares followed Bishop to New York and the day she got there (in 1967) Soares took a suicidal overdose of drugs (tranquilizers) and died after being in New York for less than a few days.

This poem appears in Bishop's Geography III which was published in 1976. We have spoken of Bishop before right here:
and also here:

I suppose it's obvious that I love and greatly admire her extraordinary work.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Number 110: Sylvia Plath "Mad Girl's Love Song"

Mad Girl's Love Song
"I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)"

--Sylvia Plath

Hap Notes: It's very hard to talk about Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) without getting a little angry for a variety of reasons. Her suicide has been the cause of much speculation and has been used by some writers in the women's movement as a banner for the frustrations of creative women. Her husband, the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), was very publicly accused of abuse and neglect, her doctor has been accused of neglect for prescribing anti-depressants (which often do just the reverse in depressed patients), and you can still find people who, upon reading The Bell Jar (Plath's semi-autobiographical novel), suddenly feel that they, too, are exactly like Plath. All of this is balderdash and snail spittle. There may be elements of truth in all these statements but depression is like diabetes-the person who has it has to control it by themselves.

There is a certain glamor attached to attractive, sensitive, depressed, suicidal young women in our culture and, quite frankly, it's repulsive. Speaking as a woman who has had brushes with far far too deep bouts of depression and a couple of breakdowns I can categorically state that depression will soak up all the love you can give to a depressed person and it will never be enough because the person whose love they desperately need is their own.

Plath suffered her first breakdown when she was 22. Remember that in the days that Plath was treated there was a thought that after a depressed patient got "better," they were cured. The variety of depression Plath had (most likely genetic and recurring) is the kind that takes the patient's constant care-taking vigilance to head off and avoid. I do not believe she was given the skills or the therapy to do this. She was given electro-convulsive therapy (shock treatment in the popular vernacular) and released as "recovered."

Of course, poets are supposed to be depressed aren't they? So it's part and parcel with the "job" right? Well, no, although there are studies that show (Goodwin, Jamison) that depressives and manic-depressives have a brain chemistry that gives them a different and often, creative, perspective on the world. You can't blame Hughes for Plath's depression or suicide any more than you can blame (tempting though it may be) Courtney Love for Kurt Cobain's. Depression is a poorly understood chemical imbalance in the brain. Suicide often seems to be the answer to be let out of the suffering of depression. When the world seems to be drained of any possibility of happiness (or even just everyday "normalcy") suicide appears to be the way to make this horrible helpless, hopelessness go away.

This is diagonally off topic but if you are intensely depressed by the world in general you have good reasons for this. There's a lot wrong with the world. However, there are things that make life precious and juicy and delicious and if you cannot see this, you need to get help and I'll warn you that not everybody who helps you will be right for you and you cannot give up because there are things that require your attention in the world. Your sensitivity is important to balance out the hatred and prejudice in the world- you have to battle on to counteract this. Each person on the earth is needed for something- if you haven't found what it is yet, keep on trying. You come equipped with powerful stuff to maintain happiness- you just haven't figured out how to use it. Don't give up. Just sayin'. Get some help but don't expect that a pill will solve your depression- you need to actively monitor your own treatment. Yeah, it's a pain in the patoot but the results are true happiness. No kidding. True happiness is in you, waiting for you to find it. Of course it's hard work. Most things are but it gets easier and easier every day. I kid you not. Do not give up.

Okay, back to Plath. She was a gifted student in high school and college. She was friends in college with Anne Sexton (who had her own depressions) and she studied under Robert Lowell (this is beginning to sound like a blue print for depression, huh?) Her fame rests on two fairly decent books of poetry and a book of fiction. She speaks to a lot of people who are dealing with the early growing pains that one feels in their 20s; her voice resonates with them because of her fierce brilliance with the words that describe her feelings. She can be comforting to those who feel alone with these thoughts.

I think in our poem today (yes, it's a villanelle) Plath is talking about life, in general, as a lover. The thunderbird is a Native American legend of a huge bird who creates the thunder and moves the clouds with its giant wings. There are legends that talk of thunderbirds mating with humans (they are shape shifters). I have heard it said that this poem is about Ted Hughes but since Plath wrote this poem in 1951 and met Hughes in 1954 this is impossible. She may be speaking to another man but I think it's more likely that she is speaking to life, here. Everything in the poem is either dark or leaving her- even God and Satan. There is no hope in the poem that when spring returns she'll feel the thunder of life. With her eyes closed, the world is black, when she opens them, things are worse. There are strong hints of suicide in the poem, yes?

Here's a good Plath quote:
"I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited."

and another: "I have never found anybody who could stand to accept the daily demonstrative love I feel in me, and give back as good as I give."

and another: "God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of "parties" with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter - they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering."

You can find more Plath here:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Number 109: Edwin Arlington Robinson "The House on the Hill"

The House on the Hill

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill.
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

---Edwin Arlington Robinson

Hap Notes: As you can see, I am determined to show you the power and variety of the villanelle. The Robinson poem illustrates its deceptively simple form- it's almost nursery-rhyme like and yet, the form, if you've tried it, has constraints. Robinson is one step away from writing a simple little poem, here. But it's loaded with extras.

"Our poor fancy play" could easily be construed as children playing around the house. But look at that wording- remind you of anything? How about a Shakespeare passage we've spoken of earlier? i.e. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more." This oft-quoted passage from Macbeth was well known to Robinson who studied Shakespeare assiduously at Harvard during his short time there.

The poem asks us why we search for things or people that we know to be gone. What are we looking for? Have you ever gone to an abandoned house and peered in the windows, wanting to see the inside? Unless we are in the market for real estate, why do we do that? What are we looking for? It's a good question when you think on it- tells us much about ourselves and others.

In addition to what we've already said about Robinson here: let me add a couple of things.

First off, his name was acquired in an unusual manner. His mom wanted a girl and Baby Robinson was un-named for six months. Robinson's parents were at a holiday resort and the other vacationers urged them to name the child. They put a bunch of names on slips of paper in a hat and a man from Arlington, MA was selected to draw out the paper. Hence, Edwin Arlington.

Robinson spent 24 summers of his life from 1911-1935 at the MacDowell artist colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Robinson went reluctantly the first time to the artist sanctuary made by composer Edward McDowell and his wife Marian at their farm as a place for artists to work and socialize with other creative folks. Robinson was so skeptical of the arrangement that he arrived at the colony with a fake telegram in his pocket so if he didn't like it he could scram out in a hurry. In addition to Robinson, the colony has been a refuge for many others including Willa Cather, painter Milton Avery, Leonard Bernstein (he wrote "Mass" there), Aaron Copeland (He wrote "Billy the Kid" there) and Thornton Wilder (Peterborough served as the model for Grover's Corners in Wilder's Our Town.) The colony still continues today.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Number 108: Dylan Thomas "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-- Dylan Thomas

Hap Notes: This is probably the most famous villanelle of all time. Dylan Thomas ( 1914-1953) is said to have written the poem to his dying father but don't get too hung up on that since it's said in most of his biographies that his father never saw the poem. Thomas is writing it for everyone, not just his dad.

Every time I read the remarkable lyricism of Thomas I'm reminded of what Bernard Shaw's Henry Higgins says about Alfred Dolittle (Eliza's father) after hearing him speak: " ...this chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric. Observe the rhythm of his native woodnotes wild...That's the Welsh strain in him." There's something about growing up in Wales that makes the voice and words love each other (Just a cursory glance at a list of Welsh actors yields up Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, John Rhys Davies, Emlyn Williams, and Monty Python's Terry Jones- all remarkable voices). Hence, nobody reads Thomas as well as Thomas. Here he is reading this

Thomas' father taught English literature in at a grammar school in Swansea. Mr. Thomas brought Dylan up to speak English even though both he and his wife spoke Welsh and he often gave lessons in it. Thomas had troubles as a boy with asthma and bronchitis and he read a lot on his own when he was sick at home. He often claimed that nursery rhymes were one of his greatest influences. There's no doubt he was a prodigy with verse and wise beyond his years. He published his first book of verse when he was 20. He couldn't have been more than 21 or so when he wrote "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," which would be an extraordinary poem coming out of a 50 year old.

Thomas was a sensation in America when he came across the pond to read his work. He has a reputation for being a heavy drinker and I've no doubts he was but he died of pneumonia and bronchitis and his liver, in spite of his drinking was still healthy. His lungs had been easily infected since he was a child. When he died was he was only 39, a year after he'd written the poem.

The poem is Thomas expressing that one should live life to the fullest and fight to the last. "Forked no lightning" is usually understood to mean that the wise men made no earth changing comments, forked lightning is when one lightning bolt hits another and it "forks" its path. In other words, it strikes in two places at once in a blaze of light.

When he says "who see with blinding sight/ Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay," he's more or less saying that blind men can see (have insight) and be bright and enlightening.

Notice his contrasts between darkness and light. Some have expressed the idea that Thomas is saying there is no afterlife, others the opposite. What do you think?

Here's a good Thomas quote: "These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn fool if they weren't."

"Somebody's boring me. I think it's me."

"A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him."

You can find more Thomas here:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Number 107: Theodore Roethke "The Waking"

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

-- Theodore Roethke

Hap Notes: This villanelle by Roethke is at the core of what good poetry is all about. He takes a concept personal to himself and gives it to you to make your own. The specific phrases with "I" and "me" as you read them, are about YOU in addition to Roethke. The moment you read the poem aloud, you own it- it's about you. What a magical gift from him for contemplation on a Sunday, eh? We've already mentioned Roethke, if you'd like to refresh your memory go here:

First of all let's talk a little about the form of the poem because I most decidedly think you should write one yourself. It's a fascinating exercise that will show you how each sentence in a poem can have a different impact depending on its place in the poem. The villanelle counts on this. I'll try to sum up the form easily.

The villanelle has six stanzas- the first five have three lines, the last one has four. The first line and the last line of the first stanza (in "The Waking it's "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow." and "I learn by going where I have to go.") are repeated throughout the poem. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas. The last line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. They meet as the last two lines of the sixth stanza. I have color-coded Roethke's poem for your ease in writing your own. I highly recommend it. I'd love to see how yours turns out- post it if you dare or just send it to me at Hapmansfield@hotmail if you're wary. I'll post mine when I finish it. I have no fear of looking stupid since I believe that's already been established.

Copy the rhyming pattern of Roethke's poem, which, for those of you who'd rather see it traditionally written is A(1) b A (2)/ abA(1)/abA(2)/ abA(1)/abA(2)/ abA(1)A(2).

Now to Roethke's magic. He could not have picked a better form for the myriad interpretations that grow out of this poem. The cadences of the villanelle are hypnotic, almost like sleep-walking or like a mantra of some kind aren't they? And he's saying something about life and death here- about consciousness and unconsciousness. The poem is all about the mysteries of being alive.

Roethke is saying something about becoming one with the natural universe, as if we are plants or trees with ambulatory motion. I think the worm climbing the winding stair is taken directly from a poem by Emerson (I'm wingin' it here so if you are writing a term paper take caution). Here's the Emerson poem I'm referring to:


A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do you see the connection? I've never heard it said that Roethke is using this image from Emerson and he may have gotten the image from Blake, whom he greatly admired. Here's the Blake passage he may have been thinking of:

" ...Every thing that lives
Lives not alone nor for itself. Fear not, and I will call
The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice,
Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen."
The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lily's leaf,
And the bright Cloud sail'd on, to find his partner in the vale.
Then Thel astonish'd view'd the Worm upon its dewy bed.
"Art thou a Worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?
I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lily's leaf
Ah! weep not, little voice, thou canst not speak, but thou canst weep.
Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless and naked, weeping,
And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother's smiles."
The Clod of Clay heard the Worm's voice and rais'd her pitying head:
She bow'd over the weeping infant, and her life exhal'd
In milky fondness: then on Thel she fix'd her humble eyes.
'O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves."
-- William Blake ( from Thel)

I think the phrase "we live not for ourselves" has a certain context in Roethke's poem; we are going toward something bigger, more mysterious, more extraordinary. We are going to dissolve in "Great Nature", there's a transcendence happening there of some kind.

And now I leave you with Roethke's poem because it's yours. It will mean something to you, now beyond all this and I want you to have it and cherish it, ponder it or if you like, dismiss it. (Maybe it means nothing to you now- maybe it will hit you when you see the morning sunlight hit the leaves of a tree. Maybe the poem won't mean anything to you until you take your last breath. Maybe not ever. But I think you'll figure out something. I believe in you.)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Number 106: Wendy Cope "Proverbial Ballade"

Proverbial Ballade

Fine words won't turn the icing pink;
A wild rose has no employees;
Who boils his socks will make them shrink;
Who catches cold is sure to sneeze.
Who has two legs must wash his knees;
Who breaks the egg will find the yolk;
Who locks his door will need his keys—
So say I and so say the folk.

You can't shave with a tiddlywinks,
Nor make red wine from garden peas,
Nor show a blindworm how to blink,
Nor teach an old raccoon Chinese.
The juiciest orange feels the squeeze;
Who spends his portion will be broke;
Who has no milk can make no cheese—
So say I and so say the folk.

He makes no blot who has no ink,
Nor gathers honey who keeps no bees.
The ship that does not float will sink;
Who'd travel far must cross the seas.
Lone wolves are seldom seen in threes;
A conker ne'er becomes an oak;
Rome wasn't built by chimpanzees—
So say I and so say the folk.


Dear friends! If adages like these
Should seem banal, or just a joke,
Remember fish don't grow on trees—
So say I and so say the folk.

-- Wendy Cope

Hap Notes: Thought we'd wrap up this week of ballads/ballades with this pithy selection. In 1986 Wendy Cope (born 1945) wrote a book of poems called Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis and I just fell in love with her poetry and her wry humor. She's amusing but she's so much more than that. The gravest things are said in jest and all that but even more to the point she knows the forms of poetry and how to use them. If you laugh at some of her lines just remember to keep reading closely- she gets into your head by amusing you.

Cope was born in Erith, Kent, went to St. Hilda's College, Oxford and taught elementary school before becoming a full-time free lance writer. She's witty and fun to read. She's not Elizabeth Bishop (who is, though? Bishop is remarkable) but she's very good. Guess who she get compared to often in the U.K. (Ten points if you said Philip Larkin. Sheesh! When will they stop with the Larkin stuff?)

Sometimes she's like a cheery Dorothy Parker:

The Orange

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park
This is peace and contentment. It's new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all my jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I'm glad I exist.

-- Wendy Cope

Sometimes she's hinting at something sad and desperate in this Villanelle-like poem:

Lonely Hearts

Can someone make my simple wish come true?
Male biker seeks female for touring fun.
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

Gay vegetarian whose friends are few,
I'm into music, Shakespeare and the sun,
Can someone make my simple wish come true?

Executive in search of something new -
Perhaps bisexual woman, arty, young.
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

Successful, straight and solvent? I am too -
Attractive Jewish lady with a son.
Can someone make my simple wish come true?

I'm Libran, inexperienced and blue -
Need slim non-smoker, under twenty-one.
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

Please write (with photo) to Box 152.
Who knows where it may lead once we've begun?
Can someone make my simple wish come true?
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

-- Wendy Cope
She hates that her work is online but frankly, I'm not crazy about the fact that Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" gets used, along with Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Aaron Copeland to sell cars and beef. If you want to make a steady living from poetry you're going to have to work in a book bindery. I do urge you, when you like a poet, to buy their books, though.

You can hear her read her work here:

Here is a selection of her bitingly funny "love" poems:

Here's a good Cope quote: "I don't set out to write humorous poems it's just sometimes my sense of humour gets into them - well quite often. As a reader I suppose I laugh when I recognise something - I think laughter often is when you recognise something is true but you'd never actually allowed yourself to think that or you'd never heard it put quite so well. I think it's possible for a poem to be funny and serious at the same time and I get very annoyed with the assumption that if a poem is funny then it can't be saying anything important and deeply felt."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Number 105: Dorothy Parker "Ballade Of A Great Weariness"

Ballade Of A Great Weariness

There's little to have but the things I had,
There's little to bear but the things I bore.
There's nothing to carry and naught to add,
And glory to Heaven, I paid the score.

There's little to do but I did before,
There's little to learn but the things I know;
And this is the sum of a lasting lore:
Scratch a lover, and find a foe.

And couldn't it be I was young and mad
If ever my heart on my sleeve I wore?
There's many to claw at a heart unclad,
And little the wonder it ripped and tore.
There's one that'll join in their push and roar,
With stories to jabber, and stones to throw;
He'll fetch you a lesson that costs you sore:
Scratch a lover, and find a foe.

So little I'll offer to you, my lad;
It's little in loving I set my store.
There's many a maid would be flushed and glad,
And better you'll knock at a kindlier door.
I'll dig at my lettuce, and sweep my floor,
Forever, forever I'm done with woe.
And happen I'll whistle about my chore,
"Scratch a lover, and find a foe."


Oh, beggar or prince, no more, no more!
Be off and away with your strut and show.
The sweeter the apple, the blacker the core:
Scratch a lover, and find a foe!

-- Dorothy Parker

Hap Notes: Oh, Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is so well known for cracking wise or being sophisticatedly sad and alcoholic that we forget what she really needed was a mom. Her own mother died when she was five, she had a step-mother (she didn't care for much) and she died when Parker was nine.

Her dad had some money and Dorothy's schooling came from private catholic schools (even though her mom was protestant and her dad was Jewish) and her formal education stopped when she was in junior high. She had some private tutors and was very well-read. While she is often spoken of as being Jewish this is not technically true, your mother must be Jewish, the honor is passed on maternally. I do not believe she practiced any particular religion- she, however, was involved in various and sundry liberal causes. She had heart.

Parker is part and parcel with the famous Algonquin Round Table, that lunching set of clever writers which included Robert Benchley, F.P. Adams, Alexander Wolcott and Robert E. Sherwood. Big names all but as you may note, known more for their cleverness than their mighty prowess with a pen. They all had cunning and delightful pens, but they were more about charm than craft.

Parker (and I'm pretty sure all of them, really) knew this. They were the bench team who wrote for newspapers and magazines with their witty bon mots and acid inks. For example, in 1925, while they were writing reviews and columns for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, books published included Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, Dark Laughter by Sherwood Anderson, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. (See what I mean- the "round table" was the "B" team. Just two years later Hesse had Steppenwolf , Proust was finishing up Remembrance of Things Past and Heidegger published Being and Time.)

I point this out because Parker had the chops, really, to be serious. Note how she understands the Ballade form and fills it with so much depth in spite of its light tone. Parker and Villon are cautionary tales of hanging out with your fun (and troubling) pals too much- you'll either end up in jail or as a fashionable cocktail garnish.

Parker wrote for the movies in Hollywood, too, and is credited on A Star Is Born, Hitchcock's Saboteur, The Little Foxes, and a good dozen other films.

I believe she was so busy trying to replace her mom and dad (whom she said was abusive) with a partner and friendships, that her art was used to beguile. She spent her writing time mostly expressing her identity for some love. We all give it to her now, of course, but she's dead so it cannot propel her to much greatness. She was in need of a huge amount of love. That's the only thing that can help cast off a bristling defensive persona.

If all this makes it sound like I do not like Parker you are so wrong. I love her work and wish she had been free of her hangups (which she writes about cleverly) to write things that are not such crumbling odes to her era. She had a natural gift which she used to get by. I want to push her to do more. I think she's got it in her.

She started the Screen Writer's Guild with Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. She left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr. These are not the actions of a cocktail garnish, a writer of clever repartee.

Here's a cheery story to relieve the tedium of my heartbreak at her stalled career. Once she was in need of money and the film star John Gilbert sent her $2,000. Later, when Gilbert's career was failing and he was in trouble he needed the money and asked her if she could possibly pay some of it back. She sent him a check for the full amount. He sent her a dozen roses with a note: "Thank you, Miss Finland" (the only country that paid its war debt to the US.)

Parker is the very very best at interpreting her own work. Go here: listen to the aged Parker read her own work aloud and you'll see what I mean. Her short pithy poems take on new dignity with her phrasing.

Parker, of course, is full of clever quotes: "I'd like to have money. And I'd like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that's too adorable, I'd rather have money."

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."

And: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me.”

You can find more Parker here:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Number 104: Francois Villon "Ballade"


I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.

I know the coat by the collar
I know the monk by the cowl
I know the master by the servant
I know the nun by the veil
I know when a hustler rattles on
I know fools raised on whipped cream
I know the wine by the barrel
I know everything but myself.

I know the horse and the mule
I know their loads and their limits
I know Beatrice and Belle
I know the beads that count and add
I know nightmare and sleep
I know the Bohemians' error
I know the power of Rome
I know everything but myself.

Prince I know all things
I know the rosy-cheeked and the pale
I know death who devours all
I know everything but myself.

--François Villon

Translated by Galway Kinnell

Hap Notes: I once knew a guy whose band (of sorts) was called Illya Kuryakin. This is back in the 90s and has nothing to do with the rap group in Argentina and yeah, the band name was in tribute to the David McCallum character in the television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Anyway, he was a scholar of Medieval French and he once read me some Francois Villon (1432-1463?) over the phone, with his translation. I knew who Villon was but frankly, I didn't understand the draw. That is, until he read the poem to me. He had a depth of understanding of the work that came through in his reading and I understood the fevered, slangy, sensitive, somewhat misunderstood, wild creature that Villon was. (Some people remember guy's names- I just remember the poetry they introduced to me- I apologize for this but one has to have some priorities.) The band, by the way, was good- pity I don't know where he headed with his music- he was gifted.

Anyhow, this Ballade (which is the French form of the ballad- something the French practically invented as a form) is an easy read and Villon's repetition makes his final statement in each stanza more and more heartbreaking and brilliant, I think. It's no wonder Villon knew everything but himself- he had a crazy patchwork of a life and then, poof! (or in French pouf!) he disappears. Born into poverty, he was guided by an uncle and attended the University of Paris where he received both a bachelors and masters degree (what the French in the 1400s called them- don't know how equivalent they are to ours.) He ran around with a wild crowd and at one time was attacked by a priest (!), knives were drawn, and he inadvertently killed the priest when defending himself. So he flees the city (he had to do this a lot.) He's exonerated for the murder as defensible homicide.

Back he comes to Paris and he gets into another brawl in which he is beaten so severely, he flees in shame. It is during this time he writes his "little testament" in verses.

Back he comes to Paris and he and his merry band of bad companions steal some money from a college- the Collège de Navarre. One of his companions is arrested a year later and he rats on Villon. Again he flees. He's sentenced to banishment from Paris.

He gets into some trouble again and ends up in jail, gets released, gets into trouble again and this time is sentenced to be hanged. He writes his most famous work his big "testament" in which he allots his belongings (mostly imagined and often sarcastic in nature) to various people in verse form. He seems doomed and somehow makes bail and gets out.

Lessons learned? Uh. No. He gets into a street fight, gets arrested and again he lands in jail where is sentenced to be hanged (he writes the amazing Ballade of the Hanged Man) and the sentence gets commuted to banishment. It is said that he then moves to Italy where he settles down with a wife and kids... I don't think this seems very much in character but I'm not a 14th century scholar so I'm forced to take their word for it. He was 34. His poetry had a certain popularity at the time.

Villon's work is raw, riveting, occasionally wise, very earthy, amusing and above all, compelling. There is the shadow of the noose, doom, lost love and hunger around this fella all the time. It makes for extraordinary reading- this voice echoing down through the centuries explaining his life, his loves, his troubles. His work was not particularly popular in his lifetime but it had a resurgence in popularity 200 years later in the 1600s. (That's a lot of time to get a grasp on, isn't it?)

Translation is everything and I favor the Galway Kinnell translations. Ezra Pound also translated his work. The poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti also translated his work and coined in translation the famous "where are the snows of yesteryear" - a phrase you may see used or hear even today.

The black and white drawing at the top is the picture always used for Villon but I've always seen him as the "Hanged Man" in the tarot deck.

You can find more Villon here:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Number 103: Ezra Pound "The Ballad of the Goodly Fere"

The Ballad of the Goodly Fere

Ha' we lost the goodliest fere o' all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O' ships and the open sea.

When they came wi' a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
"First let these go!" quo' our Goodly Fere,
"Or I'll see ye damned," says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
"Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?" says he.

Oh we drank his "Hale" in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o' men was he.

I ha' seen him drive a hundred men
Wi' a bundle o' cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They'll no' get him a' in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha' snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
"I'll go to the feast," quo' our Goodly Fere,
"Though I go to the gallows tree."

"Ye ha' seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead," says he,
"Ye shall see one thing to master all:
'Tis how a brave man dies on the tree."

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha' seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.

I ha' seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o' Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi' his eyes like the grey o' the sea,

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi' twey words spoke' suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha' slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha' seen him eat o' the honey-comb
Sin' they nailed him to the tree.

--Ezra Pound

Hap Notes: This has always been one of my favorite Ezra Pound (1885-1972) poems although it's not typical of his work. It does show his knowledge of the ballad form and he knew a ponderous lot about the forms of poetry.

In the poem, "Fere" is an Old English word for "companion." The speaker is Simon Zealotes (one of the more silent of Christ's disciples) after the crucifixion. A "capon" is a castrated rooster (it's done so that they'll be more edible.) Pound wanted to write a poem about Jesus which depicted him as more of a man's man and less effeminate. The ballad form is good for the purpose and the seafaring slang is even better for it.

As dear as the poem is to me, I'll admit that in my own head I've often called the poem "Oh, Jesus was a sailin' man!" It amuses me, anyway.

Pound is a such a thorn bush of a man- all that Nazi propaganda he spewed in Italy on the radio does not sit well on the stomach of a poetry lover. He was such a racist. However, just because Ty Cobb was a miserable son-of-a-b**ch racist crank doesn't mean that he wasn't a good ball player and just because Pound was the same doesn't mean he didn't know his poetry and how to write. It's harder to accept this flaw in someone who writes, isn't it? A home run and a poem, while one can see similarities, come from a different place in the heart and brain. Therein lies the problem.

Normally I would give you a few snippets about Pound's life and go on but his profoundly difficult life makes it hard to do. I'm going to suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on him for a brief overview of what makes Pound so exasperating to talk about. You can see that here: It's a fairly succinct summation of his pros and cons.

Pound was enormously influential to poetry and there's no contemporary poet who has not wrestled with him the way Pound himself wrestled with the influence Whitman (he wrote a great poem about this.) Here it is:

A Pact

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.
-- Ezra Pound

Wish I could do likewise with Pound. I guess in some ways I have because here he is in all his rotten glamor. He's an unavoidable poet if you care for poetry and its roots.

Here's a good Pound quote: "Good art however "immoral" is wholly a thing of virtue. Good art can NOT be immoral. By good art I mean art that bears true witness, I mean the art that is most precise."

and another: "
When you cannot make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take - choose the bolder."

You can find more Pound poetry here:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Number 102: Robert Browning "How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix"

How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

I SPRANG to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.

Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit.

’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with ‘Yet there is time!’

At Aerschot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray.

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, ‘Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault’s not in her,
We’ll remember at Aix’—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

So we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
’Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And ‘Gallop,’ gasped Joris, ‘for Aix is in sight!’

‘How they’ll greet us!’—and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the Burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

--Robert Browning

Hap Notes: Robert Browning (1812-1889) was a master of narrative verse and he does something quite unusual in this poem, or rather, he does something that is usual for Browning but not for other poets. He does not tell you what the "good news" is. Three riders take off with highly time-sensitive information from Ghent (a city in Belgium in the Flemish region) to Aix (Aix-la-Chapelle, also known as Aachen) for about a 90 mile trip on horseback. As you read the verses aloud, you will hear the galloping of the horses as the three men ride urgently towards their destination. I remember when I read it as a kid it always left me as breathless as Roland, the narrator's tired and valiant horse.

The cities (Lokeren, Boom, Düffeld, Mecheln, Aershot, Hasselt, Looz, Tongres, Dalhem ) are all real ones and chart the progress of the riders (the narrator, Dirck and Joris) as they ride on with their important information. As for all that horsey equipage, you're on your own: as the narrator "set the pique right/Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit," I'm guessing he's making the horse and his equipment more comfortable and efficient. Someone who rides and cares for a horse can tell you why these things work. I'm trusting Browning that they are necessary. First Dirck, and then Joris, lose their mounts to exhaustion and the narrator and Roland are left to carry on.

If you've ever been on a long road trip, the idea of singing and clapping and laughing to keep you going may be familiar, especially in bad weather, although certainly not on a horse but perhaps in a trusted and dependable vehicle. It's not quite the same as having a companion like a horse is but it will have to do when trying to feel the urgency and determination to get somewhere in a hurry after starting out in the middle of the night.

You can hear Browning start to recite his poem

Browning was at a dinner party where his host had a recording machine. It's extraordinary to hear his voice even if he does (charmingly) forget his poem.

Browning, of course, is well known for his love affair with and subsequent marriage to poet Elizabeth Barrett. An invalid and six years his senior, she was surprised by the vigorous Browning's love for her. Her love sonnets to him (Sonnets From the Portuguese) are legendary. Who in the world does not know "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"?

Browning had a gift for the dramatic monologue (a favorite of mine is "My Last Duchess") in which the speaker inadvertently shows us something about himself that is never spoken. Browning lets the speaker reveal his flaws through wording and what is and is not spoken. This is pretty incredible stuff, by the way- Browning has to think like the character and let little things leak out in a casual way. He's masterful at this. I've always like the The Ring and the Book, but my God, it's long- a book length free verse poem with 10 separate narrators. I don't think that's a good Browning work to start with if you're not familiar with him- it's a bit daunting. Browning, by the way, was a great admirer of Shelley.

Browning also wrote the Pied Piper of Hamelin (you are no doubt familiar with this story?). Men and Women is probably Browning's most famous collection but, lucky us, we can get his whole canon in one book now. He's a very good read.

Here's a nice Browning quote: "Perhaps one has to be very old before one learns to be amused rather than shocked."

and another: "Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once."

You can read more Browning here:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Number 101: Russell Edson "With Sincerest Regrets"

With Sincerest Regrets
for Charles Simic

Like a monstrous snail, a toilet slides into a living room on a track of wet, demanding to be loved.
It is impossible, and we tender our sincerest regrets. In the book of the heart there is no mention made of plumbing.
And though we have spent our intimacy many times with you, you belong to an unfortunate reference, which we would rather not embrace ...
The toilet slides away ...

--Russell Edson

Hap Notes: Well, prose-poet Russell Edson (born 1935) is surely a paradigm shift from Medieval poetry. As we all know, I am not a fan of prose-poetry but there's an exception to every rule and mine is Edson (breaking off briefly to say that if there IS an exception to every rule and if that is a rule, then there isn't.) If you understood my parenthetical comment then you will probably find something to enjoy in Edson who is slightly on the surreal side, often amusing and always thought provoking.

Edson was born in Connecticut and was the son of the cartoonist Gus Edson who created the comic strip "The Gumps"- which is a bit before my time, and wrote the text and was co-creator of the Irwin Hasen drawn "Dondi," which I remember reading in the Sunday paper when I was a kid.

Edson studied art at the Art Students League in the early 50s. He has been enormously influential on contemporary poets. He has won several NEA writing fellowships and a Guggenheim. He is a great proponent of the dream and the subconscious as the originator of poetry, particularly his. He has commented that most people have that kind of creativity- what a writer needs to be is an editor.

The poem has many levels. For one thing a talking toilet is certainly something our culture would use to sell toilet cleaners, wouldn't it? So apparently a talking toilet is a device for sales but other than that, what? For another- there's nothing to bring you down from the heights of overblown romanticism than the ubiquitous, useful and helpful porcelain commode that all must use. The throne on which we all reign. This is not poetry as bathroom humor, though. It's poetry with a new perspective on an old thing, our humanity, our need for privacy, our shame at our uh... output. It brings up the question of why we feel the way we do about it. Perhaps there are some who see the toilet with romantic joy but I daresay it has more to do with constipation than with love.

We will do more Edson this year. His images are astonishing and memorable.

Here is a quote from Edson in an interview with Mark Tursi for web del sol. I thought it was germane to today's poem. Tursi is asking Edson about a cure for writer's block/constipation:

"Possibly a good psychological physic, which goes: just get something on the page, you have nothing to lose except your life, which you're going to lose anyway. So get with it, enjoy this special moment that brings you to the writing table. Relax into the writing and enjoy the creative bowel movement, remembering all is lost anyway."

The rest of the interview is here:

You can find more Edson here:

And also here:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Number 100: Medieval poem "Sir Isumbras"

Excerpt from 14th century poem "Sir Isumbras"

He was mekil man and long
With armes grete and body strong
And fair was to se.
He was long man and heygh,
The fayreste that evere man seygh;
A gret lord was he.
Menstralles he lovyd wel in halle
And gaf hem ryche robes withalle,
Bothe golde and fe.
Off curteysye he was kyng
And of his mete never nothyng
In worlde was non so free.

A fayr lady hadde hee
As any man myghte see,
With tungge as I yow nevene.
Bytwen hem they hadde chyldren thre,
The fayreste that myghte on lyve be
Undyr God off hevene.
Swyche pryde in his herte was brought,
On Jhesu Cryst thoghte he nought
Ne on His names sevene.
So longe he levede in that pryde
That Jhesu wolde no lenger abyde;
To hym he sente a stevenne.

So hit byfell upon a day
The knyghte wente hym to play,
His foreste for to se.
As he wente by a derne sty,
He herde a fowle synge hym by
Hye upon a tre.
He seyde, "Welcome Syr Isumbras,
Thow haste forgete what thou was
For pryde of golde and fee.
The kynge of hevenn the gretheth so:
In yowthe or elde thou schall be wo,
Chese whedur hyt shall be."

The poem in its entirety is

Hap Notes: Well I wanted to show you the poem about the fella from the JE Millais painting on masthead (you can see a larger version here: However 14th century verse is not for everyone and I thought this would give you a good idea about the story.

It's an odd story- Isumbras (as these verses say) was a tall, powerful, handsome lanky man with a beautiful wife and three sons. He was generous to minstrels- giving them fine robes and gold (leave it to a poet to mention that since poets/minstrels were the same job really). Isumbrus had it all and wealth besides but he "thought not on Jesus Christ." One day a bird (a Holy Spirit messenger) come to Isumbras and said, "Okay, you haven't been thinking about your creator or your savior and I'm giving you a choice; do you want wealth and happiness in your youth or your old age?"

Isumbras (you'll have to go to the link to see this part of the poem) says he chooses old age- an interesting and fairly wise choice, actually, and says now he will live for "Chryste". Immediately bad stuff starts to happen. First his home and all his possessions burn to the ground. He comes home to find his naked family, who'd been roused by the fire in the night, standing in front of the burnt rubble that was his home. He takes his wife and sons away and they come to a river. Isumbrus swims the first child over and leaves him on the river bank and goes back for another son. The son left on the river bank gets "taken" (or maybe eaten) by a lion while he is gone. Oops.

So now he (honestly, this is beginning to be like one of those logic problems with taking the chickens and the wolves across the stream- you know that one?) takes the next son over and leaves him and, you guessed it, he gets "taken" by a leopard ("lybarte"). Uh, oops.

He now gets smart and takes his last son and his wife across at the same time. A rich Sultan appears and offers to buy Isumbrus' wife because she is beautiful and "white as a whale's bone". Of course he declines and they beat him up and take her anyway. She implores Isumbrus to search for her and not forget her. She manages to get some clothes and food and money to her husband and son before she is taken away which includes a red cloak. So now the aching Isumbrus travels the land with the son. One day he is sitting with his last son under a tree and a griffin steals the cloak. Isumbrus runs after the griffin to get the cloak back and while he's gone his last son is "taken" by a unicorn. (This is one of the only times I can think of when a unicorn does something sort of oddly bad.)

Isumbras goes on and ends up working for a blacksmith (where he hauls lumps of iron- and the name Isumbras is sort of a portmanteau of the German Eisen (Iron) and the Latin Umbra (shadow)- Iron Shadow.) He fights valiantly in a battle for a Christian king and humbly takes no laurels for his bravery. He travels as a pilgrim to Jerusalem and lives there for seven years. Finally an angel of the lord appears to him and tells him his years of suffering are at an end.

He is miraculously reunited with his wife, and the two of them face a battle with 30,000 men. It's two Christians against 30,000 guys- the odds are a bit daunting. And then- ta da!- the three sons ride in (they weren't eaten, just "taken" hurrah!). Now they are heartened because 5 versus 30,000 is so much better (!?!). And they win! And convert the country to Christianity! And they're rich again and better Christians for it. (!?!)

It's sort of a Job story in reverse since Job refuses to curse God and holds on through his troubles and Isumbras must learn hard lessons about devotion and faith before he will be rewarded.

Now, what has this to do with the painting, other than the title of it? Not much, I'm afraid. I guess Millais was making a statement of how the aged Isumbrus had become kind to all from his suffering. Notice that the girl has a purse and the little boy is carrying firewood, perhaps an illusion to Isumbras finally getting love and warmth and wealth after many years of suffering. I love the horse in the painting- so still and big and gentle looking.

This painting was much criticized in its day most notably by John Ruskin. Of course, one has to consider that Ruskin's wife left him for Millais. Maybe the painting was just a little too close to home for him.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Number 99: Lewis Carroll "Ways and Means"

A-sitting on a Gate

I'll tell thee everything I can:
There's little to relate.
I saw an aged aged man,
A-sitting on a gate.

'Who are you, aged man?' I said.
'And how is it you live?'
And his answer trickled through my head,
Like water through a sieve.
He said, 'I look for butterflies
That sleep among the wheat:
I make them into mutton-pies,
And sell them in the street.

I sell them unto men,' he said,
'Who sail on stormy seas;
And that's the way I get my bread —
A trifle, if you please.'
But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one's whiskers green,
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen.

So having no reply to give
To what the old man said, I cried
'Come, tell me how you live!'
And thumped him on the head.
His accents mild took up the tale:

He said 'I go my ways,
And when I find a mountain-rill,
I set it in a blaze;
And thence they make a stuff they call
Rowland's Macassar-Oil —
Yet twopence-halfpenny is all
They give me for my toil.'

But I was thinking of a way
To feed oneself on batter,
And so go on from day to day '
Getting a little fatter.
I shook him well from side to side,
Until his face was blue:
'Come, tell me how you live,' I cried,
'And what it is you do!'

He said, 'I hunt for haddocks' eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
In the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine,
But for a copper halfpenny,
And that will purchase nine.

'I sometimes dig for buttered rolls,
Or set limed twigs for crabs:
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of Hansom-cabs.
And that's the way' (he gave a wink)
'By which I get my wealth —
And very gladly will I drink
Your Honour's noble health.'

I heard him then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep the Menai bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.
I thanked him much for telling me
The way he got his wealth,
But chiefly for his wish that he
Might drink my noble health.

And now, if e'er by chance I put
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe
A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know —
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo-
That summer evening long ago,
A-sitting on a gate.

--Lewis Carroll

Hap Notes: This is from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by the mathematician and writer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). I've always thought the white knight, who is the chess piece of the same name come to life, to be a character somewhat like the author. The knight is clumsy and odd, somewhat like the "L" shaped movement of the chess piece seems to be and he is charming, odd and a bit sad in spite of his strange and thoughtful "inventions."

Both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have been made into movies or squished together into one movie and while every version has its charm no one version ever satisfies. It's sort of like Hamlet that way; one never sees a version that is perfect because one has ideas about who should play what character and how the books compare. I suppose the same could be said for all of my favorite books and plays including Anna Karenina- the imagination is the best movie maker, I think.

Oh, but how they have tried with Alice. Here are several version of the White Knight:
This is Richard Burton with a cunningly designed Tenniel-like-drawing costume. He's got the sadness right but they make him do the old soft shoe. Not a good idea. That's his daughter playing Alice, by the way.

Here's Gary Cooper giving it a try:
Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen is wonderful. Cooper does a good job. It's a bit weird and old Hollywood, though. And he doesn't say the poem.

Here's Christopher Lloyd as the White Knight :
Lloyd is wonderful but, of course, they wrote extra dialog for him (like Carroll wasn't clever enough for the film makers- sheesh!) and he doesn't say the poem.

Finally we have Ian Holm:
Kate Beckinsale is Alice. This film got it most right as far as the poem and Holm is good but wants everything.

Now. Did you know some believe that John Tenniel based his drawings of the knight upon a painting by JE Millias, "Sir Isumbrus at the Ford"? (That's the masthead painting today).

Also there is a Lewis Carroll Society (which I found out strictly by chance when interviewing Robyn Hitchcock- it's a long story.) But the society does a bit of studying on Carroll and you can see it here :

Lot of links in this chain(mail) today. Thought it might be fun for a weekend.

Here's the title of the poem as written in the book:

"The name of the song is called 'Haddocks' Eyes.'"

"Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?" Alice said,
trying to feel interested.

"No, you don't understand," the knight said, looking a little vexed.
"That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged, Aged

"Then I ought to have said 'That's what the song is called'?" Alice
corrected herself.

"No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called 'Ways
and Means': but that's only what it is called, you know!"

"Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was, by this time
completely bewildered.

"I was coming to that," the Knight said. "The song really is'A-sitting
On a Gate': and the tune's my own invention."

Oh- one more thing: Rowland's Macassar-Oil is a hair oil used by men in Victorian times. That's why the little doily which is often put on the back of an overstuffed arm chair is called an "anti-macassar" - it absorbed the oil and saved the chair.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Number 98: B.H. Fairchild "Old Men Playing Basketball"

Old Men Playing Basketball

The heavy bodies lunge, the broken language
of fake and drive, glamorous jump shot
slowed to a stutter. Their gestures, in love
again with the pure geometry of curves,

rise toward the ball, falter, and fall away.
On the boards their hands and fingertips
tremble in tense little prayers of reach
and balance. Then, the grind of bone

and socket, the caught breath, the sigh,
the grunt of the body laboring to give
birth to itself. In their toiling and grand
sweeps, I wonder, do they still make love

to their wives, kissing the undersides
of their wrists, dancing the old soft-shoe
of desire? And on the long walk home
from the VFW, do they still sing

to the drunken moon? Stands full, clock
moving, the one in army fatigues
and houseshoes says to himself, pick and roll,
and the phrase sounds musical as ever,

radio crooning songs of love after the game,
the girl leaning back in the Chevy’s front seat
as her raven hair flames in the shuddering
light of the outdoor movie, and now he drives,

gliding toward the net. A glass wand
of autumn light breaks over the backboard.
Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout
at their backs. The ball turns in the darkening air.

-- B. H. Fairchild

Hap Notes: One of the many reasons I like poetry about sports (in addition to the slight edge of shadenfreude I feel when "sports guys" are shocked and slightly pained that there is such a thing) is the melding of the everyday and the body with the intellect. No poet deftly welds these things quite like B.H. Fairchild (born 1942) who manages to take a working class background and show us the poetry which lurks underneath the most common of experiences. He deftly illustrates why "common" is a word which means both something quotidian and something shared.

Fairchild was born in Houston and grew up around the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas. His dad was a lathe machinist and he worked for his dad as he went through high school and college. He uses words the way a tool and die man uses machinery, in order to get a precise cut. He files the words like a jig grinder and this careful craftsmanship yields stunning results.

Fairchild taught literature at a number of universities, mostly in the heartland of Kansas and Texas (yes, I think Texas is part of the heartland- it's so full of music it has to be part of the heart.) He came to prominence as a writer with his book on the music of Blake's poetry and it is well worth a read or two: Such Holy Song: Music as Idea, Form, and Image in the Poetry of William Blake. (We'll get to Blake- I dropped the ball on that a week ago. I'll blame it on my jury duty but it's really because I haven't thought it out well enough to write about him yet.)

As to the poem, I love the beautiful details, the "glass wand" of light, the image of kissing the underside of the wrist, the houseshoes, the VFW's basketball hoop. I want those guys to fly up to the basket, don't you? Remember when you sang to the "drunken moon"?

Here's a good Fairchild quote taken from an essay her wrote for Poems Out Loud which you can find : "I was drawn specifically to the writing of poems because, growing up among skilled laborers and artisans, people for whom the precise making of a thing was vital, I had a natural admiration for precision."

You can find more Fairchild here:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Number 97: Flann O'Brien/Myles na gCopaleen/Brian O'Nolan "The Workman's Friend"

The Workmans Friend

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night -
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money's tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt -
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare -
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life -
A pint of plain is your only man.

--Flann O'Brien (Brian O'Nolan)

Hap Notes:
Flann O'Brien/Myles na gCopaleen/Brian O'Nolan ,( 1911 - 1966) was an Irish novelist, poet and humorist. Thought this poem, which is regularly quoted, would be a good one for St. Patrick's Day. O'Nolan wrote under a variety of pseudonyms and his novels are extraordinary. Much of his work was published in the fleeting worlds of magazines and newspapers so it takes some digging to find.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Number 96: John Updike "Ex-Basketball Player"

Ex-Basketball Player

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

--John Updike

Hap Notes: Here's a poem to celebrate basketball playoff season- sorta.

Normally, I'd say this poem speaks for itself but there's a lot of information in this poem that is about an America many readers do not know. "Bubble head" gas pumps and "Juju Beads" are not part of everyday life anymore, neither is a luncheonette. Once again we have a reference to an Esso station, which were so common on the East coast. And again, the gray greasy look of all service station's employees uniforms (remember Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station"?) America was a charming and fairly dirty place in the 30s and 40s. The 50s started that streamlined "clean" look that most gas stations have now.

The candy at the luncheonette (which is sort of like a diner only they usually were only open for lunch) is on a slanted display (probably on a shelf behind the cash register) which looks very much like bleachers in a gym, like an audience. A lemon phosphate is an old time drugstore/diner/luncheonette drink made with carbonated soda water, a flavored syrup and a pinch of phosphoric acid. They came in lots of flavors: vanilla, cherry, lime, lemon and chocolate. (If you want to make one now use a pinch of citric acid- I don't think you can find restaurant grade phosphoric acid now.) The flavored syrups were often added to Coke, too, but that's not a phosphate- that's just a cherry Coke or a chocolate Coke or a lemon Coke etc.

Juju Beads are harder candies than Jujubes (which are still around) and they were regional. Necco Wafers can still be purchased at Walgreens (they've been around since the late 1800s!). Nibs were small pieces of licorice. They came in both the red and black variety. (Although "red" licorice is NOT licorice. There's no licorice in it. Just sayin'.) I have pictured the candies and gas pumps and the luncheonette (at the masthead.)

Now, of course, Flick would get a scholarship, flunk out of college, maybe make the grade as a professional athlete or maybe not. After he got through rehab he could open up his own station if he'd saved some money. I'm not so sure high school athletes have it much better than they did in Flick's day. All of us know someone who was a great athlete in high school-- some turn out happier than others.

Here's where we talked about Updike before:

I will also reassert my original statement that John Updike was a better poet than most and I wish he'd concentrated on it more and saved us from having to read "Rabbit Redux." He had a gift for poetry.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Number 95: Robert Frost "Spring Pools"

Spring Pools
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods --
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Frost is often a bundle of seeming contradictions. What is he saying in this poem, that he hates summer? That brutal trees suck up all the spring pools beneath them and darken the woods? Or maybe, that nothing, even as beautiful as these puddles of water under the bare trees which reflect early blossoming flowers, can last?

Winter is a time of survival, especially in the Northeastern part of the U.S. where Frost was living. The melting snow, the first blossoms, the reflected sky, the buds on the trees all stand as a mark that winter is over, one has survived another cold snowy season and life is returning anew to the earth. Does Frost really want the trees to not "use their powers" to drink up the water and grow? Does he think that will happen, that the trees will "think twice"?

There's something going on in this lovely poem with its "flowery waters" and its "watery flowers" aside from the declaration that summer is coming on too fast. It has to do with the passage of time, survival, growth and loneliness. Any contradiction in the poem is really supplied by nature who gives with one gesture as it takes with another. Is Frost, perhaps, encouraging us to "think twice" about the passing of the seasons and the delicacy of the beauty of the spring before we go to another phase of our lives?

Think how this poem also replicates the human condition. Nobody packs a pretty poem with more dangerous, lonely and mysterious stuff than Frost and a lot of that is because he is describing the supreme mysteries of life and death.

It's a good poem for the coming spring as we watch the land changing in our eyeblink of existence. Everything changes- and sometimes that seems dark and forlorn and we are filled with a sadness at the passing loveliness of life.