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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Number 141: Spike Milligan "On the Ning Nang Nong"

On The Ning Nang Nong

On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can't catch 'em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!

-- Spike Milligan

Hap Notes: I just don't think there is a way to over-estimate Spike Milligan's (1918-2002) contribution to popular culture. His uniquely British/Irish take on comedy strongly influenced most members of Monty Python, not to mention the shenanigans of Firesign Theater and from these two comedy troupes spring forth a good deal of what we take for granted now in the form of comedy shows like Saturday Night Live (yes, it's true- it used to be a comedy show- you mightn't believe it but it's true,) Second City, Kids in the Hall etc. You might not like or appreciate Milligan's comedic genius today but, most British school children (and Canadian and Australian) knew today's poem by heart in the 60s. No kidding.

I daresay most of the surreal humor currently in the culture is a direct outcropping from Milligan.

Milligan's output is not strictly in sketch comedy as he wrote light verse and books of humor and plays but, unfortunately, much of Milligan's genius was in the ad lib which really can't be written. He was a bright, quick thinker who suffered from (ready?) manic-depression. (It's not surprising at all, is it?)

Since it's Saturday and we read something fun and amusing in honor of cartoons, Milligan is a natural. Once again, remember that "light" verse, and often comedy, are things that have a darkly serious side and only a really intelligent mind can make them seem amusing. We will do more Milligan this year.

You can find more Milligan poetry here:

Here is a delightful example of Milligan's sketch comedy for the radio with great illustrations. Milligan wrote the bit and plays

And here's the famous "Ying Tong Song":

Added for your enjoyment––For some reason I always mix up Spike Milligan with musician Spike Jones. One look at this famous clip of "Cocktails for Two" will, at least, show I'm in the right ballpark with the wrong name:

And here's Spike Jones and his City Slickers version of Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance", replete with his window-pane-check suit and his frenetic stage presence and energy:

Just a P.S. how can those percussionists chew gum and play so well? Jones is always chewing gum as he works. Didn't Gene Krupa chew gum, too?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Number 140: Lisel Mueller "Place and Time"

Place And Time

History is your own heartbeat. 

—Michael Harper

Last night a man on the radio,
a still young man, said the business district
of his hometown had been plowed under.
The town was in North Dakota.
Grass, where the red-and-gold
Woolworth sign used to be,
where the revolving doors
took him inside Sears;
gone the sweaty seats
of the Roxy—or was it the Princess—
of countless Friday nights
that whipped his heart to a gallop
when a girl touched him, as the gun
on the screen flashed in the moonlight.
Grass, that egalitarian green,
pulling its sheet over rubble,
over his barely cold childhood,
on which he walks as others walk
over a buried Mayan temple
or a Roman aqueduct beneath
a remote sheep pasture
in the British Isles. Yet his voice,
the modest voice on the radio,
was almost apologetic,
as if to say, what’s one small town,
even if it is one’s own,
in an age of mass destruction,
and never mind the streets and stones
of a grown man’s childhood—
as if to say, the lives we live
before the present moment
are graves we walk away from.

Except we don’t. We’re all
pillars of salt. My life began
with Beethoven and Schubert
on my mother’s grand piano,
the shiny Bechstein on which she played
the famous symphonies
in piano reductions. But they were no
reductions for me, the child
who now remembers nothing
earlier than that music,
a weather I was born into,
a jubilant light or dusky sadness
struck up by my mother’s hands.
Where does music come from
and where does it go when it’s over—
the child’s unanswered question
about more than music.

My mother is dead, and the piano
she could not take with her into exile
burned with our city in World War II.
That is the half-truth. The other half
is that it’s still her black Bechstein
each concert pianist plays for me
and that her self-taught fingers
are behind each virtuoso performance
on the stereo, giving me back
my prewar childhood city
intact and real. I don’t know
if the man from North Dakota has
some music that brings back
his town to him, but something does,
and whatever he remembers
is durable and instantly
retrievable and lit
by a sky or streetlight
which does not change. That must be why
he sounded casual about
the mindless wreckage, clumsy
as an empty threat.

-- Lisel Mueller

Hap Notes: The small town in which I grew up, in Illinois, is the sad husk of a place that I remember as so colorful and vital. I moved back there to take care of my mother when she was dieing of cancer and after she passed away, for a while, I was the companion to a woman in her 90s (Bertha, who took care of me when I was a child.) The three of us all lived in a different town even though it was in the same geographic space. All of us had memories of a place we loved. I shudder to think what younger people will remember with all the fast-food chains and discount stores (K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Loewe's, etc. in a long row with their vast parking lots) and sad empty buildings downtown. The town still lived, in gorgeous color, for each of us, and maybe it will for the discount store generation, too. Who knows?

I know that I got to live in all three towns as my mother would talk about the "Teddy Bear" ice cream truck and Bertha would talk about the community gardens during WWII and the Princess Candy Kitchen (a candy store that will always live, because I never saw it, as an ideal.) So now I'm carrying those shared memories with me. I suppose the discount store generation will get to hear them, too. And the candy store/comic book store I loved as a kid is still there. I always say where there is candy and comic books, there is hope. And poetry.

Mueller is right, we are all pillars of salt; the people who look back at the destruction of our towns like Lot's wife at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I remember when I was a kid, reading the Bible, and she was told NOT to look back, I wondered why did she? Did she want to see the place destroyed? Was she curious about what exactly God was going to do to the place? Did she have a fond memory or two of her daughters growing up there, of her cooking something for dinner and Lot coming home to have a pleasant supper with his family? Was life always horrible there or was there a shady palm or two and a friendly date and honey vendor on the town square? Was she going to miss some parts of town? We are all sometimes compelled to look back. (Uh, by the way, I'll just mention that the whole "Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah" is one of the most amazing (and freakiest) parts of the Old Testament. Read the whole story-it's got everything- sex, violence, mystery, compassion.)

In Mueller's case, it's the destruction of war. But, as she so aptly points out, destruction is somewhat of an illusion because we all hold the places we love in our memories. The destruction of a small town in North Dakota might seem unimportant, even to those that knew it, but it says a lot about humans that we wantonly destroy things, and yet, can still love, remember and keep safe the things that are important in our hearts and minds.

Of course, there's much more in the poem- always is when it's a good one.

Here is where we have talked about Mueller before:

P.S. The masthead is a painting I did of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It's a bad photo of a mediocre painting which is now out in the shed being enjoyed by the local bugs. I knew it was good for somethin'.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Number 139: John Updike "Sunflower"


Sunflower, of flowers

the most lonely,

yardstick of hours,

long-term stander

in empty spaces,

shunner of bowers,

indolent bender

seldom, in only

the sharpest of showers:

tell us, why

is it your face is

a snarl of jet swirls

and gold arrows, a burning

old lion face high

in a cornflower sky,

yet by turning

your head we find

you wear a girl's

bonnet behind?

--John Updike

Hap Notes: It's possible I may be the only person in the world kvetching about John Updike spending so much time writing novels and not enough writing poetry. He's dead for heaven's sake and I'm still miffed at him. His natural ear and pacing is perfect for poetry. He's a potentially a great poet. He knew there was no money in it and chose fiction writing. We all have to make choices, eh?

Maybe that's what I'm mad about– not that he wanted money– that there is not much money to be had in writing poetry. First, somebody has to take your verses seriously. You have to give readings. Many folks will peer at you suspiciously for choosing poetry as a calling; why not architecture or basket weaving? You know, something functional. Then of course, you'll need grants – your books won't exactly fly off the shelves. People will expect poetry to fall out of you all the time. It's a scrappy life, even when you're famous. (Feel free to use these excuses about your own poetic output- I certainly have.)

This spiny poem about the sunflower tells us something about people, too, because we mirror the natural world in which we live. Their leaves and buds do measure the hours, by the way, and follow the sun in its travels across the sky, hence their name. This following of the sun is called heliotropism and mature sunflowers don't do it- they usually face east. Here's an interesting factoid: the sunflower has a slightly more complicated and longer genome (an organism's genetic heredity info found in DNA/RNA) than human beings.

Sunflowers, by the way, are so useful. They are great producers of seeds favored by people and animals and birds. The seeds produce sunflower oil. The sunflower head, after the seeds have dropped off are used for cattle feed. Sunflowers produce a kind of latex that can be used to make a "greener" rubber. When planted, they can suck toxic ingredients out of the soil. Sunflowers were planted at a pond near Chernobyl to extract nuclear waste chemicals (which ones? cesium-137 and strontium-90 – impressive, huh?)

Oh, and they are quite beautiful in all their gold and yellow splendor. If you have a few in your yard, you know that they always look as if they are nodding at you pleasantly in a light wind.

Back to the poem– a lion face in a girl's bonnet is a pretty good description, don't you think? The more I read the poem the sadder I am about Updike's lack of poetic output. So there. Still holding a grudge against something– let's say it's money.

Here's where we've talked about Updike before:

and here:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Number 138: Linda Pastan "What We Want"

What We Want

What we want

is never simple.

We move among the things

we thought we wanted:

a face, a room, an open book

and these things bear our names–

now they want us.

But what we want appears

in dreams, wearing disguises.

We fall past,

holding out our arms

and in the morning

our arms ache.

We don’t remember the dream,

but the dream remembers us.

It is there all day

as an animal is there

under the table,

as the stars are there

even in full sun.

-- Linda Pastan

Hap Notes: Linda Pastan (born 1932) has written a good dozen books of poetry and has won tons of awards (over a half dozen, I believe is considered a ton) and was Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991-1995. She lives in Maryland, still.

When she attended Radcliffe she won the Mademoiselle magazine poetry prize. The runner-up in that contest was Sylvia Plath. Pastan got her masters at Brandeis. She concentrated on raising a family and her husband, Ira, encouraged her to go back to poetry.

Pastan's subject matter borders on the practical and the everyday – the stirring of pots, the eating of pears, the scrubbings and dustings of life. But Pastan's ear is her gift, when she turns the phrase just right, bastes it with the spaces, gives it time to settle, her poetry is a marvel of verbal beauty and economy. She writes of the natural world and grief and children and the other thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

In today's poem, she embraces a difficult subject– what the hell is that mysterious something that we all want? That thing we yearn for, that whatchamacallit that will fill us up with enough whatever the hell it is? It's almost there – we can almost get to it. And whatever we do get, starts to own us, have you ever noticed that? And whatever we do get – it's not enough, not right, not exactly right, not quite. This spiny little poem packs a powerful punch.

Here's a good Pastan quote: " No, there is no ease in writing. The job is to make it by the end feel as if it flows easily. But each poem of mine goes through something like 100 revisions. "

You can find more Pastan here:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Number 137: Carl Sandburg "An Electric Sign Goes Dark"

An Electric Sign Goes Dark

Poland, France, Judea ran in her veins,
Singing to Paris for bread, singing to Gotham in a fizz at the pop of a bottle’s cork.

“Won’t you come and play wiz me” she sang … and “I just can’t make my eyes behave.”
“Higgeldy-Piggeldy,” “Papa’s Wife,” “Follow Me” were plays.

Did she wash her feet in a tub of milk? Was a strand of pearls sneaked from her trunk? The newspapers asked.
Cigarettes, tulips, pacing horses, took her name.

Twenty years old … thirty … forty …
Forty-five and the doctors fathom nothing, the doctors quarrel, the doctors use silver tubes feeding twenty-four quarts of blood into the veins, the respects of a prize-fighter, a cab driver.
And a little mouth moans: It is easy to die when they are dying so many grand deaths in France.

A voice, a shape, gone.
A baby bundle from Warsaw … legs, torso, head … on a hotel bed at The Savoy.
The white chiselings of flesh that flung themselves in somersaults, straddles, for packed houses:
A memory, a stage and footlights out, an electric sign on Broadway dark.

She belonged to somebody, nobody.
No one man owned her, no ten nor a thousand.
She belonged to many thousand men, lovers of the white chiseling of arms and shoulders, the ivory of a laugh, the bells of song.

Railroad brakemen taking trains across Nebraska prairies, lumbermen jaunting in pine and tamarack of the Northwest, stock ranchers in the middle west, mayors of southern cities
Say to their pals and wives now: I see by the papers Anna Held is dead.

--Carl Sandburg

Hap Notes: Here's somewhat a contrast to O'Hara's "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" in that Sandburg is not playing it for laughs. Anna Held was a hugely famous star on Broadway whose life was the subject of much publicity. She was known all over America as a vital and charming actress/singer/performer even though she spent little time in the country outside of New York save for a vaudeville tour or two. Her picture made good copy.

Held was born to a Jewish couple in Poland in the mid-to-late 1800s (her birth date is somewhat up for grabs- somewhere between 1865-1873-actresses, you know.) Her mother was French, hence the first line of the poem. She was pert and lively on stage and she sang suggestive flirtatious songs- she showed her legs on stage- oh my! Anyway Florenz Ziegfeld meets her when he's in Europe, is smitten and feeds the press a bunch of sensational stories about his new theatrical "find." (Ziegfeld was a very famous Broadway show maker and producer- you knew that, right?)

Ziegfeld told the press she bathed in milk and/or champagne. She was a tiny five foot fireball of a performer who wore super-tight corsets to emphasize her 18 inch waist. She was a sensation before she'd even hit the stage. There were Anna Held corsettes, face powder, pomades (for the hair) and cigars. And of course there were postcards showing her in elaborate and feathered French gowns and pearls.

She became Ziegfeld's common-law wife. She helped him create the famous "Ziegfeld Follies." She was enormously famous, somewhat naughty (she reputedly wore a nightgown when meeting reporters seeking interviews) and thoroughly charming. Ziegfeld made her a millionaire. She once told the press she was visiting a movie set and shot a runaway tiger. There was always some titillating story around about Held. She sang "I joost cahn't make my eyes be'ave" and fellas swooned.

Now the story gets a bit sad. She had been previously married and had a child from that marriage. The child is given to the birth father so Held can continue her career. The child (who is in her early teens) comes to America to seek her mother and is used as sort of fuel for the Held image as a mysterious French coquette- the "hidden child"- ooh la la!

Then she either had a miscarriage or an abortion (it was Ziegfeld's child) in 1908. Ziegfeld's interest in her was waning. She entertained the troupes in France during WWI, going close to enemy lines and was thought to be very brave. But Ziegfeld had gone on to other women and finally settled on a red-haired beauty named Billie Burke whom he married. Billie Burke had the opposite reputation from Held- she was billed as the pure, old fashioned American girl. You probably only know Burke as "Glenda, the Good Witch" from the "Wizard of Oz" movie but she was also a great beauty and very famous in her early career as a "Ziegfeld Girl."

Held dies in her mid-forties of cancer although the newspaper jive was that her internal organs were damaged by corsets laced up too tight. She flitted through the fantasies of men the world over and even Sandburg has his moment of remembering her.

Unlike "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" though, Sandburg is pointing out the way people react to celebrity tragedy- they comment but their private thoughts and fantasies (then, anyway) drift through their memories unspoken.

Here's where we've talked about Sandburg before:

Monday, April 25, 2011

Number 136: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Wreck of the Hesperus"

The Wreck of the Hesperus

It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.

The skipper he stood beside the helm,
His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
The smoke now West, now South.

Then up spake an old Sailor,
Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
'I pray thee, put into yonder port,
For I fear a hurricane.

"Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!"
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.

Colder and louder blew the wind,
A gale from the Northeast,
The snow fell hissing in the brine,
And the billows frothed like yeast.

Down came the storm, and smote amain
The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
Then leaped her cable's length.

"Come hither! come hither! my little daughter,
And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever wind did blow."

He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat
Against the stinging blast;
He cut a rope from a broken spar,
And bound her to the mast.

'O father! I hear the church-bells ring,
Oh say, what may it be?'
"'Tis a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast"-
And he steered for the open sea.

"O father! I hear the sound of guns,
Oh say, what may it be?"
"Some ship in distress, that cannot live
In such an angry sea!"

"O father! I see a gleaming light,
Oh say, what may it be?"
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.

Lashed to the hclm, all stiff and stark,
With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
On his fixed and glassy eyes.

Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed
That saved she might be;
And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave,
On the Lake of Galilee.

And fast through the midnight dark and drear,
Tbrougb the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
T'wards the reef of Norman's Woe.

And ever the fitful gusts between
A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf
On the rocks and the bard sea-sand.

Tle breakers were right beneath her bows,
She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
Like icicles from her deck.

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.

Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
With the masts went by the board;
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank,
Ho! ho! the breakers roared!

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And be saw her hair, like the brown seaweed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman's Woe!

Hap Notes: Well, it's not a cheery poem but I was reminded of it today when I looked in the bathroom mirror and said to myself, ""You look like the wreck of the Hesperus." It dawned on me that this somewhat common phrase (in my youth) was common no more and, of course, it reminded me of the poem which the phrase references.

There is a Massachusetts reef called Norman's Woe but Longfellow's poem is a pastiche of shipwrecks of which he knew. The little girl bound to the mast (so that she would not fall off the careening ship) is possibly a reference to a woman found bound to the mast after the wreck of the Favorite (a ship)on Norman's Woe in the mid 1800s.

The poem used to be quite famous but I'm not so sure now. It's sort of a lesson in paying attention to your old-salt hand at sea when he tells you there's gonna be trouble. It was pride that wenteth before the fall here, eh?

When I was a kid, the poem seemed full of drama and fascinating details like the captain's frozen eyes and the "glassy" ship. It still holds a certain drama for me as corny as that may be. Rhyming story poems are harder to write than one would imagine. You should give it a try sometime just to try your hand at it.

Longfellow, by the by, is the first American poet to have a carved bust representing him placed in "Poet's Corner" in Westminster Abbey.

Here's where we've talked about Longfellow before:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Number 135: Gerard Manley Hopkins "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection"

That Nature is a Heraclitan Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows ' flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ' they throng; they glitter in marches.

Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ' wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ' lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ' ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ' dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ' treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, ' nature's bonfire burns on.

But quench her bonniest, dearest ' to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, ' his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig ' nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ' death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ' beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, ' joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ' Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ' world's wildfire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hap Notes: First of all, the division of the stanza is my own. I am not presuming to change Hopkins, I just wanted to make each extraordinary passage readable. It's a lot to take in and I thought it would help to space out the poem. Then, when you see it in its more compressed form, you'll not be overwhelmed with the cascades of words pouring out of these verses. I have left his accent marks but not his "dividings"- I thought if you've never read the poem that would be enough to take in.

Happy Easter, by the by. Actually, I suppose you could boil this poem down to that greeting if you so chose. There's a lot more in it, though. Let's get to it.

First off, the title. Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher (often called the "weeping" or melancholy philosopher.) In typical presocratic (before Socrates) form, he was concerned with the nature of things: where does stuff come from and how is it made? Heraclitus said that the world is always in flux, always changing. He's one of the guys who said "You can't step into the same river twice," i.e. it's always different, ever changing, or as he said "All things move and nothing remains still." Heraclitus said that the basic ruling principle of life was fire and that everything was in a sort of opposite harmony; "The death of fire is the birth of air, and the death of air is the birth of water." He thought that fire was the most fundamental element in this always changing universe, earth and life.

Now, Hopkins probably agrees with Heraclitus that all things have a unique and changing character and the title of the poem tells us exactly what he is trying to say. That is, in this constant flux and change, this life of quick sparked life and then darkness, the coming of Christ changes all this. The resurrection of Jesus is the element that changes this cycle to one of redemption from the constant grind.

Let's get a little vocabulary out of the way and then I'm bound to gush a bit about the poem (spoiler alert- ha!)

"chevy" means to run quickly (more or less)

"gay" of course, means festively happy (I'm sure you know this was written in the late 1800s- the word had nothing to do with sex- probably quite literally- Victorians, you know.)

A "shive" is a slice and the
shadow "tackle" he's probably referring to is the tackle on a boat- the weighs and pulleys. So what he's saying is that the clouds are obscuring and then moving aside to let the sun shine through. This is happening pretty rapidly and it's breathtaking to look at as well as sort of illustrating Heraclitus' principle of flux.

Then he's saying that the wind (a pretty rowdy one) is drying up the puddles from a rain that happened the day before, drying out the thick ooze of mud (marked by man with wheel marks and footprints) into a dusty, dry crust.

So, he says, the ever-changing fire burns on....

He says man is one of the sparks of this fire and nature dotes on him but yet, how quickly his fire burns out ( his "firedint"- his spark of effort) and all is cast into dull and empty darkness. (They didn't call Heraclitus the "weeping philosopher for nothin'.)

Disseveral means to separate into parts. He's saying everything goes back into the fire, everything becomes level again. There is no individual, only the parts that make up the "fire," everything becomes a blur of nothingness again.


Christ's resurrection changes all this. The residuary (who get the remainder of) worm gets leftovers and the fire is but ash now because through Jesus is redemption from this "cycle" of Heraclitus.

Then Hopkins writes one of the best descriptions of a human (and Jesus who "became" human) ever written- this "Jack" (so many "Jacks" to pick from "everyman Jack, Jack-a-napes, Jackass, Jack-a-Lent (a small handpuppet used at lent) and there's more, I'm sure), a potsherd is a piece of broken pottery.

So Hopkins is saying, Christ, becoming man (with all his characteristics), saves us from the "fire" of life through the resurrection and we become, as he did- immortal diamond. Diamond that has been formed from coal through the heat of fire and the pressures of life.

I suppose I don't have to mention how breathtaking this is to read aloud, do I? Or how moving?

The picture today at the masthead is from one of Hopkin's journals where he is drawing the clouds and a photo to illustrate somewhat the fast moving clouds he of which he speaks.

Here's another nice quote of Hopkins:"No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I have not escaped."

(Once again, 1880-"queer" means strange or odd...knew that, right?)

Here's where we've talked of Hopkins before:



Saturday, April 23, 2011

Number 134: A bit of Shakespeare for the Bard's birthday

from Othello...(Othello is speaking)

............................My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, i' faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange;
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me;
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.

from Richard III (Richard is speaking)

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Titania is speaking)

The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,.her womb then rich with my young squire,--
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.

---William Shakespeare

Hap Notes: Just a little taste of Shakespeare on his birthday (or, at least, the date we choose to celebrate it). I thought of using a sonnet or two but I really just wanted to show how Shakespeare's various characters inform his words and how his characters contribute to what Harold Bloom calls "the invention of the human." All these speeches reveal something complex about human behavior.

Othello is explaining how after he told Desdemona his life story, filled as it was with adventure, floods, being sold into slavery, hard labors, his escapes and many exploits, the story fills her with love and sympathy and admiration. (Shakespeare is telling us that a woman can love someone whose life story is well-told. Desdemona is moved by the events of his life. He does not woo her with flowery speeches, he speaks of military campaigns, cannibals and his own suffering. Why would she fall in love with him for this?)

Richard the III is explaining why his deformities prevent him from being a part of regular happy life and how, even if he wanted to join in he is spurned. Even his shadow reminds him of his physical limitations and while he cannot be a "normal" person, he is quite capable and determined to be a villain. (It's truly the first case I can think of where a brute villain's childhood has been his psychological underpinnings. His rejection by life causes his anger and his evil deeds.)

Third is the goddess Titania talking about a servant boy that her "mate" Oberon wants from her. It's her charming chat about her serving woman and herself bonded as sisters through talk and laughter together that charms me here. That and the "spiced Indian air" which sounds so romantic and beautiful on the beach. (Women bonding in friendship through joking and talk- cool stuff in the 1600s. Titania loves the child because she was good friends with the mother...another complex idea.)

Here are some funnier Shakespearean things for a Saturday:

First the enormously funny Reduced Shakespeare Company doing some of Hamlet:

Here's Second City's "Sassy Gay Friend" with Ophelia:

Last, the Slings and Arrows theme song for their Hamlet episodes:

And a cartoon:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Number 133: Earth Day Throw-down (sorta) with Keats and Hunt

On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's -- he takes the lead
In summer luxury -- he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.

--John Keats

On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

Green little vaulter in the sunny grass,
Catching your heart up at the feel of June,
Sole voice that's heard amidst the lazy noon,
When even the bees lag at the summoning brass,
And you, warm little housekeeper, who class
With those who think the candles come too soon,
Loving the fire, and with your tricksome tune
Nick the glad silent moments as they pass;
Oh sweet and tiny cousins, that belong,
One to the fields, the other to the hearth,
Both have your sunshine; both, though small, are strong
At your clear hearts; and both seem given to earth
To ring in thoughtful ears this natural song --
In doors and out, summer and winter, mirth.

--Leigh Hunt

Hap Notes: Yes, it's another little contest posed by Keats and Hunt to come up with a poem expressing the characteristics of grasshoppers and crickets. Let's pause for a moment to think how delightful it is to have poets "dueling" on a subject for good-natured sport.

Keats, by the way, favored Hunt's poem, which is a very humble thing under the circumstances since, once again, Keats sees just a little bit farther than Hunt does. Hunt's poem has its charms as well.

The poems are put up in honor of Earth Day and the reason I thought of the poems at all is because when I think of the word "earth" Keats' poem first occurs to me. (Take a word and then think of the poem it corresponds to that first pops up in the mind- it's a game I play with myself. Sometimes it's a lively game, sometimes, not so much.)

In the poems we see Keats likening the "songs" of the grasshopper and the cricket to poetry and in his last two lines we aren't entirely sure if it is the listener or the cricket who remembers the grasshopper's summer song. Keats tells us that the earth is full of poetry to those who listen. Keats' creatures sing because they must sing, as maybe a poet does, eh?

Hunt's approach is that the grasshopper is an athletic "vaulter" and the cricket a "housekeeper" but both have songs of mirth to gladden the ear. Hunt's creatures are our "tiny cousins" given to earth to sing for us. Hunt is no slouch and it's a lovely poem.

I'll not charge you to write a sonnet about crickets and grasshoppers but it might be fun to try it.

Here's where we have talked about Keats and Hunt in contest before:

As far as crickets and grasshoppers go, they are somewhat related, both from the order Orthoptera. The grasshopper is diurnal the cricket is nocturnal. The grasshopper "sings" by rubbing his legs together, the cricket does the trick with his wings. All grasshoppers can fly, only some crickets can. There are about 900 cricket species and around 8,000 grasshopper species.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Number 132: Frank O'Hara "Poem (Lana Turner has Collapsed)"

Poem (Lana Turner has Collapsed)

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

--Frank O'Hara

Hap Notes: Three things about this poem that make it extraordinary. (Well, there may be more than three but I'll mention three.)

First, the conversational tone of O'Hara talking to someone else contrasts brilliantly with how we also think he is talking to us- he wrote us the poem, didn't he? Think of this tone as someone talking on the phone and yet, looking at you, including you in their remarks to the person on the other end of the line. It's very intimate, isn't it?

Second, O'Hara wants you to laugh at this poem. Lana Turner has collapsed! Oh, no! Whatever shall we do? Get up. Lana! He's trivializing both our obsession with pop icons and our own troubles, whatever they might be. Getting through the rain and snow in New York and it's so dramatic and just calm down, for heaven's sake-- you think you got trouble? Lana Turner has collapsed! Your trouble is as serious or silly as a tabloid headline.

Third, this is one of O'Hara's famous "Lunch Poems" (poems he wrote during his hour lunchtime in New York) even though it was actually not written at lunch. O'Hara said he wrote it on the ferry on his way to a poetry reading. The reading included Robert Lowell. O'Hara got up and read the poem at the reading, telling the audience that he'd written the poem on the way there. Lowell, when his turn came up, apologized (ironically) that he had not written any poem on the way there. (As we know, Lowell labored over his words.) We can see this without commenting can't we?

O'Hara developed (along with LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka) a somewhat tongue-in-cheek "movement" called Personism. You can read his short, bright "manifesto" here:

Sometimes, when things go a bit sideways for me I remember LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED! Seems to make me feel a bit better to put it in perspective. Everybody is running through the rain and snow somewhere- everybody sees the the contrasting tabloid lives (especially on cable, now) and we all make the choice of how to respond. I favor the laugh. I think O'Hara does, too.

I suppose I should mention for younger readers that Lana Turner was a huge Hollywood star who appeared in dozens of great movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Imitation of Life, Madame X, Peyton Place and my personal favorite, The Bad and the Beautiful. She was "found" at Schwab's, a Hollywood drug store/ soda fountain when she was 16 years old. (She looked good in a sweater and it gave rise (no pun intended) to the term "sweater girl" which you can look up if you want to later.) Notorious also because her daughter stabbed and killed her gangster-type lover in the the late 50s. Here's a quick run-down on Turner for the uninitiated:

Here's an audio of O'Hara reading the poem aloud:

You can find more O'Hara here:

Here is where we have already talked about O'Hara:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Number 131: Richard Wilbur "The Writer"

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

-- Richard Wilbur

Hap Notes: By rights, Richard Wilbur (born 1921) should be the most famous living poet in America. Of course, critically he is generally received with appreciation and those who seriously write and read poetry know his work but he should be at least as familiar a name as Robert Frost, whom Wilbur knew and by whom he was somewhat mentored. I suspect his popular reputation is damaged somewhat by his adherence to a sort of "formal" verse and the fact that he crafts a poem and doesn't just blurt out whatever the hell he is feeling at the time and call it a poem (oops- my hostility for shallow surface poetry is showing...I'll try to control it. There is room for all kinds of poetry. Let the reader beware.)

Wilbur went to Amherst college, served in WWII, went to graduate school at Harvard and along his career he has met or been friends with a huge number of the poets we have discussed here: Frost, Bishop, Lowell, Moore, Stevens and more. He was a teaching assistant for I.A. Richards. He's won two Pulitzers, numerous fellowships and was Poetry Consultant (i.e. laureate) for the U.S. His translations of Moliere are unsurpassed. I do believe all that "voice of his generation" stuff tipped him right off the radar since no generation wants to think one single voice is their own. It's a shame that we don't all know "Love Calls to Us The Things of this World" (we'll get to that one this year) or the incredibly beautiful "A Baroque Wall-Fountain at the Villa Sciarra" (which is here: ) by heart, really.

In today's poem we see Wilbur saying something about the act and art of writing. That poor starling struggling to get out of the room is very much like the pains of writing. Thomas Mann once said,"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people" and it's true if one wants to write well and with meaning, it is not an easy thing. I love the poet comparing the sound of the manual typewriter to the sound of "a chain hauled over a gunwhale" on the side of a ship and the image of the writer in the "prow" of the house. The windows are "tossed with linden", the tree branches, leaves and shadows like waves. A writer is always booking his own passage on a tramp steamer bound for somewhere when they sit down to write (with their "cargo" in the hold.)

Wilbur is philosophical and patient about poetry. He is not rushed or worried about it both in its writing and in its future. His forms, while labeled "formal" and perfectionistic are looser than he is described. He has written light verse and was a lyricist for one of my favorite musicals "Candide." While his work is well-wrought, it is not stuffy. One can see an influence of both Frost and Bishop.

Here's a good Wilbur quote: "One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation."

and another:

"Anybody who uses forms as I do is going to go in or out of fashion. When I started writing, there was a very warm reception to my poems generally, and they were cheerfully accepted on the formal side. Come the 1960s, I was suddenly very much out of fashion. So I spent a decade or more simply being defiant, and going on doing things the only way I knew how.

Now I should say there’s a revival of tolerance for so-called formal poetry, and also, many people who have gotten a bit sick of the prosaic creative-writing poem of the past few years have learned to read formal poetry with relish and understanding."

You can find more Wilbur here:

P.S. The starling, as we've noted before, is an import to our shores, brought over by lovers of Shakespeare (no kidding.) Their wings are a bit short so, when flying, they look like a four-pointed star, hence their name. Their winter feathers are spotted but in the summer they are dark and even more iridescent.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Number 130: Gerald Stern: "Behaving Like a Jew"

Behaving Like A Jew

When I got there the dead opossum looked like 

an enormous baby sleeping on the road. 

It took me only a few seconds--just 

seeing him there-- with a hole in his back 

and the wind blowing through his hair

to get back again into my animal sorrow. 

I'm sick of the country, the blood-stained 

bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,

the slimy highways, the heavy birds 

refusing to move;

I'm sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,

that joy in death, that philosophical

understanding of carnage, that 

concentration on the species.

-I am going to be unappeased at the opossum's death.

I'm going to behave like a Jew

and touch his face, and stare into his eyes 

and pull him off the road. 

I'm not going to stand in a wet ditch 

with the Toyotas and the Chevys passing over me 

at 60 miles an hour

and praise the beauty and the balance

and lose myself in the immortal lifestream 

when my hands are still a little shaky

from his stiffness and his bulk, 

and my eyes are still weak and misty

from his round fingers and - 

from his round belly and his curved fingers 

and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

-- Gerald Stern

Hap Notes: In this poem about grieving for the death of a living thing you may be wondering why Stern would bring up Lindbergh, the world famous heroic aviator who did much to advance planes and air travel. Maybe you already know that the pilot was also a famous racist who, for several years, while giving lip service to the functionality of the "right kind of Jews," was a supporter of Hitler and a virulent opponent of U.S. involvement in the war.

Lindbergh really wasn't a Nazi, though, he was a white supremacist who had some unusually racist views about breeding. Lindbergh was hoping that Germany would get into a fight with Russia and take its battles to the "east" (as in "far east".) Of course, Lindbergh faced a certain amount of public disapproval for this after the U.S. got into the war but, by then, millions of Jews had already been slaughtered. I don't believe he wanted anybody killed off but he did say this:

"Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."

Let's try to remember that Lindbergh was a high-school educated pilot and people are ninnies who take socio-political advice from heroes and pop culture figures. And also, let's consider that WWII and its horrors might have been avoided if capitalism had not smelled money in the air in Germany and decided not to watch what was happening very closely- ignoring (and in some cases just not believing in) the atrocities that were being committed.

And that takes us back to Stern's poem in which he refuses to ignore a death and mourns the loss of a possum on the road. He grieves for it as one vital creature and stops for a moment to consider that even the life of one possum is worth some dignity- worth consideration.

Might be worth pointing out that all those cars on the road were an outcropping of Henry Ford, another racist and friend of Lindbergh's. And the Toyotas? Get the WWII connection here? Does the word "concentration" take on new meaning here? Just asking.

And who is to say that one life, of no matter what species, is not valuable and worth considering?

When Stern (who was raised Jewish, by the by) says he is "behaving like a Jew," he's talking about honoring the death of a living being with some sort of formal/ritual consideration. The Jews have the practice of sitting shivah when a person dies. It's a seven-day (sometimes less, although shivah is the Hebrew word for seven) period of honoring the dead and allowing the living to openly grieve. The acknowledgment of death is an important step in healing but also a time to stop and revere a life. Here's a link to explain it a bit:

Stern is revering the life of this creature and somewhat lamenting our "passing over" things in such a hurry. Stern is also talking about the weight and physicality of death. This is no theory- it's real, and heavy. He tells us that all those folks hurrying from their "country" life to the city end up killing a lot of creatures on the road. I love his expression "animal sorrow." Don't you sometimes get that feeling that one animal has for another when you see a dead creature of any kind?

Have you ever seen the little fingers and toes of a possum? They are quite startlingly beautiful and human.

Stern is doing the opposite of "playing possum" here also. He's not faking his emotions, he's living them. Stern's poetry is often full of remembrances and reverence for life. His work is vulnerable without being sloshy or sentimental and always holds a tang of social criticism.

Possums, by the by, have opposable thumbs, just like human hands.

Here's where we have talked about Stern before:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Number 129: Susan Meyers " Hat of Many Goldfinches"

Hat of Many Goldfinches

Say you could wear twenty goldfinches on your head,
ten females in their soft, modest plumage
and ten bright males.
What jubilation,
all that twittering and hopping about.
Little feet massaging your scalp, little beaks
perchicoreeing to everyone you pass.
No need for ribbons
or veils on your black and yellow nest
of excitement, your curious crown of animation.

But how to seduce the finches to stay. A sprinkle
of thistle in your hair might hold them
long enough for you to kneel
at the altar of morning.
Gives you goose bumps
to feel the beaks tapping against your skin.
Walking down noon's aisle, you nod
and they shift a little.
More shuffling,
and the hat is rearranged. Take your photo,
or look in the mirror, and the hat you see there
is another, not the same hat you wear now.

Never depend on a hat of goldfinches
to bore you.
And forget the hatbox. These hats rest in sweet gums
and maples, on a narrow shelving of limbs.

I once knew a woman who wore her robin hat
when the finches wouldn't come. But the hat was heavy
and the brown depressed her.
She stayed home that morning,
her hair crawling with worms. The day she wore her
bluebird hat the bugs bothered her breathing,
the smallest attracted to the wind of her nostrils.

Now she knows to wait
for the finches. As long as there are finches,
there's a dream of a hat of finches—
the hat
we all want to wear on the day we die.
Imagine your own last dimming, its perfect
orchestration: final breath, pause,
a sudden fluttering
and lifting of forty somber wings.

-- Susan Meyers

Hap Notes: I don't know much about Susan Meyers other than she lives in South Carolina, has won numerous poetry awards and is the author of Keep and Giveaway, a delightful collection of her wonderful poems. She has an MFA from Queens University in Charlotte.

Monday has this glum reputation and I suppose there's good reason for it what with corporate America grinding out more junk and we all get to participate in its machinations whether we want to or not. So for my Mondays (and the glumness doesn't always deposit its silt there- so many days to choose from!) I read poems that fill me with reverent glee, that lift my spirits, and "Hat of Many Goldfinches" is on the top of my list. Of course, I am a bird lover, too.

There's more to this poem that just hatty charm, though. There's something very right in the phrase "a sudden fluttering /and lifting of forty somber wings" to describe the breathtaking and sudden sad grace of death. The poem is equally whimsical and reverent- now there's a fine hat trick.

We will do more Meyers this year, I think.

Here's a great quote from Meyers: "Poetry helps me to make meaning of life. I’m drawn to its compression—the engagement with language, rhythm and sound."

You can read the whole interview here:

You can find her blog and more of her incandescent poetry here:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Number 128: Robert Frost "The Silken Tent"

The Silken Tent

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

--Robert Frost

Hap Notes: First off, the structure of this poem (like the woman he is describing) is pretty amazing. It's a Shakespearean sonnet which is composed of only one (long) sentence. If this does not take your breath away a bit, you need to try it once, for a lark, to see how masterful that is.

A brief bit of explication: Frost is comparing a woman he knows to a tent made of silk. Not with taut ropes (like the ropes of a tent are when the dew has constricted them) but with a light easily flowing rope that gives a bit after the dew has dried. She is not characterless, she has a strong "backbone" symbolized by the center pole of the tent, but she has a graceful flow and is not uptight or perceived as constricted.

Now, here's the part of the poem that is easy to overlook. The woman and the poem are one in that the form Frost is using has strict parameters yet the tone and the words are easy and conversational and flow on gracefully. One is not aware of the strict form any more than one is aware of the woman's "constrictions" because the flow is light, easy and pleasing.

It may be the loveliest poem every written to a woman- it does not ignore her character and still sees her easy flowing rhythms and charm. It is admiration without a lot of nonsense about physical beauty and youth-- this is all about the woman taken as a whole free person. This woman has a sense of self.

It is believed to be a poem about his wife, Elinor. Some say it is about Frost's love affair with the world or poetry. It all works for me.

Here's where we have talked about Frost before:


P.S. Thought since we always see pictures of Frost as a craggy old guy it might be nice to see a picture of him when he was younger.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Number 127: Rexroth exerpts from "A Bestiary"


The lion is called the king

Of beasts. Nowadays there are 

Almost as many lions

In cages as out of them. 

If offered a crown, refuse.


Someday, if you are lucky,

You’ll each have one for your own. 

Try it before you pick it. 

Some kinds are made of soybeans.

Give it lots to eat and sleep. 

Treat it nicely and it will

Always do just what you want.


The raccoon wears a black mask,

And he washes everything 

Before he eats it. If you 

Give him a cube of sugar,

He’ll wash it away and weep.

Some of life’s sweetest pleasures 

Can be enjoyed only if

You don’t mind a little dirt. 

Here a false face won’t help you.


The trout is taken when he 

Bites an artificial fly. 

Confronted with fraud, keep your

Mouth shut and don’t volunteer.


Let Y stand for you who says,

“Very clever, but surely 

These were not written for your 

Children?” Let Y stand for yes.

Hap Notes: Well, as long as we talked about Rexroth yesterday, I thought these might be fun for "Saturday Cartoon Poems." Rexroth wrote these poems (there's a whole alphabet of them), for his daughters Mary and Katherine.

The poems are full of Rexroth's wit and acerbic social criticism. They remind me a little of Ambrose Bierce's cutting satiric verse. They're also a bit like Thurber's Fables for Our Times which is a good read in its own right, although not verse.

The masthead pictures are from Grand Ole Bestiary:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Number 126: Kenneth Rexroth "GIC To HAR"


It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.
I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I remember
Coming home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.

-- Kenneth Rexroth

Hap Notes: Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) is known for his sensual erotic poems which encompass his view of the male-female relationship as divinely sacred and his political views which were called "anarchistic" but were more Buddhist than anything else. But here we have Rexroth doing what he does so well; seamlessly melding several observances into a poem packed with meaning that no-one can fail to understand. The "simple" wording of the poem relates a giant wallop of ideas and experiences in a short poem.

Rexroth was the consumate autodidact and is said to have read the Encyclopedia Brittanica from cover to cover every year, as he said "Cover to cover, like a novel." He was reading Greek and Roman classics at an age most kids are still watching Sesame Street. His mother taught him to read when he was four years old and he consumed books with a passion. He was born in South Bend, Indiana but his family frequently moved around the upper Midwest until his father (who had an alcohol problem) and mother died and he lived with an aunt in Chicago. He went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago, was expelled, had a variety of odd jobs and was arrested in 1923 for being part owner of a brothel. This was all before the age of 19.

After he got out of prison he traveled around the U.S., then lived in a monastery for a while (which he loved) and then he hitchhiked around the country, worked another bunch of odd jobs, got on a steamship, saw Mexico and Paris, and then moved to San Francisco and later Santa Barbara. I'm tired just thinking about all the energy it took to do all this. Sheesh!

Rexroth was a key figure in bringing the "Beats" to prominence, hosting readings (like the first legendary Ginsberg "Howl" reading) and Ferlinghetti claims Rexroth as an influence. Rexroth was NOT a beat poet and when asked about it would say "An entomologist is not a bug." Rexroth felt that the Beats did not fully grasp the Buddhist philosophies they claimed to adhere to (thank you, Kenneth!) but appreciated their spirit and intensity. "Howl," by the by, is heavily inspired by Rexroth's poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (which in my estimation is a better poem, just my opinion,now. Maybe we'll do that one someday- it's awesome and probably too long for our purposes. After you read it, you'll see the influence it had on Ginsberg, though.)

I can't possibly do justice to Rexroth's life here so let's go on to the poem. First of all I have an example of the rose-breasted grosbeak:
I think the example will tell you why such a site and sound would transfix anyone as Rexroth describes it in his poem. He does a wonderful job of describing the feel and the smell of coming home after a swim in a creek, doesn't he? And now the creek is full of rejectamenta and the poet is feeling a bit like that creek, eh? The world is decidedly not a very friendly place for people who think and want to write poetry and love life and people. Hmmm. Why is that? Why do we pollute our swimming creeks that want to just flow and fill with life?

The European starling, by the by, is not native to North America but was introduced to America in 1890. Rexroth is not complaining about immigrants, he's making a statement about the natural world.

Here's a good Rexroth quote (and there are many. He wrote some wonderful essays and prefaces to poetry collections. His essay on Van Gogh's letters show he really understood the artist. Best piece I've ever read on him.): "The basic line in any good verse is cadenced... building it around the natural breath structures of speech."

and: "It takes great labor to uncover the convincing simple speech of the heart. Poetic candor comes with hard labor, so even does impetuosity and impudence."

I rarely do this but this will give you a glimpse of his genius – some selected quotes :

You can find more Rexroth poetry here at the Bureau of Public Secrets:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Number 125: George Pope Morris "Woodman, Spare That Tree!"

The Oak

Woodman, spare that tree!

Touch not a single bough!

In youth it sheltered me,

And I'll protect it now.

'Twas my forefather's hand

That placed it near his cot;

There, woodman, let it stand,

Thy axe shall harm it not.

That old familiar tree,

Whose glory and renown

Are spread o'er land and sea--

And wouldst thou hew it down?

Woodman, forebear thy stroke!

Cut not its earth-bound ties;

Oh, spare that aged oak,

Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy,

I sought its grateful shade;

In all their gushing joy

Here, too, my sisters played.

My mother kissed me here;

My father pressed my hand--

Forgive this foolish tear,

But let that old oak stand.

My heart-strings round thee cling,

Close as thy bark, old friend!

Here shall the wild-bird sing,

And still thy branches bend.

Old tree! the storm still brave!

And, woodman, leave the spot;

While I've a hand to save,

thy axe shall harm it not.

Hap Notes: Just thought I'd show a bit of what American poetry was like around the same time period with Keats and Shelley and Byron et. al. This poem by George Pope Morris (1802-1864) was published in 1837 (a good 15 years after the deaths of the three English Romantic poets) and it sort of shows you why, in spite of American poetry's dear thoughts, English teachers taught all that British poetry for so many years. Morris was 35 when he wrote this poem – Keats was about 24 when he wrote yesterday's "Grecian Urn."

Now, this poem of Morris was almost immediately turned into a song, as many of his poems were. Here's the first one if you'd like to hear it:
Here's a hipper version from the inimitable Phil Harris:
In fact, no less than Edgar Allen Poe pronounced Morris one of the great song writers/poets of America. Some consider this the first "environmental protest song" but I think that's gilding the lily a bit, don't you? Morris' poem was originally titled "The Oak."

Morris was not primarily a poet, although he wrote a good lot of it. He was an editor and publisher. He founded the New York Evening Mirror with Nathan Parker Willis and the Mirror first published Poe's "The Raven". (Willis, a famed travel writer, was a friend to both Poe and Longfellow.) In fact the paper published lots of poetry and criticism and was successful at it.

In 1846 Morris and Willis left the Mirror to start the Home Journal magazine. The Home Journal reviewed a lot of poetry also, including women poets, and reviewed Thoreau's Walden and Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. The Home Journal, by the by, eventually turned into Town and Country magazine in 1846. It is the oldest continually published general interest magazine in the United States- you can find it on the news stand today. (Breaking off briefly to say that if you were reading Town and Country and eating a roll of Necco Wafers you would be doing what folks did in 1860, sorta.)

Morris says he based this poem on an actual incident that happened with a friend of his. While they were traveling around together, his friend noticed that a man was going to chop down a tree that had been outside of his old home (and was now owned by the "woodsman") and the friend begged the man not to chop down the tree. In the end, the "woodsman" was given $10 to let it stand in perpetuity (which sort of strikes me as more of a story of a man who needed the money and was selling fire wood (which is why he was cutting down the tree) and a guy who actually had $10- a lot of money in 1846. However, this does not diminish the nobility of the sentiment and a tree is a noble creature.)

This is another of the poems my mother and grandfather could recite on cue. I'll bet someone older in your family knows of it, also. Just as an aside, oaks can grow to be huge. There's one in Nottinghamshire, England that's estimated to be at least 800 years old – Robin Hood was supposedly sheltered by it.

You can find and entire book of Morris' work here:

Here's a little extra Morris poem bonus:

The Miniature

William was holding in his hand
The likeness of his wife!
Fresh, as if touched by fairy wand,
With beauty, grace, and life.
He almost thought it spoke:--he gazed
Upon the bauble still,
Absorbed, delighted, and amazed,
To view the artist's skill.

"This picture is yourself, dear Jane--
'Tis drawn to nature true:
I've kissed it o'er and o'er again,
It is much like you."
"And has it kissed you back, my dear?"
"Why--no--my love," said he.
"Then, William, it is very clear
'Tis not at all LIKE ME!"

-- George Pope Morris

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Number 124: John Keats "Ode On a Grecian Urn"

Ode On a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? 

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? 

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

Forever piping songs forever new; 

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,

Forever panting, and forever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede 

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed; 

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

--John Keats

Hap Notes: It's hard to believe that Keats wrote six of the greatest English Romantic odes in a period of 3-6 weeks, isn't it? They were all written around this time of year in 1819. Keats wrote poetry for a total of about 6 years, he died when he was 25 – it's almost too extraordinary to contemplate. How did this young man, whose work, in his time, was highly criticized as "uncouth" and "raw" ever write these wonderful poems? This is one of those six odes.

When I read this poem as a kid, I thought the ode was written ON the urn- like a label. This silly thought has a bit of merit – the urn IS telling us something about life on earth, its transitive quality. But it isn't actually written on the urn- I suppose you knew this already. (Come on, I was 12 years old – I was guessing.)

Whether Keats is talking about a specific urn (I don't know that he was) or not, the poem is describing an antique urn, the pictures on it, and then telling us something about the nature of love, life, truth and beauty. Not bad for 50 lines or so, eh?

First some vocabulary: Tempe and Arcady are places, Tempe is in Thessaly (Greece) and Arcady is a region in Greece. These places are used to indicate the pastoral ideal.
The "little town" he's talking about is not pictured on the urn but is "emptied" of its residents as the figures on the urn are running around in fields and making sacrifices.
Brede means braiding or embroidery.
Loth is reluctant.
Attic shape means Attica in Greece- he's just saying it's a Grecian urn. (I won't tell you what I thought this meant when I was a kid but you can guess, I'm sure. And it makes sense, too – maybe they kept the urn in the attic... just sayin'.)

Okay, now to the poem. Keats calls the urn an "unravished bride" because it is intact. It has existed down through the ages in its solitude. It is a "foster child" of silence and time because time has left it in its pristine condition and it is well, silent. So, like any child, it exhibits qualities of its parents, it has "adopted" them.

The poet says the music being played on the urn, because we are just seeing pictures of people playing music, is all the sweeter because the music is for the spirit, the artist created the music players for us to see that music exists, is being played, is part of the scene. The piper will always play happy songs. The young man can never touch his fair maiden, but they will always be, on the urn, in love, always beautiful, always in the blush of romance.

Okay, you're getting the drift now, I suppose. The urn is a frozen bit of blissful time that reminds us of the beauties and joys of life that drift down through the ages. We know and understand what is going on in the pictures and future generations will contemplate the same things as they stare at the urn. This beauty, this frozen time, this understanding of the joys of everyday life (oops I'm sliding into MY interpretation now) is the only truth we can all understand. It means something to us as we see happy pipers, lovers, worshipers, going about their lives on this silent piece of pottery (or marble- I'm never sure on that).) This beauty fills us, we know its truth. And this, Keats says, is all we know and all we need to know. This filling up of life – the urn reminds us of the precious gift of life (uh, that's my interpretation again.)

I have to admit that I used to hate the last two stanzas of the poem because I thought (in my youth) they sounded rather facile and shallow. But Keats isn't really talking about only physical beauty here, he's talking about the beauty of life itself, in all its happiness. (I suppose I should mention to NOT use my interpretation of this poem for a term paper. Keats is certainly saying that youth and beauty are fleeting and love eventually leads to sorrow and the body ages. But he was 25 years old and I think the beauty and truth he feels are those one feels as a youth. As one ages, one sees the great beauty in aged beat-up urns, as well. And the spirit of Keats in the poem makes me think he'd have known this as he aged. And of course, he's saying that art will live on as generations fade.)

Keats has always seemed to me to be like a sort of angel that left poetry for us and then disappeared – which is a sort of sappy way to look at it when you consider his last days which were filled with smelly suffering.

Think on this – the poor guy is sick with tuberculosis (which they haven't figured out yet), he's bled (a common medical practice. Even George Washington was pretty much bled to death to "cure" him) and his friends think a trip to the warm sunny climes of Italy will help cure him. So this pallid, sickly poet and his physician and his friend Joseph Severn get on a ship. It's a rough crossing with big storms and then days of no wind or ship movement. Imagine you are that weak and ill and stuck on a sailing ship in the middle of the ocean. Sheesh! When they finally get to Italy, no one is allowed to leave the ship because there was an outbreak of cholera in England and the Italian authorities didn't want it to spread. By they time they get off the ship they had been on it for a month.

By the time they get off the ship it's November and it's not all that warm in Italy really. Keats had asked for some tincture of opium (he was in pain) and Severn had some for him but Keats may have seen the drug as a way to commit suicide (at least it seemed that way) so Severn finally ended up giving it to the doctor to hold. Keats was never given the drug again (this is sad as his pain increases.) Instead the physician prescribed a "diet" because he though Keats' trouble was stomach related. So now we have this thin, weak, pale guy on a diet of one anchovy and one piece of bread a day!! (I'm not particularly blaming the doctor here – the medical profession is littered with as much idiocy as it is heroism.) Three months later (!!!!) Keats died. Severn held him through the "death rattling" breathing and he passed on. Keats knew he was going and was somewhat relieved. He is said to have said, "I shall die easy; don't be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come."

Now, go have a hearty breakfast or lunch or supper. Take a good long walk. Enjoy the trees and the weather, whatever it may be. Thank your stars no doctor will bleed you to death if you get sick and on top of all that Keats left you some lovely verses to read. Don't wallow in sorrow, now – be glad that Keats left some of his best thoughts with us to enjoy. Death will come to us all. And his beautiful words hold some truth. Our beauties are transitory – rejoice in living in them. That's the gift we get from Keats' life – and that, is a lot really. It's universes full of sad joys.

The pictures are Severn's sketch of Keats while he was tending him in Italy and Keats' sketch of an urn he'd seen. Isn't it marvelous that people drew things then?

Here's where we've talked about Keats before:

P.S. Over the years I have loved this poem, written parodies of it ("Ode to Grecian Formula", "Ode to Greasy Earnings" (about a waitress), despised it and, after all these years, have come back to cherishing its youth and warmth. The poem can take a lot of abuse and still stand as a truth – just like the urn in the poem. Now, off for a good walk and a hearty lunch and a more than a bit of thanks to Keats!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Number 123: Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Kubla Khan"

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Hap Notes: Where to start?
Should we talk about Coleridge (1772-1834) and his friend Wordsworth starting the English Romantic movement in poetry (of which Byron, Keats and Shelley were the second generation)?

Should we talk of his immense knowledge of literature (he single-handedly got Shakespeare's Hamlet out of the critical dustbin where it had been moldering for years as a "bad play"), philosophy (he was familiar with Kant long before anyone else knew who he was), German (he was assigned to translate Goethe's Faust- which is still a controversy since he reputedly never finished it- yet in 2007 Oxford University Press published what is supposedly his finished translation), and metaphysics?

Or do we talk about his monumental addiction to tincture of opium (some call it laudanum- and it was far cheaper than a bottle of gin in those days) and his recurring debilitating depressions?

I suppose we have to face the opium since Coleridge said that this poem came to him in an opium dream. First off, yes, it's a tad disjointed and Coleridge knew this and had a reason for it which is pretty famous. He said, while in the heat of writing it all down in an opiate furor, someone came to the door, a "person from Porlock," and the visitor ( a bill collector or something) took up an hour of his time and when he got back to the manuscript, the fire of creativity had burned out and he could only vaguely recall the rest of the dreamy scene. Forever after a "person from porlock" is sort of the British equivalent of "the dog ate my homework." (Breaking off briefly to say that Stevie Smith wrote a wonderful poem about this- we'll get to it later, I hope.) Coleridge claims the poem was going to be 300 lines or so but when he got back to the manuscript he had to dimly recall the vivid vision.

Some vocabulary: Athwart means "from one side to the other." "Cedarn" just means composed of cedars- the tree. "Chaffy grain" is the seed husks of wheat or some other grain- he's just saying that the fountain erupts like watching a thresher with the stuff spitting out everywhere.

Now, what's this poem about save for the obvious description of a place built by the Mongolian leader (or Khan) Kublai, the grandson, by the by, of Genghis Khan. Coleridge had been reading about the great Mongol conqueror who invaded pretty much everywhere: China, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Mesopotamia, Tibet, Russia. It was Kublai Khan that Marco Polo visited and stayed with for more than 15 years. Shangdu (Xanadu) was Kublai's "summer capital." The Mongols had two goals- conquest and trade- and they were very very good at it.

However, there's more to the poem than just ice domes and incense trees. Coleridge is saying something about the writing of poetry and contrasting the man-made with the imaginative. The last stanzas have the poet creating lasting domes in the air through inspiration and imagination.

The more one reads about the poem, the more one wants to throttle that guy from Porlock – there are explications aplenty about this seminal work of Coleridge. I think I'm going to let you enjoy the dreamy drama of the poem and not weigh it down with a lot of literary theory. When I was a kid, I loved the poem because of its dreamy, exotic imagery and while I know Coleridge saw more in the vision than just that, the poem is easily enjoyable as a good read. Read it aloud with lots of drama- it's fun.

Here's a good Coleridge quote: That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." (That's right, Coleridge coined the term.)

And another:
"The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions - the little, soon forgotten charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look or heartfelt compliment."

and again: "
Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are the more necessary it is to be plain."

One more: "
I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; - poetry = the best words in the best order."

You can find more Coleridge here:

P.S. I have NO idea what kind of drugs were used in the making of the movie Xanadu with Olivia Newton John and Andy Gibb.

(For those of you who are Carrol fans, I've often thought that the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland was Coleridge and that maybe the Mad Hatter was a Coleridge benefactor, Richard "Conversation" Sharp... just a random thought)