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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Number 172: Naomi Shihab Nye "Kindness"


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

-- Naomi Shihab Nye

Hap Notes: I just have a few comments to add to this wonderful poem. If we were not born to be happy then why do babies laugh? What's the point? When you are a child looking up at the sky and see a bird flying in the sky, the first time that you think; "I wonder what that feels like – to fly?"; you are actually planting the first seeds of empathy. How does it feel to be another?

Nye tells us that loss shows us something real and profound about existence; it ain't always easy. And sometimes it seems completely hopeless. How do we recover from losses? Some of the healing is the distance of time. Some of it may come from the kindness of others. When we understand that the tragedy of another is close to our own lives a variety of emotions can grow but one of them can be a vexing guilty willful indifference.

You know that feeling you get, when something bad happens to somebody else, that makes you say things like, "Well, they shouldn't have built a house by the river – it was sure to get flooded!" or "If you do something stupid like that you are bound to get hurt." As you say it, there's a little wing that beats in your chest or a little shadow on your shoulder that makes you feel a little crappy about saying such a thing. You may brush it off and say it louder, with more conviction to scare off that feeling but it's too late. Kindness is always tapping you on the shoulder. You are free to ignore it, but it will come back over and over again until you let it in. Often it takes some tragedy or trouble in your own life to see that.

I love the idea in the poem that kindness is what you have been looking for and has been looking for you. Kindness is a friend or companion that will follow you around the rest of your life.

In the end, the only person you really have to live with your whole life is you. You can choose to see misery and be resentful about the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" or you can feel a kindness towards others and wish for their well being. You'll feel better, richer and more connected to the earth if you feel kindly, even in the face of your own sadness.

The Buddhists say that one should treat each creature as if he/she was your own child. I wonder what the world would be like if kindness was the goal of each person? Do you imagine wars or poverty or crime or heartache would stem from this? What is the value of human life? What are we trying to achieve and why?

What is the cloth the poet is speaking about? What is the fabric of life, the tapestry of civilization, the flying carpet of existence, made from?

Here's where we have talked about Nye before:

The masthead is an inset of a photograph of Lubomir Bukov "Shadows of the Past." Isn't it delightful?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Number 171: Robert Lowell "For the Union Dead"

For the Union Dead
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam." 

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the crowded, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic

The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

-- Robert Lowell

Hap Notes: Since memorial day was originally observed to commemorate the more than 600,000 Americans lost in the Civil War, this would seem like an appropriate poem for the day.

Let me set the scene a bit for you since this was written in the 60s, and while the poem has a lot of extraordinary things to tell us about our own era, it was written when specific things were happening then.

Lowell has a few historical inaccuracies in the poem but none of them are glaring omissions and serve the ends of the poem, as you will see. Lowell is looking at the Capitol Area of Boston where the old aquarium used to be (there in the poem but closed down and defunct) and a statue of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment has been displaced and the Capitol building has been braced for the building of a parking garage under the Capitol building. All the literal earth quaking in the poem is from the construction "dinosaurs" unearthing and the various other sounds of massive construction. The poet sees an ad for Mosler safes (a safe that really did make it through the bombing in Hiroshima) as the only reminder of WWII.

Now the statue of Colonel Shaw is by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and depicts him riding with his all black troops. The regiment got badly beaten at Fort Wagner in South Carolina and the confederates bury the Colonel in a ditch with his black troops as an insult. Shaw had previously stated that he wished to be buried with his brave men if the time ever came and his relatives were glad that he got to be buried with them (he had the right, as an officer, to have his body taken home for a burial.) The film "Glory" is based on this, by the way. (Helen Vendler also points out that Shaw's sister was married to one of Lowell's relatives. The letters he quotes were in the family's archives.) William James gave a speech at the statue's dedication on this day (Memorial Day, but it was May 31, like usual for the day,) in 1897. The Latin epigraph of the poem is a slightly altered version of the one on the statue. Lowell has it read "They relinquished everything to serve the republic", the original says "he" not "they."

It's also worth pointing out that the poem is written at a turbulent time for civil rights. Although, perhaps with the onslaught of the not-so-subtle racism of the Obama "birthers" it's obvious that we are still far from the goal.

Okay, so let's cut to the chase, what is Lowell saying here? Well, there's a lot and some I think you will uncover by yourself but he's more than hinting that contemporary values are base, commercial and care little for the past. He's dreamily angry, the way Lowell often is, thinking about the statue, the value of moral honor and courage and the brusque way we are sinking into the ooze of ignorant idiot commercialized capitalism- using the hymn "Rock of Ages" as an ad catch phrase. The monument sticks like a fishbone in the throat of this modern city. The Colonel in the statue is "lean as a compass needle", a moral compass I think Lowell believes we have misplaced.

There's very little air in this poem. It's claustrophobic with cars, bubbles that need to pop and breathe, the tension of black school children during de-segregation. Even the safe is closed and safe and airless.

The fish are out of the tank now and the cars have taken their place. That dark downward vegetating kingdom is us and we slide through with "savage servility." Even the cars live in the "underworld."

The poetic license he takes is with the safe company who had no specific ad like that (although advertising is full of examples of this kind of ignorance.) The parking garage building at the capitol also included a bit of restoration. Shaw's father never made that "niggers" statement although it was much used during the Civil War on both sides for good and ill.

There is much, much more in this poem, but I think this will get your started.

I would give ten full years of my life to write a poem this good.

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

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Number 170: John Updike "Perfection Wasted"

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death

is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

which took a whole life to develop and market —

the quips, the witticisms, the slant

adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest

the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched

in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,

their tears confused with their diamond earrings,

their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,

their response and your performance twinned.

The jokes over the phone. The memories packed

in the rapid-access file. The whole act.

Who will do it again? That's it: no one;

imitators and descendants aren't the same.

-- John Updike

Hap Notes: Frost, Hopkins and Keats have gotten a lot of space since we started talking about poetry in December but Updike is an up-and-comer. This is our fourth Updike authored poem and there's a fifth if we count his Borges translation. And I still have several more I'd like to use at some point. It dawns on me that my claim to any slight literary fame may be that I have been adamant that Updike is a poet who disguised himself as a novelist so that he could make a living. In a hundred years or so, Updike may be remembered more for his poetry than his novels (which will be considered like slices of a bygone era.)

Updike is saying something very interesting about the way people act with their familiar loved ones; friends, family, well-wishers, fans etc. as well as our interactions with the world. He says we "adjust the slant" of what we say to talk, amuse and sometimes amaze. It's well put. We all become "marketers" of our own "act" and bend and shape our words and jokes and snappy patter to please those around us. It would seem ingenuous, and typical of a guy who said that there was no money in poetry so he turned to fiction except one thing stands out in all this. It's his phrase "your own brand of magic."

Because in amidst all this joking and anecdotal sharing and revising, trying to please people, enamored of their applause and grateful acceptance, there is something beyond just a tap dance and pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There is real magic inside of him and you and even me.

That's why nobody can imitate or replicate. If it was just an "act" then anybody could do it just like you do. If someone who looked like you did each and every thing you did in an exact replication of your moves, your words, your facial expressions and gestures, it would still be lacking some quality of perfect mimicry. It's your magical something. And the magic has a bit to do with both the speaker and the responders- that pooled warm breath, the sparkling responses, their heartbeats; the way it all mixes together just so. It cannot be replicated.

Life isn't an experiment- each time we do something there are variables that change the results. One can't explain how each and every person will react every time. Updike is right- it's more of an "act." That's what Shakespeare thought, too (that whole life is but a stage and we poor players and so on.) We play out our lives in front of our "audience" in the world. What is deep inside you, that ineffable spark or flame or, okay, magic– remains with you. You'll never get it all out no matter what you do. We are never ending waterfalls of strange magics.

I don't know what it is exactly, this magical (dare we say "divine') spark, and Updike doesn't either but it's poets who see it there most vividly and keep trying to explain it. They're always giving it a good go; for centuries they've been having one hell of a time describing it.

This is a very thoughtful poem even on the surface. Updike chose the word "magic" with all the illusions and illusive qualities that surround it but the word resonates to each of us differently. So you can see yourself as a phony-baloney vaudeville magician or tap dancer or comedian and, yeah, there's only one of you, big deal, and there's an end to it. But WHY is there only one of you in a world filled with billions of other creatures with your same cell structure in the same species? How can that be?

Some poets call it magic.

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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Number 169: Raymond Carver "Happiness"


So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

--Raymond Carver

Hap Notes: Raymond Carver (1938-1988) is arguably one of the most influential short-story writers and poets of the last few decades. There are few people writing, who, once they have read his work, are not strongly influenced by his brevity and power with words.

The beginning of his life reads like a Richard Brautigan story, born in a mill town in Oregon to a saw mill worker and a waitress, he grows up, works in a sawmill, marries and has two kids by the time he's 20. The couple move to California to be with his mother-in-law.

While he's there he takes a creative writing class taught by John Gardner, who was to be his mentor for a time. He goes to Chico State and Humboldt State and starts writing. His wife, Ruth, gets her degree from San Jose State and becomes an English teacher. He also attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Like Vonnegut working as a night watchman at a General Electric plant and writing, Carver worked as a night janitor, in the middle of the 60's, at a hospital in Sacramento, whisked through his job and then spent the night writing. His first book of poems was written then,

He worked a plethora of jobs until his career got rolling and by that time Carver was drinking pretty heavily. He taught at some universities and even edited for a science textbook company. By the time he was teaching at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1973, he and fellow teacher John Cheever, mostly sat around drinking. He was hospitalized several times before he figured out that drinking was killing him. He went to AA.

It's always been a bone of literary contention whether his work with Esquire writer/editor Gordon Lish really created his style. Of course, Lish says he's responsible for showing Carver the light. Carver felt Lish was a bit too terse. However, I love the work of Gordon Lish and I hear he is a stern and eccentric teacher that nobody goes away from without a mark. Carver was immensely talented, Lish knew how to refine it, Carver, like anyone, at some point had to break it off and create his own style. Lish is awesome but he can throw the baby out with the bathwater sometimes.

At any rate, Carver's new lease on life gave him a 10 year period of being a professor and director of the creative writing program at Syracuse University before he died of lung cancer at 50 years old.

His short stories have often been made into movies, notably Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Carver's spare style and sense of the poetry of the every day has been, as I said, enormously influential with contemporary fiction writers and poets.

But it's Carver's eye and ear that sets him apart, I think. Note the perfect facts in today's poem to tell us a story that sends our imagination reeling about the poet at the window and the story of the two boys. There's an immediate and intense connection with these people. Carver knew exactly which things would move us. He doesn't tell us the color of their sweaters and caps, he doesn't wax too poetic about the sunrise. He knows the moment is transcendent and he lets us have a moment like that, too. There's a deep generosity in this poem, the poet looking at the boys, the poet sharing it with us.

Here's a good Carver quote: "I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing- a sunset or an old shoe- in absolute and simple amazement."

and another:

"It's possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power."

You can find more Carver here:

P.S. I know usually on Saturdays we have a sillier poem but honestly, this is the one that came into my head that made me feel the happiest and happiness is what I shoot for on Saturdays. Hope it worked.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Number 168: Robert Graves "Wild Strawberries"

Wild Strawberries

Strawberries that in gardens grow
Are plump and juicy fine,
But sweeter far as wise men know
Spring from the woodland vine.

No need for bowl or silver spoon,
Sugar or spice or cream,
Has the wild berry plucked in June
Beside the trickling stream.

One such to melt at the tongue's root,
Confounding taste with scent,
Beats a full peck of garden fruit:
Which points my argument.

May sudden justice overtake
And snap the froward pen,
That old and palsied poets shake
Against the minds of men.

Blasphemers trusting to hold caught
In far-flung webs of ink,
The utmost ends of human thought
Till nothing's left to think.

But may the gift of heavenly peace
And glory for all time
Keep the boy Tom who tending geese
First made the nursery rhyme.

-- Robert Graves

Hap Notes: Well, Robert Graves (1895-1985) is far too big and complex a subject for a late spring morning but I'll sketch in a bit of background. This poem, by the way, is not actually only about strawberries – it's about literary theory and one which Graves felt intently. It all has to do with the White Goddess. We'll get to that in a minute.

Graves was born and raised in Wimbledon in south London. His father was a school inspector and Gaelic scholar and his mother was from a German family hence his full name Robert von Ranke Graves, which caused him considerable troubles in school stemming from events leading up to WWI with Germany. He began writing poetry as a youth. He took a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the outbreak of the war in 1914 even though he had a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. He would attend there after the war. (If you get a minute look up the Royal Welch Fusiliers, it's fascinating stuff. And, yes, it's Welch.)

Graves was severely wounded, recovered and went back to the war. He met and knew Siegfried Sassoon as well as Wilfred Owen (another fine WWI poet). Graves' experiences in the war left him shell shocked and miserable for years. He wouldn't even pick up a telephone for more than 10 years after the war because he had been electrocuted by a trench telephone. He said in his autobiography, Goodbye To All That, "Since 1916, the fear of gas obsessed me: any unusual smell, even a sudden strong smell of flowers in a garden, was enough to send me trembling. And I couldn't face the sound of heavy shelling now; the noise of a car back-firing would send me flat on my face, or running for cover."

A very important side note about those who fought in WWI, is the horror that these men felt in the first war that was conducted with rapid killing machinery and chemicals. Those front loading muskets used during the Revolutionary War were like children's toys compared with the destruction of the machine gun. Other new weapons to destroy men included the tank, grenades, flame throwers and poison gas. It was a whole new way to fight war, most grim and gruesome and shocking. Watching a man die from poison gas in the field, a man you knew and chatted with, while you had a gas mask on as protection, was one of the nightmares from which most of the young men in WWI never recovered.

Graves knew everybody from T.E. Lawrence (of whom he wrote a biography) to Robert Bridges and John Masefield. He studied classics and literature after the war and continued to write poetry. His output is so prolific in poetry, novels, biographies and translations that we will cut to the chase. (Breaking off briefly to say his translation of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars is revelatory and his books on Greek and Roman myths are somewhat embroidered but still standard texts. You might be familiar with his books I, Claudius and Claudius the God from the BBC mini-series based on them. Or you may have read them, I hope.)

In 1948 Graves wrote The White Goddess, a book which has never been out-of-print, in which he detailed his inspiration for writing and talks about the nature of myths and myth making. The White Goddess of birth, love and death was Graves word for this creative power which should be worshiped. Graves speaks of worshiping a single goddess under many names and this matriarchal religious stuff gave him no end of both fame and grief. He cites ancient texts as precedents for this and continued laboring on the goddess religion throughout his life. Grave felt that goddess worship was the mother (no pun intended) of all religions and had become obscured by male dominated theories and changes. (We could talk all day about this so let's get to the poem.) I highly recommend that you read the book.

First off, that's not a misprint, "froward" means "difficult to deal with" or "controversial." In the poem Graves is telling us that "wild" strawberries grown the natural way are best and tastiest. He then extrapolates that poets, weaving their over-wrought, over-thought inky webs, should be silenced and the natural, inspired way a young boy tending the geese makes up a rhyme is the way it should be – natural, goddess given, charged with a heavenly spontaneity. I suppose had we but world enough and time we could also talk about the finer points of strawberries. We'll save that, maybe, for another poem.

There's so much more to talk about with Graves; his bi-sexuality, his affair (he left his wife) with poet Laura Riding, his Celtic tree astrology and alphabet, his friendship with Spike Milligan (Remember the "Ning Nang Nong"? Here: and so much more.

He died at the age of 90 and was buried the in a small churchyard on a hill at Deia on the site of a shrine which had once been sacred to the White Goddess of Pelion.

Here's a good Graves quote: "Since the age of 15 poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric."

You can find enough Graves to keep you busy for a lifetime here:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Number 167: Louise Erdrich "Dear John Wayne"

Dear John Wayne

August and the drive-in picture is packed.
We lounge on the hood of the Pontiac
surrounded by the slow-burning spirals they sell
at the window, to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes.
Nothing works. They break through the smoke screen for blood.

Always the lookout spots the Indian first,
spread north to south, barring progress.
The Sioux or some other Plains bunch
in spectacular columns, ICBM missiles,
feathers bristling in the meaningful sunset.

The drum breaks. There will be no parlance.
Only the arrows whining, a death-cloud of nerves
swarming down on the settlers
who die beautifully, tumbling like dust weeds
into the history that brought us all here
together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear.

The sky fills, acres of blue squint and eye
that the crowd cheers. His face moves over us,
a thick cloud of vengeance, pitted
like the land that was once flesh. Each rut,
each scar makes a promise: It is
not over, this fight, not as long as you resist.

Everything we see belongs to us.

A few laughing Indians fall over the hood
slipping in the hot spilled butter.
The eye sees a lot, John, but the heart is so blind.
Death makes us owners of nothing.

He smiles, a horizon of teeth
the credits reel over, and then the white fields

again blowing in the true-to-life dark.
The dark films over everything.
We get into the car
scratching our mosquito bites, speechless and small
as people are when the movie is done.
We are back in our skins.

How can we help but keep hearing his voice,
the flip side of the sound track, still playing:
Come on, boys, we got them where we want them, drunk, running.
They’ll give us what we want, what we need.
Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.
Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins.

-- Louise Erdrich

Hap Notes: Louise Erdrich (born 1954) was born in Little Falls, Minnesota and is a member of the Anshinaabe Nation (Ojibwa and Chippewa). It's John Wayne's birthday today and this poem came into my head as I read that fact online this morning.

Erdrich's parents were teachers at the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school and her grandfather was a tribal chair for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Her father was of German-American descent, her mom was French and Anshinaabe. She grew up in North Dakota. She went to Dartmouth and got her M.A. at Johns Hopkins in creative writing. She's won the Pushcart Prize for her poetry, the O. Henry Award for her short stories and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Erdrich is primarily considered a novelist and her books are wonderfully written stories that have gotten much acclaim (Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Antelope Wife, Shadow Tag, etc.) I consider her a poet who occasionally writes narratives (it's my blog, so there.)

In today's poem we see a group of Native Americans watching a John Wayne movie at a drive-in theater, where his face can fill the sky under the stars (Ursa Major- the great bear, of which the Big Dipper is a part.) She has loaded this poem with ironies and sadness from the Pontiac (named for an Ottowa chief, who urged his tribe to shun "white" goods and customs because they diluted the Indian culture. That's a painting of him in the masthead) the group is sitting upon, to the final words describing Wayne's death from cancer. The poem is filled with acquisition from the mosquitoes out for blood to the settlers taking land from the Native Americans by force to the cancerous cells overtaking the body.

I have to break off not so briefly to say that while the death of anyone diminishes us and I'd not wish cancer on anybody, I have never cared much for John Wayne. Okay, change that "never cared for much" to "always detested." I loathed his politics and despise most all of his movies. He came to epitomize, for me, everything that is wrong with this country- our misaligned affections, our cowardly attacks with machinery and guns, our lionization of guys who acted for a living (not worked in a factory, or on a road, or picking up trash- he sat in a trailer putting on make-up and drinking iced tea- what a wuss!) He never fought in any real war. Never. He just put on costumes and pretended. I'm sure he had his finer points but they get obliterated by this wave of jingoist junk.

Martial victory is a flaccid thing, really. No bells peal at the time, no soundtrack swells with the attacks, no happiness blooms in the hearts of those that have committed murder. Conflicts are sweaty, stinky, noisy, vile, brutal and idiotic and those weary folks that were in them, if they are decent human beings, are wracked with guilt, shame, anger, confusion and despair. I went to college with a lot of Vietnam vets and I saw what war does to a regular human – a good half of those guys had mental disorders from their war experiences. (Did you know that almost 50 percent of the homeless problem in the 80s and 90s was Vietnam vets? We treat veterans shamefully, which seems to illustrate that we don't want to think about what we made them do for our comfort. It's despicable. Where was I? Oh, yeah, John Wayne/Erdrich/poem- sorry. Kinda dropped the tranny there.)

Erdrich's poem points out that there are creatures who must be crudely and constantly acquiring and nothing seems to stop them; not the spiral bug coils lit to keep away mosquitoes nor the cancerous cells that just keep on splitting. These creatures are not human. Note the use of the word skin throughout the verses also. The spilled butter always seems like blood to me, in the poem- maybe that's just me though. It's interesting that she says the dark "films" over everything too, yes?

Here's a good Erdrich quote:
"My father used to give me a nickel for each story I wrote, and my mother wove strips of construction paper together and stapled them into book covers. So at an early age I felt myself to be a published author earning substantial royalties."

You can find more Erdrich here:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Number 166: Donald Justice "Poem"


This poem is not addressed to you.
You may come into it briefly,
But no one will find you here, no one.
You will have changed before the poem will.

Even while you sit there, unmovable,
You have begun to vanish. And it does not matter.
The poem will go on without you.
It has the spurious glamor of certain voids.

It is not sad, really, only empty.
Once perhaps it was sad, no one knows why.
It prefers to remember nothing.
Nostalgias were peeled from it long ago.

Your type of beauty has no place here.
Night is the sky over this poem.
It is too black for stars.
And do not look for any illumination.

You neither can nor should understand what it means.
Listen, it comes with out guitar,
Neither in rags nor any purple fashion.
And there is nothing in it to comfort you.

Close your eyes, yawn. It will be over soon.
You will forget the poem, but not before
It has forgotten you. And it does not matter.
It has been most beautiful in its erasures.

O bleached mirrors! Oceans of the drowned!
Nor is one silence equal to another.
And it does not matter what you think.
This poem is not addressed to you.

--Donald Justice

Hap Notes: Here's a fairly shocking thing to tell you: Donald Justice (1925-2004) wrote no bad poems. He wrote nothing that makes you nod off, no twenty page odes to the plinths of Nineveh, no over-heated dishevelments about some girl he met on the quad. Justice knew his medium and he wrote without fanfare or cape-swirling or flash powder. It's hard to think of anyone who actually understood poetry in all its forms better than Justice. (Now, take that in because it is epic.) If you really want to understand how to write poetry, read Justice. His oevre is relatively small and easily read, but if you understand what he's doing, it says it all.

Justice is probably the most lauded of all the teachers at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and none of his students came away from him without valuable instruction and surprise at how little he is known. Justice had been a student there himself and studied under John Berryman and Robert Lowell, both of whom made an impression on him. Justice taught a who's who of contemporary poets including yesterday's poet, Mark Jarman.

Justice was born and raised in Miami and there's a peculiar tone to the southern voice in Florida; it's not like the rest of the South but retains remnants of it. His early work has traces of this. He was a composition student at the University of Miami under composer Carl Ruggles who urged him to study more with Hindemith at Yale. Justice, talented as he was with music, chose writing and poetry. It may make a certain amount of sense, what with the popular view that poetry is music but Justice disagrees with that thought and as he had a good deal of talent for musical composition, I bow to the master on this one.

In fact, he said in an interview, "If my poems are musical, as indeed some have claimed, they have, I hope, the music of poetry and not the music of music. But then how could they have the music of music, which is completely and utterly different from the music of poetry? I think the two kinds of music have nothing--or next to nothing--in common. In poetry the word music is pretty much a figure, not a fact--a metaphor at best. The most that I would be willing to grant is that both music and poetry come out of similar sensibilities."

Today's poem is a classic example of how to make your work mean more with less. Is the poem poking fun at the idea that poetry lives forever? Is it having a good time at the expense of the reader like so much "confessional" poetry? Is it making fun of romantic notions about poetry clad in purple and full of stars? Is it telling you something about how you read and what you expect from the writer and what the writer writes and what he expects from you as a reader? The poem is the object, there is a writer, the poem assumes there is a reader- if there was not, who would be in oblivion the reader or the poem? Does this poem beg for your attention? How? And that's just the surface of the poem. You can think on this for days and come up with different questions and answers. It's a phenomenal poem.

For me, this poem is always a heart-stopper. You know how you read a poem and everything goes silent, your heart stops and you feel that thrill like just the millisecond before you go down the roller coaster? You ever get that?

Here's a great Justice quote: "If you are going to write formally, learn the forms--the meters especially--from study of the great poets and poems of the past. It also helps a lot to know some poets from other languages (but perhaps not too many)--a few stars to be guided by. If you are going to write free verse, study of the great past masters of free verse is likewise absolutely necessary, I should think: Stevens & Williams, Pound & Eliot--and a scattering of other poems if not poets. Then of course everyone will--whether advised to or not--develop two or three favorites, whether they're really all that marvelous or not, and these favorites are to be prized--they are an important part of the mix."

You can find more Justice here:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Number 165: Mark Jarman "Interesting Times"

Interesting Times

Everything’s happening on the cusp of tragedy, the tip of comedy, the pivot of event.
You want a placid life, find another planet. This one is occupied with the story’s arc:
About to happen, on the verge, horizontal. You want another planet, try the moon.
Try any of the eight, try Planet X. It’s out there somewhere, black with serenity.
How interesting will our times become? How much more interesting can they become?

A crow with something dangling from its beak flaps onto a telephone pole top, daintily,
And croaks its victory to other crows and tries to keep its morsel to itself.
A limp shape, leggy, stunned, drops from the black beak’s scissors like a rag.
We drive past, commenting, and looking upward. A sunny morning, too cold to be nesting,
Unless that is a nest the crow has seized, against the coming spring.

We’ve been at this historical site before, but not in any history we remember.
The present has been cloaked in cloud before, and not on any holy mountaintop.
To know the stars will one day fly apart so far they can’t be seen
Is almost a relief. For the future flies in one direction—toward us.
And the only way to sidestep it—the only way—is headed this way, too.

So, look. That woman’s got a child by the hand. She’s dragging him across the street.
He’s crying and she’s shouting, but we see only dumbshow. Their breath is smoke.
Will she give in and comfort him? Will he concede at last? We do not know.
Their words are smoke. In a minute they’ll be somewhere else entirely.
Everyone in a minute will be somewhere else entirely. As the crow flies.

-- Mark Jarman

Hap Notes: Mark Jarman (born 1952) is often lumped in with the "New Formalist" movement although he writes in a variety of styles; rhyming, free verse, narrative etc. His father was a minister and moved around a bit so he's got an unusual geographic profile. He was born in Kentucky, moved to his parent's birth state California, then spent three years in Scotland, then back to California. He went to U.C. Santa Cruz in the 70s and got his M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He studied under Stanley Plumly, Charles Wright, Donald Justice and Sandra McPherson. He has taught at Indiana State, U.C. Irvine, Murray State and is now Director of Creative Writing and a professor of English at Vanderbilt.

Jarman and Robert McDowell, a pal from his Santa Cruz days, lamented the lack of narrative poetry and started a literary magazine in the 80s, "The Reaper," devoted to more traditional forms of verse and, more specifically, narrative verse. Verses that tell a story were, and possibly are, in short supply. Jarman and McDowell regretted the constant "confessional" style of poetry that depicted much of the latter half of the 20th century. (It does sort of drag on, doesn't it?) The magazine lasted about 10 years but has morphed into Storyline Press. He has won grants and fellowships and prizes over the years (don't mean to be glib but prizes and fellowships are a poet's bread and butter so, if we know their work, they are almost sure to have gotten a few. Is this fair? Is anything?)

In today's poem I'm somewhat reminded of Kenneth Koch's "To The Roman Forum," where he says, " I am here, they are here, this has happened./It is happening now, it happened then." Life is rushy- I don't know if that's a word but it should be, it even sounds right –rushy. And cascades of thought are constantly around you, in you, pulsing on the planet. Oblivion, while it sounds restful for a while, is not a vacation spot. So stories are constantly unfolding every millisecond of the day. The words of the child and the mother are smoke because it's cold outside so you can see their breath and the poet is in a car so he doesn't hear the dialog- but there might be more to it than that, eh?

Jarman has played a pivotal role in the last 30 years, as has Dana Gioia, in bringing poetry back to a more thoughtful writing style as well as one in which all forms are accepted as having merit.

Jarman's writing is as sweet and sour as an apple from Robert Frost's tree. It's also got some honeyed notes from his faith. His prose poems on the letters of Paul, Epistles, even convert me to saying that it's a form of poetry. His "Unholy Sonnets" in Questions for Ecclesiastes, are tart, dreamy, elegant and cranky (an intriguing mix, eh?). His book of criticism The Secret of Poetry is revelatory. (Obvious that I am I fan, eh?)

We will do more Jarman this year.

Here's a good Jarman quote: "In "Education by Poetry," Robert Frost says that poetry is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter, to make what he calls "the final unity." But he adds that it is an attempt that fails, because ultimately all metaphors break down. I am moved by poems that recognize the limitation of their expression, even as they try to transcend that limitation."

and another: "Both these modes, if they may be called that—writing in traditional English verse, writing a poem that tells a story clearly—which had really gone out of favor by the late 70s, have been assimilated successfully, so that a young American poet, starting out, if he or she is inclined to write in traditional verse, or inclined to write narrative poetry, they won’t be told, “Don’t do that.” So, though what was called the New Formalism has been perhaps laid to rest, the effects of it, especially on younger poets, have not been."

You can find more Jarman here:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Number 164: Stephen Spender "The Pylons"

The Pylons

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning's danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

-- Stephen Spender

Hap Notes: Stephen Spender (1909-1995) is the poet of the 30s and 40s in England who does not make it out of the decades unscathed. His contemporaries and associates, T.S. Eliot, C.Day Lewis, Lewis MacNiece and his close friend W.H Auden have their fair share of critics but have never been as tossed aside as Spender was/has been. Spender's style is more romantic, idealistic and diffuse, unlike Auden's surgical proficiency at finding the precise word, and Spender's reputation has taken a beating in the last few decades.

This is possibly his most famous poem. Spender has more than a trace of the Romantic in him and he is the bridge, in many ways between eras of poetry and, as such, gets trod upon the way all bridges do, without thanks for their function. Today's poem came to symbolize the era of poets from which he came and Auden, MacNeice. Lewis and Spender were often called the "Pylon Poets" for their use of industrial imagery.

Spender was a politically charged fellow who believed in, and consequently became disillusioned with, Communism. (Breaking off briefly to say, this is always the case with Communism. I have no idea why people are frightened of it; it never works. It's like a vacuum cleaner with no motor- it's a wonderful idea but it doesn't do what it says it will.)

His signature prose work is his autobiography World Within World which is incredibly frank about his sex life (without being lurid) as a bi-sexual, as well as his encounters and friendships with people like Ernest Hemingway, Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Neruda, W.B. Yeats, Octavio Paz, Edith Sitwell and more. (At this point one needs to take a breath and be a bit impressed- he met almost everyone that formed the literary century of the 1900s.) He wrote much of the book on Frieda Lawrence's (D.H.'s wife) ranch in New Mexico. If you never read any more of his poetry than just this one, I encourage to read World Within World. It is an unparalleled view of 20th century literature and its facets both from Spender's analysis and its cast of characters.

Spender lived his life like a bridge, also, being in America, teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, appointed U.S. Poetry Consultant in the U.S. in 1965 (the first non-American to hold the post), teaching at University College, Oxford and being knighted in 1983 (Sir Stephen Harold Spender.) He passed on with these honors, these remarkable friendships and encounters and he was burnished by the century that seems to have forgotten him as a poet.

The masthead illustrations are regular pylons and "humanoid" pylons which have been recently designed in Iceland to make them more beautiful. They are very Spender-like don't you think?
There are, by the by, more than 88,000 pylons in Great Britain.

Here's a good Spender quote: "Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do."

Here's another, his very astute analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins and D. H. Lawrence from his book The Struggle of the Modern: "Both Hopkins and Lawrence were religious not just in the ritualistic sense but in the sense of being obsessed with the word — the word made life and truth — with the need to invent a language as direct as religious utterance. Both were poets, but outside the literary fashions of their time. Both felt that among the poets of their time was an absorption in literary manners, fashions and techniques which separated the line of the writing from that of religious truth. Both felt that the modern situation imposed on them the necessity to express truth by means of a different kind of poetic writing from that used in past or present. Both found themselves driven into writing in a way which their contemporaries did not understand or respond to yet was inevitable to each in his pursuit of truth. Here of course there is a difference between Hopkins and Lawrence, because Hopkins in his art was perhaps over-worried, over-conscientious, whereas Lawrence was an instinctive poet who, in his concern for truth, understood little of the problems of poetic form, although he held strong views about them. "

You can find more Spender here:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Number 163: E.E. Cummings "Maggie and Molly and Milly and May"

Maggie and Molly and Milly and May

Maggie and Molly and Milly and May
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

-- e.e. cummings

Hap Notes: As I said before, Cummings didn't really intend to always have his name written in lower case, so I sort of mix it up in the blog for variety. Sometimes, out of respect, I use the upper case. I have to admit after reading his work everywhere else, where the lower case is used, the upper case looks a bit odd. We'll get over it.

Here's a pleasant thing to think of on a Sunday: a day at the beach. Often we run into creatures in our everyday lives that tell us something if we are willing to listen. All the girls at the beach saw things that startled or entranced them.

You may not be on the beach today but there's a spider in the corner ready to teach you something. Maybe there's a bluejay in a tree ready to show you a solution to a problem. There's a really cool rock on the ground by your driveway. Maybe your dog would like to take a walk- couldn't hurt, right?

Yesterday I saw a perfect spiderweb that had gone up between the trash can and the recycling bin. Trash day is every Tuesday and I never forget that so the web was spun over three days. It was intricate, dew-laden and gorgeous. And I felt so bad that the web would be disturbed by Monday evening.

I was already spinning a sorrowful tale as the spider was maybe telling me, the webs we make are often going to come apart. Just make the web and worry about Tuesday when Tuesday comes. (maybe- it could be saying something else. And if you say, well, it's just a stupid spider web and it means nothing, you're right. The world around you will tell you nothing. Nothing is a huge subject- I'm not brave enough to tackle that one yet. Nothing, ironically, is full of something. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, If you can see nothing, you've got better eyes than I have.)

All you can ever really see is yourself. Which takes us back to the poem.

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

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Number 162: W.S. Merwin "Thanks"


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

-- W.S. Merwin

Hap Notes: I thought this poem would be good for the "rapture" day, a religious day predicted by some guy who can read neither Hebrew, nor Aramaic, nor Greek, nor Latin and yet professes to "interpret" the Bible. I think we are all weary of people who think they know the mind of God. What we DO know from every religion and almost every philosopher and poet over the last three thousand years is that we should be kind and decent to each other. Apparently we think this is just a suggestion and not an imperative. Maybe we need a little time for it to sink in, say, another couple thousand years (if we last that long.)

Merwin has a lot of stuff going on in this, perhaps his most well-known, poem. There is the surface of the constant way we use the words "thank-you" with no grace. There is the way it's an almost automatic response, a protocol nicety like saying hello. And then there is the deeper thought that regardless of the circumstances, life with all its troubles and shames is still something for which to give thanks.

I actually experienced the rapture today. Two children, apropos of nothing, walked up to me in the grocery store and hugged me. The meanest, loudest dog in the neighborhood trotted up to me happily and let me pet him. I saw two richly red cardinals on the black roof of my neighbor's house. The guy who checked out my groceries said I had beautiful eyes. I had just enough money for groceries. The coffee I made this morning tasted wonderful. My favorite jeans fit a bit looser. I found a huge, black, strange looking beetle in the kitchen and I picked him up to move him and he calmly hugged my thumb until I laid him on the grass outside.

All this happened in about an hour. That's what they mean by the rapture, isn't it? That life has its beauty every minute and loving things happen randomly and we should pass that on? The universe loves us all. It doesn't need you to believe that for it to be true, but it might help if you did.

So I am saying thank you.

Here's where we talked about Merwin before:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Number 161: Vachel Lindsay "Factory Windows" and a few more

Factory Windows

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody's always throwing bricks,
Somebody's always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are let alone.
No one throws through the chapel-window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten--I think, in Denmark.
End of factory-window song.
-- Vachel Lindsay


Would that by Hindu magic we became
Dark monks of jeweled India long ago,
Sitting at Prince Siddhartha's feet to know
The foolishness of gold and love and station,
The gospel of the Great Renunciation,
The ragged cloak, the staff, the rain and sun,
The beggar's life, with far Nirvana gleaming:
Lord, make us Buddhas, dreaming.

-- Vachel Lindsay

The Moon's The North Wind's Cookie

The Moon's the North Wind's cookie.
He bites it, day by day,
Until there's but a rim of scraps
That crumble all away.

The South Wind is a baker.
He kneads clouds in his den,
And bakes a crisp new moon that . . . greedy
North . . . Wind . . . eats . . . again!

-- Vachel Lindsay


Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all,
That which is gendered in the wilderness
From lonely prairies and God's tenderness.
Imperial soul, star of a weedy stream,
Born where the ghosts of buffaloes still dream,
Whose spirit hoof-beats storm above his grave,
Above that breast of earth and prairie-fire —
Fire that freed the slave.

-- Vachel Lindsay

Hap Notes: Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) was an event – he didn't just read his poetry aloud, he growled, bellowed, whispered, contorted, huffed, snarled and sang his way through his poetry as he read it. There was/is nobody like him. At least, nobody we would consider sane (not that THAT means anything.)

Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois, in a house which formerly belonged to Abe Lincoln's sister-in-law and at the time Lincoln had been a frequent visitor there. I daresay, though, there aren't many folks with a family history in Springfield who don't have similar stories of their brushes with the Lincoln legacy and, in Lindsay's case, it was somewhat influential to his thinking.

His dad was a doctor and it was hoped that Vachel would carry on in his dad's profession. He tried to go to medical school but his heart wasn't in it. After three years at Hiram College in Ohio, he transferred to the Art Institute in Chicago thinking to become an artist. He also studied at the New York School of Art. He illustrated some of his poems and the writing and reciting of his poems became his passion.

Now when I say passion, I mean it. He was a vivid character who was prepared to suffer and die for his art and he meant it. He started off trading his poetry pamphlets for food and shelter, tramped across the country several times to do this and was the bane of his parents' lives for his eccentric and "arty" ways. He was not just the black sheep of his family, he was a whole black farm. He was both highly animated, a fevered speaker, and prone to great depression and...well, we won't go down that road again because you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. (Get sick, get well, hang around a ink well....sorry...had a Dylan moment there.)

His animated poetry readings were popular, striking and bizarre. Here's one of him reading his rhythmic and still controversial poem "The Congo." :

There's no way for me to do justice to Lindsay's life here. He read for president Wilson and the cabinet, he was incredibly famous for his readings, he was respected by no less than William Butler Yeats and Harriet Monroe featured him prominently in Poetry magazine alongside fellow Midwesterners Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg. Teddy Roosevelt called him "Crazier than a bed bug." He had visions, he had flashes of extreme brilliance, he could be belligerent and darkly depressed. He carried a torch for Sarah Teasdale.

He had, no surprise, money problems and as the novelty of his jazzed up, hip-hoppy readings wore off, he found himself trying to forward his "singing" poetry and flailing a bit creatively. When he drank that bottle of Lysol in 1931, he crawled up the stairs of his house to the bedroom in pain and said to his young wife, "They tried to get me – I got them first."

In the selection of poems today, the factory windows poem is saying something about labor in this country, cute as the words are- its intent is serious. I've always loved that moon/cookie poem. And would that we could all rouse the Lincoln in us, eh? Lindsay's poetic output is extraordinary and varied from light verses to seriously deranged and brilliant ("Kallyope Yell" is awe striking.) You're never gonna understand it all-- just read it for the rhythms, the sounds, the vibrancy and color of the words. Once you enter into the brain of Lindsay, you will never be the same again.

He was prescient about movies and wrote one of the first books of cinematic criticism. He said the "new millennia" (the year 2000) would be ushered in by the movies.

Here's a good Lindsay quote.
About his tramping around the country: "It was a life and death struggle, nothing less. I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times. . . . [My parents] were certainly at this time intensely hostile to everything I did, said, wrote, thought, or drew. Things were in a state where it was infinitely easier to beg from door to door than to go home, or even die by the ditch on the highway."

You can find more Lindsay here:

Here's an amazing added treat, some students doing "The Congo"- it's awesome and the words are printed on the screen for you to see their explosive content. Lindsay would be beaming:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Number 160: Sara Teasdale "There Will Come Soft Rains"

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

-- Sara Teasdale

Hap Notes: The Byron yesterday reminded me of Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and that put me in mind of another poem used in the book; this one by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933). In Bradbury's story (titled after this poem) a fully automated house adjusts the temperature and the lights, makes the dinner, clears away the uneaten food and reads this poem aloud to the home's owners after dinner. Trouble is, the former occupants are gone. There's a depth of understanding in that story about the machinery we all use – it does not have the capacity to care about us, just for us if it is programmed properly. In fact, everything in the world goes on without us. One would think this would instill a sense of wanting to care for one another more whole-heartedly. One would think, anyway.

Teasdale was born in St. Louis. She was a sickly child, born late to her parents (her mom was 40 and her dad was 45 when she was born. Her closest sibling in age was 17 years older than she) and she was not even sent to school until she was older than ten years old. She was mostly surrounded by adults all through her childhood and she had, as you can well imagine, a vivid imaginary life, as most lonely children often do.

I suppose, in many ways, Teasdale is the epitome of the "poetess." She was frail and her poems are little wisps of longing and praises to beauty. One has to read all of her books to see her almost inevitable fate. Some of her poems are, as the Brits say, a bit "twee." Some are more like treacle. These overly-sweet poems (often, love poems, unsurprisingly) often take the sting out of her other verses. Like today's poem, which is a fairly biting commentary. So I'm gonna stand up for her a bit. (Breaking off briefly to say that she won the Pulitzer Prize, the Columbia University Poetry Prize and the Poetry Society of America Prize and was extremely popular in her day so much of her work's fragility has to do with the passage of time, here.)

Life in the early part of the twentieth century, especially in America, was marked by distances. Teasdale lived in the last bastion of civilization (St. Louis) until one got to San Francisco. Life was slow and most communication was done by mail. She wanted out of that. After Teasdale was published, she met the poet Vachel Lindsay who carried a torch for her throughout most of his life (and she for him.)

Teasdale did not marry Lindsay, she married a wealthy importer. She, as my grandma (from Teasdale's part of the country) used to say, "knew which side her bread was buttered on." Lindsay did not feel he could support the fragile Teasdale and he probably could not have. Her husband, Ernst Filsinger was a fan of her poetry when they met. I have no idea what kind of marriage they had – he was gone a lot on business, she was well-provided for, but she yearned. They lived in New York on the Upper West Side, she was well known, it would seem to be ideal. Teasdale, at that time, pretty well figured out that loneliness had nothing to do with where you were living.

Teasdale left Filsinger and filed for divorce in 1929. He didn't even know she was unhappy and was totally perplexed by this. She and Vachel Lindsay remained friends (she had other suitors but Lindsay was a special case) and he was married with a family and lived pretty close to her in New York.

Lindsay committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol in 1931. Teasdale over-dosed on sleeping pills in 1933. There's a story in all this but it would take a couple of walls to tell it ("if these walls could talk.")

One of the key things to remember about Teasdale is how intensely lonely she was. She enjoyed her solitude, got her greatest ecstasies from it, but was often saddened by it. Her poem today shows us a little of her own lonliness.

Here's another glimpse of Teasdale:


When I am all alone

Envy me most,

Then my thoughts flutter round me

In a glimmering host;

Some dressed in silver,

Some dressed in white,

Each like a taper

Blossoming light;

Most of them merry,

Some of them grave,

Each of them lithe

As willows that wave;

Some bearing violets,

Some bearing bay,

One with a burning rose

Hidden away—

When I am all alone

Envy me then,

For I have better friends

Than women and men.

All of Teasdale's books are available at no charge on Project Gutenberg (God bless them):

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Number 159: George Gordon, Lord Byron "So We'll Go No More A'Roving"

So, We'll Go No More a Roving

So, we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

-- Lord Byron (George Gordon)

Hap Notes: Byron is on my mind since I just finished slogging through a BBC made-for-television program on him. It amazed me how the writer and director could take the colorful, strange, productive and bizarre life of Byron and turn it into two hours of good costumes and boring dialog. If one knew nothing about Byron, one would suspect, from the program, that he was some sort of moody sex fiend and his character had all the sparkle of Bill Sykes (from Oliver Twist.)

Yes, it's certainly documented that he was moody, insolent, disrespectful and sexually charged (i.e. he slept with anything that moved) and he is hardly what one rears their children to become. But he wrote 17 volumes full of poetry, much of it brilliant, the majority of it good and one wonders from all the bio-pics how the guy had time to do that and continue in unabated debauchery.

Did you know that during that fateful summer that Byron stayed with the Shelleys, he also wrote a story that became the basis for a horror genre, like Mary Shelly's Frankenstein? His story, published as a post script to his poem Mazeppa, inspired the first book about vampires. It's interesting to think that during that rainy summer in 1816 at Lake Geneva, the core of two classic book characters were developed. Many think the pale, moody, aristocratic vampire is much like Byron himself.

Byron stood up for the oppressed. Back when the Luddites were breaking the looming frames in England they were being punished for their crime with death. One of the speeches Byron gave at the House of Lords was against this cruel punishment and a defense of the workers. He's a national hero in Greece because he brought money and celebrity to their cause of freedom from oppression by the Turks. He spoke out in the House of Lords for religious freedom. And he knew how to write and he wrote obsessively and diligently.

Sure, he was charming and seductive figure. Yeah, he had an appetite for sex and romance. But he was also educated, intelligent and brilliant. He was vain and had a weight problem due to his appetite for all things and his club-foot which made exercise difficult- he was always on some kind of diet and was a vegetarian who would go on meat binges and then purge. He was a very very complex creature.

In today's poem, originally sent in a letter that Byron wrote after carnival while living in Italy, we see a young man's first glimpse of party fatigue which he extrapolates to something beyond just feeling a bit over-tired after attending a few too many soirees. Again, this could be a sea shanty save for a few extraordinary lines likening the sword to a soul. Note that the soul/sword is not outworn, just the containers that hold them. The melancholy in this poem is palpable.

Ray Bradbury has a chapter in The Martian Chronicles, "And the Moon Be Still As Bright," named for the poem.

The poem has been made into song with many incarnations. Here's Joan Baez singing it:

Byron died in Greece and it is said that his heart is buried there. Because of his "wicked ways" Byron was not given a plaque in "Poet's Corner" in Westminster Abbey until 1969 even though such luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and three former Prime Ministers (Asquith, Balfour and George) had earlier campaigned for it.

Here's where we talked about Byron before:

P.S. I recently read a review of a bio of Lord Byron in a London paper where the reviewer asked if anybody even read his poetry and called it "high romantic tosh." Which, I suppose has a point. I confess I'm relieved to see that Brits are as stupid and illiterate as Americans are about poetry. Americans may finally have the edge in poetry. It should be obvious that the reason Byron's life holds any interest for us at all (there were plenty of other rich, debauched, weirdos in his time) is BECAUSE of the poetry, eh?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Number 158: Rose Hartwick Thorpe "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight"

Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight

Slowly England's sun was setting o'er the hilltops far away,
Filling all the land with beauty at the close of one sad day;
And its last rays kissed the forehead of a man and maiden fair --
He with steps so slow and weary; she with sunny, floating hair;
He with bowed head, sad and thoughtful, she, with lips all cold and white,
Struggling to keep back the murmur, "Curfew must not ring tonight!"

"Sexton," Bessie's white lips faltered, pointing to the prison old,
With its walls tall and gloomy, moss-grown walls dark, damp and cold --
"I've a lover in the prison, doomed this very night to die
At the ringing of the curfew, and no earthly help is nigh.
Cromwell will not come till sunset;" and her lips grew strangely white,
As she spoke in husky whispers, "Curfew must not ring tonight!"

"Bessie," calmly spoke the sexton (every word pierced her young heart
Like a gleaming death-winged arrow, like a deadly poisoned dart),
"Long, long years I've rung the curfew from that gloomy, shadowed tower;
Every evening, just at sunset, it has tolled the twilight hour.
I have done my duty ever, tried to do it just and right:
Now I'm old, I will not miss it. Curfew bell must ring tonight!"

Wild her eyes and pale her features, stern and white her thoughtful brow,
As within her secret bosom, Bessie made a solemn vow.
She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh,
"At the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die."
And her breath came fast and faster, and her eyes grew large and bright;
One low murmur, faintly spoken. "Curfew must not ring tonight!"

She with quick step bounded forward, sprang within the old church-door,
Left the old man coming slowly, paths he'd trod so oft before.
Not one moment paused the maiden, But with eye and cheek aglow,
Staggered up the gloomy tower, where the bell swung to and fro;
As she climbed the slimy ladder, on which fell no ray of light,
Upward still, her pale lips saying, "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

She has reached the topmost ladder, o'er her hangs the great dark bell;
Awful is the gloom beneath her, like the pathway down to hell.
See! the ponderous tongue is swinging; 'tis the hour of curfew now,
And the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath, and paled her brow.
Shall she let it ring? No, never! Her eyes flash with sudden light,
As she springs, and grasps it firmly: "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

Out she swung -- far out. The city seemed a speck of light below --
There twixt heaven and earth suspended, as the bell swung to and fro.
And the sexton at the bell-rope, old and deaf, heard not the bell,
Sadly thought that twilight curfew rang young Basil's funeral knell.
Still the maiden, clinging firmly, quivering lip and fair face white,
Stilled her frightened heart's wild throbbing: "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

It was o'er, the bell ceased swaying; and the maiden stepped once more
Firmly on the damp old ladder, where, for hundred years before,
Human foot had not been planted. The brave deed that she had done
Should be told long ages after. As the rays of setting sun
Light the sky with golden beauty, aged sires, with heads of white,
Tell the children why the curfew did not ring that one sad night.

O'er the distant hills comes Cromwell. Bessie sees him; and her brow,
Lately white with sickening horror, has no anxious traces now.
At his feet she tells her story, shows her hands, all bruised and torn;
And her sweet young face, still haggard, with the anguish it had worn,
Touched his heart with sudden pity, lit his eyes with misty light.
"Go! your lover lives," said Cromwell. "Curfew shall not ring tonight!"

Wide they flung the massive portals, led the prisoner forth to die,
All his bright young life before him. Neath the darkening English sky,
Bessie came, with flying footsteps, eyes aglow with lovelight sweet;
Kneeling on the turf beside him, laid his pardon at his feet.
In his brave, strong arms he clasped her, kissed the face upturned and white,
Whispered, "Darling, you have saved me, curfew will not ring tonight."

-- Rose Hartwick Thorpe

Hap Notes: Ah, you may see this poem as a bit over-the-top and obscure but it was one of the most popular poems of the 19th century. It was a favorite of Queen Victoria. Rose Hartwick Thorpe ( 1850-1939), born in Mishawaka, Indiana, wrote it when she was 16 years old. (That accounts for much of it, eh?)

I must confess that the reason I have known the poem for so long by heart is because I first read it when I was 15 in Fables For Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated by humorous essayist and cartoonist James Thurber, of whom I was a devoted fan. Other poems (also known by heart as a youth) illustrated by Thurber include Excelsior by Longfellow, Barbara Frietchie by Whittier, Lochinvar by Scott and Locksley Hall by Tennyson. His amusing drawings were statements about the poems in their own right. It's one of two books I own proudly as a first edition (the other one is Fatal Interview by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Both were gifts and I love them even though I spilled candle wax on the cover of the Millay during power outage when I was reading. So typical of my whimsical ineptness.)

Thorpe was in high school in Michigan when she read a tale of a young woman stopping the ringing of the curfew bell by holding it by the clapper and dulling the sound, "The Legend of Chertsey Church". Her poem was first published in the Detroit Commercial Advertiser. It became a national (and worldwide English-speaking) hit and was subsequently made into three silent films. This poem was taught in the public schools for decades and it's another of the poems many people of my mother's generation knew by heart.

A few points: curfew rings at sunset. You probably understand this but just in case- young Bessie is trying to save her lover, Basil Underwood, from an execution which is sentenced to be done at curfew. Cromwell will possibly pardon him but he won't arrive until after curfew. Bessie climbs up the old steeple, jumped onto the clapper of the huge bell and gets banged up inside the big metal thing, dulling the sound so that curfew does not ring, Cromwell shows up, Basil gets out and Bessie gets her man. Now, come on- give it up for Bessie, here. This was a weird thing to do. And it worked!

Thorpe also wrote a poem called "The War-Cry At San Jacinto, Texas" that instilled forever that phrase uttered at that battle into the hearts of Americans; "Remember the Alamo!"

Thorpe moved to San Diego and was a founding member of the San Diego Woman's Club. She contributed to literary journals there and while her poetic output was large, our knowledge of it is scant. She sort of started at the top. You can buy a book of Thorpe's poetry now, thanks to Amazon but I cannot guarantee they will be any better than this poem.

Don't toss this poem aside without reading it with some high drama in your voice. Many a lass and lad entertained their relatives after dinner with a "dramatic" recitation of this poem after dinner in the 20s, 30s and 40s.

You won't find much on Thorpe to read now but here is the Alamo Poem: