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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Number 202: Robert Lowell "To Delmore Schwartz"

To Delmore Schwartz

(Cambridge 1946)

We couldn't even keep the furnace lit!
Even when we had disconnected it,
the antiquated
refrigerator gurgled mustard gas
through your mustard-yellow house,
and spoiled our long maneuvered visit
from T.S. Eliot's brother, Henry Ware...

Your stuffed duck craned toward Harvard from my trunk:
its bill was a black whistle, and its brow
was high and thinner than a baby's thumb;
its webs were tough as toenails on its bough.
It was your first kill: you had rushed it home,
pickled in a tin wastebasket of rum–
it looked through us, as if it'd died dead drunk.
You must have propped its eyelids with a nail,
and yet it lived with us and met our stare,
Rabelaisian, lubricious, drugged. And there,
perched on my trunk and typing-table,
it cooled our universal
Angst a moment, Delmore. We drank and eyed
the chicken-hearted shadows of the world.
Underseas fellows, nobly mad,
we talked away our friends. "Let Joyce and Freud
the Masters of Joy,
be our guests here," you said. The room was filled
with cigarette smoke circling the paranoid,
inert gaze of Coleridge, back
from Malta – his eyes lost in flesh, lips baked and black.
Your tiger kitten, Oranges,
cartwheeled for joy in a ball of snarls.
You said:
"We poets in our youth begin in sadness;
thereof in the end come despondency and madness
Stalin has had two cerebral hemorrhages!"
The Charles
River was turning silver. In the ebb-
light of morning, we stuck
the duck
-'s web-
foot, like a candle, in a quart of gin we'd killed.

-- Robert Lowell

Hap Notes: Here we have Lowell reminiscing about his days with Schwartz at Harvard. Schwartz and Lowell had a "falling out" of sorts and were not close after their year or so in Cambridge (Massachusetts) and Lowell refers to this many times with rue in his personal letters to friends throughout his life. But, in this poem, written and published while Schwartz was still alive, Lowell fondly remembers their friendship and even possibly hopes to mend it.

The Wordsworth that Schwartz quotes in the poem is given a mournful twist by Schwartz. The verse in the poem, "Resolution and Independence", is actually "We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; /But thereof come in the end despondency and madness." Remember how Koch called Schwartz "that rueful man"?

Stalin had his cerebral hemorrhages in 1953, nine years after the experiences detailed in the poem. Not sure if Lowell is confused on the dates or making a point here. Remember that almost everything you unearth in Lowell's poetry was purposefully placed there. Of course, he was human, had own troubles with mental illness, and it could be a lapse of memory. Possible.

Lowell said that Schwartz introduced him to Freud and talked incessantly about him. We know from previous poems this week how attached Schwartz was to James Joyce.

The Coleridge picture, staring at the two poets, I cannot figure. I've put a few on the masthead. Coleridge went to Malta in 1804 for his health, he returned to England in 1806 (he took a side trip to Italy, too, but had a diplomatic position in Malta after he got there) sicker than when he'd left and completely addicted to opium (laudanum). Notice the duck's black beak and Coleridge's "baked" black lips.

Lowell's stanza structure (especially the second to last "-'s web-") is fascinating. I think he's making us pause as we read stuck/ the duck/-'s web-"/foot. It certainly slows it down, especially if you read it aloud. It's meant to be slightly amusing, especially the duck's almost lurid leer. It is stuck in his memory, this dead duck with the lubricious stare.

Lowell often associates "mustard yellow" with Schwartz and makes reference to a suit coat that Delmore owned in that color in a letter Lowell wrote later in life. Mustard gas was a weapon used on the soldiers in WWI. There are a few nails in this poem to consider, too.

Even Berryman commented on the charming kitten/cat, Oranges, that Delmore had with him. The poets liked the name. And there is the thought that nothing much really rhymes with "oranges," a literary joke of sorts.

It's a loony picture, this stuffed duck and Coleridge staring at these two brilliant, slightly mad, drinking poets. There's a good deal of symbolism going on with the career of Schwartz and the dead duck, too, pickled as Schwartz often was in his later years, in alcohol.

Lowell is saying something about, in addition to everything else, poets and their lives in this poem.

Here's where we've mentioned Lowell before:

and here:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Number 201: John Berryman: "Dream Song 149" and "Dream Song 150"

Dream Song 149

The world is gradually becoming a place 

where I do not care to be anymore. Can Delmore die?

I don't suppose

in all them years a day went ever by

without a loving thought for him. Welladay.

In the brightness of his promise, 

unstained, I saw him thro' the mist of the actual

blazing with insight, warm with gossip

thro' all our Harvard years 

when both of us were just becoming known

I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref

and grief too astray for tears. 

I imagine you have heard the terrible news, 

that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,

in New York: he sang me a song 
'I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz 

Harms & the child I sing, two parents' torts' 

when he was young & gift-strong.

-- John Berryman


He had followers but they could not find him;
friends but they could not find him. He hid his gift
in the center of Manhattan,
without a girl, in cheap hotels,
so disturbed on the street friends avoided him
Where did he come by his lift

which all we must or we would rapidly die:
did he remember the more beautiful & fresh poems
of early manhood now?
or did his subtle & strict standards allow
them nothing, baffled? What then did self-love show
of the weaker later, somehow?

I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved
but it is not so. He painfully removed
himself from the ordinary contracts
and shook with resentment. What final thought
solaced his fall to the hotel carpet, if any,
& the New York Times’s facts?

-- John Berryman

Hap Notes: It's really not fair to make our first exposure here to John Berryman (1914-1972) as a precursor to an upcoming Schwartz poem but I don't think Berryman himself would mind it so much because he loved him so deeply. These poems today about Schwartz were in his second book of dream songs, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. Berryman adored Schwartz and saw him as a learned mentor in addition to being a treasured friend.

I studied literature at the University of Minnesota, where Berryman spent a large part of his teaching career, and I was forever pestering the office staff at Lind Hall with questions about him: was his office here? (yes) Where did he teach? (often in the old "barracks") Do you remember him? (yes. He was odd.) They sent me to a few professors who'd known him. A lot of adjectives were haltingly used to describe him; erratic, charming, loud, effusive, difficult, strange, unstable. But to a man, the one word everyone used to describe him was "brilliant." I never set foot on that Washington Avenue bridge (which I did on a daily basis) without thinking of him.

His dream songs (there are 365 of them) were originally published in two volumes, the first of which, 77 Dream Songs, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. The dream songs were a revelation of mixed syntax, language and images. Their structure, as you can see, is three stanzas of 6 lines each and each of them carries a charge, whether of dynamite or electricity or a sword flourish.

The dream song poems follow Henry, a sometimes Berryman alter-ego, a sometimes fictional character, and deal with a variety of subjects many of which are dark and odd. Berryman one time wrote, jokingly, that the songs were "meant to terrify and comfort." I would remind you that the gravest things are said in jest. (He chose the name "Henry" because Berryman and his second wife, Ann, once had a discussion about names they hated. She chose "Mabel" and he chose "Henry." They often affectionately referred to each other with these names.)

Berryman was born in Oklahoma and grew up for a while in Florida and New York, all of which would belie his cultured accent. You can hear his sonorous voice here (slightly inebriated and eventually reading "Life, Friends is Boring" one of the dream songs ): (Even inebriated he gives a stunning interview and you can hear for yourself his highly literate brilliance.)

Berryman's biological father, John Smith, committed suicide (he shot himself just outside of the young poet's window) and Berryman took his stepfather's name, with whom he got along well. Berryman graduated from Columbia and also studied at Clare College, Cambridge in England on scholarship. He felt that poetry was his vocation but was forced, like most poets, to supplement his income by teaching. In Berryman's case this was very distracting because he was a scholar and worked hard to make his classes worth the taking. He taught at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop and Harvard in addition to his years at the University of Minnesota.

He was an extraordinary teacher when he was not in the hospital for treatment for manic-depression or drunk (even then he was erudite.) He often got permission to leave the hospital to teach and then return after the class. He took the teaching, like he took his poetry writing, seriously.

Berryman committed suicide by jumping off the Washington Avenue bridge into the Mississippi on the campus of the University of Minnesota in January of 1972. It is said that he waved to onlookers before making the leap. I don't think he drowned, I believe he hit the frozen bank of the river. He was 57.

In today's poems "Henry" talks about Delmore Schwartz and the poet laments at the gradual diminution of Schwartz's prowess as a poet: "I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved/but it is not so." The word "tref" (pronounced Trafe) is a Yiddish/Hebrew derivative and means "unclean, unfit to consume." It is a derogatory term often used to describe something vile. The expression "harms and the child" is, for one thing, a derivative of the first line of Virgil's Aeneid: "Arms and the man I sing, who, forced by fate/And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,/Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore." (Dryden translation.)

Eileen Simpson, Berryman's second wife, wrote a very interesting book on the poets and their wives that she and Berryman hung with, Poets In Their Youth. It's well worth reading for insights.

Here's a good Berryman quote: "This business about geniuses in neglected garrets is for the birds. The idea that a man is somehow no good just because he becomes very popular, like Frost, is nonsense, also. There are exceptions—Chatterton, Hopkins, of course, Rimbaud, you can think of various cases—but on the whole, men of genius were judged by their contemporaries very much as posterity judges them. So if I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers."

You can find more Berryman here:

The masthead today is the young Berryman studying at Cambridge (left) and the young Delmore Schwartz (right.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Number 200: Kenneth Koch "A Momentary Longing To Hear Sad Advice from One Long Dead"

A Momentary Longing To Hear Sad Advice from One Long Dead

Who was my teacher at Harvard. Did not wear overcoat
Saying to me as we walked across the Yard
Cold brittle autumn is you should be wearing overcoat. I said
You are not wearing overcoat. He said,
You should do as I say not do as I do.
Just how American it was and how late Forties it was
Delmore, but not I, was probably aware. He quoted Finnegans Wake to me
In his New York apartment sitting on chair
Table directly in front of him. There did he write? I am wondering.
Look at this photograph said of his mother and father.
Coney Island. Do they look happy? He couldn't figure it out.
Believed Pogo to be at the limits of our culture.
Pogo. Walt Kelly must have read Joyce Delmore said.
Why don't you ask him?
Why don't you ask Walt Kelly if he read Finnegans Wake or not.
Your parents don't look happy but it is just a photograph.
Maybe they felt awkward posing for photographs.
Maybe it is just a bad photograph. Delmore is not listening
I want to hear him tell me something sad but however true.
Delmore in his tomb is sitting. People say yes everyone is dying
But here read this happy book on the subject. Not Delmore. Not that rueful man.

-- Kenneth Koch

Hap Notes: Koch is one of my favorite poets, although his poems are not particularly favorites of mine. I know that's an odd thing to say. Koch lived and breathed poetry, saw the poetry in the cadences of everyday life, encouraged all people (especially children and the elderly) to write poetry and felt deeply about literature and friends and his wife and his children. He felt deeply and he knew how to describe it. Is there anything more brilliantly put than "crazier than shirt tales in the wind" or "the minuet of stars"?

His poems ARE him in some sense and as you read his work with its "unsyntactical beauty" you become part of his life, part of his story and you cannot help but love him, his brilliant asides, funny comments and beautiful images. He makes you laugh and cry. As he so aptly put it, ""The truth is that one can be funny and serious at the same time."

In today's poem he is talking about the poet Delmore Schwartz whom he studied under at Harvard. Schwartz was a literary skyrocket when he first started writing. He was bathed with praise, was the youngest poet to receive the Bollingen Prize in 1959 and was hailed as a fresh new literary voice. He started at the top and you know what that means: he had nowhere to go but down and down he went into mental hospitals and heavy drinking.

Koch was so excited to be studying under Schwartz, whose poems he'd read in the New Directions anthologies. "I was so star-struck!" Koch said. Now, I know that Koch sounds like Yoda when he says about Schwartz's desk "There did he write? I am wondering." It's a delightful thought to me that Yoda could be patterned after Koch (or Schwartz, for that matter) but I highly doubt it. The stirred up grammar is due to an emotion coming through in his reverie as he's thinking of his late mentor.

"Do as I say, not as I do" was not as well-used when Schwartz said it to Koch in the late 40s so it was clever, self-deprecating and not cliche then. Pogo is a comic strip by Walt Kelly known for its brilliant literary references, highly charged political commentary and South Georgia "Swamp-speakin" animal population. (Pogo, the main character is a possum. The masthead is the poster Kelly did for the first Earth Day in 1971. I think I've mentioned before that this country used to be flecked with litter everywhere one went. Kelly's cartoon is barely an exaggeration.) Here's a quick refresher on Kelly:

The Coney Island photograph shows us many things but one of them is a reflection on Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," the short story that launched him to prominence which we shall talk about more when we get to him.

Schwartz, by the way (oh, yeah, you know his work is coming this week sometime, yes?) was famous for sitting at a tavern in New York with his well-thumbed copy of Finnegan's Wake, which he read aloud to his circle of admirers. He lived like a nomad, traveling from one seedy hotel desert to another. When he died, his body was not identified for three days at the morgue. He lived the weary sad life of an alcoholic whose fame came too soon, maybe, and pessimism was his daily bread.

Schwartz was a mesmerizing talker and he was vital and brilliant when Koch studied under him and Koch said, "Most of all, he gave me the image of a real poet."

One more thing I want to mention about Koch. Back in the late 60s there was a "revolutionary" group called "Back Against The Wall Motherfuckers." Their name was based on a poem "Black People!" by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and they had some foggy idea about revolutionary art which was somewhat interesting and somewhat ill-conceived. At one point, as a stunt, they "assassinated" Kenneth Koch while he was giving a reading at St. Mark's Church in New York. A member of the group pointed a handgun at the podium, shouted "Koch!" and fired a round of blanks at Koch. Koch responded, "Grow up."

Here's a wonderful 20 minute treat– Koch reading his own poetry at the Library of Congress: (The last two poems he reads, "The History of Jazz" and "The Circus" are two of my (and many others') favorite poems by him. Hearing him read them in his smooth voice is addictive. He's magical.

Here is where we have talked about Koch before: (this poem has gotten the second most hits on this blog- it's wonderful!)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Number 199: Sarah Teasedale "Moonlight"


It will not hurt me when I am old,

A running tide where moonlight burned

Will not sting me like silver snakes;

The years will make me sad and cold,

It is the happy heart that breaks.

The heart asks more than life can give,

When that is learned, then all is learned;

The waves break fold on jewelled fold,

But beauty itself is fugitive,

It will not hurt me when I am old.

-- Sarah Teasdale

Hap Notes: I have a bit of a tough itinerary planned for this week so I thought we'd start out gently. This Teasdale poem, as simple as it seems is saying something far darker than just the memory of past beauty and life is fleeting.

Is she trying to convince us or herself that memories of beauty will not hurt? And isn't it her realization that "the heart asks more than life can give" the idea that may hurt most of all?

While it's true that memories cannot physically come up and slap you in the face, how does one describe the hurt that is inside of the heart? How can one's heart, happy or no, be hurt? What are we really talking about when we say "the heart?" It's not the bi-valved blood pumping organ in our chests that feels the sting of memory-- so what is it?

There is a wistful beauty in the way the constant sea keeps coming up to the shore and the way life keeps going on, springing anew, changing. It will not hurt you when you are old but it does do something to a thoughtful person. What is it?

This is a pensive Teasdale thinking about her old age long before it will come. In many ways it is the sad imaginings of what it is like to be old before one gets there. In reality, old age is not nearly as "sad and cold" for some as Teasdale imagines it. Much of what she is saying is what she is feeling in her youth about about something that is already hurting her which she predicts will fade in time to a sad coldness.

Speaking strictly from my own agedness, I can argue that life is richer and sweeter as one ages regardless of what beauty and heartbreak one has seen in their lifetime. The only thing that will leave you sad and cold in your old age is NOT feeling the way Teasdale describes in her youth in this poem.

Your heart is not glass (no matter Debbie Harry's [Blondie] song to the contrary) and if it does figuratively "break" now and again, it is, as Woody Allen said "a resilient little muscle." You have to keep "breaking" your heart to feel truly alive, otherwise you will be sad and cold in your old age.

But the poem does strike the right note for a loving sorrow, yes? Moonlight brings this out in us, doesn't it?

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

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Number 198: Winfield Townley Scott "If All The Unplayed Pianos"

If All The Unplayed Pianos

If all the unplayed pianos in America—

The antimacassared uprights in old ladies’ parlors

In the storehourses the ones that were rented for vaudeville

The ones where ill fame worsened and finally died

The ones too old for Sunday School helplessly dusty

The ones too damp at the beach and too dry in the mountains

The ones mothers used to play on winter evenings

The ones silenced because of the children growing away—

Resounded suddenly all together from coast to coast:

Untuned joy like a fountain jetted everywhere for a moment:

The whole nation burst to untapped, untrammeled song:

It would make—in short—a most satisfactory occasion,

A phenomenon which the scientists could never explain.

-- Winfield Townley Scott

Hap Notes: If I had the power to revive the career of an under appreciated poet, Winfield Townley Scott (1910-1968) would be at the top of my list (second would be Kenneth Fearing.) It's true that his poetry is often merely good (which sounds like enough to me.) He is not often taught in schools or universities. A contemporary with extraordinary talents like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Scott's work is often a momentary revelation rather than a magnum opus.

Scott grew up on the East Coast, graduated from Brown (not particularly a "poet's college" especially in his era) and went on to write for the Providence Journal. He wrote book reviews and became editor of its weekly book page. The book page was a revelation. Highly lauded, it had no equal outside of New York City. Scott was a great admirer of Edwin Arlington Robinson whom he met in his college years. Scott wrote thoughtful reviews and essays for the paper.

His poetry was often published in Poetry Magazine and he won a Shelley Award in 1939. His published journal, A Dirty Hand, has also been highly lauded. He moved to New Mexico to concentrate on writing and he loved the geography and beauty of the state. He committed suicide after a domestic dispute in 1968. There's a biography of Scott, Poet in America: Winfield Townley Scott by Scott Donaldson, which is supposed to be extremely good.

Scott never thought himself to be good enough as a poet. I disagree. I daresay you will, too.

In today's poem, it's a delightful idea to think of all those tinny and untuned pianos breaking into spontaneous song isn't it? But there's a bit more to it than that. I think America is full of the under-used unappreciated and talented (or potentially talented or those who are potentially yearning to express something regardless of "talent"). The odd music that would result from all those pianos is also a song of those who sang once and are then forgotten.

We've talked about the antimacassar before, do you remember (hint: Lewis Carroll) and it really just means "doily" in this poem.

I became familiar with Scott's work through an anthology I bought in my college years, The Voice That Is Great Within Us. Edited by Hayden Carruth, this book is full of remarkable gems of poetry and my copy is beat-up and yellowed and much beloved.

Instead of a quote, let me give you another Scott poem which, again, I think shows his gentle genius:

The Child's Morning

Gangway for violets,
Old snow in the corner.
Sun after a rise of rain
Over cuttlebone cloud.
Sun in the brook running
Green with watercress
Sun on the spade—
We shovel out crocuses.
Up the concrete walk
Under surf of rollerskates
The hail of jacks,
Kiss-click of aggies.
We summon with jumpropes
Sap in the trees,
With bat-knock of ball
And the thudding glove.
That clang of schoolbells
We answer with answers:
Tall immaculate silence
Of colored kites.

--Winfield Townley Scott

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Number 197: Geroge Starbuck "Sonnet with a Different Letter at the End of Every Line"

Sonnet with a Different Letter at the End of Every Line

O for a muse of fire, a sack of dough,
Or both! O promissory notes of woe!
One time in Santa Fe N.M.
Ol' Winfield Townley Scott and I ... But whoa.

One can exert oneself, ff ,
Or architect a heaven like Rimbaud,
Or if that seems, how shall I say, de trop ,
One can at least write sonnets, a propos
Of nothing save the do-re-mi-fa-sol
Of poetry itself. Is not the row
Of perfect rhymes, the terminal bon mot,
Obeisance enough to the Great O?

"Observe," said Chairman Mao to Premier Chou,
"On voyage à Parnasse pour prendre les eaux.
On voyage comme poisson, incog."

-- George Starbuck

Hap Notes: So much is packed into this clever little poem that I sometimes forget to appreciate the sheer artistry of Starbuck. Once again, he's so clever here that we forget to take the poem as seriously as we should. He's saying something here about art, politics and poetry in addition to the extraordinary cleverness. Starbuck was a well read and highly intelligent man and whatever we find in the poem, it's a good bet that he slipped it in there on purpose.

First off notice that each line of the poem starts out with 'O', then notice that his rhyming sounds all sound a bit like "oh" then notice his clever use of abbreviations and short-hand to get his "different" letter for each ending. Pretty clever stuff. But there's so much more. Let's start at the beginning, eh? (And I'm quite sure I'm going to miss stuff, but I''ll try to be thorough.)

"O for a muse of fire" is the beginning lines of the Prologue of Shakespeare's Henry V where he bades the audience to use their imagination to create the scenes in France, the horses, etc. He and Starbuck are both telling us to uh, 'think outside the box' (hate that phrase but it does nicely here.)

The "notes of woe" is from a Lord Byron poem called, " Away, Away Ye Notes of Woe." In the poem he talks of music he once loved that now fill him with sorrow when he thinks on those brighter days.

Santa Fe, N.M. is, of course, Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is where the poet Winfield Townley Scott is buried (we'll get to his poems soon). Scott committed suicide.

"ff" is the musical notation fortissimo - very loud.

Rimbaud (pronounced "Rimbo" - sorta) is a poet we talked about when we discussed Verlaine, a gifted poet with a seedy side, remember?

De Trop (dee tro) is a French phrase for "a bit too much". Bon Mot (bone mo) is literally "good word" and means clever phrase.

The great O is (I believe) Orpheus, the legendary Greek poet, singer and story teller who was said to have charmed even stones with his musical verses. ( I don't know if Starbuck was thinking of the orgasmic reference we use but it certainly fits here.) We will talk more about Orpheus later this year. (The masthead today is "Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld" by Corot. If you want more stuff on Orpheus and Eurydice here's a spot to check: )

Premiere Chou (Zhou in the history books now) was the first premier in the peoples republic of China under Mao Zedung.

The French phrase means "they travel to Parnassus to take the waters,/ they travel as fish." Taking the waters is what people used to do (and may still, I don't know) to take the curative effects of natural springs. Parnassus in Greek mythology is a mountain which was the home of the muses and sacred to Apollo. It's worth noting that the "Parnassian" poets in France in the 1800s were devoted to formal perfection and less romantic "inspirations."

"Incog" is a truncation of the word incognito.

Got all that? Now put it together. I may have missed some stuff– I'm not even half as smart as Starbuck. The poem is great fun (okay, it is for me anyway) but there's some serious stuff being said about poetry. By the by, Starbuck's final little joke on us all is that this is NOT a sonnet – it has 15 (instead of 14) lines.

It's very funny that the two Chinese communist leaders disguise themselves as fish to "take the waters" eh? What else does that say?

I'm going to let you ponder this poem a while. Relax– don't force it, just let it come to you.

Here's where we have talked about Starbuck before:

and here:

It's Saturday so here's a few cartoons too!

First Betty Boop and the awesome Cab Calloway:

Then we have a great little tune by Bernie Cummins & His New Yorker Hotel Orchestra - Minnie The Mermaid, I guess because I was thinking of traveling incognito as a fish. My mom used to sing this to me and I always loved it:

Here's a little fish who didn't want to go to school:

Finally, a little sampling of Dr. Orpheus from one of my favorite current cartoon series "The Venture Brothers":

Friday, June 24, 2011

Number 196: Robert Louis Stevenson "Summer Sun"

Summer Sun

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose:
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.

The dusty attic spider-clad
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy's inmost nook.

Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes.

-- Robert Louis Stevenson

Hap Notes: I love this charming poem of Stevenson's but, in all honesty, I posted it because it's my birthday and it's an enchanting thought for the day. Also, my hands are already sticky from eating so much cold watermelon for breakfast because on my birthday, if I can afford it, I only eat what I really love. One birthday I ate a whole jar of maraschino cherries for breakfast – probably not my best idea ever.

I hope the summer sun is shining on you today and if it is not, there's always this Stevenson poem to shine on you instead.

Here's where we have talked about Stevenson before:

The Renoir in the masthead is a particular favorite of mine. It's at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. and it's so awesome in person you have to sit down for a minute to catch your breath. Up close it's a tangled marvel, far away, the glassware sparkles in the sun. Here's the whole painting and an explanation of who's who in the picture:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Number 195: Dorothy Parker "Ninon De Lenclos, On Her Last Birthday"

Ninon De Lenclos, On Her Last Birthday

So let me have the rouge again,
And comb my hair the curly way.
The poor young men, the dear young men
They'll all be here by noon today.

And I shall wear the blue, I think-
They beg to touch its rippled lace;
Or do they love me best in pink,
So sweetly flattering the face?

And are you sure my eyes are bright,
And is it true my cheek is clear?
Young what's-his-name stayed half the night;
He vows to cut his throat, poor dear!

So bring my scarlet slippers, then,
And fetch the powder-puff to me.
The dear young men, the poor young men-
They think I'm only seventy!

-- Dorothy Parker

Hap Notes: It's not surprising that Dorothy Parker would know about the famous French courtesan and wit, Mademoiselle Ninon De Lenclos (1620-1705.) They had a bit in common both being writers, wits and independent women. De Lenclos really takes the cake, though. She was an extraordinary woman in every sense of the words "extraordinary" and "woman." In Parker's poem she is celebrating her 85th birthday, still as vital and as sexually active as ever.

As you can see from her pictures, it was not her great beauty that attracted men, although it didn't hurt none to look at her. She was a wit, an intelligence and she understood how to make love and felt no compunctions talking about sex. She is one of the finest examples of the idea of the brain being the most important sexual organ. Although, she certainly was not above taking a lover based on lust.

A woman of independent means, she also had very rich and famous lovers: Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, Gaston de Coligny, and François, duc de La Rouchefoucauld. It is said that Cardinal Richelieu offered her 50 thousand crowns for one night in bed. She took the money and sent a friend in her place.

De Lenclos believed that one could be a good person and still enjoy the pleasures of life. She was well versed in philosophy and literature and her salon was THE place to talk and exchange ideas and flirt. She was friends with Racine and was one of the leading critics of the arts.

She said, “I notice that the most frivolous things are charged up to the account of women, and that men have reserved to themselves the right to all the essential qualities; from this moment I will be a man.” She lived with those rights and preserved her femininity too. She took lovers, young and old, throughout her entire life with nary a pause.

She is highly revered in France as a woman of wit, wisdom and expertise in love.

If you would like to read some of her work it is available here:

Here is a book on Ninon if you'd like to read more about her:

Here is a verse Ninon De Lenclos wrote at the end of her life:

"I put your consolations by,

And care not for the hopes you give:

Since I'm old enough to die,

Why should I longer wish to live?"

Here is where we have talked about Parker before:

P.S. All pics are paintings and miniatures of De Lenclos – she inspired dozens of portraits.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Number 194: Rainer Maria Rilke "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

--Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Hap Notes: Rilke (1875-1926) is one of those translation problems we speak of so often when looking at poetry originally written in a foreign tongue. I have nits to pick with Mitchell's translation of this poem but, in the final analysis, I still find his translation the most compelling so we will use this and I'll add a few notes which may or may not clarify the poem for you.

First off, I think the nicest thing one can say about Rilke is that he was consumed by art. He was sensitive, a bit sickly and he wandered Europe restlessly. He grew up in Prague, was sent to military school (which he hated so much he still reviled the experience as an older adult) and had what seems to be the European requisite love affair with an older married woman. He married a student of Auguste Rodin, Clara Westhoff. Here is where art joins once again with literature. Rodin becomes a mentor and friend to Rilke and this augmented his talents tremendously.

Rilke was asked to write a biography of Rodin. He studied him, wrote the biography and ended up being a secretary to the sculptor. Rodin taught Rilke how to observe. Rodin sent him to the zoo (hence the panther poem we'll get to another day), He sent him to museums. He stressed what we would call the "close reading" of objects. All this led Rilke to his "thing" poems, poems in which he tries to give the essence of something. This takes us directly to our poem.

Let's first remember something that rarely gets mentioned in explications and essays on this poem: Apollo was the sun god, the god of light, often called "born of the wolf." In Latin literature he is called Phoebus – radiant. Now let's go to the poem.

This statue that Rilke describes here does not have a head, it's been broken off and all that is left is the torso. If that "eyes like ripening fruit" thing bothers you, well, it bothers me, too. The German "augenapfel," means "eyeball" but is literally translated as "eye apple." Mitchell's translation at least avoids the mistake of putting too much emphasis on the apple part but my translation (of course, all of us who can read a little German translate this poem and mangle it; I'm one of many) of this phrase is not ripening (which makes a good pun with "eye-apple") but "maturing eyes." I can't say that I think Rilke is a jolly punster in this line with the ripening apples as some have suggested. If he is, it's much more of a pun like an English one on "creaking joints" on the body i.e. we don't usually associate hardware with the joints when we say that phrase (even though it's in there) anymore than the eye apples "ripening" are actually talking about fruit. It's implied without being too "punny."

Okay, the upshot of this is that the missing head is stone, just like the rest of him. Rilke is saying we cannot see the aged eyes of the sculpture. This is important to the impact of the poem. The poet says the torso is still full of light, even though Apollo's gaze is not literally present, the torso gleams, is incandescent with light and life, it is still as though Apollo is looking at you. The "smile" is the line on the lower midriff which goes down into the pubic area, it has the look of a calm smile.

Rilke is describing the luminous beauty of a thing that strikes your heart so vividly it seems as though it is looking at you, through you. You know the feeling of seeing a piece of artwork (or maybe hearing a song or reading a poem) and it slashes through you, makes you see things anew? It reveals something in you. You cannot take back your life from it because it has marked you with that initial feeling. It is an epiphany; this new experience changes you.

This all happens in a flash. And Mitchell's translation actually does this to you in the final two lines of the poem. It drops you onto a new plane of existence. Everything you are is transformed. Your life will never be the same. What do you do with this (pardon my pun) eye-opening inspiration? Your life is altered. You must change your life.

Here's the original German if you'd care to take a stab at translating it:

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfelreiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

Here's a good Rilke quote:

"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

and another:

"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write."

And one more (I could do this all day, sorry): "Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life"

You can find more Rilke here:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Number 193: Tennyson "The Brook"

The Brook

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

By thirty hills I hurry down,
Or slip between the ridges,
By twenty thorpes, a little town,
And half a hundred bridges.

Till last by Philip's farm I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.

With many a curve my banks I fret
By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
With willow-weed and mallow.

I chatter, chatter, as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

I wind about, and in and out,
With here a blossom sailing,
And here and there a lusty trout,
And here and there a grayling,

And here and there a foamy flake
Upon me, as I travel
With many a silvery waterbreak
Above the golden gravel,

And draw them all along, and flow
To join the brimming river
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

I steal by lawns and grassy plots,
I slide by hazel covers;
I move the sweet forget-me-nots
That grow for happy lovers.

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,
Among my skimming swallows;
I make the netted sunbeam dance
Against my sandy shallows.

I murmur under moon and stars
In brambly wildernesses;
I linger by my shingly bars;
I loiter round my cresses;

And out again I curve and flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hap Notes: I had something entirely different planned for today, but I'd forgotten that it's the Summer Solstice and I yearn for something a bit greener and watery to celebrate it. It's a good evening to read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, eat some strawberries and make a dandelion chain to wear in your hair. Or you could just read this Tennyson poem that seems to use every watery modifier to bring a brook to life with words. (You could do the other stuff, too...)

I'll admit I know this poem from the Thurber cartoon I read as a youth. I wonder how many other people got inspired to read classic older poetry by reading James Thurber? Odd thought, that.

Some quick vocabulary: A coot is a bird. When people call someone an "old coot" that is what they are actually referring to whether they know it or not. Probably from its often bent posture it looks like a crabby aged person. Hern is a truncation of heron commonly used in Tennyson's time. A thorpe is a tiny village, a grayling is a fish. I think that should do it – the other words are pretty easily understood. (The coot and heron are pictured in the masthead. The Thurber cartoon is next to the poem.)

Now jump into this poem like a happy otter.

This brook gets every word Tennyson can throw at it to illustrate its rushing babbling meandering. It sparkles, bickers, slips, slides, chatters, bubbles, babbles, winds, steals, murmurs, lingers, glooms, glances, loiters and curves. I suppose you get that it is traveling along at a good pace to join up with a bigger river, yes?

The best part of the poem, to me, is how the poem is like the brook. It catches you up in its motion, you are compelled to move forward with it, watching the banks with its towns and flora and fauna. Now almost anyone can write a short poem about a babbling brook but look how long he keeps it going, making the poem into a brook that goes on. He's a Mozart with sustained word passages. There's a pride in that repeated "men may come and men may go" too, eh? Long after Tennyson and the reader is gone, this brook (or maybe poem?) will keep right on traveling.

Happy Solstice!

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

Monday, June 20, 2011

Number 192: Vachel Lindsay "The Dandelion"

The Dandelion

O dandelion, rich and haughty,
King of village flowers!
Each day is coronation time,
You have no humble hours.
I like to see you bring a troop
To beat the blue-grass spears,
To scorn the lawn-mower that would be
Like fate's triumphant shears.
Your yellow heads are cut away,
It seems your reign is o'er.
By noon you raise a sea of stars
More golden than before.

-- Vachel Lindsay

Hap Notes: There is no botanical designation called "weed." It's just a word we use to define plants and flowers we don't want around. The dandelion is often maligned as one but this is firmly rooted in old school, 1950s well-trimmed lawn grandpa-ism. If you think they are weeds, let me welcome you to the 21st century where the healthful herbal properties of dandelions are becoming well known again. (Arabian physicians first wrote about them in the 11th century-- as Peter Allen so aptly put it "Everything old is new again." )

First of all, let's deal with Lindsay's poem because he's right, they are an impressive and beautiful flower (which IS a botanical term for the head of the dandelion). The name is from the French, "dent-de-lion " which means "lion's tooth" and is based on the jagged appearance of the leaves. However, the flower also has a leonine look, too, doesn't it? So they are the kings of flowers much as lions are thought of as the king of beasts. As the poem points out the dandelion can avoid the lawnmower, too. They can squoosh down a bit when run over and they will rise up triumphantly after you think you've chopped them all down.

They are almost impossible to alleviate. Did you know that if you dig them up by the root and leave even just a bit of it behind, that is all they need to start up again? Dandelions are light sensitive; they close up in rainy or cloudy weather and open up to the full light of the sun. They close at night and don't open up in the morning until after the dew has dried.

Of course, why would you want to get rid of them? Almost all of the plant is edible and provides vitamins A, B-complex, C and D as well as the minerals potassium, iron and zinc. The heads may be eaten or made into wine or ports or ales, the leaves may be put into salads raw or cooked or dried for teas and the roots may be dried and ground for a hot beverage as a caffeine-free ersatz coffee.

The medicinal uses of dandelions range from treating liver problems to treatments for kidney disease, swelling, skin problems, heartburn, and stomach upset. Dandelion leaves have a diuretic property and the roots can be used as an appetite stimulant, a digestive aid and for liver and gall bladder health.

There are loads of place on the internet to get recipes for dandelions. Here's a couple to get you started: (dandelion jelly!) or here's one that has a recipe for dandelion baklava using dandelion blossom syrup: recipes.htm Here's one for dandelion fritters: Okay, I'll stop. But try the fritters, you can just sprinkle some petals into your regular fritter recipe to start out slowly.

When I was a kid we'd pluck the dandelion flower hold it on the neck under the chin of a person and see if the yellow was reflected in the skin. If it was, it proved you liked butter (which, of course, it always did) and that you were of royal birth. I don't know that Lindsay knew of this game but I did grow up in the same area he did so maybe....

The fluffy seed heads were always used to make "dandelion wishes." Close your eyes, make a wish, blow off all the seeds. This is a wonderful way to get dandelions to grow everywhere and irritate your neighbors. And it's so magically pretty.

It's amazing that something so prevalent in our yards is so beneficial and free. I guess that's why we take them for granted or think of them as pesky. By the way, you'll be helping the honeybee if you allow them to stand- they love dandelions and it's often the only food they can find, especially in the fall. Our interconnected eco-system depends on the bees and I'm sure you've seen in the news that they are in a bit of trouble right now.

If nothing else, surely this post has given you a vast variety of excuses for not cutting your lawn too much. At the very least, check and see if you are of royal birth. I'm betting you are.

I love that Lindsay's poem calls dandelions "rich and haughty" kings, so full of gold with their heads held high. And they really are, too.

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

P.S. If you are going to use the dandelions in your yard for eating I suppose it goes without saying that they should be pesticide free. But I say it anyway, just to be sure.

P.P.S. Dandelions also add nitrogen to the soil. Many species of butterflies and moths also enjoy them. Dandelions evolved 30 million years ago. Neanderthals evolved 2.5 million years ago. Just sayin' . (Okay, I'll stop with the factoids. Got carried away....)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Number 191: Another Charles Causley "Timothy Winters"

Timothy Winters

Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.

When teacher talks he won't hear a word
And he shoots down dead the arithmetic-bird,
He licks the patterns off his plate
And he's not even heard of the Welfare State.

Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren't boys like him any more.

Old man Winters likes his beer
And his missus ran off with a bombardier.
Grandma sits in the grate with a gin
And Timothy's dosed with an aspirin.

The Welfare Worker lies awake
But the law's as tricky as a ten-foot snake,
So Timothy Winters drinks his cup
And slowly goes on growing up.

At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves,
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars "Amen!"

So come one angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says "Amen
Amen amen amen amen."
Timothy Winters, Lord.

Hap Notes: I had such a hard time figuring out which Causley poems to use that I just had to make him a two day event. This poem wrings the heart and Causley reading it will add fuel to the fire. Here he is:

I love how Causley shows us what kind of student Timothy is with the phrase "shoots down dead the arithmetic bird." Each of Causley's descriptive phrases seem so effortless, the rhyme and rhythm so appealing, we forget how brilliantly worded and phrased this poem actually is. Licking "the pattern off the plate" says so much more than just the child is hungry.

The world is full of hungry children and children who are now adults who grew up in poverty and yet, we often find them to be the most generous of heart and spirit and if they are not, who can blame them?

When I was poorer than I am now (and that's saying something) I worked at a small shop which let me use my small electric coffee pot to make my breakfast. There were some homeless people who lived close to the shop, on the street, and once in a while I'd buy a loaf of bread or a bag of day-old donuts and they'd come in and share a meager breakfast with me. I was not on welfare, I was living through the generosity of friends for a place to stay and my small salary. The homeless folks often went to the food shelves just to eat. I'll never forget the day they were given bags of out-dated candy and ran into the shop with them, pouring them out on the counter with delight because they knew I loved candy. They just gave it to me – they had NOTHING and when they got the opportunity to share, they did. I confess I wept openly at this largesse of spirit. Somebody had gotten a brick of "government" cheese and I bought a loaf of bread and we had cheese sandwiches, out-dated candy and coffee. It was one of the best meals of my life.

Am I wrong in thinking that all of us are sick to death of politicians and corporations who seem to be working for their own ends? I think most people have a generosity of spirit that remains untapped because it serves politicians and corporations well to instill fear in us; fear of poverty, fear of other people, fear we will not fit in. Here's a "novel" concept; what if we all worked for the good of all people? What if our elected officials and corporations worked for the public good? Would the world fall apart? Would we then not buy things and want things? Of course not.

I say "novel" concept because it's not a new idea in any way. All of the major religions of the world profess this. I got the idea from Jesus, Mohamed, Krishna, Buddha et al. Oh, yeah, and Immanuel Kant and most of the great philosophers also agree with the idea of the "catagorical imperative" a sort of heady "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

How did the jerks end up running the world? There are more of us than there are of them. Let's cuddle them to death. Let's let the milk of human kindness drown them. Let's tickle them until they give up in giggles. We could do it if we wanted. They aren't really jerks, you know, they are the Timothy Winters of the spirit: rich with cash while their soul (or whatever you want to call it) languishes in poverty.

If Timothy Winters (whom Causley said was based on a real boy) heartily hopes for the ease of those less fortunate than himself, then I'll bet you do too.

Let's not blame anybody for this. It's time consuming and pointless. It's not about punishing the greedy, it's about helping out our neighbors. Start out small, smile at everybody today and pretend they are your dearest pal. It's easy. You may be doing this already. If you are, thank you. This is why the world has hope.

We talked about Causley yesterday:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Number 190: Charles Causley "Green Man In The Garden"

Green Man in The Garden

Green man in the garden
Staring from the tree,
Why do you look so long and hard
Through the pane at me?

Your eyes are dark as holly,
Of sycamore your horns,
Your bones are made of elder-branch,
Your teeth are made of thorns.

Your hat is made of ivy-leaf,
Of bark your dancing shoes,
And evergreen and green and green
Your jacket and shirt and trews.

"Leave your house and leave your land
And throw away the key, 

And never look behind," he creaked,
"And come and live with me." 

I bolted up the window,
I bolted up the door,
I drew the blind that I should find
The green man never more. 

But when I softly turned the stair
As I went up to bed,
I saw the green man standing there.
"Sleep well, my friend," he said.

-- Charles Causley

Hap Notes: I was stunned to find out that Causley (1917-2003) has been chiefly known as a "children's" poet because I'd never even considered him as that. He's filled with childlike and charming observations but his poetry has strong adult shadows. His clear-eyed, plain speaking way of writing poetry has enchanted so many that he gets relegated to the "populist" side of poetry which means that academia often leaves him thumbing a ride on the side of the serious road and that's their loss. I'll point out that intellects more towering than my own like John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Dan Gioia defended Causley's work.

Children often have a unique understanding of Causley that adults often fail to grasp. I suppose adults are looking for the sex, violence and grimy grit of urban life in modern poetry. Causley saw WWII, as a soldier and his father slowly died of complications due to poison gas in WWI so Causley had seen true sadness and tragedy. The kind of violence and grit he saw pales the angst of urban life and I don't think he had any need of using it. There is an innocence of spirit in his work which always makes one (okay, me) want to give him a cup of tea and a hug.

He was born in Cornwall (his voice has what they call a "Cornish burr'), had to work to help support his mom and served in WWII. His reaction to the war was to write poetry while he was serving which served as a lesson in writing with some condensed brevity. He was a schoolteacher for some 30 years in Launceton (the town in which he was born) and he cared for his mother who'd had a stroke. He never married (and no, he wasn't gay) and was a somewhat shy and private person who loved folklore (Celtic tales abound in Cornwall) and stories and taught himself much through his incessant reading.

He's won scads of awards, especially later in his life and is much beloved as a writer of the people. He wrote ballads and short poems that are easily understood but haunting. Ah, perfect segue to today's poem.

The Green Man is a mythic figure, often called Jack in the Green. He's associated with growth, the forest, the spring, the wilderness and hence, a wild and natural creature. You've probably seen depictions of him, and indeed, those depictions on churches, buildings and the like are called Green Man. Here is a wonderful and thorough explanation of him and you'll see his lovingness and dark mystery for yourself: /

Now, if you were reading this as a child (as I did) wouldn't you see the dark whimsy here? There's a scare in this poem, a sort of reverence, some magic and myth that delights the child who loves a story. Yet there's an adult shadow in all this. He's not the green boy, he's a green man. There's a complexity to this. What does the Green man want of us? Kids feel it, adults need to think on it. This poem is much deeper than it appears at first reading. (Unless you know the Green Man myths already – then you are nodding your head at that last line, knowingly.)

Here's a Saturday bonus poem of Causley's. It's got a sly humor to it.

I Saw a Jolly Hunter

I saw a jolly hunter

With a jolly gun

Walking in the country 

In the jolly sun. 

In the jolly meadow 

Sat a jolly hare.

Saw the jolly hunter. 

Took jolly care.

Hunter jolly eager- 

Sight of jolly prey. 

Forgot gun pointing 

Wrong jolly way.

Jolly hunter jolly head

Over heels gone. 

Jolly old safety catch
Not jolly on. 

Bang went the jolly gun. 

Hunter jolly dead. 

Jolly hare got clean away. 

Jolly good, I said.

-- Charles Causley

Here's a good Causley quote: "If I didn't write poetry, I think I'd explode."

and another:

"I was a great reader, even when I was tiny. I remember reading the newspaper aloud to my father at five and seeing how pleased he was. My mother would borrow grown-up books from the tuppenny library and I'd read them before she took them back. I became very familiar with what would now be called `women's novels'. One author was called Olive Higgins Prouty. She wrote a rather daring novel called Stella Dallas in which, I didn't realise until many years later, the main character was a whore. She seemed a rather nice lady."

You can find more Causley here:

A Jolly Hunter song:

Here's Bugs Bunny dancin':

Beanstalk Bunny (with Daffy Duck) :

And one of my (and many others') favorite cartoons of all time:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Number 189: John Donne "The Sun Rising"

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, "All here in one bed lay."

She's all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

-- John Donne

Hap Notes: John Donne (1572-1631) is the best known and most beloved, I think, of the "Metaphysical" poets. This sun poem is, I believe, is a "conceit"; an extended metaphor which changes one's perception of a thing, in this case the sun and the lovers in bed.

Donne himself lived many lives, he was educated, poor, a lawyer, traveled, had mistresses, was an elected member of Parliament, had a wife with whom he had 12 children and then became an Anglican priest of some note. Several of his published sermons have had a lasting impact on the language; "No man is an Island" and "Do not ask for whom the bell tolls" are both Donne's work from the same "Meditation."
Most people are also familiar with his poem "Death Be Not Proud." Donne and Shakespeare were contemporaries.

Donne's poetry, most of which was circulated among his friends but rarely published, had a big revival in the 20th century when Yeats, Eliot and Empson found his work to be extraordinary for its often abrupt, urgent and intelligent thoughts and word play. I can't say that I can wholeheartedly agree with Empson when he says Donne was interested in space travel, nor can I intelligently refute it, so Empson's essay "John Donne, The Spaceman" always leaves me a bit breathless because Empson and Donne are quite alike (it's purposeful on Empson's part) with wordplay, puzzles and metaphysical arguments disguised as metaphor. It's all very heady stuff.

In this charming poem of love, the poet is talking to the sun, scolding it for waking up the lovers and telling it to go chide and wake up school boys and apprentices, court-huntsmen and ants. Note that this list is full of labor, the poet and his lover are in an elevated state because of their love, no mere workers. In fact, the poet says, the sun is nothing compared to the brightness of his lover's eyes. He can close his eyes and shut out the sun but he could never do that to his lover because he could not stand to be parted from the vision of her.

He goes on to say not only are they not mere laborers who should be awakened by the sun but that they are all the kings and countries of the world, the lovers have made their own universe. So, if the sun, which is so old, needs a rest from waming the world, it need only shine on the lovers and it will be warming the whole universe. The lovers are the center of all things, the sun, with its bright cheer, is only half as happy as the lovers who are everything. Ah, love!

So the sun, once thought to revolve around the earth, then thought to be the center of the universe, is displaced to a satellite around the lovers who are now the center of the universe they have created with their love.

There's a lot more than can be mined in this poem but that should get you started.

Donne is far too big a subject for a Friday, but his wit and word usage is so brilliant and so unlike Shakespeare that it's as if they had been born on different planets. They are two shining points in literature with Donne being a bit less florid and Shakespeare a bit more hot-blooded. Donne has passion tempered with reason, Shakespeare has passion spiced with high drama. Donne wryly reasons, Shakespeare intelligently feels. These are glib explanations, though, I admit.

Here's a good (and famous) Donne quote:

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."


"Be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail."

You can find more Donne here:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Number 188: William Empson "Arachne"


Twixt devil and deep sea, man hacks his caves;
Birth, death; one, many; what is true, and seems;
Earth's vast hot iron, cold space's empty waves;

King Spider walks the velvet roof of streams;
Must bird and fish, must god and beast avoid;
Dance, like nine angels, on pinpoint extremes.

His gleaming bubble between void and void,
Tribe membrane, that by mutual tension stands,
Earth's surface film, is at a breath destroyed.

Bubbles gleam brightest with least depth of lands
But two is least can with full tension strain,
Two molecules; one, and the film disbands.

We two suffice. But oh beware whose vain
Hydroptic soap my meagre water saves.
Male spiders must not too early be slain.

-- William Empson

Hap Notes: There is no way to over estimate William Empson's (1906-1984) contributions to poetry as we now know it. I think there are two essential texts for really understanding how to closely read poetry: Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age and Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, and of those two, Empson's is the most crucially important. Empson's brilliant analyses make you smack your forehead with astonishment and scratch your head with puzzlement but above all he teaches you HOW to THINK as you read a poem. Everyone who has seriously read a poem in the last 75 years owes Empson. No kidding. He is a revelation, still.

Hard to believe that the young math whiz (his math professors were quite crestfallen when the young Empson chose English over math at Magdalene College, Cambridge University) eschewed the subject for literature, as his talent for Maths (as they call it in the U.K.) was considerable. His tutor in English was I.A Richards, the man who practically invented English Literature as a discipline for study. The young Empson told Richards about his theories of close reading and Richards said to go ahead and write about it. Empson published Seven Types of Ambiguity when he was 24. His ideas spawned the "New Criticism" (which he actually didn't care all that much for) and were nourished by his visits to Robert Graves and Laura Riding (ah ha, now you see the method to my madness, eh?)

Empson had an odd and extraordinary life which I would love to talk about but today's poem is a typically rich mine that takes a bit of excavation. We owe it to Empson to apply his instructions for reading to his own work so his somewhat sensationally strange life will have to wait for another post.

Just a few brief remarks before we start. If you've ever said, "All this explication is useless, it's the "mood" of the poem, the way it makes you feel," Empson would agree with you with one caviat: WHY does it make you feel? What is the poet doing that creates that feeling? What words is he/she using and why and how do they create that mood? If you can't answer that, you aren't thinking about the poem – it only hits the surface of your consciousness like the verse in a Hallmark greeting card. A good poem, he says, should be able to stand up to your scrutiny. If it cannot, it's a piece of cardboard on a stick. His analyses of passages of Shakespeare and John Donne (his personal favorite I think) reveal worlds within worlds in just a few sentences of text. It's breathtaking and enriching.

First off who is Arachne? Possibly you have read Ovid's Metamorphoses, if you have not here are the translated Arachne passages if you are interested; The story, in a nutshell, is that Arachne is a weaver of great skill, so great she feels she cannot be compared to anyone, even Athena (Minerva) could not equal her. Athena gets more than a little leaked off about this, the upshot of which is a weaving duel between the two (there' s way more in the story- but I'm encapsulating here). Athena weaves a glorious tapestry with remarkable "warning" scenes in the corners. Arachne weaves a tapestry of great beauty but it depicts the Gods doing the most reprehensible acts; Leda and the Swan, Europa with the Bull, Danae and the shower of gold etc.

This tapestry so offends Athena, as beautiful as it is, that she teaches a little lesson to Arachne about speaking prideful truth to omnipotent power. She rips up Arachne's tapestry, hits her on the head with the weaving tool and turns her into a spider where she is doomed to constantly weave and have her works easily destroyed. Athena says "Vain girl, since you love to weave so very much, why don't you go and spin forever."

Now let me add what Empson said about his poem, the caves of man are thought of as by the sea to escape land predators. "Man lives between the contradictory absolutes of philosophy, the one and the many etc. As King Spider Man walks delicately between two elements avoiding the enemies which live in both. Man must dance etc. Human society is placed in this matter like individual men, the atoms who make up its bubble."

There is a lot of surface tension in this poem. The water cannot make the bubble of the world without the soap and vice versa. The interpersonal relationship in this poem is always hanging by a thread.

As for the nine angels, well, you know the old saw about the futility of arguing about incorporeal angels being able to dance on the head (or point) of a pin, yes? Nine could be a variety of things, the nine different distinct angels, the nine forms of grammar ( the verb, the noun, the adjective, the participle, the conjunction, the article, the pronoun, the preposition and the adverb), the nine fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control.)

Here's my current favorite and I think Empson would delight in this; nine is a Motzkin number (the number of ways of drawing non-intersecting lines on a circle.) I don't know that Empson knew this since he and Motzkin were contemporaries, but it delights me anyway.

Empson left this poem out of his 1959 recording of his collected works. He said, "It's a boy being afraid of a girl, as usual, but it's boy being too rude to girl. I thought it had a rather nasty feeling, that's why I left it out."

I'll let you play with the poem, now. Empson was a great lover of crossword puzzles and it would not be amiss to say he enjoyed a poem the same way and he would say, why have a puzzle if there is no answer to it? Empson was not above thinking that a poem posits opposites or questions that can be reduced down no further, too. That poetry may be an expression of the irreducible. BUT he'd ask you what in the poem leads you to think that.

I love that "velvet roof of streams" line, too, don't you?

Here's a good Empson quote:

". . . the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. And anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get the opportunity."

You can find more Empson here:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Number 187: Laura Riding (Jackson): "Yes and No"

Yes and No

Across a continent imaginary
Because it cannot be discovered now
Upon this fully apprehended planet—
No more applicants considered,
Alas, alas—

Ran an animal unzoological,
Without a fate, without a fact,
Its private history intact
Against the travesty
Of an anatomy.

Not visible not invisible,
Removed by dayless night,
Did it ever fly its ground
Out of fancy into light,
Into space to replace
Its unwritable decease?

Ah, the minutes twinkle in and out
And in and out come and go
One by one, none by none,
What we know, what we don't know.

-- Laura Riding (Jackson)

Hap Notes: I wish I could tell you with absolute certainty that in fifty years or so, Laura Riding's poetry and prose will be studied with as much assiduity as Eliot's or Stevens' or Pound's. But I cannot. I don't know where (as, indeed, few do) all of our poets will be in the constellation of "fame" as time goes by. But it would be a great pity if Riding's work is dismissed or forgotten because she is a revelation, was a muse and had a soaring spirit and lofty intelligence. If you are unfamiliar with her work, I am not surprised. We still take our "serious" poetic cues from male writers, with a few exceptions.

Laura Riding (1901-1991) was born Laura Reichenthal in New York. She went to Cornell, wrote poetry (she said her first real influence was Edwin Arlington Robinson) and got marginally attached to the "Fugitive" poets at Vanderbilt University through Allen Tate, who published her poems in "The Fugitive" literary magazine. Riding was married to historian Louis Gottschalk, an expert on Lafayette and the American Revolution. They met while he was a grad student and she was an undergrad at Cornell. When the marriage ended in divorce in 1925 Riding went to England at the invitation of Robert Graves and his wife.

Now we got trouble. Her poetry was highly lauded in England at the time. She and Graves got "involved" she attempted suicide, Graves left his wife and ran away to Spain with Riding and the whole thing was as sensational as a Madonna tryst with some other superstar as reported in People magazine. But wait, there's more.

Riding and Graves are productive, start up a press, have impressive visitors, go back to England, then back to Spain (I'm compressing here) and end up at the end of their relationship in the U.S. If you've ever read Miranda Seymour's novel, The Summer of '39, you've read a fictional account of what happened when Graves and Riding visited the Schuyler Jacksons which resulted in Jackson divorcing his wife (nervous breakdowns and madness abound). He then marries Riding. It's pretty dramatic stuff, all in all.

Riding was married to Jackson until his death in 1968, her life, as you can see, spanned the century. She completely renounced poetry in 1941, not because she did not love it or love the writing of it but because, I think, she was tired of having it analyzed, dismissed, vaunted or characterized. She was an intelligent and strange creature who had a very powerful personal magnetism.

Jackson, a writer for Time magazine, and Riding (who took his name on all her subsequent work as Laura Riding Jackson) worked for many years on a dictionary, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, published posthumously in 1997. She continued to write and search for truth in words and meanings throughout her life.

Now, I cannot do justice to Riding in the small space here but I will say that it is a hotly contested literary argument that Graves got most of his ideas for "The White Goddess" from Riding. She is just not easily summed up and critics vary widely on her work and her influence. I would suggest reading her seminal work, The Telling, a prose expansion on her ideas about language and poetry. Also her essay "The Road To, In and Away From Poetry" is helpful.

Riding is a marvel of thought and strikes me as highly original for her time. She was often called a "witch" in her younger days and I think this might be right in the mystic sense of the word.

In today's poem, Riding is telling us something about the life of mankind on this planet, in this universe and the poem, like all man's works however large and bold and grand, are just written in the sand to be swept away by the winds and tides of time. I'll let you make your own further discoveries about this amazing poem.

So much more to say about her. We will do more Riding this year, I think.

Here's a good Riding quote:

"Poetry bears in itself the message that it is the destiny of human beings to speak the meaning of being, but it nurses it in itself as in a sacred apartness, not to be translated into the language of common meanings in its delivery. I was able to achieve in my poems a use of words that paid respect to the poetic motive of difference in word-use and respect at the same time to language as essentially one with itself, not divided into levels of meaning. But the constraints that the poetic techniques of difference impose on word-use limit the speaking-range and the meaning-effectuality of language to a miniature human and linguistic universalness. My kind of seriousness, in my looking to poetry for the rescue of human life from the indignities it was capable of visiting upon itself, led me to an eventual turning away from it as failing my kind of seriousness. "

You can find more Riding here:

And here's her home (shared with Jackson) and the Riding Foundation:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Number 186: Robert Browning "Prospice"


Fear death? -- to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall.
Tho' a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forebore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute's at end,
And the elements' rage, the friend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest.

-- Robert Browning

Hap Notes: Well, this is Browning's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," written in 1861, fifty years before the birth of Dylan Thomas. Except he is directing himself to meet death/old age as the last great struggle. He charges himself to fight death but he also knows that nobody gets out of that fight alive. The important part, to Browning, is to "Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears/Of pain, darkness and cold."

So he's telling us that the price for life's joys is the struggle one must face, one last time, with the arch forces of death and aging. "Guerdon," if you are unfamiliar with the word (I was) means reward. So he's sort of saying "Chin up, face to the wind, go forward into the battle of life and death." Prospice is Latin for "forward," by the by.

Browning wrote this poem after the death of his wife, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and theirs is one of the truly great love stories of their day. Some say that Robert's influence was not always a good one on her work but this sort of posthumous sifting is frustrating since Elizabeth, in spite of her physical frailty, was pretty much able to hold her own. She wrote possibly the most famous love poem of all time "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" to Browning. She was 38 when he met her (he was a fan of her work). He was 32. After they married she was disinherited by her father (her dad did this to all his children who married- he was more than a bit of a fascist as a dad). She was 43 when she had her first child. She opposed slavery and encouraged the rights of women. Browning was quite drowned in love for her and her poetry. Today's poem's last lines express his fervent hope to be reunited with her, the "soul of his soul," in death.

I'm a great fan of both of the Brownings, although I lean somewhat towards Robert. After struggling through all ten poems of his book-length "The Ring and The Book" one either loves him and admires him or never wants to read another word of him and admires him. Of those two I am the former. But that's not why I chose this poem at this time.

Okay, you'll have to sit through a bit more about Amitabh Bachchan here – just warnin' you. Because he quoted both Browning and Tennyson on his blog a couple of days ago (yes, even my movie stars have to like poetry.) He comes by it naturally since his dad, Harivansh Rai "Bachchan" Shrivastav, is a very famous Hindi poet. So, he's going through one of his father's books and he sees, written in his father's hand, a quote from Browning, "I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more." It moved him (as it would anyone, I suppose) and reminded me, once more, of my love for this very heartfelt poem. (The Tennyson his dad quoted is in my top ten poems of all time- we'll get to it someday.....) It amuses me that even my love for a Bollywood icon is another thread in the tapestry of the poetry that creates the universe.

Harivansh Bachchan, by the way, wrote a wonderful poem "Madhushala" (The Tavern) which is a deeply drawn metaphor on poetry, life and love that I am not qualified to talk about. This does not stop me from singing it (yes, it's been set to music, poetry's easier to understand cousin) and if you hear Amit-ji singing it you will too– warning you ahead of time that it's infectious:

Here's an English translation of the poem- I don't know how good it is, my Hindi is limited to "no," "potato," "come here," "darling," "everything," "tea" and "wrong format," so I'm incapable of knowing it is a good one although the poem's metaphor comes through loud and clear:

Back to Browning. Here's where we have talked about him before:

The masthead contains Thomas B. Read's portraits of the Brownings.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Number 185: Eve Merriam "How To Eat A Poem"

How to Eat a Poem

Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice
that may run down your chin
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

-- Eve Merriam

Hap Notes: I'm always kind of stunned about how many people are unaware of Eve Merriam (1916-1992). In addition to her charming verses, many written for children, she wrote some of the most caustic and remarkable social commentaries of our time and much of it is still very relevant.

For example, her musical "The Club" portrays men in a private club making disparaging and derogatory comments about women – and all the men were played by women. It was highly controversial at the time (1976) and it brought up riveting differences of how women were thought of and shocking contrasts between men and women. We'd do well to re-stage that today.

Then there's her seminal "Inner City Mother Goose" which dealt with poverty, housing issues and life in the hard edges of the city. Here's an example:

Hickory Dickory Dock 

The Crowd ran up the block. 

A cop struck one, 
A rock got thrown; 

Hickory Dickory riot.

"Inner City Mother Goose" was published in 1969 and while many of the rhymes seem tame compared to the harshest of contemporary rappers, at the time the book was banned just about everywhere. Merriam reasoned that the original Mother Goose had social content so why not update it? The book had an introduction written by poet Nikki Giovanni. It's revelatory still.

Merriam wrote dozens of poems every bit as charming as today's poem in several wonderful books, too. I don't mean to say she was a hell-bent revolutionary. She was a quiet, educated one who bridled at social injustice. Her daughter said that Merriam sent Harvey Milk his first campaign contribution when he ran for Supervisor in San Francisco in 1973. Every time I read her work or about her I just want to give her a big hug.

Merriam had a life long love affair with poetry that started when she was 8 or 9 years old. She went to the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia. She held jobs in radio and was an editor for Glamor magazine. Her first book of poems, Family Circle, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1946.

Throughout her life, though, her main interest was just getting kids to read poetry, read it aloud, write it, enjoy it. She felt this kind of literacy would make for a better world. How can you disagree with this?

Sorry this post is so late. Sorting through my books today I found Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle (Which Merriam's poem starts) It's pretty beat up, full of coffee cup rings, suntan lotion stains, odd pink fingerprints from some kind of candy... I gotta get a new copy- I've had this one (warped cover and curled pages- what the hell did I do, swim with it? No- I used it as a life raft.) for 40 years at least. I started drifting away in it and the next thing I knew the morning had flown away. I'd planned on a completely different poem. We've got time – we'll do it tomorrow.

By the way, don't take today's poem too lightly. Merriam is saying something rather deep about reading, letting yourself go without judgment, the sounds and feel of the words. You gotta take a bite, it might be messy. That's good. Poetry is not dry, it's full of juice.

Here's a good Merriam quote:
"I find it difficult to sit still when I hear poetry or read it out loud. I feel a tingling feeling all over, particularly in the tips of my fingers and in my toes, and it just seems to go right from my mouth all the way through my body. It's like a shot of adrenalin or oxygen when I hear rhymes and word play,"

and another:
"Whatever you do, find ways to read poetry. Eat it, drink it, enjoy it, and share it."

You can find more Merriam here: