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Friday, September 30, 2011

Number 273: Thomas Hardy "Waiting Both"

Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,

And says, "Here I and you

Stand, each in his degree: 

What do you mean to do, —

Mean to do?"

I say: "For all I know,

Wait, and let Time go by,

Till my change come." – "Just so,"

The star says, "So mean I: —

So mean I."

-- Thomas Hardy

Hap Notes: Hardy can write a pithy short poem and this is certainly one of them. A few short lines places a man (everyman/woman more or less) in the context of the universe and time. Hardy first published this poem in the literary magazine, The London Mercury, in 1924.

When the star says "Here we are" where exactly is Hardy talking about? It's as if the man and the star were hanging around the same universal bus stop or train depot, making small talk (with a very large subject) about their destinations.

A star starts out in the cosmic soup of a nebula. It goes through various changes until, in the end, it collapses and explodes (usually). What we call the sun, as you know, is a star. A star, depending on how heavy it is, will live 10 million to 100 billion years. The sun is around 4 1/2 billion years old and it's expected to live another billion or so. It's a long wait, in human time, for a star.

A person starts out in a kind of cosmic/biological soup as well. He/she goes through various changes until the body collapses or burns out. The average life span of a human worldwide is around 67 years although in America it's more like 78 years old (according to the CIA World Factbook.) No matter what a person does in their life there is always the thought that at some point, life will end. How long their life will go is just a matter of time.

However, neither the man nor the star says a single word about death. They refer to their "change." What does this mean? I suppose, that's up to you to decide.

Here is where we have talked about Hardy before:

and here:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Number 272: Walt Whitman "A Noiseless Patient Spider"

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

-- Walt Whitman

Hap Notes: In this poem Whitman is likening the searching human spirit to the efforts of a spider seeking a place to attach its filament in order to make a connection. The connection will allow it to make other connections and fill in its web and world. But in the poem, the spider is sending out its silken threads, alone, surrounded by a vast (by spider proportions) emptiness. The spider keeps going, keeps sending out the threads, keeps looking and hoping for a connection. (Just a side note: did you know that spiders use hydraulic pressure to move? It's amazing.)

Whitman tells us this is like his own soul, endlessly searching for that connection, looking for an attachment. Is it love? Meaning? Satisfaction? Belief? A purpose? Creative inspiration? All of the above? Yes.

Whitman points out that this is a solitary task but one that cannot be given up. Just as the spider must succeed in order to insure its survival, so must the poet also make a constant effort to try to explore the mysteries, horrors and beauties of life to truly live.

All of us are alone searching for meaning in a vast ocean of space, other creatures, other stars and planets. It is both humbling and important to keep going in the search to quench the thirsting spirit.

Whitman, in this poem, like the spider, does not ever give up hope and, in fact, neither of them can conceive of such a thing.

The poem is is a lesson about the persistence of the longings of the heart, the yearnings of the soul, the need for connection and the constant effort to find it without malice or defeat. It simply must be done.

Here is where we have talked about Whitman before:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Number 271: Stanley Kunitz "Halley's Comet"

Halley's Comet

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

-- Stanley Kunitz

Hap Notes: In May of 1910, when Kunitz was 5 or 6 years old, the impending visit of Halley's comet stirred up some little panic. Astronomers, with new (at the time) technology at their disposal, learned that comets contained cyanogen, a poisonous gas and that earth would pass through the tail of the comet. Of course, some goofs in the media (uh, just like now) grabbed onto this and scared the bejesus out of folks. There were actually shysters selling "comet pills" to protect people from the impending poisonous doom. Some people around the world had comet parties, notably the French, who held "comet balls" and "comet dinners" ( this fact, alone, redeems the French for me in many ways.) Here in America, in addition to a lot of ballyhoo, there were prophets of doom, end of the world blah blah blah. You know the drill.

The comet was a craze. There were comet buttons, Edmund Halley cigars, and a variety of souvenirs. Scientists wrote essays and spoke to the public in lectures about the earth's complete safety throughout the event, trying to dispel the rumors of danger. Postcards were made depicting it and songs were written about it (the Halley's Comet Rag") President William Howard Taft viewed the comet at the U.S. Naval Observatory. The pope at the time (Pius X) thought the whole thing was malarkey.

However, if you were six years old and in first grade and heard about the comet, as Kunitz was, it certainly would remain a vivid memory. Particularly amusing is his observation that if "wandered off its course/and smashed into the earth/ there’d be no school tomorrow."

Remember that Kunitz's father committed suicide before the poet before so there are two "fathers" he may be talking about when he implores him to find him on the roof. (everybody wore nightshirts back then. Pajamas (originally from South and Western Asia, worn as clothing) were not used as nightwear until the late 1870s. Pajamas for nightwear would have been "trendy" and "different" in Shapiro's youth.)

The earth did pass through the 24 million mile-long tail of Halley's comet in 1910 on May 19. It took six hours. There were spectacular sunsets that month and the comet was visible to the naked eye. The comet put on a particularly bright show that year throughout the world from April through May.

Halley's comet (pronounced to rhyme with "valley" not Haley like Haley Mills) was actually sited and depicted in tapestries in 1066 during the battle of Hastings. And of course, Mark Twain, possibly the comet's most famous birth/death, was born the month and year it passed in 1835 and died the day after it passed in 1910.

Let's go back to the poem, though. Do you remember the excitement and maybe even foreboding that we felt at the turn of the millennium and the whole Y2K hysteria? Even if you thought it was hogwash, there is always that slight anticipation that maybe something is going to destroy us. It would be interesting to find out what 6 year olds thought about that now, wouldn't it? In Kunitz's poem, it's the natural world that is destroying us so there's an added mysterious factor to it.

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

and here:

and here:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Number 270: Louise Erdrich "That Pull From The Left"

That Pull from the Left

Butch once remarked to me how sinister it was
alone, after hours, in the dark of the shop
to find me there hunched over two weeks’ accounts
probably smoked like a bacon from all those Pall-Malls.

Odd comfort when the light goes, the case lights left on
and the rings of baloney, the herring, the parsley,
arranged in the strict, familiar ways.

Whatever intactness holds animals up
has been carefully taken, what’s left are the parts.
Just look in the cases, all counted and stacked.

Step-and-a-Half Waleski used to come to the shop
and ask for the cheap cut, she would thump, sniff, and finger.
This one too old. This one here for my supper.
Two days and you do notice change in the texture.

I have seen them the day before slaughter.
Knowing the outcome from the moment they enter
the chute, the eye rolls, blood is smeared on the lintel.
Mallet or bullet they lunge toward their darkness.

But something queer happens when the heart is delivered.
When a child is born, sometimes the left hand is stronger.
You can train it to fail, still the knowledge is there.
That is the knowledge in the hand of a butcher

that adds to its weight. Otto Kröger could fell
a dray horse with one well-placed punch to the jaw,
and yet it is well known how thorough he was.

He never sat down without washing his hands,
and he was a maker, his sausage was echt
so that even Waleski had little complaint.
Butch once remarked there was no one so deft
as my Otto. So true, there is great tact involved
in parting the flesh from the bones that it loves.

How we cling to the bones. Each joint is a web
of small tendons and fibers. He knew what I meant
when I told him I felt something pull from the left,
and how often it clouded the day before slaughter.

Something queer happens when the heart is delivered.

-- Louise Erdrich

Hap Notes: Well, there's certainly a lot going on in this monologue poem. First off, did you know that the word sinister is from the Latin, sinistra, which means lefthand? Did you know that deft is a Middle English word daft which also means gentle or humble and that deft is often a synonym for dextrous (which derived from the Latin, dexter, "on the right side" or skillful.") The heart, as we all know, I think, is on the left side.

The narrator often sits in a closed meat shop (with the case lights left on, bringing the merchandise into sharp focus) doing the account books. FYI The debit side of an account ledger is usually the left side, the right side is usually the credit side.

What does the narrator mean in the phrase "the intactness" that holds the animals up, do you think? And what about the "delivery" of the heart? "Echt" is a word of German derivation that sort of means "right, true, authentic, genuine, real.

One more thing and I'll let you sort this out for yourself. Remember in the Bible in Exodus, how one of the 10 plagues of the Egyptians was the killing of the first born son? And how the Hebrews were told to put blood on the lintels (the door posts/frames) of their homes so that the Angel of Death would pass over their households (hence the name Passover?) Just another thing to think on.

It's interesting to note that the meat is stacked in "strict familiar ways" like an account book, maybe? What is that pull from the left? Why would it affect one at a meat market, do you think?
Think also on the other meanings of the word left.

Each poem I read by Erdrich convinces me that even though she is more well known as a novelist she is really a poet. She packs an entire novel into one poem. That's the power of poetry, right there. Her poems are easy to read and yet densely packed with information. Extraordinary work.

Here is where we have talked about Erdrich before:

The masthead today is a detail from Franz Marc's "The "Yellow Cow."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Number 269: Laura Elizabeth Richards "Eletelephony"


Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant—
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone—
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I've got it right.)
Howe'er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee—
(I fear I'd better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

-- Laura Elizabeth Richards

Hap Notes: This poem always made my mom giggle. It is included in most children's poetry anthologies and it still makes kids chuckle. Of course, there is no cord on contemporary phones in which to get tangled. The "telephunk" sounds, however, like a great description of text messages.

Laura Elizabeth Richards (1850-1953) wrote more than 90 books which include children's books , biographies and poetry. She, with co-author Maude Howe Eliot, won the first Pulizter Prize awarded for a biography, The Life of Julia Ward Howe. It's certainly an honor but not a particularly surprising one since she and her co-author were sisters and the daughters of Julia Ward Howe. Their mom wrote the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Their parents were noted abolitionists. Their dad started the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind. Quite a pedigree.

You may remember her book, Captain January, later made into a movie starring Shirley Temple. Her sequel to that book is Star Bright, which you also may remember. She wrote the "Hildegarde" series, the "Melody" series and the "Margaret" series, too. You can find many of her works for free reading here:

It's Saturday! Yay! So here's some cartoons, commercials and songs.

First off, the controversial crows from "Dumbo". When I was a kid, I loved these crows and did not see how intensely racist they are. I thought they were the best part of the movie. I was both ignorant and innocent. (er, maybe "was" is optimistic...) Here's "When I see an Elephant Fly."

Here's a great Rollo ad featuring an elephant who never forgets:

I wanted this cereal SO MUCH when I was a kid. My mom said it was too expensive. It had a storybook on the box about Twinkles the elephant:

Then there was Crispy Critters with the awesome Sheldon Leonard doing the voice for King Leonardo. My brothers and sisters used to laugh hysterically at the rush of animals and sing the

Apropos of nothing- here's Senor Wences on the Ed Sullivan Show. I loved him. He is amazing and spawned a cultural catchphrase with that "S'alright?" "S'alright!" interchange. Did you know the reason that the character is in a box is because his ventriloquist "dummy" broke when he was on his way to a performance? :

Couldn't have elephants without Camille St. Saens' famous musical tone poem about them:

Here is the Elephant Orchestra- it's amazing:

Finally, here's Ladytron with "White Elephant":

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Number 268: Two by Josephine Miles "Travelers" and "Delay"


The little girl was traveling unattached, as they say.
Closed into her window-seat by a heavy
Business-man working on papers out of his briefcase.
From across the aisle another kept noticing
What help she needed, her travel-case latched.
Her doll righted, coloring-book straightened out,
And he kept leaning over across to assist her.
After a while the heavy-set man put away his papers,
Took out a small gameboard from his briefcase, and suggested,
How about a game of three-way parcheesi?

-- Josephine Miles


Well, ladies and gentlemen, the tinned voice of the pilot said,
We seem to be having trouble with the landing gear,
Which is why you hear this loud shaking sound.
We are therefore returning to home port, hoping to land
Without incident, will keep you informed.
The Stewardesses worked on equipment in their booth.
Then many of the ladies and gentlemen
Moved from where they sat in holiday or business absorption
Over next to some child and engaged
In a great deal of peaceful conversation –
Reminiscences of their own, sighs, questions of the children,
Till the gear
Jolted itself into landing, and the pilot
Came on again, to regret the inconvenience.

-- Josephine Miles

Hap Notes: These two poems have a bit of a similar theme – the care and protection of the young and the empathy of others in a child's circumstances. Some of the empathy, in "Delay", may also be a projection of the passengers' own fears as they talk to soothe traveling children. Sometimes being strong for another promotes one's own shaky courage.

In the first poem, a business man puts away his "business" to brighten the day of a child who is a fellow traveler. In the second poem, the travelers go to the children to ease their fears.

In both of these poems, Miles is seeking to illustrate that we are all fellow travelers on planet earth and that kindness and empathy are necessary for our comfortable survival. The poet observes that all these people find it both easy and necessary to put aside their personal agendas and thoughts to make traveling easier for a child.

Wouldn't it be lovely if we all recognized the child who resides within each one of us and treated each other with that kind of empathetic loving kindness?

As a quick side note: Did you know that Parcheesi is based on a 1500 year old Indian game called Pachisi? In India, before it was a board game (which was then adapted to an American board game) it was played by real humans. Members of the harems of royalty, dressed in their "royal" colors, would play the game in Pachisi gardens (see inset picture) on a paved surface. It's interesting to note in the first poem that in order to win Parcheesi, a player must get all his tokens "home." Some may remember that the Parchesi box used to say "The Royal Game of India" (which is how I knew this, by the way.)

Here is where we have talked about Miles before:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Number 267: Carl Sandburg "They All Want To Play Hamlet"

They All Want To Play Hamlet

They all want to play Hamlet.
They have not exactly seen their fathers killed
Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill,
Nor an Ophelia dying with a dust gagging the heart,
Not exactly the spinning circles of singing golden spiders,
Not exactly this have they got at nor the meaning of flowers—O flowers,
flowers slung by a dancing girl—in the saddest play the inkfish,
Shakespeare, ever wrote;
Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad
and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then to
say over slow and say over slow wise, keen, beautiful words masking a
heart that’s breaking, breaking,
This is something that calls and calls to their blood.
They are acting when they talk about it and they know it is acting to be
particular about it and yet: They all want to play Hamlet.

-- Carl Sandburg

Hap Notes: Sandburg is cleverly doing several things here with his casual sounding narrative. First of all, he's poking a bit of fun at actors and Shakespeare (the "inkfish" which is also slang for a squid and implies a writer who shoots out a lot of ink.). He's also giving the play a somewhat backhanded compliment through the actors who want to speak its verses and situations so full of drama and wisdom and beauty. So, sure, he's saying that actors who cannot possibly have gone through the travails and disappointments of Hamlet are eager to set their acting teeth in such a meaty role. Sandburg obviously admires Shakespeare.

As you can see from the masthead today there are a variety of actors who have all played the role. Paul Gross may have played the role but he also played an actor/director who played the role and then went mad (a parallel of Hamlet himself) in Slings And Arrows (which I could do a whole blog on- a wonderful Canadian television series that is far too complex, funny, moving and wonderful to talk about here.) Each of these actors brought something wonderful to the role (although in the case of Gibson it was mostly good costumes and great scenery) but each of them lacked one little edge of Hamlet. Auden claims in an essay that it is an unplayable role and he may have a point. But Shakespeare filled it with dialog that appeals to actors in their teens, middle years and maturity. Amazing.

Now Sandburg is not just poking fun at actors although the tone of his poem, at first, suggests this. No, he's talking about something far deeper in the acting profession. Notice that he says "all actors are sad " and "They are acting when they talk about it " and "they know it is acting to be particular about it."

Why would all actors be sad? What kind of a profession is it that asks you to pretend to be another person and say words written by somebody else? Who would want to do this, and why? Acting is a profession that asks its practitioners to feel like another person whom they are just pretending to be. Not only that, but actors find themselves often "acting" in real life. The profession is one in which its players are constantly honing their skills. It becomes hard to tell what one really feels from what one "acts" as though they feel. And how many of us, as the audience, are also actors in our own lives? Who are we, anyway?

When Sandburg says they want to say "beautiful words masking a heart that’s breaking, breaking," whose heart is he talking about? Hamlet's? The actor's? The audience's? All three?

Now let's go back to our original question: why is it that "all actors are sad"?

Here is where we have talked about Sandburg before:

and here:

and here:

The masthead today features actors who have played Hamlet. They are, clockwise, from far left to right: John Barrymore, Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh, Lawrence Olivier, David Tennant, Emile Hirsch, Derek Jacobi, Richard Chamberlain, Paul Gross, Mel Gibson. In the center is Richard Burton.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Number 266:Richard Wilbur 'A Barred Owl"

A Barred Owl

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

-- Richard Wilbur

Hap Notes: The Barred Owl has many names but is probably best known popularly as the "hoot owl." You may remember the poem we did earlier this year by Jimmy Carter where he mentions the distinctive "who cooks for you" call of the bird. They also make an alarming assortment of caws and gurgly purrs. They sound like this: which, by the way, could be pretty scary if you are a kid in bed at night hearing it, as Wilbur's daughter is in the poem.

The owls have a wing span which is between 2 and 4 feet and their flight is swift and relatively soundless. Here's a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab where Science Editor Laura Erickson with pictures by Gerrit Vynn explain how people are awakened by these birds:

The owls are beautiful but Wilbur is also making a point about how we diminish our fears by assigning terms or phrases to our to them which give them a humorous or whimsical quality, like saying that the owl is saying "who cooks for you" or calling bears "cuddly" and turning them into stuffed toys. The reality is that the natural world has a set of checks and balances that we sometimes would find hard to digest (no pun intended). Of course we can also augment our fear with words. They are very powerful in our lives.

This poem is Wilbur at his most Frost-like, Frost being a poet he knew and by whom he was influenced. The poem has a dark humor like Frost as well as the trademark natural observation.

We talked about Richard Wilbur before. You can find it

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Number 265: Alfred, Lord Tennyson "Break, Break, Break"

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hap Notes: This was written as Tennyson lamented the loss of his best friend and companion, Arthur Hallam. The shy Tennyson met Hallam at Trinity College, Cambridge and the two were inseparable friends. Hallam's death at the age of 22 haunted Tennyson for the rest of his life. He and Hallam had planned to publish a book together featuring both of their verses.

Tennyson's sorrow in today's poem has a bitter and resentful tone which anyone who has lost a loved one can understand. It seems almost impossible and somewhat unbelievable that the world goes on as your life is benighted with mourning. How can those children be so happy? What does anybody have to sing about? How can the regular old world of trade and commerce go on when your world seems to have caved in?

Of course, Tennyson is also pointing out that the sea, which keeps on rolling, the children who are playing (the next generation), the young sailor singing (your life is not their life) and the ships that are sailing (keeping the world working and going along) are all part of the short cycle of life. There is a large universe in this poem contrasting to Tennyson's grief.

Tennyson really cornered the market on sorrow in his poetry. Even his poem "Ulysses", written shortly after Hallam's death, is full of shadings of his sadness at his friend's death. Tennyson always acknowledges that the world is huge and mysterious and unfathomable. Here's a little bonus poem that emphasizes this:

Flower In the Crannied Wall

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;—
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

See what I mean? His sorrow is always tinged with the knowledge that not all things can be understood. This is a giant concept, by the way. Disconcerting in its truth, yes?

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

and here:

The picture of Tennyson is a detail of the one painted by George Frederic Watts in 1895.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Number 264: Robert Pinsky "ABC"


Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,

Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Quickest respite.

Sweet time unafflicted,
Various world:

X=your zenith.

--Robert Pinsky

Hap Notes: Pinsky's clever verse has a deep level in that the alphabet is one of the tools with which we first learn to communicate. It is elemental, a box of spoons (or knives), a set of crayons, a rack of spices for cooking, building blocks, and keys – skeleton, Allen, West, mon, piano, of the Kingdom, of Romulus or Enoch or Solomon and don. What we do with the keys is a very individual process. But, throughout one's life, the "keys" often define the world.

Here is Pinsky reading the poem aloud:

Here's where we have talked about Pinskey before:

It's Saturday (yay!) so here are some cartoon bits and songs:

Of course we have the double punch of the Jackson Five in their cartoon with the classic "ABC":

Here they are for Alphabits cereal:

and again:

Here's a charming Sesame Street madrigal-like alphabet:

And a Sesame Street Rube Goldberg-like alphabet:

This is Lowkey with Faith SFX with "Alphabet Assassin":

Here's India's famous ZENiTH Dance Troupe performing at a wedding:

Alphabits with "magic sprinkles":

An oldie but a goodie from Letters To Cleo (remember them?):

And finally- this just cracks me up:
(taken from "Family Guy")

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Number 263: A.E. Stallings "Fairy-tale Logic"

Fairy-tale Logic

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

-- A.E. Stallings

Hap Notes: Alicia Elsbeth Stallings (born 1968) was a classics major and studied at both the University of Georgia and at Oxford. She is described as being part of the contemporary "New Formalists" school of poets. However, I think it is wise to leave the naming of the so called "schools" of poetry to future generations but this "formalist" category will do for now. Formalists usually keep to a metrical style with somewhat traditional rhymes and patterns. (This is a general rule more than a specific one so sometimes these "school" names are somewhat useless, but let it pass for now, eh? I'm often sort of vexed that the word "new" enters into it. They're Formalists. Period. Just sayin'.)

She has written two books of poetry and has translated Lucretius. For such a small output of poetry she has won a plethora of prizes including the James Dickey award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Eunice Tietjens Prize. She lives with her journalist husband in Athens, Greece.

Today's poem starts out talking about the odd tasks the heroes/heroines of fairy tales are given to do in order to find happiness or a fortune or true love or break a spell etc. The poet amusingly adds a few things that would equal these tasks in today's word, like memorizing the phone book. Remember that Stallings is schooled in the classics so she makes a nod to Virgil's Aenied with the leaky boat that takes Aeneas to the underworld. Myths and fairy tales are often in place to teach us valuable lessons about life, are they not?

So there's the whimsy of fairy tales that makes us think that this poem is saying that with the "logic" of a fairy tale you must fight magic with more strange magic. But there is something far darker and more mysterious going on in this poem.

What would it really be like to marry a monster? Who could literally do that? What kind of person could give up a first born child? In fairy tales this happens, to be sure, but in reality what do we call a spouse who is an abusive monster? What sort of real world circumstances would lead a person to give up a child?

We are read fairy tales when we are young but we learn early in our adulthood that marrying a monster will break no evil spells and that giving up a child is painful and difficult. So what is the poet telling us about fairy tales and logic and life and will and magic?

Here's a great Stallings quote: " I always liked the fairy tales—the original, uncut versions, the ones with violent, horrible endings. I think the unexpurgated fairy tales are actually comforting to children. They are a lot more cathartic. I mean something happens to the bad people, and they get put away, so you feel safe when the story is over. I never remember having a nightmare because of a fairy tale, and I liked Hans Christian Anderson's tales. They often have sad endings. The Little Mermaid, for instance, has a very sad ending."

and another: "Form is just a tool, another way to get where you're going, and you should be able to use it any way you want to. Maybe I should feel more reverent about it, but poets in the past pretty much used form however they wanted to. Shelley's "Ozymandias" is a sonnet with a nonce rhyme scheme, so I feel pretty free to do whatever I want."

You can read the whole interview here:

You can find more Stallings' poetry and prose here:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Number 262: Lawrence Ferlinghetti "Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West"

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons
walking their dogs
in Central Park West
(or their cats on leashes—
the cats themselves old highwire artists)
The ballerinas
leap and pirouette
through Columbus Circle
while winos on park benches
(laid back like drunken Goudonovs)
hear the taxis trumpet together
like horsemen of the apocalypse
in the dusk of the gods
It is the final witching hour
when swains are full of swan songs
And all return through the dark dusk
to their bright cells
in glass highrises
or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes
in the Russian Tea Room
or climb four flights to back rooms
in Westside brownstones
where faded playbill photos
fall peeling from their frames
like last year’s autumn leaves

-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Hap Notes: Ferlinghetti's word picture of aging ballet dancers is both slightly amusing and deeply moving. Living their faded upper class lives, walking cats on leashes, still spry but old, the ballerinas know that they chose a profession that would and did eject them as they aged. But their lives are still exotic to us – smoking their imported cigarettes, having tea at fashionable spots – they are the divas of the dance and are used to being treated like a hot-house orchid, even if now they have to treat themselves this way.

The Goudenov reference is to Boris Goudenov (the Russian Tsar of the 1600s, also famous opera by Mussorgsky) or possibly Alexander Goudenov, the ballet dancer (although this is unlikely as Goudenov was probably in his 20s or 30s when the poem was written, although it's a possible reference. It does add a special tang to the poem. Sad, too, because Goudenov had a bit of an alcohol problem towards the end of his life (which ended when he was only 45). [Side note: Yes, Boris Badenov in Rocky and Bullwinkle is a pun on the Tsar/opera, if you did not know it already)

A "swain" is a young man from the country or a man who is the lover of a girl or young woman. It's worth noting that ballerinas in their prime are usually pursued by many a swain.

The taxis blare out the final judgment call, the ballerinas return to apartments like "cells" to wait out their final days.

Because of that "autumn leaves" line, this poem really always makes me think of this season, even though it's winter both literally and figuratively for the ballerinas in the poem.

Here is where we have talked about Ferlinghetti before:

and here:

The masthead pictures are of the famous Russian Tea Room in the poem. For many years it has been a fashionable place to eat or have tea for the wealthy residents of the Upper East Side in New York.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Number 261: John Magee 'High Flight"

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

-- John Magee

Hap Notes: John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1922-1941) was an American flyer who joined up with the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered WWII. He was killed at 19 in a collision, an accident over Lincolnshire, England involving his plane and a trainer plane.

Magee wrote poetry all through his high school years (and won prizes for it) and was influenced by the soldier poetry of Rupert Brooke.

I include it for several reasons. First off, its lines are memorable and Magee's description of flight is possibly unsurpassed. Second, it is an amazing work for an 18 year old, and would be for a poet far older. Third, while the last line is strictly metaphoric, it certainly makes one feel the wonder and splendor of soaring through the sky. Fourth, anyone over 40 will probably remember it. Why? Well, because many television stations, back when the broadcast day was rarely longer than 18 hours, signed on or off using this poem.

At one or two in the morning, a film clip of airplanes (sometimes fighter planes or jets) would be shown with a narrator reading the poem. A flag waving in the wind was usually the last shot, then the television would go to what we used to call "snow" or static.

Some stations played footage of a waving flag while ""The Star Spangled Banner" played in the background before "signing off" for the day. Some stations opened their broadcast day with the "banner" and closed with "High Flight" or vice versa. But if you were a night owl or an early riser you would remember today's poem.

Here's one version of what this looked like:
There are many more versions of this, of course.

While Magee was certainly a young poet, I don't know that a better description of gravity exists than the "surly bonds of earth."

Even folks who say they don't know or like poetry, often remember and dig this one.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Number 260: Philip Levine "M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School--Detroit 1942

M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School--Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.

-- Philip Levine

Hap Notes: I'm always flummoxed as to what to do on 9/11. It's a strange and haunting tragedy in U.S. political and cultural history. One wants to mourn the loss of life without getting too syrupy or maudlin or dragging the poor tattered flag into it. It is inarguable that those who perished in the Twin Towers perished because they were Americans. It's what America means to the world and to ourselves that stands at the crossroads of this incident. I prefer to think of Americans as being folks who, like Levine, lived through tough times and were yet still touched by art and poetry and literature. All of us are made of snow and once fully formed, proceed to melt into and through the years.

Levine's poem is a fantasy in which his junior high class is sitting in a class with M. Degas, "M." is the abbreviation for "Monsieur" and yes, he's talking about Edgar Degas (1834-1917) the painter. (and no, Degas did not really teach there.) What is going on in the poem? Well, I want you to think on why this poem could be appropriate for 9/11. It has to do with discovery, art, depth and life.

Here's Levine reading the poem aloud:

Here's the actual school (Durfee) with some comments on Levine and the school in general (a good read- it will help you discern things in the poem)

Here's where we've talked about Levine before- this also will help you with today's poem.

The masthead is artwork by Degas, the inset on this page is a portrait of the artist.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Number 259: George Cooper "Come Little Leaves"

Come Little Leaves

"Come, little leaves" said the wind one day,
"Come over the meadows with me, and play;
Put on your dresses of red and gold;
Summer is gone, and the days grow cold."

Soon as the leaves heard the wind's loud call,
Down they came fluttering, one and all;
Over the brown fields they danced and flew,
Singing the soft little songs they knew.

"Cricket, good-bye, we've been friends so long;
Little brook, sing us your farewell song-
Say you're sorry to see us go;
Ah! you are sorry, right well we know.

"Dear little lambs, in your fleecy fold,
Mother will keep you from harm and cold;
Fondly we've watched you in vale and glade;
Say, will you dream of our loving shade?"

Dancing and whirling the little leaves went;
Winter had called them and they were content-
Soon fast asleep in their earthly beds,
The snow laid a soft mantle over their heads

-- George Cooper

Hap Notes: I know very little about George Cooper ( 1838-1927). This was in a little book my Danish cousins gave me for my (16th!) birthday. I think it had been theirs when they were children but as a 16th birthday present, I must admit, I was hoping for something a little less juvenile. They also gave me a book of Anderson's fairytales. Now, at the time, I wanted Ferlinghetti or Robert Lowell or maybe a collection of Romantic poets or even Steal This Book! by Abbie Hoffman. So I was nonplussed. However, getting a book as a present at all was wonderful to me because I loved reading anything. In retrospect, I am very grateful to these older cousins for the books. I still have them, after all the moving and thinning out of my library a dozen or more times over the course of several decades.

Cooper, studied to be a lawyer under Chester A. Arthur but gave up the law to write. He wrote dozens of popular verses, most notably for a "children's" audience. It's a very familiar poem to older folks. It was a fairly popular song. Here's what it sounded like:

It' Saturday (Yay!) so here's our cartoons and music:

Here's Ub Iwerks take on the coming of Jack Frost:

On a serious note, this animation shows an autumn festival taking place in a refugee camp: it's very moving and charming.

Monday would be a good day to eat moon cakes- it's the 2011 mid-autumn festival day:

Has nothing to do with anything but I love Annoying Orange in an annoying way:

Speaking of my youth (yeah, I was annoying) here's the classic Fleischer "Little Dutch Mill"

Remember this from Sesame Street?

Here are fairies changing the leaves:

The classic "Falling Leaves" with Nat King Cole:

Edith Piaf also does the song but I like this one better:

And this one, my personal favorite Piaf song, (hey- it's my blog...just sayin'.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Number 258: Robert Pinsky "Forgetting"


The forgetting I notice most as I get older is really a form of memory:

The undergrowth of things unknown to the young, that I have forgotten.

Memory of so much crap, jumbled with so much that seems to matter.

Lieutenant Calley. Captain Easy. Mayling Soong. Sibby Sisti.

And all the forgettings that preceded my own: Baghdad, Egypt, Greece,

The Plains, centuries of lootings of antiquities. Obscure atrocities.

Imagine!—a big tent filled with mostly kids, yelling for poetry. In fact

It happened, I was there in New Jersey at the famous poetry show.

I used to wonder, what if the Baseball Hall of Fame overflowed

With too many thousands of greats all in time unremembered?

Hardly anybody can name all eight of their great grandparents.

Can you? Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?

You’ll see, you little young jerks: your favorite music and your political

Furors, too, will need to get sorted in dusty electronic corridors.

In 1972, Zhou Enlai was asked the lasting effects of the French

Revolution: “Too soon to tell.” Remember?—or was it Mao Tse-tung?

Poetry made of air strains to reach back to Begats and suspiring

Forward into air, grunting to beget the hungry or overfed Future.

Ezra Pound praises the Emperor who appointed a committee of scholars

To pick the best 450 Noh plays and destroy all the rest, the fascist.

The stand-up master Stephen Wright says he thinks he suffers from

Both amnesia and déjà vu: “I feel like I have forgotten this before.”

Who remembers the arguments when jurors gave Pound the only prize

For poetry awarded by the United States Government? Until then.

I was in the big tent when the guy read his poem about how the Jews

Were warned to get out of the Twin Towers before the planes hit.

The crowd was applauding and screaming, they were happy—it isn’t

That they were anti-Semitic, or anything. They just weren’t listening. Or

No, they were listening, but that certain way. In it comes, you hear it, and that

Self-same second you swallow it or expel it: an ecstasy of forgetting.

-- Robert Pinsky

Hap Notes: Contemporary culture will become history, some of it remembered, some of it exaggerated, some of it swallowed up in disinterest. What will your grandchildren remember about 9/11, a date soldered into our thoughts as a shockingly painful memory? Think on this– do you remember the Alamo? The shock and pain of the occurrence? Or does it just seem like an old time historical fact to you? The ravages of the Civil War, will your children feel it? With contemporary culture so multi-faceted thanks to the 100+ cable channels and the thousands of sites on the web, what will be your shared cultural memories? And how soon will we forget them as the next fresh scandal, shock or controversy comes up? What are memories made of?

Memories are made and forgotten swiftly now. Our shared cultural experiences come down to the day Kennedy was shot, or John Lennon, or the day Curt Cobain committed suicide or 9/11. Something we remember with shock and horror, if we remember it at all. Does it matter that we remember? George Satayana (who?) said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." So did Edmund Burke (who?) Of course, Henry Ford (who?) said "History is bunk." Henry Ford, I think it should be noted, was a major participant in something that irrevocably changed our history/culture.

In Pinsky's poem are mentioned several cultural touchstones you may or may not know. You might know about the Charlie Sheen hijinks but Lieutenant Calley was a principal military player in the murdering of Vietnamese civilians in My Lai (the "My Lai Massacre.) You might know who the X-Men are but have never read a Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune, comic. You might remember Nancy Reagan but do you recall the influential Madame Chiang Kai-shek AKA Mayling Soong? You know A-Rod but not Sibby Sisti? (Okay, Sibby Sisti is pushin' it, but he's obviously part of Pinsky's cultural history the way Albert Belle is part of mine. [ Soapbox: Belle will never make it into the Hall of Fame, even though he has the numbers, because he was a hotheaded jerk sometimes. It just ain't fair.]) The poetry reading I think Pinsky is referring to is a Baraka one (we've talked about that before here: )

He's right Zhou Enlai did say, when asked about the effects of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell. But all this does get mixed in with our memories of Chairman Mao and the little red book and more cascades of memories that sweep by and then ebb away like the tides.

Pinsky is bringing up a very interesting point about memory being a form of forgetting. Huh? Well, we've gradually become a country of rapid experiences. We get upset about the O.J. trial and then, it fades as a new incident takes its place. Who will remember Casey/Caylee Anthony in 20 years? G. Gordon Liddy (uh, remember Watergate?) ends up as a celebrity on a game show. We remember, we forget, we forget to remember, we remember to forget. The brain is a fascinating mechanism. Pinsky likens our cultural memory riffs to Jazz. It's a heartening analogy.

Robert Pinsky (born 1940) is near and dear to my heart because of his Favorite Poem Project that he initiated while he was Poet Laureate/Consultant to the U.S. from 1997-2000. Pinsky believes that Americans are far more effected, transformed and fond of poetry than the culture would have you believe. In the project thousands of Americans of different backgrounds and ages from every state shared their favorite poems. You can still see it and it is most moving to read, see and hear: The project has inspired hundreds of community poetry readings.

Pinsky was born in New Jersey and much of his poetry is inspired by his geography. He went to Rutgers and received both of his graduate degrees from Stanford. He majored in Philosophy and also studied under poet Yvor Winters. He is an award and endowment winning poet who currently teaches at Boston University and is the poetry editor at Slate.

Those of you who played interactive computer role-playing games will also know him as the author of the (really fun and extraordinary) "Mindwheel" game (Synapse/Broderbund). He was a guest vocal talent on "The Simpsons," too.

Here's Pinsky's remarkable 1999 commencement speech at Stanford:

Here's a good Pinksy quote from that speech: "Improvisation characterizes our music, our clothes, our blue jeans, the get-ups that you have on today, the headlong invention and energy of our businesses, our mass entertainment. But the spirit of improvisation alone, though we may be proud of it, it alone cannot sustain the process that transmits the ways of glassmaking and papermaking, or the ways of understanding ourselves across the generations."

You can find more Pinksy here:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Number 257: Elizabeth Bishop "Sestina"


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

-- Elizabeth Bishop

Hap Notes: I was looking something up in the Farmer's Almanac yesterday and the words "September" and "almanac" triggered the memory of this haunting sestina by Bishop. The sestina is a very difficult and intricate form of a poem designed by a poet/ mathematician (of course) and troubador named Arnaut Daniel. It calls upon the writer to us the same words in a set pattern for six stanzas in six lines followed by a three line envoy.

It's very tricky and hard to accomplish so that it makes a whit of sense but if you want to try it, remember that each of the six lines must repeat their words at the end of the line in this pattern (the first lines are numbered 1-6): 123456, second stanza is 615243, the third is 364125, the fourth is 532614, the fifth is 451362, and and the sixth and last stanza is 246531. The final tercet has 6 and 2 in its first line, its second 1 and 4, and its third 5 and 3. Even easier, go to where a poet has thoughtfully provided a template generator for the verses (I urge you to use this- it's a wonderful brain saver.)

Using the form is tricky enough to be justifiably proud of but making it lilt with such beauty and meaning as Bishop does is amazing.

In the poem, what is going on here? Why are there so many tears? Remember that Bishop grew up at her grandmother's house (see our first blog on Bishop here for details:, among others because after her father died, her mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized.

A Marvel stove is a small stove made for warming and cooking. I have a picture of such a stove on this page today.

Equinoctial is an interesting word which means equally balanced (like the equator) or a storm taking place near the equinox. There's a math problem in here somewhere for those familiar with the equinox and the sestina's numeric lines but I'm only smart enough to see it, not solve it.

This poem is just loaded with images and ideas, yes?

Here is where we have also talked about Bishop:

and here:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Number 256: Charles Bukowski "The Laughing Heart"

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life

don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.

be on the watch.

there are ways out.

there is a light somewhere.

it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.

be on the watch.

the gods will offer you chances.

know them.

take them.

you can’t beat death but

you can beat death in life, sometimes.

and the more often you learn to do it,

the more light there will be.

your life is your life.

know it while you have it.

you are marvelous

the gods wait to delight

in you.

-- Charles Bukowski

Hap Notes: Well now, this poem is a big window into the compassionate heart of Charles Bukowski, whose gruff and often ribald public persona dominates his reputation. Bukowski had plenty of what the nine-to-five world would call troubles and what the world of struggling artists would call, ironically, "business as usual." Doubly ironic because the "business" of being who you really are is the hardest and most frustrating job you will ever tackle and does not really resemble business in any way.

The business world has co-opted phrases like "coloring outside of the lines," "thinking outside of the box," "pushing the envelope," "left brain thinking" to illustrate their own "creativity." One assumes these phrases are used to placate their discomfort with selling their souls to the devil. So let's them have them, even though it's a very clever way of clubbing themselves into submission.

No, what Bukowski is talking about is the frustrating life of someone who has a drive to do something which may or may not ever be successful. If you are an artist and you are always working at your vocation/avocation with relatively little remuneration or what the nine-to-five world would call "success" what you do get is your life, your own life.

Yes, but, Hap, those nine-to-five people keep the world going, keep things moving, allowing artists to live on the fringes. Everybody can't be creative, can they? Everybody can't be satisfied with what they've chosen do to, can they? Well, quite frankly, sure they can but the kind of dismantling of contemporary culture that would have to take place in order for that to happen makes my head hurt just thinking about it. We'd all have to agree to give up some things, live a little differently and choose to be happy. As long as there are people who think making money is actually making something real and significant, this ain't gonna happen. (Quick– name the richest person from Van Gogh's era, or Tolstoy's, or even Bukowski's. Who the hell cares?)

So what is Bukowski talking about by saying "the gods will offer you chances"? It's probably not wealth, but it does mean survival. It may not mean "success" but it does mean the satisfaction of doing something you have a fire within to do. It may not mean recognition but it may mean the appreciation of a few people who understand your work. It will be enough to help you to continue.

If you've ever looked up at the night sky with its stars and galaxies and been filled with awe and wonder and inspiration, you are experiencing the ride the universe is willing to give you if you will let it. Maybe for you it's not the stars. Maybe it's a car engine or an algebra problem or a crushed up tin can on the side of the road or a bird or a butterfly or a tree that gets you thinking, inspiring you to write or paint or sing or invent. This ride is often slightly dangerous (no net!) and it won't always be exactly what you want it to be but it will be amazing. And the more you feel connected to this cosmic cruise, the more "light there will be."

Because you, and everybody else, has marvelous stuff embedded in them. It's just waiting for us to discover it. Then, hang on for the ride of your life, your own life. This minute. Right now. Your heart will laugh with glee.

Here is where we have talked about Bukowski before:

Here is Tom Waits reading today's poem:

The pictures are the "universal form" of Lord Krishna, who reveals himself to his friend and follower Arjuna, in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna is, understandably, freaked out by the revelation that Krishna, is the universe, is everyone.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Number 255: Gerard Manley Hopkins "Spring and Fall"

Spring and Fall

to a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving 

Over Goldengrove unleaving? 

Leaves, like the things of man, you 

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 

Ah! as the heart grows older 

It will come to such sights colder 

By and by, nor spare a sigh 

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 

And yet you will weep and know why. 

Now no matter, child, the name: 

Sorrow's springs are the same. 

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 

What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed: 

It is the blight man was born for, 

It is Margaret you mourn for.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hap Notes: This may be Hopkins most easily accessible poem. The autumn season often brings out a sadness in people but here we are dealing with a little girl who mourns the colorful death of the leaves. The poet/speaker tells the girl that he understands that she cares for the trees and the leaves with her "fresh thoughts", her young innocence, but as she grows older, she will see the cycle of life (spring and fall) and will be less emotionally affected – even when it seems the whole world is full of dead leaves in the autumn.

He goes on to say that the girl may be instinctively sensing that the death of the leaves is comparable to our own cycle of life and that may also be a reason for her own weeping. Fall is a reminder of our own mortality.

If you like this interpretation of the poem then go no further. Because I've got a fairly strong limb I'm going to go out on here. I don't want to ruin the poem for those that are satisfied (and quite rightly, too, it's a wonderful poem) with the depth it contains from this fairly traditional reading. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a devout Catholic priest so if you don't want to hear the "God stuff" stop right here. (I will not call you a Godless libertine if you do. However I will think you are a chicken for not manning up to the idea that God exists in this poem.)

Here goes my limb-walking ( don't try this at home kids) : Note the title of this poem. What in the world does it have to do with spring, I wonder? Sure it's part of the seasonal cycle but what does it imply by being there? Rebirth, maybe? And how does a mere mortal get rebirth? And what is the plight man is born for as expressed in Genesis? And what is this "ghost" in the girl that guesses this is the plight man was born for – can you think of anything holy that is spoken of as a ghost or spirit?

This "goldengrove" makes the scene seem a bit idyllic, yes? What place is idyllic in the bible? Could this be a nod toward Eden? And then, what is Margaret also weeping about? Maybe the fall of man from grace? And that this is our legacy? "And sorrows springs are the same" – could this mean that all of our sorrows come from the same source- the fall of man, which has led to all of our troubles? And as we "come to sights colder," are we just becoming the sinners with less and less innocence? Could Margaret be mourning this as well?

Okay, let's say you buy all this. Why would spring be in this poem? For that, I'm going out on a bit more of a fragile limb. The lines in the poem " Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed/What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed" immediately struck me as similar to a passage of the letter of Paul to the Corinthians: " the Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."

Also, there's the double entendre of "springs" as a season. Sorrow's season of spring has the same heartbreak within it because of the "fall" of man and the sacrifice that Jesus must make to save us, that his resurrection (after suffering) lets us live anew.

So there's something of the resurrection in this poem, out on this limb, in the title. Could this child, who morns the loss of the leaves. be also mourning the passion of Jesus? Could this whole poem be an allegory for the sorrow one feels at man's sinfulness and the lengths that God has to go to save us with Jesus? So we are mourning the plight of man and moved by the unlimited mercy of God?

Okay. You don't have to think of this poem as being specifically religious and all my tree-climbing to go out on some interpretive limbs may strike you as completely wrong.

Still, it's a wonderful poem no matter what your interpretation is, isn't it?

Here is where we have talked about Hopkins before:

and here

and here


and here

Hard to read Hopkins body of work without seeing God in it, though, isn't it?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Number 254: Wislawa Szymborska "Seen From Above"

Seen From Above

On a dirt road lies a dead beetle.
Three pairs of legs carefully folded on his belly.

Instead of death's chaos – neatness and order.

The horror of this sight is mitigated,

the range strictly local, from witchgrass grass to spearmint.

Sadness is not contagious.

The sky is blue.

For our peace of mind, their death seemingly shallower,
animals do not pass away, but simply die,
losng – we wish to believe – less awareness and the world,
leaving – it seems to us – a stage less tragic.
Their humble little souls do not haunt our dreams,
they keep their distance,
know their place.

So here lies the dead beetle on the road,
glistens unlamented when the sun hits.
A glance at him is as good as a thought:
he looks as though nothing important had befallen him.
What's important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.

--Wislawa Szymborska
(translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

Hap Notes: Ah, the superiority of large creatures! How we love to think that our lives have meaning and thoughts and philosophies and other creatures do not. It's interesting to note that much that we have learned about other creatures in the last 50 years supports the idea that they converse in their own ways. The Human Genome Project shows that we have a good deal in common with the worm.

I don't exactly know why people are repulsed by, let alone not sympathetic to, insects. They are so fascinating and often quite beautiful. Remember the James K. Baxter Poem we did about the wild bees? (Here it is if you want a refresher: See where he compares the raiding of a bee hive to the siege of Carthage? Why do we think we are superior to other creatures? And for those thinking of the Bible and all that "man will have dominion over the earth," one wonders if that phrase doesn't carry with it a heavy responsibility?

I'm not suggesting that you invite a spider to tea or have a cluster of ladybugs over for dinner (although that would be mighty nice of you) but each creature has function and meaning on the planet, do they not? This planet is whirling with tangles of the births and deaths of millions of creatures every day. Isn't that an amazing miracle when one thinks of the stages needed to create or kill any living organism? Makes your head spin, doesn't it?

The universe is a very busy place. It's not a bad idea to stop and rejoice/lament all this with an open heart.

Note the title of this poem. What does it imply aside from our obvious height difference with a beetle?

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

The masthead, in addition to a dead beetle (I believe it's a Stag Beetle), features a picture of witchgrass and also, jewelry made from dead beetles. It's cool looking stuff but the idea of using dead creatures for adornment is somewhat abhorrent and speaks directly to the point of the poem, does it not?
(Here's where I found the jewelry:

Friday, September 2, 2011

Number 253: Hilaire Belloc "The Frog"

The Frog

Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As ‘Slimy skin,’ or ‘Polly-wog,’
Or likewise ‘Ugly James,’
Or ‘Gape-a-grin,’ or ‘Toad-gone-wrong,’
Or ‘Billy Bandy-knees’:
The Frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).

-- Hilaire Belloc

Hap Notes: Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (1879-1953) was a highly intelligent and controversial essayist and historian in addition to being a poet of "children's verse." Belloc's verses for children, however, do not claim a shred of intention of being exclusively for children with titles like "Henry King, Who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies"and "Rebecca, who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably." Roald Dahl, unsurprisingly, was a fan of his verse. Belloc, however, is first and foremost considered one of the most influential essayists of the Edwardian era and is placed with H.G. Wells (with whom he had battles in essay form), George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton.

Hemingway was somewhat of an admirer of Belloc and mentions him in A Moveable Feast in the passages about Ford Maddox Ford. (I remembered this and re-read the book last night only to find out that it wasn't actually Belloc that Ford had "cut" with a look. It was still a great read.)

Belloc held controversial and conservative views, however his book, The Jews (1922), tainted as it is with a sort of anti-semitism, accurately predicted Hitler, long before he took power. Belloc wrote many histories and historical biographies. His political views are not easily summed up but I suppose it's fair to say he was contemptuous of the modern world.

His books of children's poetry certain presage the dark titles of Lemony Snicket's (Daniel Handler)"A Series of Unfortunate Events" with titles like "Cautionary Tales For Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children Between the Ages of Eight and Fourteen Years" and "The Bad Child's Book of Beasts" and "More Beasts For Worse Children."

Here's a good Belloc quote: "Is there no Latin word for Tea? Upon my soul, if I had known that I would have let the vulgar stuff alone. "

and another: "Every major question in history is a religious question. It has more effect in molding life than nationalism or a common language. "

and his famous couplet: "When I am dead, I hope it may be said:/ His sins were scarlet, but his books were read. "

Here's our Saturday cartoons and songs (SO many froggy things it was hard to choose!):

Here's Ub Iwerks' "Flip the Frog" with music by Carl Stallings- "The Soup Song"

Had to have one Kermit. Here he is tap dancing (sorta):

Crazy Frogs with 'The Ding Dong Song":

A Favorite of mine from Liam Lynch's podcast- "The Frog Song":

Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad stories in stop motion animation- here is the "cookie" story: (side note my brother always said that he was Frog and I was Toad. This episode illustrates clearly why that is true.)

The Rupert cartoons on Disney featured Paul McCartney music. Here's his song for the frog concert in the series:

Les Claypool, the frontman for the band Primus, is a multi-faceted musician (and person) here's Les Claypool's Frog Brigade with "Up On The Roof": /

And, if you can stand one more, a short section from Sondheim's musical based on Aristophanes' The Frogs:

Number 252: William Lloyd Garrison "Freedom For The Mind"

Freedom For The Mind

High walls and huge the body may confine,
And iron grates obstruct the prisoner's gaze,
And massive bolts may baffle his design,
And vigilant keepers watch his devious ways:
Yet scorns the immortal mind this base control!
No chains can bind it, and no cell enclose:
Swifter than light, it flies from pole to pole,
And, in a flash, from earth to heaven it goes!
It leaps from mount to mount –from vale to vale
It wanders, plucking honeyed fruits and flowers;
It visits home, to hear the fireside tale,
Or in sweet converse pass the joyous hours.
'Tis up before the sun, roaming afar,
And, in its watches, wearies every star!

-- William Lloyd Garrison

Hap Notes: William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) is certainly famous but not for writing poetry, although this poem is much anthologized. Garrison was an abolitionist and life-long journalist who bravely fought for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights. He was a great believer in the equality of all and he put his money, and often his life, where his mouth was.

Garrison is probably most noted for his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and for founding the American Anti-Slavery Society. He was a tireless lecturer and crusader for equal rights for Blacks and for the abolition of slavery (two separate issues and he felt that after slavery was abolished a new system should be set up to make sure freed slaves got their rights.) He often narrowly escaped lynching after some of his lectures. He endured a plethora of death threats and hostility from pro-slavery adherents. Some Southern churches actually had a price on his head.

Garrison spent a couple of months in prison so he knows whereof he speaks in today's poem. In point of fact, no one can access your brain unless you allow it. Advertisers and politicos try with all their resources (which are considerable) to get into your though processes and it's amazing how often they succeed in altering the thoughts of the unguarded mind.

As the poem states, you are free to think whatever you choose. Ah, and there's the rub, eh? If one chooses to believe the malarkey that advertisers constantly rain down upon the public or if one listens to the drivel of uninformed political types, one is free to think what they say is true, also. (A friend of mine recently said that Rick Perry was described as an "Old Testament Christian", which is, of course, an oxymoron but that won't stop people from thinking it or saying it.) So that's the downside of being a responsible-to-yourself thinker – muddy statements that "sound" like they have some merit.

The up side is that no matter where you are, you can think what you want, dream of a better place, imagine a different landscape. You can be flying to the moon as you sit on the porch, you can be in a cozy, warm house while you stand, freezing, at the bus stop, you can be talking to the clouds when it looks like you are watching television. Thoughts are the ultimate virtual reality and they need no computer to generate them.

This is one of those old time poems that teachers would trot out to illustrate the power of positive thinking. When I was a kid, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, used to recite a shorter and similar Frederick Langbridge verse. Do you remember this one?:

Two men looked out from prison bars,
One saw mud, the other saw stars.

Most of the time Langbridge's (I've never found the poem it came from) and Garrison's poem are whipped out to placate a complainer but the verses, which are about point of view, are also about consciousness and how present in the mind one chooses to be. I would caution all who use these verse to comfort themselves that there is a responsibility implicit in them that goes beyond just "looking on the bright side."

Of course, there's nothing particularly bad about looking on the bright side as long as it doesn't blind you to injustices and troubles you could remedy. Garrison's life stands as a testimony to holding fast to your beliefs and living the principles you espouse.

Here's a famous Garrison quote: "All Christendom professes to receive the Bible as the word of God, and what does it avail?”

You won't find more Garrison poetry but you will find some of his work from The Liberator here:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Number 251; Ruth L. Schwartz "Important Thing"

Important Thing

I've always loved the way pelicans dive,
as if each silver fish they see
were the goddamned most important
thing they've ever wanted on this earth --
and just tonight I learned sometimes
they go blind doing it,
that straight-down dive like someone jumping
from a rooftop, only happier,
plummeting like Icarus, but more triumphant --
there is the undulating fish,
the gleaming sea,
there is the chance to taste again
the kind of joy which can be eaten whole,
and this is how they know to reach it,
head-first, high-speed, risking everything,

and some of the time they come back up
as if it were nothing, they bob on the water,
silver fish like stogies angled
rakishly in their wide beaks,
-- then the enormous
stretching of the throat,
then the slow unfolding
of the great wings,
as if it were nothing, sometimes they do this
a hundred times or more a day,
as long as they can see, they rise
back into the sky
to begin again --

and when they can't?

We know, of course, what happens,
they starve to death, not a metaphor, not a poem in it;
this goes on every day of our lives,

and the man whose melting wings

spatter like a hundred dripping candles

over everything,

and the suicide who glimpses, in the final

seconds of her fall,

all the other lives she might have lived.

The ending doesn't have to be happy.

The hunger itself is the thing.

-- Ruth L. Schwartz

Hap Notes: While the pelican does not go blind from just diving, they can go blind from polluted water and avian botulism (caused by eating diseased fish in water that lacks oxygen due to pollution etc.) The botulism also causes paralysis so severe that the bird cannot hold its head up and he will drown. These facts do not particularly impact the poem as the pelicans are still blinded by their need, their fervor, their hunger. (And as this poem is from Schwartz's book, Edgewater, it deals with the water of Lake Erie in Cleveland at Edgewater Park, which, at one time, had a pollution problem.)

I love the image of the fish in the mouth of a pelican looking like a cigar. It's funny and rings true, too, doesn't it? But what Schwartz is actually dealing with in this poem is the will to life, to live, to feel, to hunger, to want and how that will keeps us going, no matter what.

We have talked about Icarus before (and his wings made of wax and feathers and how he flew too close to the sun) with the Auden poem here:

There is some jumping going on in this poem with both the pelicans and the suicide attempt. One jump seems alert and joyful, the other a bit rueful. But the motives for both jumps are that hunger, that desire. The pelicans need the food to live, the suicidal woman hungers for something that she needs to live, too, doesn't she? And how many of us consider the alternate paths we could have taken to sate our hungers?

According to the poet, what is the "Important Thing" in this poem? What is it for you?

Here is where we have talked about Schwartz before: