Search This Blog

Monday, October 31, 2011

Number 292: Edgar Allan Poe "Ulalume"


The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere -
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir -
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through and alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul -
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll -
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole -
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere -
Our memories were treacherous and sere, -
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!) -
We noted not the dim lake of Auber
(Though once we had journeyed down here) -
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
And star-dials pointed to morn -
As the star-dials hinted of morn -
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn -
Astarte's bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said: "She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs -
She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
To point us the path to the skies -
To the Lethean peace of the skies -
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes -
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes."

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said: "Sadly this star I mistrust -
Her pallor I strangely mistrust:
Ah, hasten! -ah, let us not linger!
Ah, fly! -let us fly! -for we must."
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in the dust -
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust -
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied: "This is nothing but dreaming:
Let us on by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendour is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty tonight! -
See! -it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright -
We safely may trust to a gleaming,
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night."

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom -
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb -
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said: "What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?"
She replied: "Ulalume -Ulalume -
'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!"

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere -
As the leaves that were withering and sere;
And I cried: "It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed -I journeyed down here! -
That I brought a dread burden down here -
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber -
This misty mid region of Weir -
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."

-- Edgar Allan Poe

Hap Notes: These gloomy verses were written by Poe expressly for recitation so if you haven't done so, go back and read it aloud. He wanted you to hear the words and their sounds– he even repeats them for dramatic effect. He's very fond of "L"s- Ulalume, Annabelle Lee, Eulalie, Lenore. It is commonly pronounced Ooh-La-Loom or Yoo-La-Loom. Gloomy sounding name, I think. Here is Jeff Buckley reading it with appropriately spooky music as a background: Pretty haunting stuff.

First, let's clarify a bit about the verses before I give you my shocking interpretation of the poem (not kidding– it's an unusual one.) The poem tells the story of a guy so distraught with grief at the loss of his love that he knows neither where he is wandering nor what day it is. He wanders through a gloomy forest by a lake (he's been there before but doesn't recall this until later). The lake and forest are fictional names made up by Poe (some scholars think they are possibly named for a composer (Auber) and an artist (Weir).) He travels with Psyche who is the personification of his soul/rational consciousness.

As he walks along he sees a vision in the sky of Astarte (who in Greek mythology becomes Aphrodite and in Roman mythology is Venus) a goddess of fertility, sexuality and, often, war. One of her symbols is the lion (although the pathway to which she beckons in the sky is probably the constellation Leo). The "lethean" peace refers to the mythic waters of the river Lethe and its powers to make one forget if one drinks from its waters. Astarte is seductive and lovely but Psyche is wary and begs him to go away from this place and this vision. It's interesting to note that Poe felt his rational/soul is this lovely goddess with wings who was, in mythology, the wife of Cupid after a great deal of trouble with-- hmmm-- Venus. Although, Psyche is a generally accepted word for the soul/companion in most explications of this poem.

Let's get out of that tangled forest and go on. As the speaker of the poem walks down the path urged by Astarte, he comes to the door of a tomb and realizes with horror that it is the tomb of his dead love Ulalume that he laid to rest a year ago to the day. All his memories come flooding back and he realizes he has been down this path before, by this lake, when he buried her the year before. The horror, the horror.


(Don't read the next part of my explication if you like the idea of a fella so stricken with grief over the loss of his beloved. Seriously. Don't. You'll just hate me and I'll feel bad that I ruined something you loved.)

I have this feeling every time I read this poem that the speaker isn't telling us something very important about his grief. He keeps referring to his feelings as volcanic and lava like in arctic cold settings. Maybe it's that word "treacherous" and the way he calls the body of his love a "dread burden" that strikes me as odd but it seems as though the speaker in the poem may have been responsible in some way for the death of Ulalume. He seems, at first, very taken with Astarte, a goddess of sensuality, beauty and, yes, sex. His "good girl" conscious tells him to get away from her. I get the feeling that this guy is afraid of the sexuality of women and wants them to be like his Psyche. Ah, but he's seduced by the sensual. So, can you see where this fella could be the kind of guy who loved a sensual, sexual woman and then maybe, killed her from his own twisted view of love and sex? And then, wandered around in delirious grief for his misdeed– because he did love her but she had power over him. And still does. And who the hell calls the body of a loved one a "dread burden"? Sounds more like a murdered corpse. Just sayin'. And maybe the tomb brings back his addled guilty memory of the dastardly deed done in a fit of passion.

I don't think Poe intended this interpretation, by the way, just telling you what I think when I read the poem. I think my version is scarier, too.

Happy Halloween, by the way. Hope you eat some candy and read more poetry (sounds like a perfect holiday to me.)

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

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Number 291: Robert Frost "Ghost House"

Ghost House

I Dwell in a lonely house I know 

That vanished many a summer ago, 

And left no trace but the cellar walls,

And a cellar in which the daylight falls,

And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow. 

O'er ruined fences the grape-vines shield 

The woods come back to the mowing field;

The orchard tree has grown one copse

Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops; 

The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart

In that vanished abode there far apart

On that disused and forgotten road 

That has no dust-bath now for the toad. 

Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout

And hush and cluck and flutter about: 

I hear him begin far enough away

Full many a time to say his say

Before he arrives to say it out. 

It is under the small, dim, summer star.

I know not who these mute folk are 

Who share the unlit place with me-- 

Those stones out under the low-limbed tree

Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar. 

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,

Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,-- 

With none among them that ever sings,

And yet, in view of how many things,

As sweet companions as might be had.

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Well, I suppose everything is open to interpretation but after reading a good deal of summaries of this poem in books and online I have to point out something that I think is perfectly clear in the first two verses of this poem that each interpretation fails to see: The speaker in this poem is dead.

"I dwell" present tense. "That vanished" past tense. I guess the speaker could be living in a ruined exposed cellar next to a graveyard but this seems highly unlikely considering that Frost wrote the poems of "A Boys Will" (his first book of poem published in 1915) about New England – a place where one could not live in a wrecked open cellar for very long once the winter hit (although the poem is set in summer). The speaker is certainly giving us a metaphor for life in this poem but the word "dwell," on the surface, at least (ah yes, we'll get to the next layer in a moment), implies residency. (And remember the title of the poem.)

Now, there is another meaning to the word "dwell" which means to mentally linger, to think on – almost to obsess– about something. This has its place in this poem but not on the surface. The speaker in the poem gives us far too much information about the current state of the area for us to assume he is just "dwelling" there emotionally; the bats coming out at night, the very detailed account of a whippoorwill calling from a distance, the one dim summer star overhead. One who is merely thinking dwells ON something, not in it.

The nameless quiet folks in the graveyard have, among their number, a young girl and a boy, though none of them sing like the whippoorwill does, or speaks. Why do you think Frost says they are "tireless"? Why does he particularly point out the boy and girl?

There is a devastating loneliness in this poem; the empty ruined cellar, the one bird, the "healed" path, the one dim star. And only the bird, the living creature, tries to assert himself with his voice. And if you've ever heard a whippoorwill, you know that it's an insistent song. Here it is: The whippoorwill is nocturnal and calls mostly at dusk so we also know this poem is set, with it's one dim star, in a gloomy sunset.

What, in this poem, is Frost saying about life and human company in this poem? What happened to the house? The speaker? Why does the speaker's heart ache? How much do we ever get to know about a person? How does this poem depict human life and its transitive frailty?

We've done a lot of Frost, here are a few of them:



Saturday, October 29, 2011

Number 290: Agha Shahid Ali "The Wolf's Postscript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'"

The Wolf's Postscript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'

First, grant me my sense of history:

I did it for posterity,
for kindergarten teachers

and a clear moral:

Little girls shouldn't wander off

in search of strange flowers,

and they mustn't speak to strangers.

And then grant me my generous sense of plot:

Couldn't I have gobbled her up

right there in the jungle?

Why did I ask her where her grandma lived?

As if I, a forest-dweller,

didn't know of the cottage

under the three oak trees

and the old woman lived there

all alone?

As if I couldn't have swallowed her years before?

And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf,

now my only reputation.

But I was no child-molester
though you'll agree she was pretty.

And the huntsman:

Was I sleeping while he snipped

my thick black fur

and filled me with garbage and stones?

I ran with that weight and fell down,

simply so children could laugh

at the noise of the stones

cutting through my belly,

at the garbage spilling out

with a perfect sense of timing,

just when the tale

should have come to an end.

Agha Shahid Ali

Hap Notes: Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) was born in New Delhi. His father was from a Kashmir family that strongly believed in education and Ali's grandmother was one of the first women to be educated in Kashmir (side note: this is where we get the name for cashmere– from the Kashmir goats first found in the region and prized for their soft fur underlayer used for the fabric). Ali's father went to Ball State for a while and so the poet lived some of his youth in Muncie, Indiana. After his family returned to Delhi he went to universities there and returned to the U.S. for his doctorate in English at Penn State.

Ali held teaching positions at the University of Delhi, Penn State, SUNY Binghamton, Princeton University, Hamilton College, Baruch College, University of Utah, and Warren Wilson College. He is the author of a dozen books, most of them award winning poetry. He was one of the first poets to make the ghazal ( a Persian form of poetry that uses repetition, rhyme and couplets) a familiar form in the U.S.

His awards include fellowships from The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and a Pushcart Prize. He died very young, at 52, from a cancerous brain tumor.

In today's poem we see the wolf in the famous fairytale explaining, in so many words, how "bad" is a necessary part of good. There is no Jesus story without Judas, there is no cautionary tale of Red Riding Hood without the wolf. Ali's wolf goes so far as to say he purposely sacrificed himself for the moral of the tale, future generations and the amusement of children.

The Red Riding Hood tale is a strange one in many cultures. In Perrault's version, "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" (side note: yes, chaperon is a cap with a small cape attached for protection from the cold and it is where we get the word chaperone– someone who protects us) the story is supposed to serve as a warning to young maidens to beware of predatory men (a girl who lost her virginity at the time, circa late 1600s, was said to have "seen the wolf"). Perrault's "Red" gets into bed with the wolf and gets eaten.

Perrault explains his tale: "
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there one with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!"

In other versions of the tale "Red" eats part of the grandma, becoming a cannibal, before the wolf eats her. The red color in the story stands for a great deal but it all boils down to blood, pretty much.

When I was a kid, no eating took place in the story. Grandma got locked in the closet and a huntsman came in the nick of time to kill the wolf.

Sometimes the wolf ate the grandma (and "Red") but the huntsman comes in and cuts open the wolf releasing them both.

All in all, Red Riding Hood is a pretty scary story full of sex and violence (like most fairytales, I suppose. See Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" or Sondheim's musical "Into the Woods")

It's Saturday so here are our cartoons, music and etc:

First, Sam the Sham and the Pharohs with "Little Red Riding Hood" :

Here's Bugs Bunny with "Little Red Riding Rabbit":

Here's one of my all-time faves–the Tex Avery classic "Red Hot Riding Hood":

This is a very unusual Walter Lanz Dinky Doodle Red Riding Hood cartoon from

A Walter Lanz 1953 Red Riding Hood with a Coke:

Always the voice of narrator Edward Everett Horton amuses in Rocky and Bulwinkle's "Fractured Fairytales" version of Red Riding Hood:

Remember this movie from 1984, The Company of Wolves? (predating Twilight with its sexual subtext):

Oh ba-ruther–only a glimpse of Gary Oldman saves this from total uselessness (although The Muppets trailer is pretty okay):

I suppose since it's Halloween we ought to at least nod to Wolfmother and "Witchcraft":

Have you seen these thematic Living Dead dolls? This is Red Riding Hood and the Wolf:

It's a loose connection but so worth it to hear, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels with "C.C. Rider" (sometimes called "Jenny Take a Ride"):

Monday, October 24, 2011

Number 289: John Greenleaf Whittier "The Pumpkin"

The Pumpkin

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,

The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run, 

And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold, 

With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,

Like that which o'er Nineveh's prophet once grew,

While he waited to know that his warning was true, 

And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain 

For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain. 

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden 

Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden; 

And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold 

Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;

Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,

On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,

Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines, 

And the sun of September melts down on his vines. 

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,

From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest; 

When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board 

The old broken links of affection restored; 

When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,

And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before; 

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, 

What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? 

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling, 

When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!

When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,

Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune, 

Our chair a broad pumpkin, - our lantern the moon, 

Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam

In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team! 

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better

E'er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!

Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine, 

Brighter eyes never watched o'er its baking, than thine!

And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express, 

Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less, 

That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below, 

And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow, 

And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky 

Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!

--John Greenleaf Whittier

Hap Notes: John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) is remembered for his staunch abolitionist writings as much, or more, than for his poetry now. He was an editor, writer and poet and he used the pen to forward the cause of freedom. He was born and raised a Quaker and took the principles of the Quakers to heart.

Folks who went to school in the first half of the 20th century, were often assigned to memorize a Whittier poem or two, most notably "Barbara Frietchie" ("Shoot if you must this old gray head but spare your country's flag," she said") and "Maud Muller" ("For of all sad words of tongue or pen/ The saddest are these: "It might have been.") and "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind." Here is the poem, set to music and now a somewhat familiar hymn, being sung in Westminster Abbey:

In today's poem, Whittier likens the leaves of the pumpkin to the plant that grew over the head of the reluctant biblical prophet Jonah. (Quick recap for the Bible impaired: Jonah was asked by God to go to Ninevah and tell the people to repent or deal with the Lord's anger. Jonah didn't want to go- we aren't sure why until the end of the story- and tries to escape on a boat. God makes the sea to churn, Jonah gets tossed off the boat - he tells the crew to do it, he knows it's God's wrath at him that is causing it. He gets swallowed by a whale which he lives inside for three days until he tells God he will go to Ninevah and do as he is asked. He gets there, tells the people to repent or else God will send down a can of whupass. Immediately the people repent. Disgruntled, Jonah goes out to the city gates and sits there. He tells God, "This is exactly why I didn't want to come here- I knew they'd repent and you would spare them- what a waste of time." A vine grows up alongside him and shades him in the hot sun. The next day as he sits there the vine is destroyed by a worm. This vexes Jonah and when God asks him what is the matter, Jonah expresses his anger over the destruction of his shade plant. God says, "So, nu, you have compassion for a plant but not the thousands of people in Nineveh?")

The fairy tale he is talking about in the poem is Cinderella. Mostly, though, Whittier is extolling the virtues of Fall and the delicious memories and taste of pumpkin pie. He compares the pride of the Spaniard growing pumpkins (which are not really as round or orange as American ones) with the Yankee farmer's. He also talks about the American Jack-o-lantern and the candle's glow inside the carved out orange squash. (In England and Ireland they do the same with turnips or beets.) Pumpkins can be grown, FYI, on every continent except Antarctica.

Pumpkins are thought to have originated in North America.

Here's a good Whittier quote: "You don't always win your battles, but it's good to know you fought."

You can find more Whittier here:

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Number 288: Douglas Goetsch "The Kingdom"

The Kingdom

A little girl in her Halloween princess costume,
purple and white, thin satin or polyester,
a slit in the sleeve, a sweatshirt underneath
her mother made her wear over her screams.
Still, she couldn't be more excited, waving
her cardboard wand. Children need so little;
pennies for the fountain, bread for the sparrows.
You tell them to sit on the floor and they do.
Even rich kids know there's nothing better
than a tree house, creaking in the wind.
Talking into tin cans, gazing down at the rain,
they understand what a kingdom is, though they
cant know they'll spend their lives trying
to get back to that high throne, that cardboard
wand with which they conjured a future
so different from the one that arrived.

-- Douglas Goetsch

Hap Notes: What did you think you would be when you were a child? How big was the world to you then? Every person you meet was once a child, and in many ways, still is. When you talk to a person it's not a bad idea to remember that you are talking to a child who had fears, hopes and dreams and all those things are still inside them somewhere.

One's dreams and thoughts from childhood are often preserved, like an old dried corsage now battered and hardly recognizable, but still there. Some folks find that circumstances in life have battered all the child-like hope out of them. These people are often filled with resentment, anger and bitter sadness. They don't want to see anybody else's dreams come true since theirs did not. These are the people who will say about some enthusiastic person,"They'll get THAT beaten out of them by life, just wait and see." As if life were some kind of punishment. If it was, why would we think otherwise as a child? What is it about life that makes it seem to some like drudgery as they age?

The children in today's poem don't know this will happen yet but all of us on the other side of childhood watch them with a certain joy in their happiness and a sorrow about the loss of our own childish hopes and dreams.

What is the poet saying about adulthood in this poem? How is talking into tin cans different from using a cell phone, not physically but otherwise.? What kind of a house is in a tree? What is the poet saying about the "cardboard" magic of childhood? What is he saying about our cardboard lives? Why is this poem called "The Kingdom"?

Here is where we have talked about Goetsch before:

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Number 287: Edgar Allan Poe "The Raven"

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"- here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" -
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more."

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never - nevermore'."

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore:
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend," I shrieked, upstarting -
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

-- Edgar Allan Poe

Hap Notes: Surely most people know the work of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), a writer who not only expanded the literature of horror and the supernatural, but also pretty much invented and refined the detective story. He was also a poet, editor, journalist and critic. In America, he was one of the first writers to live by his writing work as his sole means of support.

The reports of Poe's drinking and debauchery are greatly exaggerated and were written by his enemies from jealousy and revenge. Poe was not a drug addict. He had a few drinks now and then, yes. Okay, more than a few. He was a melancholy fella. He was often erratic and a bit odd. His parents were professional actors; his dad left when he was merely a babe and his mother died not long after that from tuberculosis. He was raised by foster parents. The plot thickens, eh?

In today's haunting poem (it virtually made his reputation when it was printed in the newspaper) a man saddened by the death of his beautiful beloved, Lenore, is driven to madness by a mysterious talking raven (ravens and crows can be taught to speak). When he talks of the bust of Pallas, he is talking about Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, strength, female arts, crafts, justice, and skill. Pluto and Plutonian are references to the underworld, Hades. The reference to a "balm in Gilead" is a biblical one. It refers to a curative ointment of sorts, made from the resin of a tree, and is from the book of Jeremiah: "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of God's people?"

One always wonders what the narrator of the poem was reading. Some suggest a book on the occult but the speaker in the poem says he was seeking to find comfort in the books so I'd wager they were wrong. He mentions the Bible in his quote about Gilead but he also calls his reading matter "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" so we'd be safe in assuming he did not mean the bible. (I suppose I could work myself up to express certain parallels between good and evil in this poem but I'll let you do that.)

Poe felt very strongly, and wrote so in essays, that a poem's meaning should just underlie the surface. So. What is under the surface in this poem?

Poe is arguably one of the most influential novelists/poets ever produced in America.

It's Saturday so here are some cartoons and Poe related stuff:

First off, here's Christopher Walken reading "The Raven":

And Vincent Price:

and James Earl Jones reciting it on a Simpsons Halloween special:

and Christopher Lee:

and John De Lancie:

and John Astin:

and Lou Reed's version- Surprisingly, it is in many ways one of the best interpretations.:

Here is Tim Burton's animated film about a child named Vincent whose leanings fall somewhere between Poe and Price:

A chilling animated film of "The Raven":

And Tiny Toons:

Here's "The Raven" by the Alan Parsons Project:

And here's Poe (no relation- I think her name is supposed to stand for Peace On Earth) with "Hello" :

And, what the hell, Liz Phair (who is still going strong and reprises this song often in concert) doing "Mesmerizing" from her extraordinary and original low-fi classic "Exile In Guyville": Because I like it.

The masthead today is the Gustave Dore illustration for the book in which this poem first appeared(1884) and an inset of a Raven's face.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Number 286: Douglas Goetsch "Smell and Envy" and John Clare "Evening Primrose"

Smell and Envy

You nature poets think you've got it, hostaged

somewhere in Vermont or Oregon,

so it blooms and withers only for you,

so all you have to do is name it: primrose

- and now you're writing poetry, and now

you ship it off to us, to smell and envy.

But we are made of newspaper and smoke

and we dunk your roses in vats of blue.

Birds don't call, our pigeons play it close

to the vest. When the moon is full

we hear it in the sirens. The Pleiades

you could probably buy downtown. Gravity

is the receiver on the hook. Mortality

we smell on certain people as they pass.

-- Douglas Goetsch

Evening Primrose

When once the sun sinks in the west,

And dewdrops pearl the evening's breast;

Almost as pale as moonbeams are,

Or its companionable star,

The evening primrose opes anew

Its delicate blossoms to the dew;

And, hermit-like, shunning the light,

Wastes its fair bloom upon the night,

Who, blindfold to its fond caresses,

Knows not the beauty it possesses;

Thus it blooms on while night is by;

When day looks out with open eye,

Bashed at the gaze it cannot shun,

It faints and withers and is gone.

-- John Clare

Hap Notes: I don't suppose Goetsch is talking about Clare here, I just thought the juxtaposition was interesting. Douglas Goetsch is a gifted teacher in addition to being the award-winning author of a half dozen poetry books. He taught at New York City public schools as well as at writer's workshops throughout the U.S. at various universities. He is the founder of Jane Street Press. His poetry is luminous, clever and well thought out. He is also an excellent prose writer, especially about poetry.

You can find more Goetsch here:

John Clare (1793-1864) was born in Helpston, England. His family was poor and his parents were illiterate. He went to some bit of formal schooling and reputedly wrote his poetry after his manual laborer jobs ploughing and threshing. In his life time he had several books of poetry published. He struggled with being an outsider to the literati of England ( he was called the "peasant poet") and an outsider to the rank and file workers amongst whom he had grown up. He suffered later in life from delusions and depression. He died in the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum.

You can find more Clare here:

In the two poems, I think it is obvious that Goetsch is a city boy and Clare is a country boy. Goetsch is making a very good point about the "observational" poetry of "nature lovers" who write a few lines about flowers or birds to which many city dwellers cannot relate or, at least, relate to with a certain amount of tough derision. That poetry often seems to be redolent with saccharine idyllic word pictures. (Although I am duty bound to point out that there is plenty of wildlife in the city- hawks, squirrels, birds, raccoons and even rabbits. There is wildlife everywhere on the planet if you look for it.)

Clare is talking about a beautiful night-blooming flower that never sees the sun. Which, I suppose, could be a really good analogy for city dwellers who do not get a chance to see the natural world much. Or an analogy to one whose potential is somewhat hidden from public daytime viewing, much as Clare was as a youth.

The masthead is a close up of a primrose. The inset is Goetsch (top) and Clare (bottom).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Number 285: Ranier Maria Rilke "Moving Forward"

Moving Forward

The deep parts of my life pour onward,
as if the river shores were opening out.
It seems that things are more like me now,
that I can see farther into paintings.
I feel closer to what language can't reach.
With my sense, as with birds, I climb
into the windy heaven, out of the oak,
and in the ponds broken off from the sky
my feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes.

--Rainer Maria Rilke
(Translated by Robert Bly)

Hap Notes: I don't know that Rilke is specifically writing about aging in this poem, although he is certainly talking about the maturation and inspiration of perception. Rilke's poetry is so moving because of his economy of thought; he gives us a few word pictures, a few clues, and then lets us float around in the words and find our own startling revelations.

There are many profound sides to this poem. Let me select my favorite: " I feel closer to what language can't reach." The historian Heinrich Zimmer said "The best truths cannot be spoken and the second best will be misunderstood." (To which Joseph Campbell added "The third best is the usual conversation.") It's a staggering and awe-filled observation that language cannot reach many of the most important things we think and feel.

Here's a little more fuel for your thinking fires as they smolder. Rilke said in the last (tenth) of the "Duino Elegies"– "And we, who have always thought/ of happiness as rising, would feel/ the emotion that almost overwhelms us / whenever a happy thing falls."

Here's a bit more: Rilke writes, "we are incessantly flowing over and over to those who preceded us and to those who apparently come after us … Transience everywhere plunges into a deep being."

Here is where we have talked about Rilke before:

and here:

Today's masthead features several of Cy Twombly's panels from “Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts)." On the panel labeled Part 1 are Rilke's words from todays poem. I think the other two panels pictured (V and VI) are a perfect illustration of the poem (for me anyway, but all the panels are exquisite in their speechless perfection of feeling.) If you've a hankering to see the works of "second wave" abstract expressionist Twombly, you owe yourself a trip to Houston, Texas, to the Menil Collection Cy Twombly Gallery where his artwork gets the proper light and setting to astound. You can see the gallery and some of the works here: (Twombly passed away in July of this year- there will never be another like him.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Number 284: Dale Wimbrow "The Guy In The Glass"

The Guy In the Glass

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.

For it isn't your Father, or Mother, or Wife,
Who judgement upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.

He's the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he's with you clear up to the end,
And you've passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may be like Jack Horner and "chisel" a plum,
And think you're a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you're only a bum
If you can't look him straight in the eye.

You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you've cheated the guy in the glass.

-- Dale Wimbrow

Hap Notes: First off, never heard of "pelf"? It's a word for ill-gotten gains, money gotten in a disreputable way. This poem, for many years, was attributed to the ubiquitous "Anonymous", that fella who wrote so many of the older familiar poems. Sometimes an urban mythology goes with it such as "it was found on a jail cell wall" or "it was written by a recovering addict." All interesting embroideries but false and belies the work of the poet,Dale Wimbrow (1895-1954), who was a fascinating and multi-faceted poet, musician, writer and artist.

Wimbrow was born in Whaleyville, Maryland. He went to Western Maryland College and served in WWI. He wrote songs and was somewhat famous for his work with orchestras on the radio. Here is a Wimbrow penned song: Dale Wimbrow and his Rubenville Turners doing "Country Bred and Chicken Fed" from 1926: Pretty cheery stuff and anticipates the rise of Swing and Western Swing music. He his wife, Dorothy, was a radio writer and producer.

Wimbrow wrote a good half dozen songs in addition to two books. He also started the Indian River News in 1948. The newspaper went on until his death and was later re-established and carried on by his wife.

Today's poem has been memorized, cut out of various newspapers (Ann Landers ran it in her column in 1983) and recited by millions over the years. It was originally published in the American magazine in 1934. Wimbrow wrote it in answer to a question written in to the magazine by an 18 year old fella, " One good reason, please, why an ambitious man should be honest." The magazine offered a prize for the best reader responses. Ironically, I don't think he won that contest. Go fig.

Since this poem has run in countless publications, I doubt that it needs much explication, however, it bears repeating that when you look in the mirror you should be looking a person whom you enjoy being with since that is who you will be with for life.

Here is another of Wimbrow's poems and his children's tribute website for him:

Yay! Saturday! So here are some cartoons and music:

Romper Room magic mirror WQAD-TV in Moline, IL.:

And here's Miss Frances at Ding Dong School making a very, uh, interesting sandwich:

Michael Jackson with "Man In The Mirror":

That scary mirror scene and transformation of the evil queen in Disney's "Snow White" :

Here is a cartoon of Toopy and Binoo with a mirror. The cartoon originated from the books "Toupie et Binou" written by Dominique Jolin: Toopy and Binoo

Here's Arcade Fire with "Black Mirror"

This is just sick- bathroom mirrors with commercials:

Apropos of nothing– have you ever seen this hand art before?:

And for the upcoming holiday- here are a few pumpkins:

This is certainly not for children – claymation of part of Mark Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger":

And finally- you've got to really click around the Boobah Zone (I can't believe it's taken me this long to share this- it's so odd, part of a children's show btw):

(The masthead picture today is the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Number 283: Dylan Thomas "Poem in October"

Poem in October

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singingbirds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

-- Dylan Thomas

Hap Notes: Thomas' birthday is Oct. 27 but I've got a bunch of spooky poems planned for the end of the month so we'll put it here. This is Thomas' lyric reverie as he walks in the early morning on his thirtieth birthday. The landscape fills him with remembrance as well as the joys and sorrows of living.

His word pictures are extraordinary. The "heron priested shore"– who cannot imagine standing herons as priests with their stiff posture and plumage? Then there is a "springful of larks" and the "parables of sunlight" and the birds "flying my name" and the town covered with the red leaves of "October blood." And so much more...

It is both usual and important to scan one's life on her/his birthday. Thomas comes away with the hope that his heart's truth– the truths of his childhood, the truth of nature, his longing for love and understanding, his joys and sorrows– will still be as fresh and remembered on his next birthday.

Thomas' sterling reputation for reading poetry aloud is well-deserved. Here is Thomas reading the poem:

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Number 282: Lucy Maud Montgomery "An Autumn Evening'

An Autumn Evening

Dark hills against a hollow crocus sky
Scarfed with its crimson pennons, and below
The dome of sunset long, hushed valleys lie
Cradling the twilight, where the lone winds blow
And wake among the harps of leafless trees
Fantastic runes and mournful melodies.

The chilly purple air is threaded through
With silver from the rising moon afar,
And from a gulf of clear, unfathomed blue
In the southwest glimmers a great gold star
Above the darkening druid glens of fir
Where beckoning boughs and elfin voices stir.

And so I wander through the shadows still,
And look and listen with a rapt delight,
Pausing again and yet again at will
To drink the elusive beauty of the night,
Until my soul is filled, as some deep cup,
That with divine enchantment is brimmed up.

-- Lucy Maud Montgomery

Hap Notes: Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942) is well known as the author of the Anne of Green Gables books. If you have not read these delightful books or if you'd care to revisit them you can find the full collection here: If you love these books you are in good company; Mark Twain adored "Anne."

If you have read her work then it will not be surprising to find that Montgomery had a difficult childhood. She was born in Canada, in Cilfton on Prince Edward Island. Her mother died when she was about a year and a half old and her father, distraught with grief and confusion, and left the young Montgomery to live with her mother's parents. Then, when she was 7 years old she lived with her paternal grandparents. then her dad remarried- the marriage was rocky.

Montgomery was a bright and imaginative little girl. After public school she got through a two year college course of study in one year and qualified to teach. She didn't care much for teaching but it did allow her time to write, which is always what she wanted to do. She was pretty and had a lot of suitors but she really just wanted to write. She went through several engagements with suitors which she eventually broke off. However, she knew, at the time, that a woman in Canada had to have a husband. So she eventually did marry in her thirties, three years after publishing the first "Anne" book in 1908.

Married life did not appeal to the writer much. Her husband, Ewan MacDonald, a Presbyterian minister, was subject to depression as was she. Her only outlet from dreariness was writing and she was prolific, publishing books and short stories and poetry. She was quite famous but this seemed to only vaguely touch her life.

I do not think it would be unfair to say that Montgomery enjoyed her youth on Prince Edward Island where she had wonderful daydreams, made up stories and enjoyed the natural beauty of the place. Throughout her whole life her childhood called to her to come back and enjoy the woods and the stories just waiting to be made up.

In today's poem we see flashes of her whole life; a certain lonely melancholy, the "elfin voices" of imagination and childhood, an awe of the beauty of nature and the fulfillment of her soul through this beauty. She stands alone in this poem- as she did always in her own heart as she wrote.

She received many honors in her lifetime including Fellow of the British Royal Society of Arts in 1923, and a Companion of the Order of the British Empire, and a member of the Literary and Artistic Institute of France, in 1935.

You can find more Montgomery's poems here:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Number 281: Song Of The Battery Hen

Song of the Battery Hen

We can't grumble about accommodation;
We have a new concrete floor that's
Always dry, four walls that are
Painted white, and a sheet-iron roof
The rain drums on. A fan blows warm air
Beneath our feet to disperse the smell
Of chickenshit and, on dull days,
Fluorescent lighting sees us.

You can tell me; if you come by
The North door, I am in the twelfth pen
On the left-hand side of the third row
From the floor; and in that pen
I am usually the middle one of the three.
But even without directions, you'd
Discover me. I have the same orange-
Red comb, yellow beak and auburn
Feathers, but as the door opens and you
Hear above the electric fan a kind of
One-word wail, I am the one
Who sounds loudest in my head.

Listen. Outside this house there's an
Orchard with small moss-green apple
Trees; beyond that, two fields of
Cabbages then, on the far side of
The road, a broiler house. Listen:
One cockerel crows out of there, as
Tall and proud as the first hour of the sun.
Sometimes I stop calling with the others
To listen, and I wonder if he hears me.
The next time you come here, look for me.
Notice the way I sound inside my head.
God made us all quite differently,
And blessed us with this expensive home.

-- Edwin Brock

Hap Notes: Edwin Brock (1927-1997) idly read a poetry anthology when he was waiting to be demobbed (demobilized) from the Royal Navy in 1946 in Hong Kong after WWII. It changed the young man's life. The idea that verse, with it's often terse and condensed words, had communicative possibilities far beyond any other form of the written word inspired him to write. (He was from a distinctly un-literary South London family and he'd only gotten school qualifications from grammar school.)

He pursued writing as he worked as a policeman. When he was first published in the Times Literary Supplement the editor, Alan Pryce-Jones, had no idea that the young poet was a Bobby. Much was made of this in the British press, but Brock was unaffected by the ballyhoo and continued to read and hone his craft. He eventually became an advertising copywriter. He was quite good at it although he hated it as he hated anything that interfered with his reading and writing.

Brock had more than a dozen books of poetry published in his life time as well as a novel and an autobiography. His divorce, his remarriage, the birth of his children and other aspects of his life were all covered in his somewhat "Confessional" poetry. Today's poem, along with "Five Ways To Kill A Man" are two of his most famous and oft-read poems.

I suppose, one could make a case for the poor chickens in this poem. You'd have to be a complete numb skull not to know about the treatment of chickens raised for meat in today's market. Here in America, their beaks are often cut so that they won't hurt themselves or other chickens while penned up. So that's the first layer here. A battery is a large group of cages for the raising of poultry.

But there's something haunting in this poem that has to do with more than just the plight of animals we raise for food. There's an element in this poem that speaks directly to all of us who feel penned in and, even more startling, the rationalization we go through to defend our positions. That world out there is different, beautiful, calls to us but it is dangerous.

Here's what Brock had to say about today's poem at a reading: "It was written... when I was staying on a farm in Worcestershire. The farmer showed me his battery house with some pride and when I made the usual cliched comment about the poor bloody hens he said "Do you know we had an experiment one day, we left the flaps of all the cages up to see what the hens would do. Well, they looked around and walked right back in." At that point I said to myself, " Christ, he's just written my autobiography" and that afternoon I wrote "Song of the Battery Hen."

You can find more Brock

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Number 280: William Allingham "The Fairies"

The Fairies

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather.
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He's nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music,
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen,
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back
Between the night and morrow;
They thought she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn trees
For pleasure here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite?
He shall find the thornies set
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather.

-- William Allingham

Hap Notes: William Allingham (1824-1889) was born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland and worked at posts in custom houses as he wrote poetry. (Hap, what the hell is a customs house? Well, usually the term refers to an office for government officials that process the paperwork for the importation and exportation of goods.) He wrote poetry throughout his life. Today's poem is much quoted from the Willy Wonka movie to books by Terry Pratchett.

Allingham may be most famous for his copious diaries and records of his friend Alfred Tennyson. He is often referred to as the Boswell to Tennsyson's Dr. Johnson. He is much more than that, though. William Butler Yeats referred to him as a "minor immortal" and told Allingham's wife that he was "sometimes inclined to believe that [Allingham] was my own master in Irish Verse, starting me in the way I have gone whether for good or for ill." He was also friends with Carlyle who influenced him to take an editorship with Fraser's Magazine.

Both Yeats and Allingham believed in fairies, by the way.

Allingham also wrote under the names D. Pollex and Patricius Walker. In his book of poetic thoughts, Blackberries, written as D. Pollex, he writes "England! Leave Asia, Africa alone/ And mind this little country of thine own."

In today's poem, by the way, the places Columbkill, Slievleleague and Rosses are all places in Northern Ireland. Columbkill is a particularly interesting saint, also, by the by. Allingham's reputation suffers because he has that glib touch of the Irish blarney. His verses are so smooth that they are often considered too easy or trite. Today's poem is so well known that it makes this judgment impossible, really. His verses are easily read and charming. You could do worse.

Allingham's last words were "I am seeing things you know nothing of" and were oft repeated by Tennyson in his aging years.

In one of Allingham's diary entries about Tennyson he relates how an innkeeper had kept a poem of Tennyson's that the poet had written on a piece of butcher paper and had left in his room. The poem, Allingham is stunned to find out upon seeing a copy of it, was Tennyson's "In Memoriam" his famous requiem on the death of his friend and the poem was a favorite of Queen Victoria.

Here's a little bonus poem of Allingham's:

Let Me Sing of What I know

A wild west Coast, a little Town,
Where little Folk go up and down,
Tides flow and winds blow:
Night and Tempest and the Sea,
Human Will and Human Fate:
What is little, what is great?
Howsoe'er the answer be,
Let me sing of what I know.

You can find more Allingham here:

It's Saturday so here are our cartoons:

But first, Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt. I always think of this melody when I read Allingham's poem:

Some fairies and fairy art:

Here's a charming leader for a documentary on Faeries:

Gotta have the Fantasia fairies in "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, I s'pose:

If you can stand another rendition- here's someone playing the Glass Armonica (invented by Benjamin Franklin) with ""Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies":

This is so odd I had to share it:

Fairytales toys:

And the Star Fairies toys:

Okay, enough with the fairies. Here's the palate cleansing Pixies with the only song of theirs I can even remotely stand, "This Monkey's Gone To Heaven": I suppose I could have used Black Sabbath's "Fairies Wear Boots" with our theme, too. More yuk.

I'm indulging myself now with some music to clear my head of the crappy music and sugary fairies toys. Love that Hubert Sumlin guitar, too. This is my idea of magical beings. Howlin' Wolf with "Smokestack Lightning": I feel better now.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Number 279: John Masefield "Sea Fever"

Sea Fever

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

-- John Masefield

Hap Notes: First off, when I was a kid I memorized this poem as "I must GO down to the seas again...." but this is wrong. The full verses above are exactly as printed in the book where the poem first appeared in 1916, Salt Water Poems and Ballads. You can see the book for yourself (with its charming illustrations) here: and it's well worth a look.

Today's poem has moved many a heart with it's description of the sea-faring life. There's more here, though. The "wild call" that is all of nature may even be a call to do something that will bring on loneliness or danger but cannot be denied – like an artist or a writer or a composer or even a policeman, fireman, farmer. There's the feeling of the individual facing life and enjoying its dangers and beauties in this poem, which is why, I believe, it is so successful. It sums up what we all feel about life whether we are sailors or not – that feeling of being one with some part of nature, being invigorated by the challenges ahead. The prospect of a new journey. The hard work and fellowship with other travelers. The sweet rest afterward. It is a metaphor for life, too, yes?

John Masefield (1878-1967) was brought up by an aunt who urged him to go to sea to "break his addiction to reading." His mother died when he was six years old and his father died not long after that. ( I don't know that it's necessary to say it, but I will anyway: poets are most often sprung out of family anomalies and tragedies–from Tennyson's wacky dad to Rilke's mom dressing him as girl when he was little to Kunitz's dad drinking acid to Corso being sent to orphanages and told his mom was dead when she wasn't – the list goes on and on. Just sayin'.) Masefield wrote his thoughts in a journal and always had, as my parents used to say of me, "his nose in a book." (This is an interesting statement really. I suppose when you are not the one reading but just observing a reader it does look like you are just staring at something intently. The reader is miles away – on a ship, in the past, in the future, riding a horse, seeing battles, falling in love – but especially to those who read little, it looks like staring at a page.)

Masefield was 17 on his first ocean voyage as a hand on a ship bound for Chile. He saw wonders (a nocturnal rainbow, flying fish etc.), got seasick and ended up in New York where he had a variety of jobs including being a bartender and working in a carpet factory. Masefield was still an avid reader, spending most of his meager cash on books. He read a poem by Duncan Campbell Scott, "The Piper of Arll" which set him towards poetry. He even wrote Scott a letter telling him that he was the one who had inspired Masefield to write it.

After returning to England he met the woman who would be his wife and life-long partner, Constance Crommelin. She was 35, he was 23. She was a mathematics teacher who was a lover of English literature. He wrote copious amounts of love letters to her. They were together until her death in 1960.

Masefield was a busy writer. He wrote book reviews by the score, plays, children's books, poetry and made a pretty good living doing it. He was also a lecturer and was thought to be an expert on English Literature, most particularly Chaucer, due to his "reading addiction." After the death of Robert Bridges, Masefield was appointed England's Poet Laureate as his successor. He was England's laureate from 1930 until his death in 1963 (only Tennyson lasted longer at the post.) There was some little controversy over this as some had assumed Kipling would be appointed. Masefield, throughout his writing career, even when he was laureate, always included a self-addressed stamped envelope with every submission of work he made so that if it was rejected it could be sent back to him (this is common practice for writers but not common for the laureate- very humble of him.)

Here's one of his final verses, found after his death:

Heirs, Administrators, and Assigns:

Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.

You can find more Masefield here:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Number 278: Donald Hall "Goosefeathers"


When I was twelve I sat by myself in the steamliner
with a shoebox of sandwiches and deviled eggs
my mother made, and ate everything right away
as the train headed north by the Sound where trestles

of derelict trolley lines roosted nations of seagulls.

From South Station I took a taxi across Boston

to a shabby, black locomotive with coal car

that pulled two rickety coaches. It puffed past

long lines of empty commuter trains, past

suburbs thick with houses, past the milltowns

of Lawrence and Lowell, until the track curved

into New Hampshire's pastures of Holstein cattle.

My grandfather waited in his overalls at the depot

with horse and buggy to carry me to the farmhouse,

to fricasseed chicken, corn on the cob, and potatoes.

At nine o'clock, after shutting up the chickens

from skunk and fox, we sat by the cabinet radio

for Gabriel Heatter booming news of the war.
I slept through the night on my goosefeather bed.

-- Donald Hall

Hap Notes: Donald Hall grew up in Hamden, Connecticut but spent his summers at Eagle Pond Farm, his grandfather's farm in New Hampshire. This poem is about one of those trips to the farm, a slice of life from days gone past. Hall currently lives in this house which was originally bought by his great-grandfather.

Hall reminisces but read carefully how you can see, smell, hear and taste this experience in this short poem.

Hall's grandfather often recited poetry to the young poet as they were milking the cows or doing farm chores. (My grandpa did a similar thing while he sharpened lawnmower blades or fixed an ailing wringer washing machine in his repair shop– it was a generation who memorized poetry from their school years.) Hall often mentions how his grandpa had memorized the poems for a Lyceum, which means, in America anyway, a performance for the school usually done in the gymnasium or on the stage (if a school had one.)
I remember having Lyceums at school when I was a kid, don't know if they call them that now.

Gabriel Heatter was a radio commentator and was known for his opening broadcast phrase "Good evening, everyone---there is good news tonight." Heatter's positive opening comforted many a radio listener during the dark days of WWII. (Heatter was a sensitive man who was purposely positive in order to keep up the nation's morale.)

It's amusing that the poet comments how he "ate everything right away" in the shoebox lunch his mom prepared for him. Train travel required such a lunch as there were few places to buy food at the various train depots at the time Hall is writing about. Even if there was food available on the train or at the depots it would have been pretty spendy. Most people brought their own lunch for a journey like this one. (The excitement of travel often made the lunches disappear before they were actually needed. I remember eating my bagged lunch on the school bus on days I was particularly nervous or excited. Which is pretty silly but there you have it.)

Now, why do you think the poet calls this "Goosefeathers." Doesn't it speak of soft, old-fashioned, homey comfort? And also, the light, ephemeral joys of childhood? Doesn't this memory float down to us like downy feathers?

Here is Hall talking about his life (and memories of the farm):

Here is where we have talked about Hall before:

The masthead picture of a farm-type featherbed (like the one Hall speaks of) is available for sale as a print

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Number 277: Louise Erdrich "Advice To Myself"

Advice To Myself

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

-- Louise Erdrich

Hap Notes: Of all the "advice" poetry one reads about being grateful or wearing a purple hat or taking time to do that grandmother of all the clichés –"smell the roses" – this is the poem that strikes me as most gritty and practical. Life is messy and we have a tendency to sweep away the clutter and the mess, sometimes at the expense of our own awareness of life.

The poet is making a point about the vibrant, the real, the spirited and the important things in life. There is certainly a value in keeping things well ordered and trying to hold back the chaos that is the life force. It, however, will always leak through. Why not celebrate it, embrace it, invite it in to have a cup of tea in a couple of cracked cups?

This, by the way, will not always be easy, fun or comfortable. It's not particularly about being comfortable or clean or even confident. It's about being brave enough to be uncomfortable, slightly soiled and vulnerable in life. Remember that all the folks on television who appear to be efficient, confident, well-groomed, successful and in command of their lives are fictional characters – they are illusions, and, evil ones, now that I think on it.

The Japanese have a term I like that describes the beauty of the transience of life: wabi sabi. It's about being fully awake and aware and seeing the extraordinary in the imperfect, the impermanent and the incomplete. Life is very much like that. Things will be left undone. Stuff breaks. The pieces are as beautiful as the whole, maybe even more beautiful. The mud grows the lotus. Dust bunnies may be visiting spirits to show you the worlds that exist around you (did you know that your living quarters probably contain millions of dust mites? You'll never get rid of them all- it's practically impossible.)

The Japanese feel that the flaw or imperfection in a thing reveals a meditation on life. A dead leaf can speak for all of nature, can bring your awareness to to the delicacy of the life cycle, can urge you to live with awareness right now. The disorder of the world can help you to find the authentic – the things that are nearest to your heart, the engine that makes your world go– the most important things that are often swirling in the chaos with no words to define them, just an intuition that your now is both vital and worth experiencing.

Here is where we have talked about Erdrich before:

and here:

Today's masthead illustration is a kaliedoscopic photograph taken by Carolyn Ricks of one of her "junk" drawers. Thought it was fitting for today.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Number 276: Joe Paddock "Old Martin"

Old Martin

His name was Martin, Old Martin,
and he was bent in the back,
nearly double, and a great hump,
under his blue work shirt, rode him
like a buzzard.

For years, in the background
of the dust-filled memory of our town,
he'd swung
hundred pound sacks of feed
onto trucks and into boxcars.

Work was his passion.
He honed his love and his hate
against work,
and grew lean and folded into himself
like a jackknife.

In Garner's Pool Hall,
I listened while a man
whose belly rolled over his belt
like a dead goose
sipped a beer and said,
" Ol' Martin's all bent over like that
because he lost a quarter
when he was a small boy,
and he's been lookin' for it
ever since."

-- Joe Paddock

Hap Notes: Joe Paddock (born 1937) is was born and raised in Lichfield, Minnesota and much of his poetry is concerned with the rural life of a small town and the connection of people to the natural world around them. Paddock went to the University of Minnesota where he majored in philosophy and studied under the poets Morgan Blum, Allen Tate and Howard Nemerov (all poets we have yet to cover although we have covered their peers and students.)

He is also a "soft activist" for environmental issues and an oral historian who has coordinated a local history project in his home town of Lichfield. He has won many awards and fellowships including the Loft/McKnight Writer of Distinction Award and the Milkweed Editions Lakes and Prairies Award. He has been poet-in-residence for Minnesota Public Radio.

Much of Paddock's work is concerned with the story. Today's poem is reminiscent of the pithy story poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson or Edgar Lee Masters as the poet relates an incident in the life of a man and lets the incident define the characters.

For example, the fella in the bar who makes the comment about Mr. Martin – do you think he is being humorous or mean-spirited or both? Why does the humor seem particularly offensive? The Midwest is full of farmers, farm-hands and laborers who hone their "love and hate against work." What does the word hone imply? Do you see the connection with the jackknife?

This poem is a stunning succinct word picture that tells a very large story with very few words. There is much in this poem that is left unsaid – things the poet left for us to fill in. Do you see how the unspoken works successfully in this poem to draw out our emotions?

Paddock has written several volumes of poetry. This poem is from "Earth Tongues".

Here's a good Paddock quote: "When writing poetry, we allow in the wholeness, we welcome it. We work with images and rhythms capable of conveying, of carrying, wholeness. The reader or listener is in turn given an experience of wholeness, a moment in time that is complete, one in which he or she does not feel the need to change or control the world."

You can find more Joe Paddock here:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Number 275: Ranier Maria Rilke "Autumn Day"

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time.
The summer was immense.

Lay your long shadows on the sundials,

and on the meadows let the winds go free.

Command the last fruits to be full;

give them just two more southern days,

urge them on to completion and chase

the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Who has no house now, will never build one.

Who is alone now, will long remain so,

will stay awake, read, write long letters

and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree-lined streets,
when the leaves are drifting.

-- Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by Edward Snow

October Day

Oh Lord, it's time, it's time. It was a great summer.

Lay your shadow now on the sundials,

and on the open fields let the winds go!

Give the tardy fruits the command to fill;

give them two Mediterranean days,

drive them on into their greatness, and press

the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house by now will not build.

Whoever is alone now, will remain alone,

will wait up, read, write long letters,
walk along sidewalks under large trees,

not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.

-- Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by Robert Bly

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go,

Lay your long shadows on the sundials,

And over harvest piles let the winds blow.

Command the last fruits to be ripe;

Grant them some other southern hour,

Urge them to completion, and with power

Drive final sweetness to the heavy grape.

Who's homeless now, will for long stay alone.

No home will build his weary hands,

He'll wake, read, write letters long to friends

And will the alleys up and down

Walk restlessly, when falling leaves dance.

-- Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by Guntram Deichsel

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. The summer was long enough.
Lay your shadow upon the sundial and
loose the winds upon the corridors of the earth.

Order the last fruits to ripen;
give them only a couple of warm southern days,
command their ripeness to perfection and drive
the last bit of sweetness into the dense grapes.

Who has no house now, will build no more.
Who is alone now, will long stay so,
Will keep watch, sleepless, will read, write long letters
will wander back and forth on the streets
Restlessly amidst the swirling leaves.

-- Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by Hap Mansfield

Hap Notes: Remember how we keep talking about translation being interpretation? These variations of Rilke say it all, do they not? I threw in my own stab at it just for another perspective. I'm not a particularly brilliant translator, I don't think, but it's not a terrible translation, anyway.

I think almost everyone at one point in the fall knows the sweet and sour sorrow Rilke is talking about.

This is the original German if you'd like to try it yourself:


Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren, 

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage 

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr. 

Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,

wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben 

und wird in den Alleen hin und her 

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

-- Rainier Maria Rilke

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