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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Number 309: George Gordon, Lord Byron excerpt from "Childe Harold"

Excerpt from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.-

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean-roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown.

His steps are not upon thy paths-thy fields
Are not a spoil for him-thou dost arise
And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields
For earth's destruction thou dost all despise,
Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies,
And send'st him, shivering in thy playful spray,
And howling, to his gods, where haply lies
His petty hope in some near port or bay,
And dashest him again to earth: there let him lay.

The armaments which thunderstrike the walls
Of rock-built cities, bidding nations quake,
And monarchs tremble in their capitals,
The oak leviathans, whose huge ribs make
Their clay creator the vain title take
Of lord of thee, and arbiter of war;
These are thy toys, and, as the snowy flake,
They melt into thy yeast of waves, which mar
Alike the armada's pride, or spoils of Trafalgar.

Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee-
Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?
Thy waters washed them power while they were free,
And many a tyrant since: their shores obey
The stranger, slave or savage; their decay
Has dried up realms to deserts:-not so thou,
Unchangeable, save to thy wild waves' play-
Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow-
Such as creation's dawn beheld, thou rollest now.

Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty's form
Glasses itself in tempests; in all time
Calm or convulsed-in breeze, or gale, or storm,
Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime
Dark-heaving; boundless, endless and sublime-
The image of eternity-the throne
Of the invisible; even from out thy slime
The monsters of the deep are made; each zone
Obeys thee; thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone.

And I have loved thee, ocean! And my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy
I wanton'd with thy breakers-they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror-'twas a pleasing fear,
For I was as it were a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane - as I do here.

--- George Gordon, Lord Byron

Hap Notes: Well, to be honest, I was taking a week off of the blog for Thanksgiving and yesterday I was watching Turner Classic Movies (a constant at my house) and I saw Virginia Mayo in "The Girl From Jones Beach."

In the movie, Mayo plays a teacher in the film and Ronald Reagan plays a photographer/ad man. Reagan wants Mayo to pose for a fashion shoot (I'm truncating the plot) so he enrolls as a Czech foreign student in Mayo's American Citizenship class. Well, of course, Reagan asks her out (he's a handsome devil but his Czech accent is pretty horrible), snippets of Shakespeare quotes fly pretty thick and fast and as they are sitting on Jones Beach in the evening, Mayo quotes today's poem. As she recited it I thought,"Hey! Why haven't I ever used this poem before?" Answer: because it is an excerpt (which I tend to shy away from since it's not the entire poem) from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." What she says is "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean roll" and one supposes that the audience at the time (1949) knew what poem she was quoting... maybe.

Childe Harold is a long poem which is contained in four cantos. The whole poem is pretty wonderful in parts and you can read it here:
The poem gave rise to that mythic guy that all women want – that man who is handsome, dashing, sensitive, resourceful and a bit of a rebel. You know – fiction. Byron was worried about publishing it because he felt it was too autobiographical and this tells you worlds about Byron, his ego and his real life heroics.

Today's excerpt is particularly stirring. The ocean, the poet says, yields up both beauty and power. Byron compares the ocean to a beast and the almighty and tells us that man's might is a paltry thing when compared to the huge and powerful sea and gives us numerous stirring examples.

Here is where we have talked about Byron before:

and here:

(The picture in the masthead today is Virginia Mayo, just in case you did not recognize her.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Number 308: Anonymous "Thank God For Dirty Dishes"

Thank God For Dirty Dishes

Thank God for dirty dishes

They have a tale to tell

While other folks go hungry

We’re eating very well.

With home and health and happiness

We shouldn’t want to fuss

For by this stack of evidence

God’s been very good to us.

-- Anonymous

Hap Notes: Thought this was apropos for the day. For years I thought my Grandpa, Frank Mansfield, wrote this. He said he did. He could recite it and did at almost every meal. He even had it written down in his own beautiful cursive hand-writing on a piece of paper, framed and hung by the sink. I truly believed he wrote the poem until I ran into a woman from Peoria, IL (just across the river from Pekin, where I was born) who claimed that HER grandfather wrote the poem. Hmmm. Must be something about that area that breeds tale-tellers.

My grandpa also told me he was married to a Navajo princess (he owned a gas station in New Mexico at one time) and that a blanket I often napped with was a gift from her people. My grandma responded to this with, "Franklin Mansfield! You know I crocheted that blanket!"

He also told me that he hated coconut because of his days as a hobo. According to him, he and a bunch of his hobo companions, once raided a box car full of coconuts while the train was stationed close to a hobo junction. He said they all ate so much coconut he couldn't look at the stuff without getting sick. I still believe that one.

I am so very full of thankfulness today that I feel like Millay in yesterday's poem. One of the many reason I am thankful is due your kind attention to this blog. So, many many thanks to you.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

By the way, another fine poem to consider today is Charles Causley's "Timothy Winters" which we have already covered here:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Number 307: Edna St. Vincent Millay "God's World"

God's World

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Hap Notes: There is nothing to compare with the awe-struck terrifying feeling of being in love with the universe and all that reside within it. Millay is not just talking about thinking things are beautiful. She is talking about finding a religious ecstasy in the common uncommon gorgeousness of the world. She almost seems to be channeling Gerard Manly Hopkins here, doesn't she?

Millay swoons over her desire to be one with the universe like a Romantic poet in this poem. (Almost like Shelley's "Serenade" of yesterday.)She is swept away by the grandeur of creation, she is faint with the magnificence of nature.

I hope you, also, experience or have experienced this for yourself. There is no feeling that is more wonderfully scary and nothing will ever seem as important again compared to this universal magic.

Here is where we have talked about Millay before:

The masthead is a painting, "Bungalow Evening", by Kathleen Eaton, of whom I am an unbridled admirer. Here is her website:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Number 306: Percy Bysshe Shelley "The Indian Serenade"

The Indian Serenade

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright:
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Hath led me—who knows how?
To thy chamber window, Sweet!

The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream—
The Champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The Nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart;—
As I must on thine,
Oh, belov├Ęd as thou art!

Oh lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;—
Oh! press it to thine own again,
Where it will break at last.

-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Hap Notes: Of course this is a poem of a spellbound captive of love and sex. Some speculate that the narrator is a woman, some argue that it is a man. There are no particularly direct hints here– people fainted all the time in Shelley's era, both man and woman, must've been all the mercury in the water or something. The singing Nightingale is male, obviously. I tend to favor that the narrator of the poem is a male.

The Champack is a fragrant small tree of India and a relative of the Magnolia. The Champack is often called the white jade orchid or the "Joy" tree because the world famous perfume Joy is made from the flowers. It is said that Joy smells exactly like Champack the way that Chanel #5 is reputed to smell exactly like it's botanical source, Ylang-Ylang. Joy used to be called the most expensive perfume in the world and Chanel #5 is the best selling perfume of all time.

In point of fact there is no creature within a few feet of the Champack that does not get inebriated with the scent. Insects of all kinds career drunkenly around its flowers, banging into each other and falling to the ground. Humans are known to swoon around its intoxicating scent.

My take on this poem is that the narrator could be an Indian Mayfly– besotted with the fragrance of the tree, it searches wildly and passionately for a mate before it dies. And Shelley liked insects, you know. He once said in a letter to a friend, "I think that the leaf of a tree, the meanest insect on which we trample, are in themselves arguments more conclusive than any which can be adduced that some vast intellect animates Infinity."

And you know, Shelley mentions 22 different kinds of insects in his works. The worm and the bee get the most references. Okay, it's not likely that this poem is actually about insects but, still, it could happen.

Those familiar with the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe will immediately recognize the sexuality in the flower of the Champack, as did Shelley, I am sure.

The masthead is a picture of the Champack. And here's a quote of Shelley's from his prose work, In Defense of Poetry, that is worth considering, "“A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

Here is where we have talked about Shelley before:

and here:

and here:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Number 305: Charles Causley " My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear"

My Mother Saw a Dancing Bear

My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.

And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.

They watched as for the Queen it died.
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
`Now, roly-poly! Somersault!'

And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.

They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin's aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.

-- Charles Causely

Hap Notes: Performing bears used to be a regular part of entertainment all throughout Europe in the 13th century. The place they were most common was India. A dancing bear does not actually dance, by the way (although who knows, they may do it in the wild...).

Usually the "dancing bear's" nose is pierced, a ring is put through it and a metal muzzle is put on the bear. The "dance" comes from the trainer's stick which is attached to the ring. You'll be happy to know that this practice has ceased most everywhere. Here is a news report talking about the release of the last of the dancing bears in India:

I know the "dancing bear" is a sad and stupid entertainment but no more so than cock-fighting or dog-fighting which still takes place in America.

Causley's mother and her schoolmates have a typical reaction– first, delight in seeing a bear, then, sadness at seeing how out of place it was, then shame for their part in the process.

Captain Kangaroo used to have a character named "Dancing Bear" but I believe all of us knew it was a person in an exaggerated, almost stuffed animal-like costume.

Here is where we have talked about Causley before:

and here:

and here:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Number 304: Billy Collins "Forgetfulness"


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

-- Billy Collins

Hap Notes: Again, this deceptively casual, conversational Collins poem holds a wealth of depth. On the surface, the poet is talking about the loss of memory, particularly as one ages. One can block things in the memory that are painful or traumatic but this poem deals with regular memory loss, which is usually associated with aging.

The description of memories retiring to a warm climate is amusing. It reminds one of older parents who retire in Florida or Arizona. Even more telling is the thought that one may often wish to be somewhere that has no phones, no stress. It's a picture of frustration for those trying to contact the phoneless residents, though. Note the use of the words "harbor" and "fishing village." The poet says he was the harbor for the memories, now it's somewhere remote.

The nine muses and the quadratic equation are somewhat obscure to most folks who don't spend time reading Greek poetry and literature or working on univariate polynomial equations (equations that have one variable with an infinite length as opposed to a linear equation which forms a straight line. That's enough math for me, now, otherwise I'll have to go lie down for a while until my brain stops smoking.) Suffice it to say that the quadratic equation is not a straight line- a lot of different variations exist. It is complex.

The muses inspire music, literature, history, dance, science and art. What would it mean to "kiss the names goodbye"?

It's amazing to count the things you had to know at one time, a state flower or the capitals of countries or information about your relatives and find that you no longer remember them. Some call much of this "useless information," a term I find particularly irritating. Most people don't use a hammer every day, some may have used one only a few times, some not at all – this does not make knowing what a hammer is to be useless information does it?

The spleen is an interesting organ to use for several reasons. First off, it stores blood for emergencies in the body. Baudelaire used the term "splenetique" to mean melancholy. However in English it usually refers to anger, as in "to vent one's spleen." In the four humours ( the Greek and Roman classification of the fluids of the body corresponding to illness and temper) the spleen is "Black Bile" or melancholy and crabby. [The other ones? Yellow Bile (choleric/bad tempered), Blood (sanguine/hopeful, happy and brave, Phlegm (unperturbed and unemotional. This is not to be confused with the four temperaments which are somewhat similar.]

Ah, now we get to the dark mythological river that starts with "L" which you should know from this blog is the river Lethe. Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology (breaking off briefly to point out there's a lot of Greco-Roman stuff in this poem, yes?) which flowed through the underworld. Virgil said that the dead may not be reincarnated until they have had a drink from the river Lethe which would erase all their memories. [The underworld has five rivers: Lethe (forgetfulness), Styx (hate), Kokytos (lamentation), Akheron (sorrow) and Phlegethon (fire). Always good to store this for future memory- until the forgetfulness sets in...]

In fact, Lethe is the name of the Greek spirit of oblivion and forgetfulness.

See how this Collins poem has a good deal of meaning on many surfaces?

Just a bit more fuel for thought– remember how people always say, "It's like riding a bicycle –you never forget"? And what would happen to one who forgot how to swim? How many times have you gone to look some fact up because you forgot it? Why is it so important that you find it again? What is the fear/irritation in this?

What does it mean when the moon reminds you of a love poem-–so familiar that you memorized it –but one that you cannot recall now? (There's a melancholy to this, too, yes?)

If all of this information has not made it clear– this poem is about the approach of death which follows all the loss of memories. Collins does not hit us over the head with it, but the melancholy one feels for one's own demise is solidly in there amidst the good-natured joking.

Here's where we have talked about Collins before:

The masthead today is Pollock's "Autumn Rythym" because I just didn't want to forget to use it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Number 303: Paul Laurence Dunbar "Merry Autumn"

Merry Autumn

It's all a farce,—these tales they tell
About the breezes sighing,
And moans astir o'er field and dell,
Because the year is dying.

Such principles are most absurd,—
I care not who first taught 'em;
There's nothing known to beast or bird
To make a solemn autumn.

In solemn times, when grief holds sway
With countenance distressing,
You'll note the more of black and gray
Will then be used in dressing.

Now purple tints are all around;
The sky is blue and mellow;
And e'en the grasses turn the ground
From modest green to yellow.

The seed burs all with laughter crack
On featherweed and jimson;
And leaves that should be dressed in black
Are all decked out in crimson.

A butterfly goes winging by;
A singing bird comes after;
And Nature, all from earth to sky,
Is bubbling o'er with laughter.

The ripples wimple on the rills,
Like sparkling little lasses;
The sunlight runs along the hills,
And laughs among the grasses.

The earth is just so full of fun
It really can't contain it;
And streams of mirth so freely run
The heavens seem to rain it.

Don't talk to me of solemn days
In autumn's time of splendor,
Because the sun shows fewer rays,
And these grow slant and slender.

Why, it's the climax of the year,—
The highest time of living!—
Till naturally its bursting cheer
Just melts into thanksgiving.

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar

Hap Notes: Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was a whiz-kid at Central High School in Dayton, Ohio; editor of the school newspaper, president of the school's literary society, class poet. So, of course with a scholastic pedigree like this after high school he took a job as an elevator operator. Huh? Oh, yes, did I forget to mention he was black? Discrimination could not hold him down, though, and he wrote poetry in his idle hours in the elevator. What is most poignant to me about Dunbar's story is that he first of all, could not be held down and second, that one had to be as immensely talented as Dunbar was to be able to rise above the constrictions of a racist society. What chance would a moderately talented person have? One had to be a comet of brilliance like Dunbar to even get noticed.

You know how the lives of some people elicit chills from some sort of universal vortex of historical destiny? Dunbar's life is like that. He spans an era that was rich with invention and historical watermarks. He was the son of slaves who had escaped. His father fought in the Civil War. In 1890, Dunbar edited and wrote for The Tattler, Dayton's first weekly African-American newspaper which was printed by a small printing company owned by Dunbar's high school pals Wilber and Orville Wright. See what I mean? Strange destinies swirling around this poet's short life (he died of tuberculosis when he was only 33.)

Today's poem is from his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, published in 1893 (when he was 21).
He was praised by James Whitcomb Riley, William Dean Howells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Fredrick Douglas and Booker T. Washington. He remained friends with the Wrights throughout his life.

Dunbar wrote in traditional English as well as dialect. A certain amount of controversy always pops up regarding the dialect. Some feel its use is condescending and/or obeisant while others see it as a natural vernacular well expressed. It's sort of like listening to rap music, especially that of the 90s. Is it an expression of the culture or is it something that holds its practitioners and fans back from true communication? Does it belittle or aggrandize the subject and the reader/listener? Dunno. I just know that Dunbar rises above it all and really longed to be accepted for his traditional English poetry when publishers often wanted the "African-American dialect" poems. Well, we won't solve this problem here. The dialect poems are moving and have flashes of brilliance. I tend to favor his traditional English poems, like today's.

Dunbar is right– autumn is a time of plenty and rich color. It has its grey days but even on the grimmest darkest day, that tree full of yellow or scarlet still blazes with color. The yellow grass, the electric blue sky, the rich rusts, oranges and browns of the leaves– none of this points to dull sadness but only to a change. The farther south one goes, the more one sees this, although Ohio is certainly not noted for its warmth weather-wise.

Dunbar published eleven volumes of poetry during his life. He also wrote fiction and plays. He was well-known in the early 20th century and was internationally famous.

Here's a bonus Dunbar poem. It has always been one of my favorites and has many depths to plumb.

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar

Here's an interesting Dunbar quote: "I am tired, so tired of dialect. I send out graceful little poems, suited for any of the magazines, but they are returned to me by editors who say, ' Dunbar, but we do not care for the language compositions.'"

You can find more Dunbar here:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Number 302: William Carlos Williams "Overture To A Dance Of Locomotives"

Overture To A Dance Of Locomotives

Men with picked voices chant the names
of cities in a huge gallery: promises
that pull through descending stairways
to a deep rumbling.

The rubbing feet
of those coming to be carried quicken a
grey pavement into soft light that rocks
to and fro, under the domed ceiling,
across and across from pale
earthcolored walls of bare limestone.

Covertly the hands of a great clock
go round and round! Were they to
move quickly and at once the whole
secret would be out and the shuffling
of all ants be done forever.

A leaning pyramid of sunlight, narrowing
out at a high window, moves by the clock:
discordant hands straining out from
a center: inevitable postures infinitely


Porters in red hats run on narrow platforms.

This way ma'am!

—important not to take
the wrong train!

Lights from the concrete
ceiling hang crooked but—

Poised horizontal
on glittering parallels the dingy cylinders
packed with a warm glow—inviting entry—
pull against the hour. But brakes can
hold a fixed posture till—
The whistle!

Not twoeight. Not twofour. Two!

Gliding windows. Colored cooks sweating
in a small kitchen. Taillights—
In time: twofour!
In time: twoeight!

—rivers are tunneled: trestles
cross oozy swampland: wheels repeating
the same gesture remain relatively
stationary: rails forever parallel
return on themselves infinitely.

The dance is sure.

-- William Carlos Williams

Hap Notes: There's a lot going on in this poem but certainly one of the primary exciting elements is the way in which Williams shows us a railway station as a sort of art gallery/theater/natural history museum. There are echoes of past civilizations as well as insect colonies in the verses.

While the images are not all cheery; one can't help but feel that the downward spiraling staircases (in addition to thinking of Duchamp's art) in parallel with Dante's inferno or the myths of Persephone and the underworld; still, there's a jazzy feel to the swift and slow syncopations of the train.

A quick note on the use of the word "colored" to denote race. First off, at the time (for what it's worth) this was the most respectful term that could be used. Second, it has always struck me as an odd way of describing anyone since we are all colored are we not? No person lacks color (at least on the outside)– there are no colorless people (again, not on the outside.) When I was a little kid and people would use the world "colored" I always imagined purple or turquoise people and that sounded so exotic to me.

I'll let you explore this poem on your own but let me give you a bit of food for thought. First off, the common name for a railroad station is a terminal. Brood on that a bit and see if you don't find just a few more insights into what Williams is telling us about life. Second, what do you think he is saying about time, both musical and mortal? Are we not all fellow travelers in this life?

This poem puts me in mind of a scene from Terry Gilliam's movie "The Fisher King." It's Grand Central Station and Robin Williams character is following the woman he loves from afar. Here it The masthead pic is Grand Central Station in New York, where Gilliam filmed the dance.

Here's where we have talked about Williams before:

and here:

and here:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Number 301: Wilfred Owen "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-- Wilfred Owen

Hap Notes: It was on this day in 1918 that Wilfred Owen's parents received the news that their son Wilfred had been killed in action in WWI. He had been killed by German machine gun fire just one week before the armistice. He was 25 years old.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) wrote poetry about the war graphically explaining what it looked and felt like. The fact that our wars continue leads one to assume that most people have not read these poems. Today's poem makes it clear that war is terrifying and confusing. I think it was one of the first poems I memorized when I was in junior high. The poem still makes me weep.

The Latin phrase at the end of the poem translates to "it is sweet and proper to die for one's country" and is taken from the Roman poet Horace.

Here's a good Owen quote: "My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity."

You can find more Owen here:

Number 300: Jeffrey Harrison "The Angel On The Table"

The Angel On The Table

She's losing her memory, isn't sure
who I am, is bothered by small things
like where that angel made from doilies
came from, the one she made herself
in the home's craft class. I remind her, but she
forgets again and in a minute asks again,
as if she's just noticed it for the first time.

The body is a doily twisted into a cone.
A doily cut and folded forms the wings.
The head is a Styrofoam ball, the hair a tuft
of cotton, the halo a gold pipe cleaner.
As simple and innocent as something
a child would bring home from school,
and in fact my daughter made one like it.

But this angel is a small torment to her,
perched on the table beside the photographs
of people she no longer recognizes–
but that doesn't bother her. It's the angel
she eyes with suspicion, even fear.
Where did it come from, what is it doing there,
what on earth does it want from her?

-- Jeffrey Harrison

Hap Notes: Harrison was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and studied under one of our favorite poets, Kenneth Koch (who was also from Cincinnati, by the way.) He is an award winning poet– okay, I'll name some– a couple of Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim and an NEA fellowship, and the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship.

He has published, to date, six poetry collections and his poems have appeared in a variety of periodicals including The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poetry and The New Republic. His teaching gigs include George Washington University, Phillips Academy and College of the Holy Cross.

This poem comes from his book Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, 2006.) Much of the focus of the collection is on illness, grief and loss. The poems dealing with his older brother's suicide are particularly moving.

In today's poem, we see a woman, possibly a grandma since she lives in a "home" where they have craft projects. Think of the strange, suspicious terror and disconcerting confusion that results from suffering from Alzheimer's as this woman obviously does. Why do you think an angel could be particularly frightening, even a crudely made craft-project one? Can you feel how terrifying this could be? And as an observer of this, let alone a relative of the sufferer, wouldn't this be, at the very least heart-rending and painful?

There is something else here, though. Why would "small things" be particularly bothersome to this woman? Why do the pictures of unrecognized relatives and friends bother her less than the angel?

Here's a good Harrison quote: "I believe that a poet must write what comes naturally, but I also believe (and this may seem contradictory) that there is a necessary restlessness to being a poet, and if a poet doesn’t have this quality, then he or she is destined to be reincarnated over and over in the same poem. One doesn’t consciously change the way one writes, it happens naturally over time, but the restlessness helps move the process along."

You can find more of Harrison's poetry as well as interviews and essays here:

(The masthead picture features a shot of the notorious "Black Angel" at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, IA. It was one of the legendary places of my youth and I've always thought the angel was equally comforting, mysterious and terrifying.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Number 299: Franz Wright "The Mailman"

The Mailman

From the third floor window
you watch the mailman’s slow progress
through the blowing snow.
As he goes from door to door

he might be searching
for a room to rent,
unsure of the address,
which he keeps stopping to check

in the outdated and now
obliterated clipping
he holds, between thickly gloved fingers,
close to his eyes

in a hunched and abruptly
simian posture
that makes you turn away,
quickly switching off the lamp.

--Franz Wright

Hap Notes: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright (born 1953) was born in Vienna and is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright (who was on a Fulbright scholarship there at the time.) They are the only parent and child to have won this award separately and one suspects it might be a while until that record is broken. Despite his upbringing amidst some of the iconic poets of the last century, and their cautionary examples, Wright has had to fight similar demons and is a recovering alcoholic/addict/manic-depressive.

Wright, a graduate of Oberlin College, has been the recipient of several fellowships as well as the PEN/Voelcker Prize for poetry in addition to his Pulitzer. His poetry usually deals with vulnerability; often about the inevitable conflicts with his dad or crawling back to life from addictions and breakdowns.

Read today's poem closely. The postman, we know, is not actually searching for a home, so who is? Why would the sight of a man, looking "hunched" and "simian" make someone turn away, turn off the light? What is going on? Fear? Repugnance? Denial? All three? How does that postman's tortuously slow progress, with an "outdated clipping," make the observer feel? Confused? Alone? Reading this poem with compassion, who are we more concerned for, the postman or the observer?

Side note: You know that expression " "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" for the post office? People often say it is the motto or creed or pledge of the U.S. Post Office. It is not. The Post Office has no official "motto" or "slogan." The quotation, written on the side of the James Farley Post Office in New York City, is from Herodotus' Histories and refers to the couriers of ancient Persia. By the by, if you have never read Herodotus' seminal work (it's a good read and is considered the first "study" of history, it is available here, free: If you don't think you have the time to read it, you can listen to it here, free: If you can't handle THAT (and now I'm getting a tad disgusted, sorry) you can read a summary of each chapter here: It's a rousing tale and it is as true as a history book ever is.

Here's a good Franz Wright quote: "When I write now, I feel like someone who came back from the dead."


"All true poets are visionaries and experience oceanic instances of seamless mingling with the infinite in the face of everyday things (astronomical perceptions, as Blake and Lorca put it, in the contemplation of very small concrete things; or as Flannery O'Conner said, only in and through sense experiences does a writer approach a contemplative knowledge of the mysteries they embody); and of course poetry, of all arts, is the most moral if we keep Kant's definition of morality in mind, as that act for which no possibility of compensation really exists. There is nothing to be gained from writing poetry (and everything to lose, come to think of it) if it is truly taken seriously." see the whole interview here:

You can find more Franz Wright here:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Number 298: Heinrich Heine "Death and His Brother Sleep"

Death and His Brother Sleep (Morphine)

There’s a mirror likeness between those two
shining, youthfully-fledged figures, though
one seems paler than the other and more austere,
I might even say more perfect, more distinguished,
than he, who would take me confidingly in his arms –
how soft then and loving his smile, how blessed his glance!
Then, it might well have been that his wreath
of white poppies gently touched my forehead, at times,
and drove the pain from my mind with its strange scent.
But that is transient. I can only, now, be well,
when the other one, so serious and pale,
the older brother, lowers his dark torch. –
Sleep is so good, Death is better, yet
surely never to have been born is best

-- Heinrich Heine

Hap Notes: This cheerful little poem is characteristic of Heinrich Heine's ( 1797-1856) depressing wit. Heine was a brilliant thinker who presaged the fate of Germany nearly 100 years before the zenith of the Nazi party. He was a prolific poet, journalist, critic and essayist and, in the course of his life, he knew many of the intellectuals, artists and writers who shaped his era. Much of Heine's work is punctuated by a sharp, ironic pessimism which sometimes is expressed with ironic humor and sometimes is just plain frustrated by human nature.

Heine was born in Dusseldorf, Rhineland, during the French occupation under Napoleon and Heine was a fan of Napoleon's expressed ideals in the Napoleonic Code; liberty, justice and equality. Heine was born a Jew but converted to protestantism because he wanted a teaching post and Jews were overlooked for such a position. In fact, his Jewishness stood in the way of his entrance to European culture. However, his conversion did not help him procure a position. In his university days Heine attended lectures by Franz Bopp, F.A. Wolf and the influential Idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

After studying at a variety of universities and writing some poetry and travel essays, Heine went to Paris, in part to escape German censorship laws. Heine had always been an outsider- one can feel this in much of his work. When he got to Paris he was as close to being happy as a thoughtful gloomy German could be. We often use the phrase "fish out of water" to express being out of one's element. The original expression started as "happy as a fish in water" and Heine said that the expression, when one fish would inquire about the other would have to be answered, "I feel like Heine in Paris."

Heine wrote essays, poetry and music criticism. It was he who termed the phrase "Lisztomania" in reference to the fainting and hysteria that followed Franz Liszt where ever he went. ( Sidenote: This was long before the milder, but every bit as wacky, Beatlemania of the 60s. Do you remember the Ken Russel film about Liszt, "Lisztomania"? With Roger Daltrey from the Who as Liszt, soundtrack by Rick Wakeman and Ringo Starr playing the Pope? It's a very odd film.) Heine was friends with Karl Marx (with whom he did not totally agree) and knew Liszt and Georges Sand (of whom he said was the least witty French woman he had ever met.)

Heine wrote an influential history of Germany, The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, in which he pretty much nailed the German political outlook that would grow over the following hundred years. He was a thinking philosopher-poet, not a political pundit, and he saw the writing on the wall more clearly than most. It will not surprise, then, that this book and many others authored by him were burned by the Third Reich. Heine himself wrote, in the 1800s, " ...where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also." Chillingly accurate.

Many of Heine's poems were put to music by composers including Schumann, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn just to name a handful. Here is Silcher's famous compostion for Heine's "Die Lorelei" (which all good students of German can sing)- this one is sung by the incomparable Richard Tauber:

In today's poem, Heine is talking about Thanatos and Hypnos, the twin brothers, in Greek mythology, of death and sleep. Hypnos and Thanatos are the sons of Nyx (Night) and Darkness (Erebos) and are often linked together. The poppies are their symbol from the flower's hypnotic reputation (and its opiate pharmacology.) Heine did not take morphine that I know of- this is strictly a poetic reference. Hypnos is often portrayed with wings around his face, Thanatos is depicted with dark wings and carrying an inverted torch (the extinguishment of life.) The last line sums up Heine's bitter sense of humor.

Heine was very ill the last eight years of his life. In 1997 a hair of the poet was analyzed and it was found he was suffering from chronic lead poisoning. He took to his bed for those last years and called it his Matratzengruft (mattress-coffin.) Friedrich Nietzche said of him, "“The highest conception of the lyric poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine. I seek in vain in all the realms of millenia for an equally sweet and passionate music. He possessed that divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection… And how he employs German! It will one day be said that Heine and I have been by far the first artists of the German language.”

Here's a good Heine quote: "Christ rode on an ass, but now asses ride on Christ."


"When words leave off, music begins."


"It is extremely difficult for a Jew to be converted, for how can he bring himself to believe in the divinity of - another Jew?"

You can find more Heine here:

(The masthead is Evelyn Pickering De Morgan's Night and Sleep)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Number 297: Alfred, Lord Tennyson "Tears, Idle Tears"

Tears, Idle Tears

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hap Notes: Tennyson said he wrote this poem while visiting Tintern Abbey, a place which draws the poetry out of many writers. One of the most famous poems written about the place is Wordworth's "Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." (The masthead pic today is a photo of part of the abbey.) So what is Tintern Abbey that it inspires so much versifying rumination? One supposes part of the appeal is that it was built in 1131 and was abandoned in 1536, so the ruins are haunted by hundreds of years of human history. When both poets visited the site it was more than likely festooned with ivy and vines, adding to its lonely beauty.

Tennyson said that he wrote the poem as he felt the memories of a bygone era around the abbey and that the poem was about "the passion of the past, the abiding in the transient." In the first stanza Tennyson makes it clear that there is a contrast between the "happy autumn fields" and the feelings that are arising within him. He is vividly recalling things from the past that move him as he looks on the current scene. How can the past feel so real in the present? And how can it be so real and yet so unreachable- one can remember so acutely and yet, it is as ephemeral as smoke.

Many composers have set this poem to music. Here is contemporary music genius Owain Park's version:

Why do you think Tennyson calls these tears idle? Have you ever teared up thinking about a happy memory of the past? Why do we do this?

There is an amusing and famous story about this poem in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. It seems that Tennyson was on a boating trip with some friends and in the course of a conversation about tobacco (which he loved) he mentioned that the first pipe he smoked in the morning was the best one of the day. To which Sir William Harcourt, traveling with the party, quipped, "Ah, the earliest pipe of half-awakened bards." Tennyson was not amused. (He loved this poem and had no sense of humor about it.)

Tennyson's fame put him under a great deal of scrutiny and he was eccentric in dress (with a big cape and a sombrero or beret) and tousled locks. In 1855 he was at the Oxford Theatre receiving an honorary D.C.L. (Doctor of Civil/Canon Law- it doesn't make him a barrister, it's a high honor reserved for heads of state and writers of exceptional distinction.) A voice called out from the gallery, observing his blowzy hair style (see inset pic) "Did your mother call you early, dear?"

Tennyson has always been one of my favorites and, in spite of some sentimental stuff that can embarrass one, he has also, I believe, written some of the finest poetry ever penned in the English language.

Here's where we have talked about Tennyson before:

and here:

and here:

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Number 296: A Penny For the Guy "Remember Remember"

Traditional Guy Fawkes Rhymes

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent to blow up King and Parliament.

Three score barrels were laid below to prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s mercy he was catch’d with a dark lantern and lighted match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip hoorah!
-- Traditional

AND (often added):

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.

A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.

Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.

Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!

-- Traditional

And another version:

The Fifth of November

Remember, remember! 

The fifth of November, 

The Gunpowder treason and plot; 

I know of no reason 

Why the Gunpowder treason 

Should ever be forgot! 

Guy Fawkes and his companions 

Did the scheme contrive, 

To blow the King and Parliament 

All up alive. 

Threescore barrels, laid below, 

To prove old England's overthrow. 

But, by God's providence, him they catch, 

With a dark lantern, lighting a match! 

A stick and a stake 

For King James's sake! 

If you won't give me one, 

I'll take two, 

The better for me, 

And the worse for you. 

A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, 

A penn'orth of cheese to choke him, 

A pint of beer to wash it down, 

And a jolly good fire to burn him. 

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! 

Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! 

Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

-- Traditional

Here's another:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
It's Gunpowder Plot, we never forgot
Put your hand in your pocket and pull out your purse
A ha'penny or a penny will do you no harm
Who's that knocking at the window?
Who's that knocking at the door?
It's little Mary Ann with a candle in her hand
And she's going down the cellar for some coal

Sometimes this gets added:

We come a Cob-coaling for Bonfire time,
Your coal and your money we hope to enjoy.
Fal-a-dee, fal-a-die, fal-a-diddly-i-do-day.
For down in yon' cellar there's an owd umberella
And up on yon' cornish there's an owd pepperpot.
Pepperpot! Pepperpot! Morning 'till night.
If you give us nowt, we'll steal nowt and bid you good night.
Up a ladder, down a wall, a cob o'coal would save us all.
If you don't have a penny a ha'penny will do.
If you don't have a ha'penny, then God bless you.
We knock at your knocker and ring at your bell
To see what you'll give us for singing so well.

Still, some say this:

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A fagot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!

--All versions traditional variations

Hap Notes: It's Guy Fawkes Day so bonfires and fireworks are the order of the day in Great Britain. Before Guy Fawkes, the word "guy" meant to lead or referred to a rope. After Guy Fawkes, the word "guy"first started to take on the characteristics of how we now use it, in reference to a person or group of people like "you guys" or that guy.

In 1605 Guy Fawkes was one of a group of Catholic conspirators who wanted to get the Protestant King James I off the throne (or any other Protestant who would take the throne- it was only slightly personal and mostly religious.) It was planned that a bunch of gunpowder would be lit to explode under the House of Parliament when James I was in attendance and take out the lot, more or less. The conspirators leased a room which was close to the House of Lords and from which they could tunnel under the legislative building. A full 36 barrels of gunpowder was smuggled into this room.

Fawkes was charged with guarding it, at some point he was going to light the fuse and then run like hell, escaping across the Thames river. Word of the conspiracy leaked out (one member of Parliament, Lord Monteagle, was warned in a letter to stay away from the building) the conspirators were aware of this, the servant of Monteagle told them about the letter, but they felt it would be dismissed as a hoax. And it would have been. Except. Monteagle was sort of freaked out by the letter and told King James I, who, also a little freaked, sent some men to investigate around the Parliament building.

The gunpowder was hidden under piles of coal and firewood. Fawkes, in the early morning hours of November 5, was caught coming out of the cellar and arrested. The piles of gunpowder and flammables were found and Fawkes found himself in the soup. (one always wonders why he was leaving. Bathroom break? Time for a smoke? A quick pint? A breath of fresh air?)

Just a quick word about Fawkes. Born in York in 1570, he later converted to Catholicism and fought in the Eighty Years War on the side of Catholic Spain. He often signed his name "Guido Fawkes" and, indeed, he did so when a confession was tortured out of him by James I's men. Fawkes, when asked what he was doing in the cellar of Parliament, spat out, ""to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains." Fawkes, until his final tortures, often spoke French to his captors, leading James to believe he was French. The conspirators hoped that Catholic Spain would help them but they would not.

Fawkes, especially to British children of the last several hundred years, was a figure of some dark and evil glamor. Clad like a gentleman, he reputedly answered his inquisitors with his head high and a bright wit. He gleams with evil, swashbuckling, rebellious dark magic. I don't know that British children see him like this now but for several hundred years he had this evil charming enchantment around his story.

Fawkes stoicism in the face of torture was much admired, even by James I. Have you ever heard or seen the expression" et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur "? It means, "and by degree proceeding to the worst." They started out torturing Fawkes with manacles, then eventually the rack. He was so beat up that when he climbed the scaffold for his hanging he could barely walk. He ended up giving out some conspirators names and signing a confession. It is said he suffered much in the way of torture, that it would take much to bow a bright and difficult and proud man.

He was found guilty and his sentence was to be hanged and then drawn and quartered. The actual sentence read that the conspirators should be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air". Fawkes avoided the torture of being even remotely conscious of this by jumping from the gallows and breaking his neck. His corpse was still drawn and quartered and his body parts were distributed throughout the land. (Um...eww! Seriously? Eww.)

Lest one get too romantic about Fawkes and his compatriots, I suppose it should be pointed out that their gunpowder explosion would have killed hundreds of people; in addition to killing off some spoiled inbred aristocracy it would have also killed dozens of serving people and working class folks who labored in the building as well. Neither cool nor noble, that. Fawkes, as he climbed the ladder leading to his death, asked for forgiveness from the king and God. Fawkes, by the way, was no means the leader of this conspiracy, he was just the one caught.

After the whole thing, the people in London were encouraged to celebrate the king's escape from this assassination plot with fireworks and bonfires. It was actually endorsed by Parliament as a day of thanksgiving and was officially a holiday until 1859. In the course of the celebrations, many are burned in effigy including the Pope, and sometimes, whomever was in power at the time (like Margaret Thatcher). Fawkes is most particularly burned in effigy, though. Children go from house to house collecting clothes for their bonfire effigy, begging for old clothes or a penny to buy newspapers and various items to fill out or finish their effigy. Then the effigies are burned in the bonfire.

In recent years, the movie "V is For Vendetta" has brought Fawkes to the forefront. The movie (and comic book series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd) is about an ailing society and a group of freedom fighters called Anonymous and an enigmatic fellow," V", who all wear Guy Fawkes masks. The mask has consequently been used by a variety of groups from Occupy Wall Street to anti-Scientology protests.

All this information on Fawkes may seem like historical trivia but it will come in handy for understanding a great deal of literature, not the least of which is T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men". Here's a good annotated version of it:

It's Saturday so here are our cartoons and music and other assorted amusing bits of junk:

This pretty much explains the day:

Here's the BBC's take on it:

Here's Cat Face on Guy Fawkes Day:

Here's Greg from We are Klang on cBBC (for kids- it's great though):

Did you see the Colbert Report with the Guy Fawkes mask?:

Here's Green On Red with "The Ballad of Guy Fawkes":

Here's the Krewmen with "Guy Fawkes":

John Lennon mentions today's poem in his song "Remember":

Here's a bit of The Penny Dreadfuls take on Guy Fawkes:

Here's Big Jim McBob and Billy Saul Hurok with the Farm Film Report:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Number 295: Humberrt Wolfe "The Grey Squirrel"

The Grey Squirrel

Like a small grey
sits the squirrel.
He is not

all he should be,
kills by dozens
trees, and eats
his red-brown cousins.

The keeper on the
other hand,
who shot him, is
a Christian, and

loves his enemies,
which shows
the squirrel was not
one of those.

-- Humbert Wolfe

Hap Notes: While the grey squirrel does not actually eat the red squirrel, Humbert Wolfe's (1885-1940) short poem certainly exposes several prejudices in a pithy poem.

The grey squirrel population in Great Britain has been a sore point for the last decade or so. They were introduced to England and Europe early in the 19th century (from America, I believe – remember how the Victorians loved their animal "oddities") and they have taken a foothold across the pond that has contributed to the dwindling numbers of England's native, and smaller (and very pretty), red squirrel. The grey is also responsible for a bit of tree damage and his right to proliferate is hotly debated in Britain.

The world is full of cautionary tales about introducing a non-native species to a foreign place. All Aussies can tell tales of the cane toad, imported from Hawaii to take care of a beetle problem in 1935. Everyone in the American South can tell tales of kudzu, a plant that was promoted for planting to prevent soil erosion in the 1940s. Farmers were actually paid by the acre to plant the stuff. Georgia is now covered with the stuff, which looks amazingly green but folks joke to "close your windows" if they don't want the stuff growing through their homes.

Humbert Wolfe was born in Italy. His parents moved to England when he was very young. He was schooled in England and converted to Christianity from Judaism, although his Jewish roots were always a part of his consciousness. He was a noted civil servant who worked for the Board of Trade and, later, the Board of Labour in England and was rewarded for these posts with royal orders both CBE and CB. (Always wanted to know what these mean? Go here: )

Wolfe was a very popular poet in the 1920s. He wrote a couple dozen books the subjects of which include verses, criticism, librettos and translations of Heinrich Heine (German poet), Edmond Fleg (French poet) and Eugene Heltai (Hungarian author) Some of his verses have been set to music by Gustav Holst. Here's a small sampling of the music: .

In today's poem we are faced with how we view ourselves as compared to animals and how many people view Christianity, as either hypocritical or defensively justified (or both.) It is the phrase "He is not all he should be" that merits some meditation. Is comparing him to a coffee pot (which is figuratively apt- see masthead pic today) making him a "thing" rather than a creature? How does that relate to the "Christian" point of view expressed in the poem.

You can find more Wolfe here:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Number 294: Adelaide Crapsey "November Night"

November Night


With faint dry sound,

Like steps of passing ghosts,

The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees

And fall.

-- Adelaide Crapsey

Hap Notes: Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) invented the cinequain, the form of poem featured today. The cinequain has five lines (hence its name) with a differing syllable count for each line. The first line has two, the second has four, the third has six, the fourth has eight and the last goes back to two again. She developed the poem based on her knowledge of Japanese haiku and tanka. She always titled the poems which gives the verse an extra line.

You may be familiar (most everyone who attended grade school in the U.S. within the last 30 years is) with the didactic cinequain, which is the fancy name for the poem your teacher made you write in the third grade. It follows the following order: the first line is a one-word title, the subject of the poem; the second line is two adjectives describing that title; the third line is a three word phrase about the subject; the fourth line is four words about the writer's feelings related to that subject; and the fifth line is a single word synonym or a repetition of line one. It is based on word count rather than syllables. (i.e. "Snowflakes/Icy white/Light as feathers/Dancing through my heart/Snowflakes".) Remember?

Crapsey was born in Rochester, New York, went to prep school in Kenosha, Wisconsin and then went to Vassar where she was a whiz, both the class poet and editor of the Vassarian. Her family life was fraught with difficulties. She was from a family of eight children and one of her brothers and one of her sisters died young. Her father was an Episcopal priest who gave a lecture stressing the humanity of Jesus and was subsequently tried for heresy and expelled from the ministry. It is said that he was tried as an exemplar to discourage other free thinkers and reformers from polluting the church. Adelaide attended the trials with her father.

She, also, had poor heath and died of tuberculosis when she was only 36. A slim volume of her poetry, Verses, was published after her death. She also wrote a book, A Study in English Metrics, in which she analyzed and attempted to classify poets based on their use of syllables as a consequence of their particular styles. She taught at both her alma mater prep school and at Smith College.

Carl Sandburg was responsible for much of the continued interest in Crapsey's work and the cinequain. Here is a bonus poem since I dropped the ball yesterday (I'm doing Nanowrimo this year: – it's good practice to try to write 50,000 words in a month. Not a good excuse but it's the only one I have.)

Here's Sandburg's poem about today's poet.

Adelaide Crapsey

AMONG the bumble-bees in red-top hay, a freckled field of brown-eyed Susans dripping yellow leaves in July,
I read your heart in a book.

And your mouth of blue pansy—I know somewhere I have seen it rain-shattered.

And I have seen a woman with her head flung between her naked knees, and her head held there listening to the sea, the great naked sea shouldering a load of salt.

And the blue pansy mouth sang to the sea:
Mother of God, I’m so little a thing,
Let me sing longer,
Only a little longer.

And the sea shouldered its salt in long gray combers hauling new shapes on the beach sand.

--Carl Sandburg

You can find more Crapsey here:

(And, yeah, it's a tough name to shoulder for anyone, let alone a poet.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Number 293: Thomas Hood "No!"


No sun--no moon!
No morn--no noon!
No dawn--no dusk--no proper time of day--
No sky--no earthly view--
No distance looking blue--
No road--no street--no "t'other side this way"--
No end to any Row--
No indications where the Crescents go--
No top to any steeple--
No recognitions of familiar people--
No courtesies for showing 'em--
No knowing 'em!
No traveling at all--no locomotion--
No inkling of the way--no notion--
"No go" by land or ocean--
No mail--no post--
No news from any foreign coast--
No Park, no Ring, no afternoon gentility--
No company--no nobility--
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds--

-- Thomas Hood

Hap Notes: One can't help liking Thomas Hood (1799-1845) even though (or maybe because) he littered his work with puns and odd rhymes. During my column writing days I mentioned to a friend who was on the staff of the American Scholar (I was not) that I was sort of a "humorist" and he told me one should never limit the arrows in one's quiver by such a narrow description. This is what actually happened to Hood. Known as a humorist, he could never shake the description consequently his poetry never got the serious scrutiny of his contemporaries. (Although, let's face it; his contemporaries were pretty extraordinary writers whose work would overshadow all but the very best poets: Keats, Hunt, Coleridge, Tennyson, de Quincy, Lamb, Shelley, Thackeray and Clare just to name a few.)

He was born in London. His dad was a bookseller. Hood had some education and was the favored student of a private tutor. He worked in a counting house (Hap- what the hell is a counting house? Well, it's pretty much an accountant's office.), he didn't care much for that and he started to learn engraving but found he was not suited to the work. He suffered from ill health and was, throughout his life, afflicted with wearying weakness. (Side note; Everybody, almost to a man, suffered from ill health in England at this time- one supposes it was a combination of breeding, weather, water quality, sanitation practices, food standards and the burgeoning industrial revolution but, it's just an educated guess.) In fact, his health was so bad he moved to an aunt's home in Scotland where he took walks, ate healthy food and got healthy. He started writing poetry there.

He submitted articles and poems to small local papers in the area and eventually felt well enough to go back to England and re-start his engraving work. Hood was a good and clever illustrator but, again, he lived in a time of extraordinary illustrators;
John Leech, George Cruikshank and William Harvey. Hood became the editor of the London Magazine and eventually started his own humor magazine, Hood's, and was a contributor to the quintessential British humor/current events magazine, Punch. It was in Punch where Hood's "Song of the Shirt" appeared, anonymously. The poem is a moving tribute to the poor working class and the poem was a smash hit (if such a thing can be said of a poem.) It was re-printed dozens of times on prints, as a pamphlet and even on handkerchiefs. Here it is, if you'd like to read it (and it's well worth your time): .

Hood's work has its high points and its low points. In "Bridge of Sighs" he laments the drowning suicide of a young woman but one is never clear if it is supposed to be taken seriously with stanzas like this: "Still, for all slips of hers,/One of Eve's family—/Wipe those poor lips of hers/Oozing so clammily." Yeesh.

Then, too, as a famous punster, his poem "Faithless Sally Brown" is full of jokes and puns which were popular at the time but are sometimes somewhat lost on our era. The best of these, I think, is the final verse, spelling out the end of a sailing man who loved Sally, and reads: "His death, which happen'd in his berth,/At forty-odd befell:/They went and told the sexton, and/The sexton toll'd the bell." Get the jokes/puns, here? (death birth, told tolled. You get it.)

He had a few books published, often with other writers as with his book "Whimsicalities" – the masthead pictures show some of this book. He loved jokes, puns and saw the humor in most all situations. Wrote some fine poetry. Died fairly young–at 46. He was warmly remembered by his friends, which seems to me to be the mark of a fine human.

I suppose today's poem needs little extra explication. November in London, especially during his era, was a drab and cold and dark time. (Just a reminder that this weekend is the time change for us as well- which always makes November seem like the bringer of darkness, doesn't it?)

Here's a good quote from Hood: Hood defended his use of the puns with a couplet: "However critics may take offence,/
A double meaning has double sense."

You can find more Hood here: