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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Number 316: Annie FInch "Winter Solstice Chant"

Winter Solstice Chant

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
now you are uncurled and cover our eyes
with the edge of winter sky
leaning over us in icy stars.
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

-- Annie Finch

Hap Notes: Annie Finch (born 1956) means for you to recite this and think of it as an actual chant. Here she is chanting/reading it for you:
A chant is repetitive and prayer like and is often used in rituals. Let's not forget that the meaning of the word "enchant" stems from the same root and originally meant to captivate by chanting or incantation. Finch's work often plows the rich field of rhythms whether of the word, the world, the spirit or the body and the cadences of their interconnectedness. This particular chant is quite enchanting, I think.

Born in New Rochelle, NY, Finch had parents who were tailor-made for a poet. Her mother was a poet and artist, her dad was a philosophy professor at Sarah Lawrence who studied Wittgenstein. Finch said that her parents met at a lecture given by W.H. Auden. She got her B.A. at Yale, graduating magna cum laude. She received her masters at the University of Houston and got her Ph.D. at Stanford. She currently teaches at the University of Southern Maine and is the author of some dozen or more books of poetry and essays.

She has her own website here:
Note the spirals with words to get to her poems– this, alone, is telling you something about her thoughts on nature and our connections.

Here's a good Finch quotation: "Unlike autumn, in whose complex and fertile imagery poets love to linger, winter, that stylized season, is often evoked as a single deft emblem in just a line or two—lines that can be cold and heavy with the press of everything not said."

and another: "I have always felt myself to be largely a religious poet, but until I became aware of paganism, I didn't know what kind of religious poet I was."

You can find more of her poetry at her website listed above.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Number 315: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "Christmas Bells"

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day 

Their old, familiar carols play, 

And wild and sweet 

The words repeat 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, 

The belfries of all Christendom 

Had rolled along 

The unbroken song 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way, 

The world revolved from night to day, 

A voice, a chime, 

A chant sublime 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth 

The cannon thundered in the South, 

And with the sound 

The carols drowned 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent 

The hearth-stones of a continent, 

And made forlorn 

The households born 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; 

"There is no peace on earth," I said; 

"For hate is strong, 

And mocks the song 

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 

"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 

The Wrong shall fail, 

The Right prevail, 

With peace on earth, good-will to men."

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hap Notes: The story to this well-known poem is equally famous. Longfellow wrote these verses during the Civil War after his son had been severely wounded in battle. His son, Charles, had joined the army without Longfellow's permission and this news fell hard on the heels of the loss of his wife just months previous.

The poem has been set to music and used as a hymn. There are two fairly popular versions. Here's the popular Johnny Marks version: and and the Calkin version I grew up with:

I rarely think of this poem without remembering this very famous cartoon from 1939:

Here is where we have talked about Longfellow before:

and here:

The masthead is a charming vintage birthday postcard with Longfellow's picture and a verse from his poem "Maidenhood." Notice the use of the word "ruth" which gets little use now except when it is paired with paired with the ending"less." Ruth means a feeling of despairing pity. Did you realize that ruthless meant "unpitying" or "lacking compassion"?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Number 314: Ogden Nash " The Boy Who Laughed At Santa Claus"

The Boy Who Laughed At Santa Claus

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn't anybody's joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.

In school he never led his classes,

He hid old ladies' reading glasses,

His mouth was open when he chewed,

And elbows to the table glued.

He stole the milk of hungry kittens,

And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.

He said he acted thus because

There wasn't any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez

Was crying 'Boo' at little babies.

He brushed his teeth, they said in town,

Sideways instead of up and down.

Yet people pardoned every sin,

And viewed his antics with a grin,

Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,

'There isn't any Santa Claus!'

Deploring how he did behave,

His parents swiftly sought their grave.

They hurried through the portals pearly,

And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,

He sped to spread the rumor wild:

'Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes

There isn't any Santa Claus!'

Slunk like a weasel of a marten

Through nursery and kindergarten,

Whispering low to every tot,

'There isn't any, no there's not!'

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez' ribald mocking.

He sprawled on his untidy bed,

Fresh malice dancing in his head,

When presently with scalp-a-tingling,

Jabez heard a distant jingling;

He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof

Crisply alighting on the roof.

What good to rise and bar the door?

A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?

The fireplace full of Santa Claus!

Then Jabez fell upon his knees

With cries of 'Don't,' and 'Pretty Please.'

He howled, 'I don't know where you read it,

But anyhow, I never said it!'

'Jabez' replied the angry saint,
'It isn't I, it's you that ain't.

Although there is a Santa Claus,

There isn't any Jabez Dawes!'

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,

'Oh, yes there is, and I am him!

Your magic don't scare me, it doesn't'

And suddenly he found he wasn't!

From grimy feet to grimy locks,

Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,

An ugly toy with springs unsprung,

Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;

They searched for him, but not with zeal.

No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,

Which led to thunderous applause,

And people drank a loving cup

And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

-- Ogden Nash

Hap Notes: It seems that Nash wants us to pronounce this name Jay-beez so that it rhymes with "babies." But I think he wants us to pronounce "babies" as babbez, which is funnier, actually. It's a fun poem to read aloud.

It's typical Nash humor to list the boy's faults as going though doors marked "No admittance" (to rhyme with "kittens") and brushing his teeth the "wrong" direction and hiding the reading glasses of old ladies. Note how the town can forgive him all his bratty pranks except his crushing of the magic of Saint Nick.

Jabez means "he makes sorrowful" in Hebrew (yabetz, which is decidedly not pronounced Yay-beetz.) and a few years back much was made of a prayer that Jabez (in the book of I Chronicles in the Bible as a member of the lineage of the tribe of Judah) in which he implores God to keep him from harm and increase his territories. The book about it was called "The Prayer of Jabez" and it was a huge best-seller.

The Jabez story in the Old Testament is not to blame for what was made of it in the best-selling book about the prayer. But it is irritating when folks who claim to know God tell you what will make you prosperous. I just don't think the Bible is a very good tool for learning about economics, budgeting, investment opportunities and gaining monetary profits. I don't believe that is the point of the text. Prosperity, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. Some people never get enough. I choose to think of the Jabez prayer as a guy trusting that God is worth talking to about everything, not that God cares about wealth. Imagine, if you will, a deity so petty as to be concerned with what you own– what is he, a banker? And if Jabez was sure that God was going to answer his prayer, wouldn't it have been nice if he'd asked for something for everyone? And furthermore, in the case of the book, it seems to be an excuse to once again villainize the poor– they just haven't enough "faith" to be well off; a disgusting way of rationalizing greed and assuaging guilt.

Gosh, when I digress, I really digress... let's go back to the Nash poem, which is an open and shut case for the indictment of those who do not believe in Santa. Even if you don't believe in him, there's no sense in bragging about the fact that you have no imagination and heart. Shutting down people who believe in Santa does no one credit. In this poem, Santa has a little more backbone than he is usually pictured as having. He doesn't just give the offending, hard-hearted Jabez a bit of coal, he turns him into a broken jack-in-the-box (which seems very fitting, doesn't it?)

Nash's sense of humor is wickedly clever and the poem is primarily meant to amuse. However, the gravest things are said in jest and this poem is also Nash's way of warning us not to kick the magic out of everything in life.

Here is where we have talked about Nash before:

and here:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Number 313: Ezra Pound "Ancient Music"

Ancient Music

Winter is icumen in,

Lhude sing Goddamm,

Raineth drop and staineth slop,

And how the wind doth ramm!

Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,

An ague hath my ham.

Freezeth river, turneth liver,

Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,

So 'gainst the winter's balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,

Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

-- Ezra Pound

Hap Notes: First off, Pound is writing a clever parody here of the Middle English round written in 1225 A.D. called "Summer Is Icumen In." Here's that poem/song:

Sumer is icumen in,

Lhude sing cuccu!

Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,

Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteþ after lomb,

Lhouþ after calue cu.

Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,

Murie sing cuccu!

Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.

Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Okay, what the hell does this poem mean? Here's a fairly good translation:

Summer has arrived,

Loudly sing, Cuckoo!

The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,

Sing, Cuckoo!

The ewe bleats after the lamb

The cow lows after the calf.

The bullock stirs, the stag farts,

Merrily sing, Cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,

Don't you ever stop now,
Sing cuckoo now.
Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo.
Sing cuckoo now!

The stag farts? Did you read that right? Yep. It's thought to be a sign of virile health. Don't spread that information around, please. I've had enough purposefully flatulent boyfriends who did not need this kind of encouragment. Just sayin'. Here's what the round sounds like:

Pound was well-equipped to write this parody. He studied Old English as well as Romance languages in college. There is, was and probably never shall be anyone more knowledgeable about poetry than Pound was.

Pound himself said, "I resolved that at 30 I would know more about poetry than any man living, that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was "indestructible," what part could not be lost by translation and—scarcely less important—what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated.
In this search I learned more or less of nine foreign languages, I read Oriental stuff in translations, I fought every University regulation and every professor who tried to make me learn anything except this, or who bothered me with "requirements for degrees."

One cannot speak of 20th century poetry without mentioning the extraordinarily vexing and brilliant Pound.

Today's poem seems especially fitting if you are living in a part of the country that is snowy, grey, cloudy, windy, cold, rainy or (as in my case) all of the above.

Here is where we have talked about Pound before:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Number 312: Robert Frost "Christmas Trees"

Christmas Trees

A Christmas Circular Letter

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn't thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I'd hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I'd hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,
I said, "There aren't enough to be worth while."

"I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over."

"You could look.
But don't expect I'm going to let you have them."
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded "Yes" to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer's moderation, "That would do."
I thought so too, but wasn't there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north.

He said, "A thousand."

"A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?"

He felt some need of softening that to me:
"A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars."

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.
I can't help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Frost writes this poem as a Christmas letter or, at least, for inclusion in some Christmas Cards. He tells the story of someone wanting to buy his fir trees for Christmas trees but he, as usual, is saying much more about trees, life, value and, even Christmas.

First of all, living out in the country as I do, it's easy to relate to the idea of the winter withdrawing the city from the country. The snow and cold do not lend themselves to easy traveling or, for that matter, leaving a warm city home. So when a stranger pulls up, the country residents are surprised to find a city dweller who understands to wait for the residents to come out to them.

What do you think the city dweller is looking for, aside from the trees, that Frost mentions early in the poem "something it had left behind"- is it just the trees?

Were you as shocked as the narrator was when the offer was three cents per tree? Accounting for current inflation, that's still less than a dollar per tree in 2011. Did you think the narrator ever had any intention of selling the trees? Why or why not?

What is Frost telling us about the trees when he describes them as "the young fir balsams like a place /Where houses all are churches and have spires. "

Here's another telling phrase to ponder–"The trial by market everything must come to." Think he's just talking about trees here?

Here is where we have talked about Frost before: (this one will lead you to our other Frost poems covered.)

And now, because it's Saturday- cartoons, music and other miscellanea:

First Pluto's Christmas Tree from 1952, I think:

Here's one of those singing Christmas trees composed of people- this show a bit about the structure as well as the singers:

And this is Suzy Snowflake:

Ever seen these talking Christmas trees? They're sorta spooky. Here's one of them, Douglas Fir:

This was my favorite little cartoon station greeting when I was a kid- it's from CBS with Blechman drawings:

and another CBS Blechman:

Finally, the infamous "cigarettes as gifts" ads. The package was designed by Raymond Loewy no less!:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Number 311: Tony Hoagland "Bad Intelligence"

Bad Intelligence

is the reason the Chinese orphanage was bombed
It wasn't a stray piece of lint on a bombsight,
or the spastic movement of a twenty-year-old jet pilot
leaning forward to inspect a zit in a cockpit mirror.

No — someone had pulled the wrong map from the top-secret file cabinet,
had given the map to someone else in office Z-13,
who had circled the wrong building with lavender ink,
and passed it on,

and when the smoke rose from the successfully-demolished target
and the other kinds of fallout began,
the error had already been given a name by the damage-control guys,
which the radio announcers were murmuring over the airways,
and it was: Bad Intelligence.

Hearing it on the radio, driving to work,
I think, Yes, Bad Intelligence: that's what has guided me most of my life.
Like the lesson I got from my mother: Anticipate betrayal:
measure out your love in teaspoons, so you will never lose
more than you can easily afford.

Or the other one, about how a worried expression on your face
proves you are a Thoughtful Person;
Or the one about despising weakness.

Bad Intelligence. Bad intelligence
is why Candace always dated guys with snake tattoos.
Why the homeless woman said, "God will take care of us."
Bad intelligence is what tells the fat man in his kitchen
there might not be anything to eat tomorrow.

It's not that we are stupid,
but that we go on doing stupid things because we learned
never to believe the simple answer
never to rearrange the words in the sentence.

We're like the beautiful bodies of humankind, as drawn by William Blake:
muscle-bound in chains, gorgeous but imprisoned,
sealed in the caverns of the you-know-what — Bad Intelligence.

So it goes creeping through the tunnels of the blood
And it covers our lives like mold on bread, like fog
which seeps out through a crack in the human head.

Telling you never to apologize,
telling you to count your wounds
and nurse your evil in the dark —

I too followed the instructions I received from ghosts.
I bombed people with my love or hate,
then claimed it was an accident.
But then it was too late. Bad intelligence:
choices made someplace far away.
Words heard through earphones and repeated.
And little people far below
getting ready to suffer.

-- Tony Hoagland

Hap Notes: There's a lot going on in this poem stemming from "bad intelligence" that military euphemism for "unapologetic mistake." Hoagland starts out with the "accidental" bombing of civilians in an orphanage in China. This mistake leads him to think about other things that seem correct and are thought by reasonable adults and, yet, are sadly wrong.

In our everyday lives "bad intelligence"often rules. In our culture, we often see compassion as weakness, physical beauty as "good," sincerity as stupidity, smiling as somewhat facile and often false and happiness as monetary gain. All very stupid points of view or, as the damage control guys in the military call it, "bad intelligence."

You are an unending fountain of love and forgiveness if you want to be. Smiling feels good, looking "serious" in this world is actually pretty silly, and there is enough stuff in the world for everyone to have more than enough. Approval is something you only need from yourself- not your friends or your parents or the culture. It is this bad intelligence that holds us all back from fully experiencing life.

One supposes that there were reasonable things weaved into the bad intelligence that surrounds our lives. Running with scissors is unadvisable at best. It's a good idea to lock your car when you leave it. There are people who steal things, hurt others and are careless. But it seems we live our lives in fear- fear of theft, fear of violence, fear of loss, fear of hurt, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of loneliness. Most of this fear is based on bad intelligence– the bad intelligence that informed our parents and our grandparents and so on.

Where did we ever get the idea that the strong were tough and the compassionate were weak when the truth is that it is exactly the opposite. It takes more courage to be decent and thoughtful than it takes to be a brute. It takes more strength to be loving than to be guarded and suspicious. Pema Chodron calls the compassionate, "warriors." We need more warriors of love and kindness and less of those paper tigers who claim to be tough. Those tough-guy warriors are really just unhappy kids filled with bad intelligence.

Here is where we have talked about Hoagland before:

and here:

The masthead is a detail from William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Number 310: Miyazawa Kenji "Be Not Defeated by the Rain"

Be not Defeated by the Rain

Be not defeated by the rain, Nor let the wind prove your better.
Succumb not to the snows of winter. Nor be bested by the heat of summer.

Be strong in body. Unfettered by desire. Not enticed to anger. Cultivate a quiet joy.
Count yourself last in everything. Put others before you.
Watch well and listen closely. Hold the learned lessons dear.

A thatch-roof house, in a meadow, nestled in a pine grove's shade.

A handful of rice, some miso, and a few vegetables to suffice for the day.

If, to the East, a child lies sick: Go forth and nurse him to health.
If, to the West, an old lady stands exhausted: Go forth, and relieve her of burden.
If, to the South, a man lies dying: Go forth with words of courage to dispel his fear.
If, to the North, an argument or fight ensues:
Go forth and beg them stop such a waste of effort and of spirit.

In times of drought, shed tears of sympathy.
In summers cold, walk in concern and empathy.

Stand aloof of the unknowing masses:
Better dismissed as useless than flattered as a "Great Man".

This is my goal, the person I strive to become.

--by Kenji Miyazawa
Translated by David Sulz

Hap Notes: Miyazawa Kenji(1896-1933) –(Miyazawa is the family name which is often spoken first in Japan. Just like in China where film star Chow Yung Fat's name in America would be Yung Fat Chow. Chow is the family name)– was born to a well-to-do family in Hanamaki City in Japan. He studied agriculture in college and became interested in writing when he lived in Tokyo. He returned to the farming area where he was born and raised where he taught school, saved up his money and published his own poetry and collections of children's stories.

While his books were not particularly big sellers in his lifetime, he has come to be one of the most beloved Children's Literature authors of all time in Japan. If you are an anime fan you may know many of works. The anime films based on Miyazawa's stories include Night on the Galactic Railroad, The Acorns and the Wildcat, Matasaburo the Wind Imp, The Restaurant of Many Orders, The Biography of Budori Gusko, Kenji's Trunk, The Twin Stars, The Cat's Office, The Coat of a Glacier Mouse and the biographical Kenji's Spring.

Miyazawa was deeply interested in the natural world and was an authority in many of the sciences including biology geology and botany. He even learned Esperanto and translated his book into the "world language." He was an ardent believer in the value of all creatures, eschewed his family's business and inheritance and was integral in helping farmers from his local area understand newer agricultural methods. He was a staunch vegetarian and Buddhist and was one of those people who seem to live on the nourishment one gets from a good walk in the forest and healthy gulps of fresh air.

Today's poem, ("Ame ni mo makezu" in Japanese) used to be (and still may be) a poem all Japanese school children were required to memorize and speak in unison. It is said to be the most revered poem of the 20th century in Japan. It has many translations, so look around the web for your favorite one. I think this one does it justice. It is said this poem was one of the last he wrote and was found on his desk after his death from pneumonia at the young age of 37.

You can find more Kenji Miyazawa here: