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Friday, December 31, 2010

Number 24: Tony Harrison "Long Distance II"

Long Distance II

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone.
He'd put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn't risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he'd hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she'd just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven't both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there's your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

--Tony Harrison

Hap Notes: Tony Harrison (Born 1937) has certainly had his share of controversy in his lifetime. His poem, "V", raised hackles when it was read and shown as a film on television in Great Britain. The poem describes visiting his parent's grave site in Leeds during the miners' strike in the early 80s. His vivid use of the language of the graffiti on the graves offended some sensibilities. "V" is an acid slash of images and words. You can see this program on YouTube in several parts. Yep, welcome to the 21st century where poets do filmed projects. Harrison has done several of what he calls "Film Poems."

You have to smile a bit that poetry can still rankle politicians and the media. It's a powerful sword that many think has rusted but this proves otherwise. It may not make you a millionaire but don't forget what Kipling said about words being the most powerful drug on earth. Harrison knew this at an early age. He was one of those kids who stayed inside, read classics and Shakespeare and took a bit of razzing for it.

Harrison is on YouTube reading much of his poetry, holding his frayed and splayed book and speaking in that flat gorgeous Yorkshire accent of his. I wish all poets were so gifted with reading their work aloud, but Harrison certainly is. Read the poetry first, then listen to him so you can hear his emphasis compared to your own. He (as Eliot would say) does the "Police" in different voices. (Is that too obscure a reference? In "The Wasteland" T.S. Eliot refers to a person who reads the paper with different voices for the speakers, with the words "He do the "Police" (Police Gazette, I think) in different voices." Harrison uses different voices and tones. Didn't mean to drop the tranny there.)

Harrison read classics at the university which is a very plain British way of saying he majored in them. He's done award-winning translations of Aeschylus's The Oresteia and (great shades of yesterday's blog!) his The Gaze of the Gorgon won the Whitbread Poetry Award.

Three charming and somewhat unrelated bits: I've always thought it amusing that a recurring character on "The Mighty Boosh", a pink brain with tentacles and a grin, is named Tony Harrison. The poet actually wrote the lyrics for the songs in a movie "The Bluebird," a strange children's film I've always sorta liked. And Thom Yorke from the band Radiohead is a huge fan of Harrison.

Let's talk about the poem, yes? First off, did you even notice that it rhymed? His seemingly effortless way with rhyme is miraculous. Must be his native Yorkshire woodnotes mixed with a healthy dose of the Greek and Roman classics. The poem is a marvel of smooth gorgeous effortless verse which, if you'd ever tried to write you'd know is the complete opposite of those words. One little comment and I'll let you enjoy it for yourself. How long was that number virtually disconnected do you think, from his parents, as opposed to literally? It's a lovely poem, ain't it? Such tender words from the furious spirit who wrote "V."

Here's a good Harrison quote: "I was well read and knew languages, but I didn't want to become Ezra Pound. I wanted to write poetry that people like my parents might respond to."

You can find more Tony Harrison poetry here:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Number 23: Rudyard Kipling "When Earth's Last Picture is Painted."

When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted

When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it -- lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy; they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets' hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from -- Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
Andd no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the thing as he sees it for the God of Things as They are!

--Rudyard Kipling

Hap Notes: Okay, before I begin to talk about Kipling (1865-1936) you may want to wash off a bit of the schmaltz and the treacle residue from the poem. I know you think I've gone off the bend on this one. But it has not been posted exclusively for you but in honor of Mrs. Virginia Edwards, my high school English Literature teacher who adored the poem and because it was a pivotal point in my relationship to her and classic poetry. (AND P.S. Kipling was the first English speaking writer to get the Nobel Prize and still remains its youngest recipient. He was 42).

We moved the summer before my senior year in high school and I was torn from all the friends with which I had gone to grade school and junior high and most of high school and was deposited in a new school where I knew no one. The only bright spot in the whole thing was the new school was very modern (at the time) and allowed you to take courses, much like college, that you could choose yourself. I loaded my schedule with literature classes and Latin (they had Latin!)

When I mentioned to someone that I was going to take English literature with Virginia Edwards, my new classmates filled me in on her. They called her "the Virgin Queen" (although she was married and had grown children) and said she was a "musty powderpuff" of a long bygone era. She always wore a clutch of fake violets at her throat or a large brooch. She was, they told me, ancient (she may have been in her late 60s) and had a humped back. She said "pleezhure" for the word pleasure and "Lehzhure" for the word leisure. She was a gorgon. I, of course, was not repulsed by their friendly warnings but intrigued. I generally like gorgons.

The gorgon turned out to be a diminutive woman with carefully coifed hair and a strong but gentle voice. She wafted lavender and lemon. The first day of class she read this poem aloud. I, being the ginormous goose of literature that I was (am) had it committed to memory and I silently mouthed the words as she spoke. I didn't think she'd notice this, since I was sitting in the back of the room as was my wont (where you can read other things and draw pictures with impunity.) The next thing I knew she had asked me to stand up. "Do you know this poem?" she asked sternly. I said that I did. She said, "Then, recite it." Which I did. She brushed away a tear (!) and said "Thank-you. Thank you, very much. That was lovely." and went on with the class.

After the class she asked me how I knew the poem and I showed her my beat up copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury. She nodded. That was it. The next day she read Robert Burn's poem "John Anderson My Jo, John" and I wept a little. She deposited a box of kleenex on my desk and said, "I believe we are going to need these this year." We were never fast friends, we were compatriots in the forces of literature. She treated me as a lieutenant to her General. She was never gooey with sentiment- she let the poetry and the literature do what it would. She did give me a new copy of Palgrave's when I graduated. The inscription said, "You need this, I think. Thank you for a most satisfying and enjoyable year."

Now, how did my peers react to this geekiness in me? I couldn't tell you. Being the ginormous goose that I was (am) I didn't notice and didn't give a damn anyway. Just didn't think about it. And I was never teacher's pet. She never asked me to distribute tests or do anything out of the ordinary, She did not let me slide because I knew things. In fact, I think she was a bit repulsed by my wild curly hair and ratty black turtleneck and blunt speaking. She treated me like she was teaching a strange new creature who could possibly bite (a gorgon, maybe?) I told her she should reconsider e.e. cumings. She told me I shouldn't be so disrespectful of Matthew Arnold. I loved her very much. I'm quite sure she's dead, now. But not to me. Hence the Kipling (which, by the by, has some merit, I think, in spite of it's saccharine.)

Kipling, of course, everybody knows whether they think they do or not. He wrote The Jungle Book which has been made into both Disney animated movies and real-life movies. He wrote Captains Courageous, which many people know from the Spencer Tracy film. He wrote Gunga Din which was made into a movie with Cary Grant (and is an okay poem- come on!) and Kim. He wrote that "IF" poem that people send each other at graduations.

Kipling was born in Bombay (now called Mumbai) and didn't go to school in England until he was 5 or 6. He stayed with people who took care of British children whose families lived in India so they could get an English education. He was most grievously abused by them and hated his life there. Kipling always considered himself more Indian than Brit- even though there's always the whiff of British Imperialism about much of his work. It's more than a tad distasteful. I always think of him as a cross between Teddy Roosevelt (adventurous and imperious) and William Wordsworth (romantic)- there's a strange mix, indeed.

And even though much of his work may seem a bit sugary, there's merit in much of it and he is well-loved by lots of people who normally do not read poetry so there you have it. This particular poem was written as a l'envoi to his book The Seven Seas. ( a l'envoi is verse that sort of bless or depict the moral or "christen" if you will, a book.)

Kipling is highly quotable. You know -- "a woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke" and "God could not be everywhere and therefore he created mothers" and just oodles more. Here are a couple of good ones:

"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."

and "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."

Oh, and here's one very telling about his "foster parents": "Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established. Also, badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it".

You can find more Kipling here:

Monday, December 27, 2010

Number 22: Galway Kinnell "The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students"

The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students

Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain
brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”; goodbye, manufacturer
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
to the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,
who wrote, “Being German my hero is Hitler,”
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,
neat-scripted letters extolling the Pre-Raphaelites:

I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had of trying to guess
which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue. I did care.
I did read each poem entire.
I did say everything I thought
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, no better,
I realize, than those troubled lines
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems kept smothering in words, the smell
of which, days later, tingled in your nostrils
as new, God-given impulses
to write.

you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of imaginary towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their solitude given away in poems, only their loneliness kept.

--Galway Kinnell

Hap Notes: Galway Kinnell (Born 1927) while studying at Princeton University made no bones about how scornful he was of classes that could "teach" one to write poetry. After graduation, he served in the Navy and traveled a good deal. When he got back to the states he got a job as a field worker with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was heavily involved with the civil rights movement during the 60s. He was arrested, at one point, while integrating a workplace in Louisiana. I believe he is retired now but he still writes and lectures because you never actually retire from writing like you do from, say, driving a cab or making rubber or something. It haunts you forever.

In addition to writing poetry and teaching creative writing, Kinnell has translated the poetry of Rilke and Francois Villon. It's the Villon translations where I first encountered him and I worked backwards, then, to read his poetry. Kinnell was great friends with the poet James Wright and their work has a similar clearly worded symmetry.

Kinnell deals with real life situations in his poetry and his influence seems to be most notably Whitman, without the grandeur of the style which he would, I think, find a bit much. He does celebrate the self, though, almost as much as he makes social commentary in much of his poetry. Kinnell takes a nice big juicy bite out of life, he has an appetite for it as well as a certain amount of horror and sorrow for mankind.

The whimsical humor of the poem at hand is, at first, somewhat light-hearted and funny. One immediately understands the kinds of poetry the narrator has been reading from the description of the senders and it makes you smile a bit, and wince, to think on it. The poet has obviously written criticisms, "in the mildest words" but he's sure that if the students understand his objections they will feel rejected enough to poison him- he's mostly joking about this, though. We understand both points of view here, though- the rejected and the rejector. The descriptions immediately fill us with a sense of superiority.

Then the author (somewhat modestly) says his poem, the one we are reading, the "chopped prose," isn't much better than the poems sent for his instructional perusal, which of course, probably isn't true at all. But then he gets down to the dirt of the poem.

The poems which are "smothering in words" that "will to life" and the pity that he feels for those lonely souls trying to get their feelings on the paper are suspiciously close to the poet himself. His poem, addressed to us, is also from some "imaginary" place, isn't it? His solitude is also shared but his loneliness is his own, pondering the various places the students live, but, reader, where is he from, eh? He's some place we don't see or know- he's giving us his solitude but keeping his loneliness as well.

So while he bids his students goodbye and releases himself from the task of reading more painful verses. He, also, has that "god given impulse" does he not? He, in spite of his poetic prowess, could be mourning for himself as well as them.

And what interesting town names- Xenia (the Greek concept of courtesy to one far from home), Burnt Cabins (like a pioneer town once in flames), and Hornell (more than likely named for some forgotten town founder.) Put those together and see how they add. Subtle but good stuff there.

Here's a good Kinnell quotation: "If you could keep going deeper and deeper, you'd finally not be a person ... you'd be a blade of grass or ultimately perhaps a stone. And if a stone could read, poetry would speak for it."

Here's another: "Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can, perhaps, by trying to bring together one’s art and one’s life with one’s values."

You can find more Kinnell here:

Number 21: Robert Louis Stevenson "After Reading 'Anthony and Cleopatra' "

After Reading Antony and Cleopatra

As when the hunt by holt and field
Drives on with horn and strife,
Hunger of hopeless things pursues
Our spirits throughout life.

The sea's roar fills us aching full
Of objectless desire -
The sea's roar, and the white moon-shine,
And the reddening of the fire.

Who talks to me of reason now?
It would be more delight
To have died in Cleopatra's arms
Than be alive to-night.

--Robert Louis Stevenson

Hap Notes: Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburg, Scotland so don't forget to hear his poetry with that lovely lilt in mind. Think Ewan McGregor.

Here we have another guy who wrote a good deal of "children's poetry." Remember A Child's Garden of Verses? Of course he also penned some mighty famous tales, for example; Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He is said to be in the top 30 of the most translated authors in the world. He was something of a celebrity due to the popularity of his books.

Stevenson packed a good deal into his short, riddled-with-illness, 44 years. He was born to a family of lighthouse builders and I believe his dad thought he would follow in the family biz. Parents of teens may note, with a bit of bemusement, the rules of a club (the Liberty, Justice, Reverence Club) he and a school friend devised, the first of which was "Disregard everything our parents have taught us." He was a great lover of reading as a youth and particularly admired Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and John Bunyan. His father made him at least get a law degree at the University of Edinburg which he did but he never actually practiced with it.

He traveled widely, fell ill a LOT and when he felt better he wrote like a house afire. He was a right handsome fella for being so terribly skinny most of his life. His life is worth several books worth of stuff so let me just tell you he ended up in the South Seas on a Samoan Island where the natives adored him- he was called Tusitala (story teller) and was often involved in politics involving the isles. He married a woman 10 years his senior who already had children.

He has often been relegated to "children's" literature or worse, Neo-Romantic sentimentality, however his admirers include Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Vladimir Nabokov, G,K. Chesterton, J. M. Barrie and French Symbolist Marcel Schwob. Henry James was his dear friend and champion; Stevenson wrote a charming poem about an antique mirror and Henry James, perhaps we'll read it together at some point.

This little poem packs a wallop. Stevenson is telling us that the human race is always hungering and aching for unobtainable, often indefinable things. These mysterious things haunt us throughout our lives. The sea speaks of it to us, the moon fills us with it and watching the firelight and the reddening coals speaks of it. This aching, unrealized desire is past reason. Stevenson imagines himself, after he has read Shakespeare's play, as an Anthony, dying in the arms of Cleopatra- something that can never happen but fills him with a romantic longing.

I believe much of our lives we are yearning for a similar satisfaction; one that can never happen. Like Stevenson's impossible fantasy, its elusiveness makes it all the more appealing and frustrating. Humans do not like to think there is anything that is impossible- this impossibility may be the sadness that mixes with the search.

That ocean image is particularly apt- you know how, standing on the seashore, one is filled with an ache and a longing in addition to admiration and maybe, a bit of fear? What is it we want when we look out upon ocean? Who can specifically name it?

Oh, a "holt" is a wooded area. And remember he's not saying a hunt is full of hopeless desire, he's saying our desires for these hopeless things trail us like a driven hunt. It may be, too, that our desire for the impossible is part of the thrill of the hunt, that it, in itself, is part of the romance of life.

Stevenson probably has the most quoted gravestone of all time; his poem "Requiem."

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Here's a good Stevenson quote: "If your morals make you dreary, depend on it, they are wrong."

You can find more Stevenson here:

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Number 20: Stanley Kunitz "The Portrait"

The Portrait
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

--Stanley Kunitz

Hap Notes: Six weeks before Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) was born, his father walked to a public park in Worcester, Massachusetts, sat down and killed himself by drinking carbolic acid. His father's clothing business was bankrupted, at the time, thanks to a partner's mismanagement/theft.

Kunitz's mother managed to take care of her family (Kunitz had two older sisters) and eventually remarried, but when Kunitz was 14, the stepfather died, too. His sisters married early and died young.

Kunitz went to Harvard where he studied and lectured with the English department. He graduated summa cum laude with a master's degree. He had thought he would be given a lectureship but was told (in 1926) that the department felt that some students would feel "resentful" (interesting euphemism) at being taught English by a Jew. Kunitz said it was "a cruel and wanton rejection.”

Kunitz's life seems to be marked with an extraordinary gentle patience, from his teaching career to his poetry to his life-long love affair with gardening(which is legendary.) He was a steadfast cultivator who waited and waited and watched everything eventually blossom in his life- a complete reverse of his father.

After college Kunitz worked as a reporter for the Worcester Times and as an editor for the H.W. Wilson Co. in New York. He was a C.O. during WWII and served as a noncombatant. After the war he subsequently was offered teaching jobs starting at Bennington in Vermont and ending with Columbia University, where he taught for 22 years. (The poet, Theodore Roethke had Kunitz hired at Bennington; Roethke was going through one of his sad breakdowns when he was teaching there and told the college he'd leave IF they hired Kunitz. So, it's a tale of friendship and how fearful universities are of mental illness.)

Kunitz published his first book of poetry in 1925 but had trouble finding a publisher for the second; Selected Poems: 1928-1959. He finally found a publisher after a bit of struggle- the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. If all these struggles seem a bit vexing to you, they should. If graduating summa cum laude from Harvard can't get you a teaching job and if nobody at a publishing house can recognize Pulitzer prize potential poetry what the hell does that say about poetry and merit in this country? I'm mad just writing about it. Kunitz kept his patience.

Okay, I'll simmer down and talk about this poem, so gently told on the surface. There's a lot of slow painful burning going on in this poem. Kunitz's mother still burns with a passion, at the time he finds the picture of his birth-father, passion of anger, betrayal and maybe something else "locked in her deepest cabinet." Kunitz's cheek still burns from the slap his mother gave him, burns with hurt, curiosity for the father with the "brave mustache" he never knew, burns with hurt for his mother, and sadness, among other things. (
Just a side note: Carbolic acid, by the way, still burns the esophagus and stomach for weeks after the poison is taken- long after the body is dead. Most Jewish burials require rapid burial- the body is not embalmed.) A rapid slap and a slow burn- and it hurts. One wonders how much Kunitz looked like his father, too. Lots of things to slowly wonder about in this poem.

Kunitz's poetry is often deceptively airy, like this. It breathes by itself but does not crowd you. It patiently waits for you to discover its mysteries. There's a lot of Jungian imagery going on with much of Kunitz's work.

Kunitz believed, since it has relatively little monetary value, that poetry is the last form of uncorrupted art. I heartily agree with this. I don't believe this will be changing any time soon.

Kunitz lived to be 101 and won loads of awards and deep respect in the last 40 years of his life. His tombstone reads "He loved the earth so much, he wanted to stay forever."

Heres' a nice Kunitz quote: "Poetry emerges out of the mystery and secrecy of being, It is the occult and passionate grammar of a life.''

You can find more Kunitz here:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Number 19: Thomas Hardy "A Christmas Ghost Story"

A Christmas Ghost Story

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies--your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?

And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died."

-- Thomas Hardy

Hap Notes: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a poet who wrote novels. It just so happens that his novels, which he started writing to make money while he wrote poetry, often overshadow his poetry, which is a pity, really. Of course, I'd give my eyeteeth to have written Jude, the Obscure. He wrote books that always end up on a college syllabus or list for extra-credit reading and most people have read at least one of the following: Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Far From the Madding Crowd or Return of the Native or The Mayor of Casterbridge or the aforementioned Jude.

But, Hardy considered himself a poet. Good lad.

Hardy started out as an architect's apprentice (his dad was a stone mason) and the notebooks he left after he died show a writer who built a novel somewhat like a peculiar house; the notebooks reveal little newspaper snippets, facts about the natural world, notes on buildings and character sketches from which he "built" novels and poems. He understood masonry and the elements of physical labor although he was a devoted book worm who was either reading or writing most of the time. He had been sickly as a child and was small in stature (How small? I believe it's said that he was a slight bit over five feet tall.) His work, of course, is gigantic.

Hardy's poetry is a sweet and salty mix of Victorian rhythms/words/rhyme with some plain-speaking common English. This is why he's hard to classify as either Victorian or Modern but if we were just sitting around idly chatting about Hardy I would put him in the Moderns. His work has a strong sense of the ironies of life and the mysteries of what often seem to be an uncaring universe. By the way, in spite of his often bitter sounding prose and poetry he was a very gentle man who was a strong anti-vivisectionist and loved animals (and women- just sayin'.)

The poem needs little explication from me outside of my telling you that Canopus is a very bright star. Why did he use Canopus instead of Sirius, the brightest star? Well, he was a scholar of Latin and Greek and he knew that Canopus was the name of Menelaus' pilot for whom the star was named. Canopus steered the ship as Menelaus went to retrieve Helen of Troy after Paris had taken her. So he figures in the Trojan War. Ah ha! He's saying something about how "primitive" wars should have stopped after "that man Crucified." Troy having taken place in B.C. as opposed to A.D. (Anno Domini.) Durban is a city in South Africa. The speaker in the poem probably fought in the Boer Wars which were bloody, brutal and "primitive."

And, of course, a star attended the birth of Jesus, yes? Hence, a "Christmas" ghost story comes full circle with the star he addresses.

Hardy was not a man of action. In fact his wives both (he was married twice; one wife died, the second wife was his much younger secretary) complained that he spent way too much time holed up in his study, writing and reading. The world came to visit him.

Just a cursory glance at the attendees at his funeral will give you a good look at his influence: Prime Minister (at the time) Stanley Baldwin and the Leader of the Opposition Ramsay MacDonald, heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges (where Hardy was an honorary fellow) and literary figures like James Barrie, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, Edmund Gosse, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw. Have we mentioned his influence on D.H. Lawrence, our friend Walter de la Mare (from the Christmas eve poem), William Butler Yeats and Virginia Woolf? There's way more but I'll stop- you get the drift.

Here's a good Hardy quote (we'll see more of him this year, too): "A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible."

Another good one, "“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

You can find more Hardy poetry here:

Number 18: T.S. Eliot "Journey of the Magi"

The Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

--T.S. Eliot

Hap Notes: Happy Christmas!!!

We'll talk about the St. Louis-Missouri-born British citizen T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and his enormous influence some other time. Just think on the poem and have a lovely day! (It's one of the three wise men talking about the journey to see the baby Jesus- I know you got that...just summarizing.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Number 17: Walter de la Mare "Mistletoe"


Sitting under the mistletoe

(Pale green, fairy mistletoe),

One last candle burning low,

All the sleepy dancers gone,

Just one candle burning on,

Shadows lurking everywhere:

Someone came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go

Nodding under the mistletoe

(Pale green, fairy mistletoe)

No footsteps came, no voice, but only,

Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,

Stooped in the still and shadowy air

Lips unseen - and kissed me there.

-- Walter de la Mare

Hap Notes: Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is often relegated to that dismissive term "children's poetry," which wouldn't be a particularly bad designation if it didn't carry with it connotations that it's not "serious" poetry which is, of course, marlarky, balderdash and blather. (kind of sounds like a law firm, huh?)

Sheesh, even Thomas Hardy thought de la Mare's "The Listeners" one of the best poems of the 20th century and it was one of the last things he requested his wife to read aloud to him before he died. Hardy and de la Mare were friends although Hardy was much the older of the two.

De la mare spent 18 years working in the statistics department of Standard Oil in London as he kept on writing. He wrote many books and stories but Songs of Childhood established him as a romantic and imaginative poet. Most British schoolchildren, by the way, know "The Listeners," too, although it's hardly a children's poem. I'll post it some day. We've got plenty of time.

I've always loved this mistletoe poem. I can see the scene of a post-party, lonely, pensive, drowsy person who gets a mysterious kiss under the "pale green, fairy mistletoe." It always somewhat puts me in mind of that Chekhov story "The Kiss" where the soldier gets a peppermint-y kiss in the dark (mistakenly) and wonders which of the girls at the party it was- you know that one? Good and very sad story --which really has nothing to do with the poem at all- it just starts me up on the Chekhov. De la Mare's kiss hints ("pale green, fairy mistletoe") of the bestower of the kiss, I think- he was a very fanciful sort of fella.

De la Mare's poetry is traditionally structured and yet still often remains magical- like incantations. I admit I selected this because it was one of the few poems of the season that I remembered by heart outside of the somewhat stirring but lugubrious "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow- you know that one, right? (Just as another aside, traditional Christmas carols are loaded with fine poetry- "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (written by Rev, Philip Brooks) is quite wonderful and so is "Good King Wenceslas," (John Mason Neale) just to name a couple.) I suppose, being raised Lutheran, I should give a shout out to Martin Luther for his "Away in a Manger" too- it's easy to forget that he wrote it- such a standard.)

Anyway, I thought this poem was a little more fun for the season.

Here's a good de la Mare quote:
“All day long the door of the sub-conscious remains just ajar; we slip through to the other side, and return again, as easily and secretly as a cat.”

And here's a sweet short bonus poem by De la Mare as a Christmas poetry present:

A heart to be at peace with,

Wisdom at peace to be;

To love no less though loved no more

Be all the hope in me.

You can find more de la Mare here:
Or here:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Number 16: Amy Clampitt "The Smaller Orchid"

The Smaller Orchid

Love is a climate
small things find safe
to grow in- not
(though I once supposed so)
the demanding cattleya
du cote de chez Swann,
glamor among the faubourgs,
hothouse overpowerings, blisses
and cruelties at teatime, but this
next-to-unidentifiable wildling,
hardly more than a
sprout, I've found
flourishing in the hollows
of a granite seashore --
a cheerful tousle, little,
white, down-to-earth orchid
declaring its authenticity,
if you hug the ground
close enough, in a powerful
whiff of vanilla.

-- Amy Clampitt

Hap Notes: Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) is both an inspiring story of sticking with it when you want to be a writer and an anomaly since not many poets get their start after the age of 40.

Another Midwesterner, Clampitt was born in New Providence, Iowa. Don't know where that is? It's pretty close to Eldora- does that help? (I'm teasing you. You sorta gotta be from Iowa to know where places are there, even Des Moines. I've driven the length of the state dozens of times and I have farming relatives in Eldora and I still had to look it up.) She high-tailed it out to New York after going to Grinnell College.

Without getting published for so long, Clampitt was tantalizingly close to the publishing world in New York where she worked in various "secretarial" jobs at the Oxford University Press and the Audubon Society. She also did some free lance editing. She originally wanted to write fiction although she had a bent for poetry. She published a small volume of poetry in 1974 and got a few poems published in the New Yorker. When her book, The Kingfisher, came out she got the kind of critical attention that a poet needs to establish a reputation. She was 63.

Clampitt has the most extraordinary vocabulary (with both literature and nomenclature) this side of David Foster Wallace. One should never be ashamed of reading with the help of a dictionary but in Clampitt's case it's necessary. (You'll never go wrong having a dictionary close at hand when you read poetry, ever.) She's well-read and well-versed in terms from the natural and biological world. This poem is a good example.

The poem reads beautifully regardless of whether or not you know that "du cote de chez Swann" is one of the volumes of Remembrance of Things Past by Proust. If you know this, then, it also doesn't hurt if you know that in the book "to do a cattleya [orchid]" is a euphemism with some of the characters in the book for lovemaking. And knowing these things certainly helps figure out the "overpowerings" and "blisses and cruelties" in the poem. You need to "hug" the ground to get a whiff of that delightful vanilla scent. There's something orgasmic about finding a wild orchid, too, if you enjoy looking around at the natural world and don't mind a few granite pebbles in your shoe.

I believe when she is talking about the faubourgs she means the suburbs of Paris that Proust was talking about- like the famous Rue de St. Germaine. I could be wrong, though. She might be referring to a seedier section (no pun intended.) Contrast this "glamor" of fine houses to the "out-doorsy domestic whiff of vanilla."

But, if you didn't know all those things you can still get delight from the poem, for example the "cheerful tousle" in the granite seashore. Surprisingly the little orchid does not need a hothouse in which to grow. And what does this say about love- the "climate small things find safe" and how that orchid shows up? It's a "down-to-earth orchid." I've always pictured this happening in Maine, where she used to vacation.

When a poem packs this kind of dense rich deliciousness and yet, is highly readable no matter your background, it's a little slice of sweet genius. Finding this poem is like finding that orchid.

Clampitt, by the way, was a spirited, often child-like, wise woman who never tired of looking at the sky, the trees, the birds, the ground. She was a charmingly sweet heart. You can see how she sparkles in her picture, can't you?

Here's a good Amy Clampitt quote: " I think the most precious thing I brought away with me from four years at Grinnell was the beginning of a sense of—how shall I put it?—the livingness of the past. Only the beginning of that sense—but you have to begin somewhere, otherwise it’s hard to see how the world we live in can have any meaning, and if one cannot find meaning in the world, it seems to me that living in it at all is no more than just bearable."

And part of another: "...because what I see from my own peculiar perspective, as a writer of poetry, is a conspiracy all around to stamp out the sense of living continuity, to stamp out singularity, to do away with everything that’s not a recognizable commodity, and in the process to make ordinary day-to-day living as boring as possible. That’s only my opinion, but if I didn’t hold it, I wouldn’t be a writer."

You can find more of her poetry here:

Number 15: Carl Sandburg "Arithmetic"


Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your

Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how
many you had before you lost or won.

Arithmetic is seven eleven all good children go to heaven -- or five
six bundle of sticks.

Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand
to your pencil to your paper till you get the answer.

Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and
you can look out of the window and see the blue sky -- or the
answer is wrong and you have to start all over and try again
and see how it comes out this time.

If you take a number and double it and double it again and then
double it a few more times, the number gets bigger and bigger
and goes higher and higher and only arithmetic can tell you
what the number is when you decide to quit doubling.

Arithmetic is where you have to multiply -- and you carry the
multiplication table in your head and hope you won't lose it.

If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you
eat one and a striped zebra with streaks all over him eats the
other, how many animal crackers will you have if somebody
offers you five six seven and you say No no no and you say
Nay nay nay and you say Nix nix nix?

If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she
gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is
better in arithmetic, you or your mother?

--Carl Sandburg

Hap Notes: I have a soft spot for Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) partially because he's from my neck of the woods in Illinois. He's from Galesburg, I'm from a bit further south. I cannot tell you how many times I crossed over his territory in my lifetime.

Sandburg did a little bit of everything in his youth (starting when he was 13) from milk truck driver to shoe shiner to brick layer to dish washer to farm laborer to coal-heaver to waiter to hobo to his stint in the army in the Spanish American War. His parents were poor hard-working Swedish immigrants.

Sandburg worked for the thriving Socialist party in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and did a stint as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He started writing poetry in college (he went to, but did not graduate from, Lombard College in Galesburg- sometime between the war and his work in Wisconsin). He was published in Harriet Monroe's highly esteemed and influential poetry magazine and started to make a name for himself with his poetry which was liberally salted with Midwestern vernacular and common sense.

Sandburg was very popular in his day for playing the guitar (he was said to be very good at it), singing, and reciting his poetry. The ladies loved him and he reputedly loved them back although he was married to Lillian Steichen (photographer Edward Steichen's sister.) He was, as we say, "full of it," and he enjoyed his celebrity when he had it. He was full of stories and homilies and jokes. He's always reminded me of my grandpa, Frank Mansfield, who was also poetically "full of it." (So I come by it both geographically and genetically.)

If you want to hear Sandburg's sonorous tones check it out here: His Swedish cadence is enchanting. I believe he's reading from Cornhuskers. (And when he says "our Baltimore neighbor" he's talking about H.L. Menken, who often published him in the American Mercury.)

Critically, his Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of Lincoln is still highly regarded but his poetry is thought to be somewhat glib and simple. Well, that's true, I suppose. He's glib, yes, but when he gets it right, he soars in sections of poems like "The People, Yes." He also wrote some well-loved American "fairy tales" with his "Rutabaga Stories" and a songbook of American folk tunes. In his poetry, often his last few lines are the "punch" or the drive. I think this poem needs no comment from me- but, I love the last line most of all. Always makes me laugh. It might be worth mentioning that Sandburg was vexed by math and was not a particularly good student of it in school.

Everybody in creation knows that fog-creeping-on-little-cat-feet poem he wrote.

Once when I was driving through Galesburg in the night (around 2 a.m.) I had an impulse to stop at Sandburg's house (it's preserved by a historical society) and have a picnic with him. I had a couple of pieces of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken and some biscuits from a stop earlier in the evening (I was driving to see my mom from my home,at the time, in Minnesota) and a bottle of lemonade and a Milky Way bar. I took my little picnic and sat on the sidewalk, like a bum, outside of the white picket fence of the tiny house where he was born. The policeman driving by waved at me amicably. I suppose a woman eating chicken and sitting on the sidewalk didn't look too threatening- who knows, maybe it happens a lot. I ate, cried a little because of the strangeness of it all, got up, said goodbye to Carl and went to mom's. I still think of that picnic sometimes. (Carl didn't eat much being dead and all but I still sorta felt him there. I've never eaten a piece of chicken that tasted quite as good as the ones I ate with Carl.)

The title of this blog, is from Sandburg's poem on poetry. He says, "Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits."

Here's a good Sandburg quote: "Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years."

Here's one, too: "I have often wondered what it is an old building can do to you when you happen to know a little about things that went on long ago in that building."

One more (he's irresistible) : "When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along."

Number 14: Ralph Waldo Emerson "Brahma"


If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hap Notes: Emerson (1803-1882) probably needs no introduction. Everybody had to at least be familiar with his essays "Self-Reliance" and "Nature" when I was in school although, admittedly not everyone understood them. You know, all that "to be great is to be misunderstood" stuff. Just between you and me, I have a collection of his journal entries which I find far more readable. I do love his odd poetry, too.

Emerson was large contributor to the Transcendentalist movement, which I suppose you already know. He knew some of the brightest people of the era, Thoreau, of course, but also John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, abolitionist John Brown, John Greenleaf Whitter and sculptor Daniel Chester French (the guy who later created the seated Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial) just to name a few. Emerson met Abe Lincoln, too, and was acquainted with Walt Whitman.

In the mid 1800s he started reading Vedic literature- the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. This poem is a direct outcropping of this reading as the speaker in the poem is the Hindu god, Brahma- the creator of the universe. The colorful picture above is Brahma (and if you are wondering if he had that many heads- yeah, he did if he wanted to.)

Brahma is telling us that he is everything and that things which appear to be opposite, stem from the same source and are part of the same thing. Brahma also tells us in the poem that other Hindu gods long to live in the spirit of Brahma as do the holy men of the past. Brahmin are priests who sing hymns to Brahma. Oh, if that "red slayer" thing is unfamiliar to you, I'll simplify and say that the warrior/military caste (Kshatriya) in India was often depicted as red (fury, aggression.)

Brahma speaks the last two lines directly to us- find your way to Brahma and you will be released from the need for heaven- you will understand you are already a part of eternity. Don't believe this? Brahma says, that's alright, I created your disbelief, too. In fact, he is you. You cannot win an argument with Brahma.

So what's the point of the poem? How about this; you'll never be happy until you discover that you are part of the fabric of the universe just like everything else. Then, you will truly be everything, immortal and free. Easy to say, hard to do.

Here's that famous Emerson quote (one of many): "Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

And here's another: "We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul."

You can find more of Emerson's poetry here:

Number 13: William Carlos Williams "The Great Figure"

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

--William Carlos Williams

Hap Notes: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a dynamo who was both a physician and a highly acclaimed poet. He was always listening, writing and absorbing as he made his daily rounds or house calls. He wanted poetry to change and he tried to drag it towards a more fluid, easier to understand medium. His influence, which came into play much later than he'd have liked, is huge. Almost everyone who has ever written one lick of poetry in America over the last 70 years owes him something. Not just published poets- everyone.

He is so beloved by readers of poetry that it's hard to understand how his verses could have been controversial or critically panned. Williams himself was a little overwhelmed by it. It all started when T.S. Eliot published that neutron bomb of poetry called The Waste Land. While Williams was writing imaginative, loosely structured sensory poems, Eliot had turned the poetry world on its ear by sending it to an academic appreciation of words.

I think of it as Eliot serving a complex fruit cup in a cut crystal dish composed of strange fruits that one eats with a filigreed silver spoon, while Williams, on the other hand, is serving you one perfect peach. Turns out, the critics liked the fruit cup and thought the peach was too simple (and yes, I am making a bit of a statement about Eliot's line in Prufock- "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Good call.) I love Eliot's work and I often think Williams a bit twee and/or confusing, but I'll defend to the death the theories of WCW. Williams told Allen Ginsburg that "Howl" should be cut by half. I agree. But I'm getting ahead of the story- sorry.

In the end, Williams was extraordinarily influential, even Robert Lowell, with his stiff early formality and later confessional style, said Williams had changed everything. If you've ever gone to a poetry slam or written a scrap of free verse you're working on the ground that Williams had to plow by himself for almost 20 years. Some of that ground has yielded perfect peaches and much of it has been sown with sour fruit but, there you have it. (And, to be fair, the ground that Eliot plowed yielded some pretty dull, soggy fruit cups, too.)

"The Great Figure" is an amazing amalgam of art and poetry. Williams was visiting the artist Marsden Hartley's studio when the fire truck went by and he wrote a quick poem about his impression. Later, Charles DeMuth painted "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold," based on the poem. The painting is a pretty good illustration of the poem and I often have to disentangle my love of the painting from that of the poem. (P.S. see the "Bill" in the painting? And the "Carlos?" I think there's a "WCW" in there, too.)

Surely you have been somewhere and seen something that, for a moment, made the whole world slow down. You heard no sound and just saw the object- maybe a scrolled letter on a sign or the curve of someone's wrist. That something, that object- strikes you with such momentary force that it is like your breath is taken away for a seond. In the poem, there is rain and there are lights and a firetruck and the "dark city," can't you see this, in your mind's eye, fleeting by you? And then hear the roar and the rumbling?

Here's where Williams is so brilliantly successful when he hits it right; you know the old saying "A picture paints a thousand words?" Well, Williams lets a couple dozen words paint a thousand pictures. How awesome is that? That's poetry muscle right there.

Here's a good Williams quote, he's commenting about The Waste Land: ""I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I'm sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit."

You can find more Williams here:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Number 12: Stanly Plumly "Still Missing the Jays"

Still Missing the Jays

Then this afternoon, in the anonymous
winter hedge, I saw one. I'd just climbed,
in my sixty-year-old body—with its heart
attacks, kidney stones, torn Achilles tendon,
vague promises of ulcers, various subtle,
several visible permanent scars, ghost-
gray hair, long nights and longer silences,

impotence and liver spots, evident
translucence, sometime short-term memory loss—
I'd just climbed out of the car and there
it was, eye-level, looking at me, young,
bare blue, the crest and marking jewelry
penciled in, smaller than it would be
if it lasted but large enough to show
the dark adult and make its queedle
and complaint. It seemed to wait for me,
watching in that superciliary way
birds watch too. So I took it as a sign,
part spring, part survival. I hadn't seen a jay
in years—I'd almost forgotten they existed.
Such obvious, quarrelsome, vivid birds
that turn the air around them crystalline.
Such crows, such ravens, such magpies!
Such bristling in the spyglass of the sun.
Yet this one, new in the world,
softer, plainer, curious. I tried
to match its patience, not to move,
though when it disappeared to higher ground,
I had the thought that if I opened up my hand—

---Stanley Plumly

Hap Notes: Stanley Plumly (born 1939) has a a way of discerning messages about life from the observance of the natural world in his daily life. We should probably all be doing this but not all of us should be writing poetry. Luckily, Plumly is. His style is natural but not ever datedly vernacular and is intelligent without being effete or condescending.

Plumly is Poet Laureate for the state of Maryland, he teaches English at the University of Maryland and his current book is a highly acclaimed biography of Keats, Posthumous Keats. He was born and raised in Ohio and his poetry often deals with his upbringing, his experiences as a youth, his relationship to his parents and the flora and fauna he grew up around and lives around now.

This poem reads very well on the surface, like I think a good poem should (that's just my two cents), but digging deeper will yield a few diamonds.

I think that cheeky jay stands for something- that young curious "supercilious" creature. How many of us are/were like that in our youth? Now look at the phrase "...I just climbed,/in my sixty year old body." The comma directs us to his list of aging woes but, remove the comma just for a moment. Aging often feels like you've recently climbed into a different body (oh, believe me it does!) The jay may mean, he says, survival and spring but implicit in this is youth. The poet says he'd almost forgotten about jays (the way he was when younger.) I'm not saying you can't take the phrase literally, I'm just throwing out some bread crumbs here.

He has a bright incisive way of describing the intelligent, quarrelsome Corvidae (the list of birds) family and it does seem as though a jay's cry makes the air clearer, shattering it like glass with their insistent voices. They are a marvel to look at, too. The one in the poem is large enough to show the "dark" adult but is still "softer" and "plainer." Now look at the title of the poem. Another couple of bread crumbs.

This poem is almost perfect in describing a very intimate and telling moment with nature. Haven't you ever wanted to hold your hand out to a wild bird? (And just as a trivial and silly aside; in the picture above Plumly just looks like a poet, doesn't he? Not the blue one, the black and white picture, although, now that I think on it, maybe the blue one does too.)

Heres a good Plumly quote on writing poetry: "Being able to speak with a certain amount of clarity what's in your mind and in your heart seems to me to be inseparable from having a happy life."

You can find more Plumly poetry here:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Number 11: Edna St. Vincent Millay "Recuerdo"


We were very tired, we were very merry--

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable--

But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,

We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;

And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry--

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;

And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,

From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;

And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,

And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl covered head,

And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;

And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and the pears,

And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Hap Notes: The life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is a tale about what comes of being brilliant, independent minded, opinionated and pretty in an era when you could not be all of those things and be taken too seriously for too long. It's hard for me to believe that a woman who wrote the powerful sonnets of Fatal Interview is so marginalized now. I don't believe you'll read any sonnets that show an independent woman's point of view about love that are much better.

Edna was openly bisexual, a bit free and easy (which never really hurt any male poets, I'll hasten to add) and just a little drunk on fame (and sometimes booze.) She made a big splash in the world of literature with her poem "Renascence" and praise was liberally ladled out to her. She was sort of a poster-girl for the "roaring 20s" life. And, she's written more than enough junk, in addition to her gems, as, I might add, have all poets. She also won the Pulitzer Prize so put that in the balance. She was a literary celebrity for a couple of decades starting in 1917.

However, she was one of the first to see the dangers of growing fascism in Europe after WWI (for which -no kidding- she took a lot of flak) and she was a defender of the controversial anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Her political poetry is a tad trite and histrionic, admittedly- she can get bogged down in schmaltz. Her style of poetry is thought to be a bit stylized and musty which always frustrates me because "contemporary" poetry should not be considered good, just because it's new or different, anymore than other poetry should be dismissed because it is not.

She had what should have been a very smart marriage for a writer; she had affairs all through her married life (most notably with the poet George Dillon) but she married a man who completely adored her, worshiped her talent and took care of her until the day he died. He did not subvert her will to housework when she longed to write. Unfortunately, the rest of America wasn't particularly understanding about the life of a writer, especially a very attractive female one. She was lifted high -very high- and then cast aside. She has never regained her rightful place, to my way of thinking.

Let me get down from this soapbox and talk about the poem.

Recuerdo means "I remember" and the poet is remembering being raptly in love. They travel all night on the ferry over and over. Where else were they going to go in the early 20's- even in New York? There were no all-night diners or movie theaters. If you hung around in Central Park too long you'd be arrested for vagrancy (or, if they were physical with each other- worse.) So the lovers spend all night going back and forth on the ferry in the deep of the night. The next morning they are so full of love and richness that they give their fruit and all their money to an old woman they meet on the street. They are deliriously in love.

Surely everyone has memories of seven hour phone calls, or staying up all night talking and laughing with a new love? The poem captures it perfectly with the sing-song repetition of the first two lines of each stanza- that intoxicated way you talk when you're tired but so happy. Then each stanza explains the love-fogged details of what they did with their time. It doesn't hurt to reflect that this back and forth love isn't exactly going anywhere- Millay also knew that this kind of love is wonderful but fleeting.

I've always been starry-eyed about this poem because I remember. You probably do, too. I hope you do, anyway. Everyone should be that in love at least once.

By the way, if you are a woman and a writer, she blazed that trail for you, sister. She blazed it good and hot.

Here's a good quote from Millay: "I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes."

And another: "
It's not true that life is one damn thing after another; it's one damn thing over and over."

You can read more of her work here:

Number 10: Frank O'Hara "Today"


Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!

You really are beautiful! Pearls,

harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all

the stuff they’ve always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!

These things are with us every day

even on beachheads and biers. They

do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.

--Frank O'Hara

Hap Notes: Doesn't this poem make you want to run around shouting "Frogs! Rhinestones! Cherry soda! Banjos! Licorice! O Bicycles, peaches and glitter glue!" Okay, maybe it's just me that wants to do that. I'm not quite sure why O'Hara (1926-1966) picked these things but I have a few speculations.

O'Hara's writing style, as casual as it often seems, is easy to imitate but hard to equal. While he wrote personal poems, often chronicling his days, his life, his lovers, his friends, they rarely feel so personal that you can't be a part of them as you read. Sometimes reading his poetry is like talking to him on the phone, other times it's like evesdropping as he talks in his sleep or mutters to himself. I have to admit that I did not like O'Hara's poetry when I first read it, but I have fallen hopelessly in love with it as the years pass.

I am forced to (already!) take something back that I said earlier in reference to Kenneth Koch; in O'Hara's case it actually does mean something when one says that his poetry is much like abstract expressionism is in painting. Since O'Hara knew so many painters (and wrote poems about them) in his job as a writer for Art News and as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he comes by it naturally.

This list of stuff in the poem, which first may strike you as refreshingly strange and arbitrary, is well selected. Not only does O'Hara make us appreciate these separate things in a new way by linking them up but he plays on our connotations of the words when we see them. What was the kangaroo in your mind's eye like? Were your pearls on a strand or loose? Plastic harmonica or metal? Separate white aspirin or in a bottle? He's letting the words and you do a bit of the work.

I often imagine O'Hara paging through a magazine or walking down a busy street in New York and picking these items out of ads, from book covers, articles or store windows. He's almost writing an advertisement for the words. Words that follow us to military actions (beach heads) and funerals (biers- a bier is a stand for a coffin.)

We've already illustrated how the words have meaning- think of what you saw when you read them. They really are strong as rocks- your vision of what they are is hard to change, and the phrase is almost an advertising slogan for words. "Nouns, use them all you want- they're strong as rocks! On sale now!" We appreciate that words mean something one at a time or in a list, "hard" words or easy ones, simple things and complex. And don't forget the title- Today!

I wasn't going to use this poem right away but, once I selected it, the darn thing just jumps around like trapped grasshopper until you let it out of the box. So I had to free it early.

Here's a good quote by O'Hara: "It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time."

You can find more of his poetry here (although we'll see him again in the course of a year):

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Number 9: George Gordon, Lord Byron: "The Destruction of Sennacharib"

The Destruction of Sennacharib

      The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
      And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
      And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
      When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

      Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
      That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
      Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
      That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

      For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
      And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
      And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
      And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

      And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
      But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
      And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
      And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

      And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
      With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
      And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
      The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

      And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
      And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
      And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
      Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

      --George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron

Hap Notes: This poem has been galloping through my head the last couple of days ever since my dear friend, Anne, said she was reading a book in which Byron (1788-1824) was a character. When this poem comes into your head, you've just got to get it out-it's compelling. There are several reasons why that happens.

Byron wrote this poem as one of a set of verses for "A Selection of Hebrew Melodies" which featured Byron's lyrics and the music of John Braham. The verses are all inspired by the Old Testament and this poem deals with the troops of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704-681 BC) who was laying siege to Judah.

According to the Bible, Sennacherib's troops were stopped from destroying Jerusalem when an angel of the Lord (Gabriel) smote them in the night. All 185,000 of 'em. Sennacherib (who wasn't even actually there- he was in Egypt or Babylon or someplace, with other troops) says that his troops had Jerusalem surrounded like "a bird in a cage". It is true, however, that his troops did not attack. Sennacherib says that Jerusalem's King Hezekiah came out and gave them a bunch of gold and silver and they left. However it was, Jerusalem was saved from destruction. Sennacherib had his own troubles. He was later murdered by his sons. One assumes there were some family problems.

One of the reasons this poem will stick with you forever (especially if you read it aloud a couple of times, which I encourage) is the galloping rhythm of the poem's meter, anapestic tetrameter (anapests are two weak beats and a strong one.) If the meter rings a bell with you, like a distant childhood memory, I'm not surprised. Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) wrote many of his works in the meter including "Yertle the Turtle" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." The meter relentlessly drags you through the poem.

Byron's colorful imagery is no slouch either, the leaves, the spears like the reflection of the stars in the sea of Galilee, the widows of the troops moaning, the silent tents, etc. etc. Byron was a huge fan of Alexander Pope and he used the rhyming couplet, as Pope did, to great effect. The Gustave Dore print, pictured above, is my favorite depiction of the scene. Sorta spooky.

Byron's life is worth a book or two and many more than that have been written about him. He was always in love and it didn't much matter whether it was man or boy or woman or girl. He was a charming and handsome devil, in spite of his club foot, and he usually got his man, or woman, or step-sister (allegedly.) When he took his place in the House of Lords he stood up for the Luddites. He was/is a national hero in Greece for his work for, and financing of, their independence from the Ottoman Empire. He wrote an Armenian dictionary. He was a larger-than-life hero/scoundrel who packed ten lives worth of living into his short 36 years. His poetic output was prolific. He sold tens of thousands of copies of his poetry in an era when that meant something (actually, now that I think on it, that means something now, too.) It's hard not to have a bit of a crush on him, in spite of his flaws which were impressive and legion.

I suppose one could say he was the "rock star" of his era but that belittles his literacy, wit and adventurousness. He pretty much exiled himself from England about eight years before his death because...well, we're not sure. It may have been his sexual appetites which England legally could punish. It may have been his debts. It may have been something else. He confided his autobiography to Thomas Moore and, a month after Byron died, Moore and Byron's publisher burned the manuscript. Hmmmm. There's no doubt Byron had some sort of hell hound on his trail, whatever it was.

He liked to be known as a man of action. He swam the Hellespont, for crying out loud! He has become mythic and, in fact, was quite so in his own time.

Here's a good Byron quote: For truth is always strange; stranger than fiction. (Yep, I believe he said it first- in his poem "Don Juan.")

Here's another: "Man is born passionate of body, but with an innate, though secret tendency, to the love of good in his main-spring of mind. But God help us all! It is at present a sad jar of atoms."

You can find more poetry by Byron here:

Number 8: William Stafford "Just Thinking"

Just Thinking
Got up on a cool morning. Leaned out a window.
No cloud, no wind. Air that flowers held
for awhile. Some dove somewhere.

Been on probation most of my life. And
the rest of my life been condemned. So these moments
count for a lot--peace, you know.

Let the bucket of memory down into the well,
bring it up. Cool, cool minutes. No one
stirring, no plans. Just being there.

This is what the whole thing is about.

- William Stafford

Hap Notes: William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Kansas although he spent much of his adult life in Oregon teaching English at Lewis and Clark College. His first volume of poetry wasn't published until he was in his late 40s even though he'd been more or less writing one poem per day since the 1940s when he worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a Conscientious Objector during WWII.

His habit was to rise early (4 a.m.!) make a cup of instant coffee and a piece of toast and write until the sun came up. He wrote what he felt, what he remembered, what he saw. Stafford often came up with enchantment. His poems are organic to his thinking; they grow from his thoughts like trees or flowers. Unlike many contemporary and modern poets whose works seem willfully obscure, Stafford seems almost willfully simple.

In the poem, Stafford describes his habit of early morning writing. There's something magical about how Stafford's words (such ordinary words!) fill you with a sense of peacefulness and calm. "Some dove somewhere," like a passing thought as you listen to the morning. Don't take this casual air too lightly though. He didn't say "some crow" or "some jay" or "some cardinal" or "some hawk."

I don't want to ripple the surface of this poem much. Just let it sit with you a while. I do think that Stafford's Midwestern upbringing mixes with the Pacific Northwest in some sort of tribal alchemy, though.

William Stafford's work is something you should take in small doses. When the plain speaking starts to sound flat- stop reading it. The poems chronicle his days and a few days are magical. Put too many of them together and you start to take his simple style for granted.

You know how beautifully delicious vanilla ice cream is, all by itself, on a hot summer day? Maybe it's in a pretty cup. Maybe you're using a really great smooth silver spoon. It slips into your mouth with cool sweet wonder. You can taste that exotic vanilla bean from far-off Madagascar. You can taste the sweet complex frozen cream. Well, if you keep eating it and eating it, it gets less and less satisfying. Where's the chocolate sauce? Where's the cherry? Why aren't there any salted nuts on this? This could really use some M&M's. Reading Stafford's poetry is like that. Don't over-fill yourself or you'll lose the magical sensitive appreciation of it.

He's written a skillion (read: 67) books of poetry and prose. Don't read them all at once. It is unsurprising to know that he was a close friend and collaborator with Robert Bly. His son, Kim Stafford, is a talented poet and essayist also.

Here's a good Stafford quote: "If I am to keep writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards.... I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on.... I am headlong to discover."

And another: "Kids: they dance before they learn there isn't anything that isn't music. "

You can find more Stafford here:

Number 7: Robert Frost "Design"


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, 

On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth -- 

Assorted characters of death and blight

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,

Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

And dead wings carried like a paper kite. 

What had that flower to do with being white, 

The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spider to that height, 

Then steered the white moth thither in the night? 

What but design of darkness to appall?--

If design govern in a thing so small.

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Robert Frost (1874-1963) was a cantankerous, sad-hearted, thorny, brilliant old jester and if you've been reading him as a pleasant pastoral poet of the Northeast go no farther. I don't want to spoil your pleasure. He's possibly my favorite American poet and that's saying something.

Everything he stands for in the popular culture is wrong. He was not a native New England farmer-- he was born and raised in San Francisco, and later, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He wasn't anywhere near a farm until he was in his late 20's. He did write many of his poems as he worked on a farm his grandpa gave him. His neighbors said that he was a terrible farmer, by the way. He was not a neat and organized man of the soil. Even in his old age, when visitors would come to his house, they would see chickens hanging around in the living room and the kitchen. So scratch that idyllic farmer guy out of your head completely.

He was a highly intelligent, wryly funny, observer of nature, however. That much is true. And he really did mend stone walls. He saw things in New England that vibrated with his soul. I'll give you that. Frost's poems are often a bit like mystic rhyming riddles and they're often about the forces of life and death.

This particular poem is a Petrarchan Sonnet and the form is important because generally they deal with love that is frustratingly unattainable. Usually the first eight lines (the octave) describe a situation and the last six (the sestet) go about trying to solve it.

So this sonnet is pretty darn scary.

First, look at the soft and lovely words he uses to describe this scene- dimpled (how cute!), innocent, heal-all, satin, froth, snow-drop and the childlike connotations of the word "kite." When he pairs them up with hard words liked "rigid" and "witches" and "dead wings" the dark words even get softened a bit- or are they darkened? He's just describing what seems like a strange coincidence. The heal-all is an anomaly (the blue flower in the picture above is a heal-all), they are normally blue. It's a plant that has been used for years to cure a variety of ailments, hence its name. He sells us on the idea that this is a very odd coincidence.

Now he goes in for the kill.

How did this happen? Is there some force at work which created this little scene? Is there some "intelligent design" behind this? Who created all this to let it happen? If it is just happenstance, what does that say about the universe? If it's something bigger, then why? If this is intelligent design- this little scene of white death- what does that say about God? Frost doesn't need to scare us with witches (who make light "broth") and Satan. He's scaring us with the question, "What kind of twisted God or universe does this?" What is this "dark design?"

And then, in the last line, he winks at us, the old goat! He backs off a little and lets us breathe. Maybe there's no design here at all. He's just askin'. But it's too late because the terrifying truth is that we don't actually know if there's a designer here or not. Both the presence and the absence of a designer in this anomalous scene are equally scary. And as for unattainable love? How does that relate to the poem?

How's that for a little "harmless'' poem about nature, eh?

Lest you think I'm making all this up I'll refer you to the critic Lionel Trilling. At Frost's 85th birthday party (in 1959- so this isn't late breaking news or anything) he stood up and said, "I have to say that my not the Frost who reassures us by his affirmations of old virtues, simplicities, pieties and ways of feeling: anything but..I think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet... read the poem "Design" and see if you sleep the better for it."

Frost was delighted by this. He loved Trilling's brass and said to him "You weren't there to sing 'Happy Birthday, dear Robert' and I don't mind being made controversial. No sweeter music can come down to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down."

He wasn't crestfallen at being misunderstood and he might even have been relieved that somebody saw through the mask. Somebody got the joke, the work, the searching, lonely, scorched soul underneath the poetry.

Frost's life, by the way, was filled with heartache and tragedy. His dad died when he was 8, he had to commit his sister to a mental institution (his mother was already dead by then), he was hereditarily prone to depression and his wife suffered from it, too. They had one child die of cholera, one child who only lived three days, one child was committed to a mental institution and another child committed suicide. His wife died in 1938 so he spent almost 30 years with no partner. Only two of his six children out-lived him and one of them was in a mental health facility. He came by his wry views pretty naturally, one assumes.

You can find more Frost here, although I'm not nearly done with him for this blog, just hang onto your hat- this isn't his most terrifying poem by a long shot: /

Here's a nice Frost quote: "It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it."

And here's another: "Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, "grace" metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, "Why don’t you say what you mean?" We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections — whether from diffidence or some other instinct."