Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Friday, April 30, 2010

William Shakespeare

How should we bring to a close our month-long celebration of April as National Poetry Month? We can’t go wrong if we turn to William Shakespeare, who is, in the opinion of many, the finest writer of the English language.

The lines below are from
King Lear, the greatest of his tragedies. Reflecting Shakespeare’s keen understanding of human nature and his poetic mastery, they are the final words spoken by Lear at the death of his beloved daughter Cordelia.

A legendary monarch of England, King Lear is an old man now. He foolishly decides to bequeath his kingdom to the daughters who love him the most. The elder two are fulsome in their expressions of affection. But Cordelia, his youngest, will not follow their example of insincere flattery. She tells him, in all honesty, that “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more no less.”

Enraged, the king banishes her from his sight.

He soon sees that he has made a fatal choice. Having won their inheritance, his two elder daughters abandon him in a storm and leave him to his enemies.

He does reconcile with Cordelia, only to see his enemies first capture and then execute her. Holding her dead body, Lear weeps in heartrending anguish:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

But she is truly dead.

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.

He cries out:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

Lear dies of his grief.

No one understood the power of poetry better than William Shakespeare.

Tomorrow, we begin to look at poems that celebrate the merry month of May, to use a popular phrase from Shakespeare’s time.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Colors of Words

Most wordplay in poetry is aural. The poet plays with the sounds of words, their rhymes and rhythms and meters. Those poems are best read out loud.

But some wordplay is visual. The poet plays with the look of words, their spelling or their place on the page. These poems are best read in silence.

The most notable of the visual poets is e. e. cummings. The topography, the design on the page, helps carry the meaning of many of his poems. Sometimes he pushes words together, with no space between them, or breaks up a word. Sometimes he ignores the necessary capitalization. At other times he uses punctuation marks almost as words.

maybe god

is a child
’s hand)very carefully
to you and to
me(and quite with
out crushing)the

papery weightless diminutive

with a hole in
it out
of which demons with wings would be streaming if
something had(maybe they couldn’t
agree)not happened(and floating-
ly int


~ e. e. cummings (1894-1962), American poet, painter and essayist

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Shapes of Sound, part six

Gerard Manley Hopkins is one poet who mastered the shapes of sounds and colors of words, to borrow Dylan Thomas’s phrases. His poems are striking for their vibrant images and their original rhymes and rhythms.

Hopkins is also famous for his use of language. He preferred words with Old English and Germanic roots, rather than the vocabulary of Latin and Romance language roots that landed with the Norman Conquest. If he couldn’t find a particular Anglo-Saxon word, he would coin a new word by linking two unrelated words with a hyphen, even joining a noun with an adjective.

Listen to the poem below. The words are short, sweet and full of a rush of richness of images.


Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

~ Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1899), British priest and poet whose work had a profound influence on modern poetry

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Shapes of Sound, part five

This poem by Lewis Carroll may be the most famous nonsense poem in English. On first glance, it appears to be gibberish: it’s full of made-up words and words put together from unrelated words. Some of it doesn’t even seem to be in English.

That’s what Alice thought – she of
Through the Looking Glass fame – when she first read it. “It seems very pretty,” she said to herself, “but it’s rather hard to understand! . . . Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate –”

Alice was right. It is a story about a young boy who manages to vanquish the dreaded Jabberwock. She figured it out because Carroll cleverly imitated elements of English words to create new words. And he followed the proper subject-predicate sequences; nouns sound like nouns, adjectives like adjectives, and verbs like verbs. The context provides the meaning for what appears to be an absurdity.

Wordplay can be such fun.


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

~ Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), pseudonym of Charles Dodgson, English writer and mathematician

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Shapes of Sound, part four

Some poems, with their whimsical wordplay, are just plain fun. This poem almost seems to sing to the rhythm of some lively tune.

In fact, a popular folk group in the sixties, the Chad Mitchell Trio, put it to music on their album
At the Bitter End.


James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
James James
Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he;
“You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don’t go down with me.”

James James
Morrison’s Mother
Put on a golden gown.
James James Morrison’s Mother
Drove to the end of the town.
James James Morrison’s Mother
Said to herself, said she:
“I can get right down to the end of the town and be back in time for tea.”

King John
Put up a notice,

James James
Morrison Morrison
(Commonly known as Jim)
Told his
Other relations
Not to go blaming him.
James James
Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he:
“You must never go down to the end of the town without consulting me.”

James James
Morrison’s mother
Hasn’t been heard of since.
King John
Said he was sorry,
So did the Queen and Prince.
King John
(Somebody told me)
Said to a man he knew:
“If people go down to the end of the town, well, what can anyone do?”

(Now then, very softly)

J. J.
M. M.
W. G. Du P.
Took great
C/o his M*****
Though he was only 3.
J. J. said to his M*****
“M*****,” he said, said he:

~ A. A. Milne (1882-1956), English poet and writer and father of Christopher Robin

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Shapes of Sounds, part three

Often English words don’t seem to follow any logic in their spelling and pronunciation. There is a good explanation for this. Many words in English come from other languages (it’s the most welcoming language in the world), and many of those bring their own rules with them.

George Bernard Shaw was one writer who argued for a more rational system of spelling. To make his point, he asked: How would we pronounce this word, ghoti?

His answer was fish.
the gh = f as in rouGH
the o = i as in wOmen
the ti = sh as in naTIon

This poem, which I used when teaching English as a Second Language classes to foreign university students, is a playful way to demonstrate this problem with English.

Try reading it out loud, quickly.


I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of these familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead.
For goodness’s sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat:
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up: and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I'd mastered it when I was five!

~ Anon.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Limericks, a post script

Yesterday, Bob, a reader of this blog, wrote in the comments that “Limericks have always been my favorite form of verse because they get the point across in as few words as possible.”

An astute observation.

The two limericks below make this point very cleverly. The first, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, is built on the proposition by the Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) that no existence of matter is independent of perception, independent of an observer – "to be is to be perceived" or
esse est percipi in Latin.

There once was a man who said, “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

~ Ronald Knox (1888-1957), English priest, theologian and writer of detective fiction

It promptly drew this anonymous reply:

“Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad,
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Shapes of Sounds, part two

The limerick is one form of poetry that plays with what Dylan Thomas called the shapes of sounds and the colors of words. These three limericks are also delightful tongue-twisters.


(The Brooklynese is easily translated into English.)

Boita and Goitie sat on de coib
Reading the Woild and de Joinal.
Said Boita to Goitie, “Der’s a woim in de doit.”
Said Goitie to Boita, “De woim don’t hoit,
But it soitenly looks infoinal!”

~ Anon.


A canner exceedingly canny,
One morning remarked to his granny,
“A canner can can
Anything that he can,
But a canner can’t can a can, can he?”

~ Anon.


A fly and a flea flew up in a flu.
Said the fly to the flea, “What shall we do?”
“Let’s fly,” said the flea.
“Let’s flee,” said the fly.
So they fluttered and flew up a flaw in the flue.

~ Anon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Shapes of Sounds, part one

In 1951, a college student prepared five questions for Dylan Thomas. The poet answered him in writing.

“You want to know why and how I first began to write poetry, and which poets or kind of poetry I was first moved and influenced by.

“To answer the first part of this question, I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant, was of very secondary importance; what mattered was the sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world.

“And these words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milk-carts, the clopping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone, deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing. I did not care what the words said, overmuch, nor what happened to Jack & Jill & the Mother Goose rest of them; I cared for the shapes of sound that their names, and the words describing their actions, made in my ears; I cared for the colors the words cast on my eyes.”

Thomas’s works are acclaimed for their musical beauty. His poems, his “plays for voices,” his short stories, they’re all meant to be read out loud.

This is one of his best, a reflective look at the carefree days of his youth. Fill your ears with the sweet sound. (See John Fletcher's poem, posted March 23.)


Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honored among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

~ Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), the great Welsh poet and writer

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Practical Poems, final part

We live in perilous times.

The tabloids have been full of tales of famous married athletes and politicians and such-like sending inappropriate text messages to young ladies. With that in mind, every young unmarried woman should memorize and then recite this most useful poem before going out on a date.


Lady, lady, should you meet
One whose ways are all discreet,
One who murmurs that his wife
Is the lodestar of his life,
One who keeps assuring you
That he never was untrue,
Never loved another one . . .

Lady, lady, better run!

~ Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), American writer of poems and short stories

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Practical Poems, part one

Michael Augustin, the German poet quoted in the April 2 post, has asked another pertinent question.

How many poems per month
does an average
family of four need
to make ends meet?

That depends. To misquote Tolstoy, average families are not all alike; every family has its own literary needs.

But the prudent household keeps a folder of useful poems in a drawer.

This well-known memory aid is helpful when writing out the date on a check.

Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November.
February eight-and-twenty all alone
And all the rest have thirty-one,
Unless that Leap Year doth combine
And give to February twenty-nine.

~ Anon.

This ditty helps one decide what clothes to wear that day.

Spring is showery, flowery, bowery;
Summer: hoppy, croppy, poppy;
Autumn: slippy, drippy, nippy;
Winter: breezy, sneezy, freezy.

~ Anon.

And this verse is for those generous (and foolish) folks who lend out their books. Inscribed on the flyleaf, it would strike just the right balance between a gentle nudge and a stern reminder.

This book is mine by right divine;
And if it go astray,
I’ll call you kind
My desk to find
And put it safe away.

~ Anon.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Witness, final part

Included among the poet-witnesses are the many war poets. Some were accidental poets, soldiers who felt compelled for the first time to express their feelings in verse.

One of the most famous war poems was written by a Canadian surgeon in France during the First World War. The story is that he wrote it in twenty minutes, sitting in the back of an ambulance, the day after the funeral of a former student of his who was slain in battle.

John McCrae did not intend to have this published. He just wanted to “embody on paper … the seventeen days of Hades!” he had spent tending to the wounded at Ypres.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

~ Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918), Canadian surgeon and poet

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Witness, part three

The poet also speaks in the voice of a prophet, not as a soothsayer or psychic, but as a man inspired to proclaim the necessary moral truths, as a witness to the future.

The Polish workers striking at the Gdansk shipyards under the banner of Solidarity in 1980 understood that. One of their demands was a memorial to workers killed there by the Communists ten years before. For the engraving on the plaque, they selected several lines from this poem by Milosz.


You who wronged a simple man
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
And kept a pack of fools around you
To mix good and evil, to blur the line.

Though everyone bowed down before you,
Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,
Striking gold medals in your honor,
Glad to have survived another day,

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.

And you’d have done better with a winter dawn,
A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.

~ Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), Polish poet, essayist and translator, and winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Witness, part two

In his Nobel lecture, Czeslaw Milosz spoke about the poet’s vocation as witness:

“‘To see’ means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. ‘To see and to describe’ may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved, thanks to the mystery of time, must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever.”

There’s a place for the poet and his testimony even at those events that have been recorded by the multitudes.


They jumped from the burning floors –
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them –
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

~ Wislawa Szymborska, b. 1923, Polish poet and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature

Friday, April 16, 2010

Witness, part one

The poet remembers. The poet preserves our past and present.

Czeslaw Milosz was one such poet. He has been called a poet of memory and of witness.

Living in Poland at the crossroads of history, he endured life under each of the twin evils of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism.

“During the Nazi occupation, he worked in the Warsaw University Library, wrote for the anti-Nazi underground, [and] heard the screams and gunfire in 1943 as Germans killed or captured the remaining Jews in the walled Ghetto.” (obituary,
New York Times, August 15, 2004)


(Warsaw, 1943)

Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
Ants build around white bone.
Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.
Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
Bees build around a red trace.
Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
The uncircumcised.

~ Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), Polish poet, essayist and translator, and winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, April 15, 2010

O Day of Mourning, final part

The best poem that connects us to all of us was written almost four hundred years ago as part of a sermon. It’s the one that always comes to mind when the news is of another natural or man-made disaster.


No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

~John Donne (1572-1631), the greatest of the English Metaphysical poets, lyric poets whose work displayed a subtlety of thought and fanciful imagery and often used one (surprising) metaphor to bring together two very different ideas

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

O Day of Mourning, part two

One can find peace in the quiet reminder that death is part of life.


Let the light of late afternoon
shrine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

~ Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), American poet

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

O Day of Mourning, part one

The most difficult sentiments to express are those at the death of a friend or a loved one. It is at this time that poems can give comfort.

When the death is preceded by a painful struggle, let the poet speak for you.

The Heart asks Pleasure — first —
And then — Excuse from Pain —
And then — those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering —

And then — to go to sleep —
And then — if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die —

~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), American poet

Monday, April 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, final part

Here's another reflective poem, a sonnet, that celebrates life.


The builder who first bridged Niagara’s gorge,
Before he swung his cable, shore to shore,
Sent out across the gulf his venturing kite
Bearing a slender cord for unseen hands
To grasp upon the further cliff and draw
A greater cord, and then a greater yet;
Till at the last across the chasm swung
The cable then the mighty bridge in air!

So we may send our little timid thought
Across the void, out to God’s reaching hands –
Send out our love and faith to thread the deep –
Thought after thought until the little cord
Has greatened to a chain no chance can break,
And we are anchored to the Infinite!

~ Edwin Markham (1852-1940), American poet

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, part two

At first glance, this poem seems to have nothing at all to do with birthdays.

But take another look.

It speaks to the wondrous mysteries that begin with our birth.


An empty day without events.
And that is why
it grew immense
as space. And suddenly
happiness of being
entered me.

I heard
in my heartbeat
the birth of time
and each instant of life
one after the other
came rushing in
like priceless gifts.

~ Anna Swir (1909-1984), Polish poet

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, part one

A birthday is the one anniversary that calls out for the happy wishes to be expressed in rhyme.

There are few poems of the “happy birthday to you” variety, but you can find many that celebrate the miracle of birth and are perfect to send out between the pages of a beautiful greeting card.

Perfect like the last verse of this poem.


Being born is important.
You who have stood at the bedposts
and seen a mother on her high harvest day,
the day of the most golden of harvest moons for her.

You who have seen the new wet child
dried behind the ears,
swaddled in soft fresh garments,
pursing its lips and sending a groping mouth
toward the nipples where white milk is ready –

You who have seen this love’s payday
of wild toil and sweet agonizing –

You know being born is important.
You know nothing else was ever so important to you.
You understand the payday of love is so old,
So involved, so traced with circles of the moon,
So cunning with the secrets of the salts of the blood –
It must be older than the moon, older than salt.

~ Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), American poet and writer and biographer of Lincoln

Friday, April 9, 2010

Born Yesterday, part two

This poem speaks in the voice of the new baby.


My dear Daddie bought a mansion
For to bring my Mammie to,
In a hat with a long feather,
And a trailing gown of blue;
And a company of fiddlers
And a rout of maids and men
Danced the clock round to the morning,
In a gay house-warming then.
An when all the guests were gone – and
All was still as still can be,
In from the dark ivy hopped a
Wee small bird. And that was Me.

~ Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), English writer, most famous for his ghost stories and children’s poetry

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Born Yesterday, part one

The arrival of a newborn deserves special attention. A poem like this one, placed between the pages of a beautiful card, would delight any new parents.


curled like a hoop in sleep
unearthly of manufacture,
tissue of blossom and clay
bone the extract of air
fountain of nature.

softly knitted by kisses,
added to stitch by stitch,
by sleep of the dying heart,
by water and wool and air,
gather a fabric rich.

earth contracted to earth
in ten toes: like cardinals.
in ten fingers: the bishops.
ears by two, eyes by two,
watch the mirror watching you,

and now hush

the nightwalkers bringing peace,
seven the badges of grace
five the straw caps of talent,
one the scarf of desire, go
mimic your mother’s lovely face.

~ Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), English novelist, travel writer, dramatist and poet

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

That's Amore, a post script

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

Those are the opening words to
A Grief Observed, the journal that English writer C. S. Lewis kept after the death of his wife.

“At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.”

Grief does feel like fear. And despair. And anger, even at God.


I pick up the skirt,
I pick up the sparkling beads
in black,
this thing that moved once
around flesh,
and I call God a liar,
I say anything that moved
like that
or knew
my name
could never die
in the common verity of dying,
and I pick
up her lovely
all her loveliness gone,
and I speak to all the gods,
Jewish gods, Christ-gods,
chips of blinking things,
idols, pills, bread,
fathoms, risks,
knowledgeable surrender,
rats in the gravy of two gone quite mad
without a chance,
hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance,
I lean upon this,
I lean on all of this
and I know
her dress upon my arm
they will not
give her back to me.

~ Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), American poet and writer of novels and short stories

(A thank you note to Joan Moses, a reader of this blog, for pointing us to this poem.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

That's Amore, final part

Were those two ladies in yesterday’s post too brittle for you?

Losing love is difficult. Try a little tenderness. And keep the bitter-sweet memories.


He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

~ Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet

Then, look to the future.


Your hands, my dear, adorable,
Your lips of tenderness
– Oh, I’ve loved you faithfully and well,
Three years, or a bit less,
It wasn’t a success.

Thank God, that’s done! and I’ll take the road,
Quit of my youth and you,
The Roman road to Wendover
By Tring and Lilley Hoo,
As a free man may do.

For youth goes over, the joys that fly,
The tears that follow fast;
And the dirtiest things we do must lie
Forgotten at the last
Even Love goes past.

What’s left behind I shall not find,
The Splendor and the pain;
The splash of sun, the shouting wind,
And the brave sting of rain,
I may not meet again.

But the years, that take the best away,
Give something in the end;
And a better friend than love have they,
For none to mar or mend,
That have themselves to friend.

I shall desire and I shall find
The best of my desires;
The autumn road, the mellow wind
That soothes the darkening shires.
And laughter, and inn-fires.

White mist about the black hedgerows,
The slumbering Midland plain,
The silence where the clover grows,
And the dead leaves in the lane,
Certainly, these remain.

And I shall find some girl perhaps,
And a better one than you,
With eyes as wise, but kindlier,
And lips as soft, but true,
And I daresay she will do.

~ Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), English poet

Monday, April 5, 2010

That's Amore, part three

The two previous poems may be fine when you have found love.

Has poetry anything to offer those who have lost love? A dose of reality, perhaps.


Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

~ Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), American writer of poetry and short stories

Or, to put it another way:


In the spring I asked the daisies
If his words were true,
And the clever little daisies
Always knew.

Now the fields are brown and barren,
Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters
Not one knows.

~ Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), American poet

Sunday, April 4, 2010

That's Amore, part two

Perhaps yesterday’s poem was a little too familiar, especially that first line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” There are many other poems equally tender but less well known, more of a surprise.

Here’s an example, written by a husband to his wife.

This is what I most want
unpursued, alone
to reach beyond the light
that I am furthest from.

And for you to shine there –
no other happiness –
and learn, from starlight,
what its fire might suggest.

A star burns as a star,
light becomes light,
because our murmuring
strengthens us, and warms the night.

And I want to say to you
my little one, whispering,
I can only lift you toward the light
by means of this babbling.

~ Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), Russian poet, to his wife, Nadezhda

Saturday, April 3, 2010

That's Amore, part one

The most popular poems are all about love – love found, love lost, love rejected, and love regained.

They’re stored in a treasure chest we can borrow from when we can’t put our feelings into words. What is banal in prose can become, well, poetic when expressed in the special rhymes and rhythms of verse.

But is it right to copy someone’s work? Just as important,

Are love poems
bound to one person
or are they transferable?

~ Michael Augustin, b. 1953, German poet,
from Some Questions Regarding Poems

The answers are clear. Copying is allowed. If you give credit where credit is due, it’s a quotation, not plagiarism.

And poetry is universal. The poet of this famous sonnet was writing to her husband. No lover would reject this.


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), English poet, to her husband, the poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), from Sonnets from the Portuguese

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Beginning, part two

What is poetry all about?

We know what Emily Dickinson thought.

Many contemporary poets have also had their say.

William Matthews was an American poet and essayist who lived a century after Dickinson. He once noted that all published poems seem to embrace one of four themes:

1. I went out into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We’re not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent and on we know not what.

Those are the details. But back to the question, what is poetry all about?


I read to the entire plebe class,
in two batches. Twice the hall filled
with bodies dressed alike, each toting
a copy of my book. What would my
shrink say, if I had one, about
such a dream, if it were a dream?

Question-and-answer time.
“Sir,” a cadet yelled from the balcony,
and gave his name and rank, and then,
closing his parentheses, yelled
“Sir,” again. “Why do your poems give
me a headache when I try

to understand them?” he asked. “Do
you want that?” I have a gift for
gentle jokes to defuse tension,
but this was not the time to use it.
“I try to write as well as I can
what it feels like to be human,”

I started, picking my way care-
fully, for he and I were, after
all, pained by the same dumb longings.
“I try to say what I don't know
how to say, but of course I can’t
get much of it down at all.”

By now I was sweating bullets.
“I don’t want my poems to be hard,
unless the truth is, if there is
a truth.” Silence hung in the hall
like a heavy fabric. My own
head ached. “Sir,” he yelled. “Thank you. Sir.”

~ William Matthews (1942-1997)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Let's Begin at the Beginning

(This month the George Hail Library celebrates the annual National Poetry Month. Here we will spend the next weeks taking a special look at poetry. Poetry brings beauty to our lives. It speaks for us when we cannot find the words. It shows us different ways of looking at the world. And it can be fun.)

What is poetry all about? Why not just stick with prose?

This is what the Belle of Amherst had to say.

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of Eye –
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), American poet