Tuesday, May 31, 2011
(Princess Beatrice, daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah,
Duchess of York, leaving the wedding of Prince William
and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey in April)
We now conclude our daily poems by American and British poets laureate with a poem by a laureate who is not as well-known as he should be. There are no pictures of him extant.
E.J. Thribb, perpetually 17 ½ years of age, first came to public notice in 1972, when the cheeky British satirical publication Private Eye appointed him “poet laureate.”
Over the years, he has done his duty faithfully, marking in verse the important moments of notable and not-so-notable personages, including the royal family. He has perfected his own particular style to carry out his responsibilities. He is the only poet, for example, to introduce all eulogies with the opening line, “So. Farewell then . . .”
Thribb’s poem below celebrates the wedding of one of Queen Elizabeth’s children.
Unfortunately, and we cannot ignore this, Princess Anne’s marriage was one of the casualties of what the Queen called the annus horribilis, or horrible year, of 1992. That was the year that was in which the marriages of two of her sons also broke up: Prince Andrew separated from Sarah Ferguson, and Prince Charles from Lady Diana. And then, in November, Windsor Castle caught fire.
LINES ON THE OCCASION OF THE WEDDING OF HER ROYAL HIGHNESS THE PRINCESS ANNE TO CAPT. MARK PHILLIPS
So. You are
Married at last.
After months of
Are now as one.
Royal Pair! We
Wish you well
In your new
And Officer and Gentleman.
There are very few occasions
In the life of someone who
Writes poems when one
“This is it!
Yes, a truly
Magnificent day has dawned
A day in history in the
Making which will be
Remembered by all who
Were alive on that day
I.e. November 14 1973.”
Monday, May 30, 2011
(Carol Ann Duffy, the current poet laureate, appointed 2009)
Carol Ann Duffy, born in 1955, was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II. She is a Scottish poet and playwright.
In an interview after her appointment, Duffy explained what poetry means to her: “I suppose to me it feels like having a companion. The sense of poetry as a living thing: not only the poems I write, but in the poems of the past and poems people are writing now. It’s like a constant presence — even as a reader, not just as a writer. So you don’t ever feel lonely.”
One of the duties of a poet laureate is to mark important events in the lives of the royal family. Duffy’s most recently published poem commemorates the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton last month.
for both to say
I might have raised your hand to the sky
to give you the ring surrounding the moon
or looked to twin the rings of your eyes
or added a ring to the rings of a tree
by forming a handheld circle with you, thee,
or walked with you
where a ring of church-bells,
looped the fields,
or kissed a lipstick ring on your cheek,
a pressed flower,
or met with you
in the ring of an hour,
and another hour . . .
have opened your palm to the weather, turned, turned,
till your fingers were ringed in rain
or held you close,
they were playing our song,
in the ring of a slow dance
or carved our names
in the rough ring of a heart
or heard the ring of an owl’s hoot
as we headed home in the dark
or the ring, first thing,
of chorusing birds
waking the house
or given the ring of a boat, rowing the lake,
or the ring of swans, monogamous, two,
or the watery rings made by the fish
as they leaped and splashed
or the ring of the sun’s reflection there . . .
I might have tied
a blade of grass,
a green ring for your finger,
or told you the ring of a sonnet by heart
or brought you a lichen ring,
found on a warm wall,
or given a ring of ice in winter
or in the snow
sung with you the five gold rings of a carol
or stolen a ring of your hair
or whispered the word in your ear
that brought us here,
where nothing and no one is wrong,
and therefore I give you this ring.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
(Andrew Motion, poet laureate, 1999-2009)
Andrew Motion, born in 1952, was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth II. Beginning with his tenure, the position is now restricted to a term of ten years. Motion has worked as an editor and publisher and is a prolific poet and writer of critical essays and biographies.
The poem here is one of several Motion has written about his mother, who suffered a serious riding accident during a fox hunt and lay in a coma for ten years before her death.
IN THE ATTIC
Even though we know now
your clothes will never
be needed, we keep them,
upstairs in a locked trunk.
Sometimes I kneel there
touching them, trying to relive
time you wore them, to catch
the actual shape of arm and wrist.
My hands push down
between hollow, invisible sleeves,
hesitate, then take hold
a green holiday; a red christening;
all your unfinished lives
fading through dark summers
entering my head as dust.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
(Ted Hughes, poet laureate, 1984-1998)
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth II. He was one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. His genius can be compared to the unique and passionate voices of poets like Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney. His verses, including his children’s poems, are noted for their remarkably vivid pictures and original imaginings.
Discussing the poem below in his book Poetry in the Making, Hughes wrote that “This poem does not have anything you could easily call a meaning. It is about a fox, obviously enough, but a fox that is both a fox and not a fox. What sort of a fox is it that can step right into my head where presumably it still sits . . . smiling to itself when the dogs bark. It is both a fox and a spirit. It is a real fox; as I read the poem I see it move, I see it setting its prints, I see its shadow going over the irregular surface of the snow. The words show me all this, bringing it nearer and nearer. It is very real to me. The words have made a body for it and given it somewhere to walk.”
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Friday, May 27, 2011
(Statue of John Betjeman at St. Pancras Railway Station,
London; poet laureate, 1972-1984)
John Betjeman (1906-1984) was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth II. He was a beloved public figure, his writings as “quintessentially English,” wrote one critic, “as the rattle of the tea cup in a provincial tea shop.”
Much of his work, including his broadcasts on radio and television, cast a gentle and nostalgic glance on life in city and town and countryside. He also wrote knowledgeably about the architecture of churches and other public buildings.
A BAY IN ANGLESEY
The sleepy sound of a tea-time tide
Slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,
Too lazy, almost, to sink and lift
Round low peninsulas pink with thrift.
The water, enlarging shells and sand,
Grows greener emerald out from land
And brown over shadowy shelves below
The waving forests of seaweed show.
Here at my feet in the short cliff grass
Are shells, dried bladderwrack¹, broken glass,
Pale blue squills² and yellow rock roses.
The next low ridge that we climb discloses
One more field for the sheep to graze
While, scarcely seen on this hottest of days,
Far to the eastward, over there,
Snowdon rises in pearl-gray air.
Multiple lark-song, whispering bents,
The thymy, turfy and salty scents
And filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free
The sweet susurration³ of incoming sea.
¹bladderwrack: a seaweed
²squill: member of the lily family, also known as “sea onion”
³susurration: soft whisper, murmur
Thursday, May 26, 2011
(Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate, 1968-1972)
Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) was appointed poet laureate by Queen Elizabeth II. He was an Irish poet and essayist, and a writer of mystery novels under the pen name of Nicholas Blake. He is the father of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
The third stanza of this poem serves as the epitaph on his gravestone. “Rose” refers to Rosamond Lehmann, the British novelist who was his lover when he wrote this verse in the 1940’s.
IS IT FAR TO GO?
Is it far to go?
A step — no further.
Is it hard to go?
Ask the melting snow,
The eddying feather.
What can I take there?
Not a hank, not a hair.
What shall I leave behind?
Ask the hastening wind,
The fainting star.
Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say,
Ask my song.
Who will say farewell?
The beating bell.
Will anyone miss me?
That I dare not tell —
Quick, Rose, and kiss me.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
(John Masefield, poet laureate, 1930-1967)
John Masefield (1878-1967) was appointed by George V and served thirty-seven years; only Tennyson held the post longer.
To many, Masefield was known best for his nautical verses, poems like “Cargoes” and “Sea-Fever,” with its famous first line, “I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” Surprisingly, he had spent only a few years as a youth in the merchant marine, deserting ship because of his constant seasickness.
Masefield went on to write a great variety of poems, including narratives from mythology, and plays and popular children’s novels.
I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
(Robert Bridges, poet laureate, 1913-1930)
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) was appointed by George V. He was a lyric poet who also wrote plays and essays on language and music.
Bridges earned the gratitude of many poetry lovers for rescuing the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins by publishing his friend’s poems thirty years after his death.
I LOVE ALL BEAUTEOUS THINGS
I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them;
God hath no better praise,
And man in his hasty days
Is honored for them.
I too will something make
And joy in the making!
Altho’ tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream
Remembered, on waking.
Monday, May 23, 2011
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poet laureate, 1850-1892)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), was appointed poet laureate by Queen Victoria. He was an accomplished and acclaimed poet, his works epitomizing the virtues and intellectual standards of the Victorian age. His narrative poems, like the Arthurian epic “Idylls of the King” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “The Lady of Shalott,” still remain popular.
Tennyson composed the poem below after surviving a serious illness. His instructions were to publish it at the end of all collections of his poetry. The bar here is the sandbar at the mouth of a body of water that separates the tide from “the boundless deep”; a bourne is a limit or a goal.
CROSSING THE BAR
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798
(William Wordsworth, poet laureate, 1843-1850)
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was appointed poet laureate by Queen Victoria. In his lifetime, he gained such fame and influence that another great English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, called him the “king-poet of our times.”
Wordsworth was one of the earliest of the Romantic poets, poets who found the source of happiness in Nature and stressed the power of feelings and the imagination over the impact of reason and the intellect.
He insisted that poets use the real language of men, the language of Nature. And a great poet, he wrote, “ought, to a certain degree, to rectify men’s feelings, to give them new compositions of feelings, to render their feelings more sane, put, and permanent, in short, more consonant to nature, that is, to eternal Nature, and the great moving Spirit of things. He ought to travel before men occasionally as well as at their sides.”
from LINES COMPOSED A FEW MILES ABOVE TINTERN ABBEY,
ON REVISITING THE BANKS OF THE WYE DURING A TOUR, JULY 13, 1798
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit's cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of wariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: — feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. No less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d: — that serene and blessed mood;
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
(Robert Southey, poet laureate, 1813-1843)
Appointed poet laureate by George III, Robert Southey (1774-1843) was one of the Lake Poets, Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge who lived in the Lake District of England.
Like many artists and writers of the time, Southey did his best to encourage the support of the public for the campaign in the chambers of Parliament against the evil of slavery.
In 1797, he wrote a series of six sonnets on the slave trade. The verses begin with the story of the abduction of an African man and his imprisonment on a slave ship destined for forced labor in the New World. They end with the man’s gruesome hanging death for his part in a bloody mutiny against the ship’s “tyrant lord.”
POEMS ON THE SLAVE TRADE
High in the air expos’d the Slave is hung
To all the birds of Heaven, their living food!
He groans not, tho’ awaked by that fierce Sun
New torturers live to drink their parent blood!
He groans not, tho’ the gorging Vulture tear
The quivering fiber! hither gaze O ye
Who tore this Man from Peace and Liberty!
Gaze hither ye who weigh with scrupulous care
The right and prudent; for beyond the grave
There is another world! and call to mind,
Ere your decrees proclaim to all mankind
Murder is legalized, that there the Slave
Before the Eternal, “thunder-tongued shall plead
Against the deep damnation of your deed.”
The following year, Southey published a poem that showed another part of this evil enterprise. It tells the heart-rending tale of the cruelty that slavery imposed on the men who worked in this “peculiar institution,” as some have called slavery.
from THE SAILOR, WHO HAD SERVED IN THE SLAVE TRADE
O I have done a cursed deed,
The wretched man replies,
And night and day and everywhere
’Tis still before my eyes.
I sail’d on board a Guinea-man
And to the slave-coast went;
Would that the sea had swallowed me
When I was innocent!
And we took in our cargo there,
Three hundred negroe slaves,
And we sail’d homeward merrily
Over the ocean waves.
But some were sulky of the slaves
And would not touch their meat,
So therefore we were forced by threats
And blows to make them eat.
One woman sulkier than the rest
Would still refuse her food, —
O Jesus God! I hear her cries —
I see her in her blood!
The Captain made me tie her up
And flog while he stood by,
And then he curs’d me if I staid
My hand to hear her cry.
She groan’d, she shriek’d — I could not spare
For the Captain he stood by —
Dear God! that I might rest one night
From that poor woman’s cry!
She twisted from the blows — her blood
Her mangled flesh I see —
And still the Captain would not spare —
Oh he was worse than me!
She could not be more glad than I
When she was taken down,
A blessed minute — ’twas the last
That I have ever known!
I did not close my eyes all night,
Thinking what I had done;
I heard her groans and they grew faint
About the rising sun.
She groan’d and groan’d, but her groans grew
Fainter at morning tide,
Fainter and fainter still they came
Till at the noon she died.
They flung her overboard; — poor wretch
She rested from her pain, —
But when — O Christ! O blessed God!
Shall I have rest again!
I saw the sea close over her,
Yet she was still in sight;
I see her twisting everywhere;
I see her day and night.
Go where I will, do what I can
The wicked one I see —
Dear Christ have mercy on my soul,
O God deliver me!
The peaceful campaign against slavery finally succeeded with the vote in Parliament to abolish the British slave trade in 1807 and the practice of slavery in countries under British rule in 1833.
(For another example of how British artists and writers fought against slavery, click on the name of “Turner” in the labels below.)
Friday, May 20, 2011
(Thomas Shadwell, poet laureate, 1689-1692)
Appointed by William III and Mary II, Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692) was more popular for his plays than for his poetry, which was of little consequence. John Dryden, his predecessor as poet laureate, had even mocked him in a satirical poem, “MacFlecknoe”:
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Shadwell wrote this ode below for Queen Mary on her birthday on April 30, 1689. The poem sounds much better, fulsome as it is, as lyrics that are slightly altered and sung to the melody composed for the occasion by Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
from AN ODE ON THE QUEEN’S BIRTHDAY
Now does the glorious Day appear,
The mightiest Day of all the Year,
Not any one such joy could bring,
Not that which ushers in the Spring.
That of ensuing Plenty hopes does give,
This did the hope of Liberty retrieve;
This does our Fertile Isle with Glory Crown,
And all the Fruits it yields we now can call our own.
On this blest day was our Restorer born,
Farr above all let this the Kalendar adorn.
Now, now with our united Voice
Let us aloud proclaim our Joys;
“Io Triumphe” let us sing
And make Heav’ns mighty concave ring.
. . .
By Beauteous softness mixed with majesty,
An empire over heart she gains;
And from her awful power none could be free,
She with such sweetness and such justice reigns.
To listen to a beautiful performance by Robin Blaze of Purcell’s version of one of the verses, entitled “By Beauteous Softness Mixed with Majesty,” click on this link (you may have to cut and paste):
Thursday, May 19, 2011
(John Dryden, poet laureate, 1668-1689)
John Dryden (1631-1700) was an English poet, dramatist, critic, and translator, especially of Virgil and other Latin poets. He was appointed by Charles II as the first official poet laureate.
One of his most famous poems is this ode to the patron saint of music, performed to music on her feast day of November 22, in 1687.
A SONG FOR SAINT CECILIA’S DAY, 1687
From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony,
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot and moist and dry
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony
This universal frame began:
From Harmony to Harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
The trumpet’s loud clangor
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double, double, double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries “Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!”
The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.
Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depths of pains, and height of passion
For the fair, disdainful dame.
But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.
Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An angel heard, and straight appear’d —
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.
As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the blessed above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
(Ben Jonson, unofficial poet laureate, 1619-1637)
Today we begin our series of poems by some of the poets laureate of Great Britain.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was a popular playwright and poet of the English Renaissance, famed among his contemporaries for his humorous and satirical dramas and his beautiful lyric poems. Appointed by James I, he served as court poet, or unofficial poet laureate, and also composed court masques or lavish musical spectacles, sometimes even putting on, during the intermission, comic anti-masques which parodied the major plot.
He was a bold and masterful writer, as we can see in the verse below, a clever contradiction that combines his ironic wit with his skill with words.
from A FIT OF RHYME AGAINST RHYME
Rhyme, the rack of finest wits,
That expresseth but by fits
Spoiling senses of their treasure,
Cozening judgment with a measure,
But false weight;
Wresting words from their true calling,
Propping verse for fear of falling
To the ground;
Jointing syllables, drowning letters,
Fast’ning vowels as with fetters
They were bound!
Soon as lazy thou wert known,
All good poetry hence was flown,
And art banish’d.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
(Mary Oliver, American poet)
Our second “nominee” for the post of U.S. poet laureate is Mary Oliver, an American poet born in 1935.
She is a descendant of the Romantics, a soul mate of poets like Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and John Clare. She looks to Nature as the source of happiness. She makes use of the pathetic fallacy, attaching human qualities and emotions to flora and fauna and inanimate objects found on land and in sea and sky.
Oliver’s verses are delicious elixirs on those days when, to quote Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us.”
WHY I WAKE EARLY
Hello, sun in my face.
hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety —
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light —
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky — as though
all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.
Monday, May 16, 2011
(Wystan Hugh Auden, photo by Cecil Beaton)
Yesterday, we finished our series of daily poems by the U.S poets laureate. These laureates are among the best of the country’s versifiers, speaking for us and speaking to us.
But there are several poets whose absence on this list is regrettable. Before we move on to the poets laureate of Great Britain, I’d like to pause to give two of them their due.
The first is W. H. Auden (1907-1973), an English-born American poet and essayist acclaimed as one of the great poets of the last century. He was an honest witness to the spirit of the age. "In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate," he once said.
Auden’s poems included the prophetic warnings he uttered after a visit to the Museum of Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1938, as dark clouds loomed above Europe. Referring to three paintings by Peter Bruegel the Elder he saw there on the walls, he wrote:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
Like one of his contemporaries, another great poet of memory and witness, Czeslaw Milosz, Auden also contemplated might be called the legacy of original sin on human nature, whether it be the example of the solitary tyrant at the peak of the pyramid or those who keep the common man at its base.
EPITAPH ON A TYRANT
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
THE UNKNOWN CITIZEN
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
(To read more of Auden, especially his poem about Bruegel's paintings, click on his name in the "labels" below.)
Sunday, May 15, 2011
(W. S. Merwin, current poet laureate, appointed 2010;
and special bicentennial consultant, 1999-2000, with
Rita Dove and Louise Glűck)
FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
~ W. S. Merwin, born 1927, American poet, essayist, and translator
Saturday, May 14, 2011
(Kay Ryan, poet laureate, 2007-2010)
THE PIECES THAT FALL TO EARTH
they are so
The three or
of their landing
be more, there
will never be
enough to make
that can equal
way they matter.
Kay Ryan, born 1945, American poet
Friday, May 13, 2011
(Charles Simic, poet laureate, 2007-2008)
IN THE LIBRARY
There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered
The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.
Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.
She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.
~ Charles Simic, born 1938 in Yugoslavia, American poet, essayist, and translator
when my father had been dead a week
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in my bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door
white apples and the taste of stone
if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes
~ Donald Hall, born 1928, American poet and essayist
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
(Ted Kooser, poet laureate, 2004-2006)
SELECTING A READER
First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
“For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned.” And she will.
~ Ted Kooser, born 1939, American poet
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
(Louise Glűck, poet laureate, 2003-2004; and special
bicentennial consultant in poetry, 1999-2000, with
Rita Dove and W. S. Merwin)the same claim
Louise Gluck Two women with
Louise Gluck Two women with
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
renounced her share:
the sign, the lesson.
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself — she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.
~ Louise Glűck, born 1943, American poet and essayist
Monday, May 9, 2011
(Billy Collins, poet laureate, 2001-2003)
INTRODUCTION TO POETRY
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
and watch him probe his way out,
I say drop a mouse into a poem
I say drop a mouse into a poem
or walk inside the poem’s roomand feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterskiacross the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
~ Billy Collins, born 1941, American poet
~ Billy Collins, born 1941, American poet
Sunday, May 8, 2011
(Robert Pinsky, poet laureate, 1997-2000)
Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,
Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Sweet time unafflicted,
X = your zenith.
~ Robert Pinsky, born 1940, American poet and translator
Saturday, May 7, 2011
from SEPTEMBER NOTEBOOK: STORIES
Everyone comes here from a long way off
(is a line from a poem I read last night).
* * *
Driving up 80 in the haze, they talked and talked.
(Smoke in the air shimmering from wildfires.)
His story was sad and hers was roiled, troubled.
* * *
A man and a woman, old friends, are in a theater
watching a movie in which a man and a woman,
old friends, are driving through summer on a mountain road.
The woman is describing the end of her marriage
and sobbing, shaking her head and laughing
and sobbing. The man is watching the road, listening,
his own more diffuse unhappiness in abeyance,
and because, in the restaurant before the film,
the woman had been describing the end of her marriage
and cried, they are not sure whether they are in the theater
or on the mountain road, and when the timber truck
comes suddenly around the bend, they both flinch.
* * *
He found that it was no good trying to tell
what happened that day. Everything he said
seemed fictional the moment that he said it,
the rain, the scent of her hair, what she said
as she was leaving, and why it was important
for him to explain that the car had been parked
under eucalyptus on a hillside, and how velvety
and blurred the trees looked through the windshield;
not, he said, that making fictions might not be
the best way of getting at it, but that nothing he said
had the brute, abject, unassimilated quality
of a wounding experience: the ego in any telling
was already seeing itself as a character, and a character,
he said, was exactly what he was not at that moment,
even as he kept wanting to explain to someone,
to whomever would listen, that she had closed the door
so quietly and so firmly that the beads of rain
on the side window didn’t even quiver.
~ Robert Haas, born 1941, American poet, critic, and translator
Friday, May 6, 2011
(Rita Dove, poet laureate, 1993-1995; and special
bicentennial consultant in poetry, 1999-2000, with
Louise Glűck and W. S. Merwin)
“I HAVE BEEN A STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND”
Life's spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.
~ Emily Dickinson
It wasn’t bliss. What was bliss
but the ordinary life? She’d spend hours
in patter, moving through whole days
touching, sniffing, tasting . . . exquisite
housekeeping in a charmed world.
And yet there was always
more of the same, all that happiness,
the aimless Being There.
So she wandered for a while, bush to arbor,
lingered to look through a pond’s restive mirror.
He was off cataloging the universe, probably,
pretending he could organize
what was clearly someone else’s chaos.
That's when she found the tree,
the dark, crabbed branches
bearing up such speechless bounty,
she knew without being told
this was forbidden. It wasn’t
a question of ownership —
who could lay claim to
such maddening perfection?
And there was no voice in her head,
no whispered intelligence lurking
in the leaves — just an ache that grew
until she knew she’d already lost everything
except desire, the red heft of it
warming her outstretched palm.
~ Rita Dove, born 1952, American poet
Thursday, May 5, 2011
(Mona Van Duyn, poet laureate, 1992-1993)
MR. AND MRS. JACK SPRAT IN THE KITCHEN
“About half a box,”
I say, and the male
weighs his pasta sticks
on our postal scale.
To support my sauce
of a guesswork rhymer
he boils by the laws
of electric timer.
Our joint creation,
my searchings, revisions,
tossed with his ration
of compulsive precisions,
so mimics life
we believe it mandated
that God had a wife
And cracked, scraped, old,
still the bowl glows gold.
~ Mona Van Duyn (1921-2004), American poet
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
(Joseph Brodsky, poet laureate, 1991-1992)
I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish you sat on the sofa
and I sat near.
The handkerchief could be yours,
the tear could be mine, chin-bound.
Though it could be, of course,
the other way around.
I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish we were in my car,
and you’d shift the gear.
We’d find ourselves elsewhere,
on an unknown shore.
Or else we’d repair
To where we’ve been before.
I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish I knew no astronomy
when stars appear,
when the moon skims the water
that sighs and shifts in its slumber.
I wish it were still a quarter
to dial your number.
I wish you were here, dear,
in this hemisphere
as I sit on the porch
sipping a beer.
It’s evening, the sun is setting;
boys shout and gulls are crying.
What’s the point of forgetting
If it’s followed by dying?
~ Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), Russian-born American poet and essayist
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
(Mark Strand, poet laureate, 1990-1991)
A PIECE OF THE STORM
From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That’s all
There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”
~ Mark Strand, born 1934, Canadian-born American poet and translator
Monday, May 2, 2011
(Richard Wilbur, poet laureate, 1987-1988)
A MEASURING WORM
This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,
Constantly (for lack
Of a full set of legs) keeps
Humping up his back.
It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant
To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,
And I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
~ Richard Wilbur, born 1921, American poet and translator
Sunday, May 1, 2011
(Gwendolyn Brooks, poet laureate, 1985-1986)
SPEECH TO THE YOUNG: SPEECH TO THE PROGRESS-TOWARD
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
~ Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), American poet