Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Sunday Poetry: one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one:, by e.e. cummings

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one:

one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one:
which halves reintegrating,shall occur
no death and any quantity;but than
all numerable mosts the actual more

minds ignorant of stern miraculous
this every truth-beware of heartless them
(given the scalpel,they dissect a kiss;
or,sold the reason,they undream a dream)

one is the song which fiends and angels sing:
all murdering lies by mortals told make two.
Let liars wilt,repaying life they’re loaned;
we(by a gift called dying born)must grow

deep in dark least ourselves remembering
love only rides his year.
All lose,whole find

– e.e. cummings
_________________________________________________________________

A friend got married yesterday, and, during the ceremony, she quoted one of e.e. cummings’ love poems. It was a wonderful choice. Those who remember e.e. cummings only for his refusal to comply with typographical and sentence structure expectations might be astonished to read his sweet and occasionally blushing love poetry.

The strongest stanza in this poem is the second, when he contrasts himself with those who are sternly anchored in reason, and thus are blind to love’s glory. Indeed, those who, sold on reason, would dissect a kiss would not understand it – the thrill of skin on skin is not scientific, but it is real. His line echoes Wordsworth from the prior century: “Our meddling intellect/ Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–/ We murder to dissect.”

The key to enjoying cummings’ poetry is to shush your inner schoolmarm. Let go and just read it out loud. Don’t get frustrated by the jarring word combinations or the lack of apparent rhythm. If you’re tripped up by stressed syllables tumbling together, accept that it’s okay – he wants to you slow down there and struggle a bit.

I don’t love every cummings poem, but I love a lot of them. I do best in my enjoyment when I give up on making strict sense of everything, and relax in the presence of a master.

Sunday Poetry: I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, by William Wordsworth

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company!
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

– by William Wordsworth
________________________________________________________

This little poem has almost ruined poetry for generations.

It has been satirized on Rocky and Bullwinkle, on the Simpsons, and, less famously, by hundreds of school children. Why? Because it’s simple, a bit archaic in language, over-dramatized, and it’s been forced upon children as a memory exercise for generations. Who can love a poem after stumbling over “jocund” and “my heart with pleasure fills”? What plain-speaking human doesn’t lose patience with the linguistic contortions of “Ten thousand saw I” and “A poet could not be but gay”?

For years, I had it confused in my own mind with the botanically-imperfect poem presented in “Our Gang” – skip ahead to 8:44 if you’re too busy to enjoy some classic TV:

All that said, though, the poem is not as awful as it seems in the memory of most. Go ahead and read it, but the real daffodils beginning to bloom in our neighborhood are a lot more enjoyable.

Sunday Poetry: Lines on the Poet’s Turning Forty, by Ian Frazier

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Lines on the Poet’s Turning Forty

I.

And so, at last, I am turning forty,
In just a couple of days.
The big four-oh.
Yes, that is soon to be my age.
(And not fifty-eight. No way. That Wikipedia is a bunch of liars.)
Nope, not any other age, just forty.
What other age could someone born in 1969 (and not 1951)
Possibly be?
(And please do not listen to my ex-wife, that sad, bitter woman in her late fifties.)
What does it feel like, old bones?
Yes, I have lost a step or two in the hundred-metre dash.
I accept these changes.
But if a guy says in a published poem that he is forty,
As I am doing here,
It’s obvious that must be the age that he is,
Officially.

II.

Cattail down blows from the swamp like smoke,
Ice bares its teeth on the surface of the mud puddles.
It is fall—but not for me in any metaphorical sense,
Because forty, while not technically all that young, is hardly like “the autumn of life” or anything;
And also because Natalie Portman, the famous actress,
Is in love with me. And why not?
After all, there is not that much difference, age-wise,
Between a person who I guess is in her mid-to-late twenties
And a person who is only just turning forty,
I.e., me.

III.

You walk across the room carrying a bouquet of phlox in your hand
(“You” being Natalie Portman, the famous actress)
As a present for me on my upcoming fortieth birthday.
Come sit beside me, my dear,
And I will tell you about my previous thirty-nine,
Except for the year when I was in sixth grade,
Which is a total blank.
I do remember fifth grade, when we had Mrs. Erwin,
And seventh grade, when we moved to the new junior-high building;
But when I try to remember sixth—nothing.
Let us not mourn what is lost.
Sixth grade was probably not that great.
Now, and on into the serious years that lie ahead,
You and I will have each other.

IV.

An alert reader may point out
That we did not move to the new junior-high building during the 1981-82 school year
(As would fit with my being in seventh grade and having been born in 1969)
But eighteen years earlier, in the school year of 1963-64.
This is baloney!
Whoever says such statements is wrong.
I think that when it comes to the details of my own life
My own word should be trusted over that of some random reader,
Thank you!

V.

Unfortunately, because of this business
About when we did or didn’t move to the new junior-high building,
Natalie Portman’s suspicions somehow were raised,
And she had a completely unnecessary “background check” run on me,
And then left me for Shia LaBeouf,
Who is hot right now.

VI.

This poem is becoming a disaster.
It happens sometimes—
I get into a poem, and the thing goes haywire,
And I don’t know how to get out.
According to some nitpicker at the Ohio Department of Education,
Mrs. Roberta Erwin retired and left teaching entirely in 1967,
Two years before my birth.
Thus, the argument goes,
She could not have taught me fifth grade,
As I claimed in Canto III.

VII.

Look, I am turning forty, all right?
Let’s just leave it at that.
Critics and people in the media who would ruin a celebration with this kind of “gotcha” behavior make me sick.
If you still doubt me,
Please be assured that this magazine has a rigorous policy of fact checking,
And all the information in this poem has been checked,
And directly verified with me.

VIII.

Well, it’s going to be great being forty.
I am looking forward to it.
There are plenty of other beautiful actresses around;
I may also try out for the forty-and-over division
On the National Professional Rodeo Association tour.
Recently someone asked me if I remembered when the name
Of Idlewild Airport in New York City
Was changed to J.F.K. International.
“Of course not,” I replied.
“That was long before my time.
Back then I had not even been born.”

– by Ian Frazier
_______________________________________________________

Here’s your bonus for all those hours spent reading “Dover Beach” and Shakespearean sonnets and Auden and “To His Coy Mistress” – as if the pleasure of reading those great works were not enough. On top of all that poetic pleasure comes something like this dollop of whipped cream.

This is, obviously, not a serious poem, and anyone who wants to set aside his or her humor and dissect the traces of the author’s genuine feelings about aging ought to be stripped naked, wrapped in rough tweed, and planted on a hard seat in a stifling lecture hall to listen to stuffy professors discuss deconstruction of literature in a monotone. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but just don’t do it, or be prepared to suffer the consequences.

All that said, part of the fun is catching the whiffs of the poetical that Frazier feeds us. If you read the poem aloud, you can hear faint echos of the real poems you have read and enjoyed. When you hear him admit he’s lost “a step or two in the hundred-metre dash,” the back of your mind turns to “To an Athlete Dying Young”. The references to nature and non-metaphorical fall might remind you of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 –

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold . . .

When he admonishes us to ignore his lost 6th grade with “Let us not mourn what is lost”, perhaps Dylan Thomas’ majestic voice reading his “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” came to mind.

Or not.

If your poetry reading enriches your experience in enjoying a pleasure like Ian Frazier’s poem, it’s a bonus. You don’t need to catch every allusion to enjoy the humor, and there’s no sense in pressuring yourself to track down every clever reference.

(This poem was originally published in the New Yorker, and you can buy Ian Frazier’s books here, or at your favorite independent bookseller.)

Sunday Poetry: Buckingham Palace, by A.A. Milne

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Buckingham Palace

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
“One of the sergeants looks after their socks,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King, but he never came.
“Well, God take care of him, all the same,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They’ve great big parties inside the grounds.
“I wouldn’t be King for a hundred pounds,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn’t the King’s.
“He’s much too busy a-signing things,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
“Do you think the King knows all about me?”
“Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea,”
Says Alice.

– by A.A. Milne
___________________________________________________

Today is National Children’s Poetry Day, and this one brings to mind the faces of my children smiling and reciting this poem nestled on the couch with my wife. The repeated lines and dependable rhythm allowed them to “catch on” at an early age, and enjoy the music of the words. In fact, this one was often sung in our home, and two wonderful readers were born.

If you have a child in your life, please take some time to read to him or her. Just as exercise in the back yard helps children strengthen and develop coordination, sitting next to an adult reading helps children grow intellectually and develop appreciation of the written word.

Poetry does not need to be about serious topics to be important.

Sunday Poetry: There once was a man from Nantucket . . ., by the Editors of the Princeton Tiger

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Limerick

There once was a man from Nantucket,
Who kept all of his cash in a bucket,
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

– by the Princeton Tiger (1924)
___________________________________

It’s the week of St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s as good a time as any to talk about Limericks. Often bawdy, and usually humorous, limericks are an example of a poetic form working with humor to make something memorable. The example above is a classic, printed in 1924 by the Princeton Tiger and drawing responses from other newspapers. The creative tension of the above poem comes from a rhyme which does not get stated – the reader waits for another “ucket” rhyme that never comes.

Often, the unmentionable does, in fact, get stated, and that is part of the fun. Clean limericks appear in childrens’ books and bawdy ones draw a laugh in raucous bars.

I won’t go into a lengthy recitation of the history of the lyric, except to observe that Edward Lear’s reputation far outstrips his talent (he often repeats the first rhyme), and that St. Patrick’s week is a fine occasion to try writing a few of your own.

Sunday Poetry: Morning, Thinking of Empire, by Raymond Carver

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Morning, Thinking of Empire

We press our lips to the enameled rim of the cups
and know this grease that floats
over the coffee will one day stop our hearts.
Eyes and fingers drop onto silverware
that is not silverware. Outside the window, waves
beat against the chipped walls of the old city.
Your hands rise from the rough tablecloth
as if to prophesy. Your lips tremble …
I want to say to hell with the future.
Our future lies deep in the afternoon.
It is a narrow street with a cart and driver,
a driver who looks at us and hesitates,
then shakes his head. Meanwhile,
I coolly crack the egg of a fine Leghorn chicken.
Your eyes film. You turn from me and look across
the rooftops at the sea. Even the flies are still.
I crack the other egg.
Surely we have diminished one another.

– by Raymond Carver

___________________________________________

This poem goes against most of what I like about poetry, but, still, I love its audacity. There is no rhyme and no meter – the poem is carried by the narrative of what he is saying, not how he is saying it.

The final line is a Carver classic – a dramatic opposition to the “You complete me” version of love that Hollywood sells us. The opposition is set up in the third line – hearts are something that clog with grease, not beat in burning unison.

One poetic tradition that is upheld in this poem is allusion. Carver’s short poem refers to several other famous poems dealing with the topic of love. My favorite poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“, shows up in the hands and prophecy. “Dover Beach” is conjured by the beating waves. I’m sure there are more references rushing past, over my head.

What empire is Carver thinking of in the title? Is it whichever empire produced the old city with narrow streets? Is it the metaphorical empire of love poetry? Or is it simply a contrast to the diminished couple eating breakfast?

Sunday Poetry: September, The First Day Of School, by Howard Nemerov

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

September, The First Day Of School
I
My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

II
A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare’s Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler’s Law,
As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.

– by Howard Nemerov
___________________________________________

This is one of those frustrating poems to write about, where I cannot force myself to focus on the meter or the poetic technique, because I’m closest to the subject. Forgive me for a moment, then, while I focus on the thought instead of the poem.

Nemerov captures so much of what my parenting experience has been in this poem. You are given this little bundle to take care of – immobile to the point you can lay it on a pad on the table while you drink a cup of coffee and read the paper, dependent to the point that it would starve if you didn’t feed it, and ignorant to the point that the pet dog has a vastly superior vocabulary.

Then everything changes.

I’m particularly wowed by the final two lines. “Even our tears belong to ritual.” It is a ritual, isn’t it, that we wind up taking our children to schools – society demands that we act out this strange act, leaving our children to others to teach? (Homeschoolers aside.) We do this to our children, as our parents did it to us, and it is a truly horrid ripping, no matter how we prepare ourselves and how convinced we are that we have the best school and the most excited child. It is a societal ritual, where all parents symbolically surrender their children to society, and all children accept that they will need to face the challenges of institutions without the protective gaze of their parents. All lives are changed on the threshold of schools.

And the final line is not a prediction; it is a plaintive prayer. “But may great kindness come of it in the end.” Nemerov was a teacher – a professor at Washington University, a few miles from my childhood home. He knew education and academia, and he does not offer an unconvincing declaration like “This is for the best”, or “Education will expand their worlds”, or even “They’ll increase their earning power if they make the right choices”. He doesn’t even attempt prosaic persuasion – instead, he joins those of us who have abandoned our children to society in a prayer that some greater kindness, some happier outcome, will follow from the tears of division on the schoolhouse steps.

Sunday Poetry: Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

– by Matthew Arnold
________________________________________________

If you’re looking for a great love poem to read to your Valentine today, go check out my sweet old etcetera, by ee cummings, or Tin Wedding Whistle, by Ogden Nash (a personal favorite), or Older Love, by Jim Harrison. This one probably won’t get you where you want to be.

Matthew Arnold may have been the most morose lover of all time. Scholars believe that he wrote this poem on his honeymoon – one pictures him wandering in after a walk on the beach, his new wife swept up in the romantic seaside, and he starts moaning about his loss of faith, his sadness and human misery. I bet he slept on the couch that night.

But, to give Mr. Arnold a more sympathetic ear, Dover Beach truly is a wonderful love poem. It’s not all hearts and flowers in the real world, and the poet shares the feeling that the world lies “before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new”, but he knows that the world is really not as joyful as those in the throes of love may feel. He’s not blinded by his love, though he obviously feels those impulses.

“Ah, love, let us be true/to one another . . .” What a brilliant line break! Let us be true – Matthew Arnold cuts through the illusions and wants to share what he feels in complete honesty. He could have written a “roses are red” verse, but he insists on being true to his lover. He knows it’s a harsh world, and they will face pain and strife in their future, but he wants to go through it with his lover.

That’s pretty sweet, if you think about it.

Sunday Poetry: At The Smithville Methodist Church, by Stephen Dunn

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

At The Smithville Methodist Church

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.
On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

– by Stephen Dunn

____________________________________________

I had never noticed Stephen Dunn until a librarian friend recommended his work. I’ve now read a selection of his work, and he manages to make poetry out of ordinary life, without resorting to folksy wisdom or tying things up in a package.

I try, when I write about contemporary poets, to encourage you to purchase their books from independent booksellers, and you should certainly consider doing so if you want to swim a little deeper in Dunn’s works than you will find online. This time, though, in recognition of how I learned about this poet, I’ve ordered the books online through the library, and I will pick them up at my local branch in a few days, to enjoy for free.

Sunday Poetry: The Spell of the Yukon, by Robert W. Service

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

The Spell of the Yukon

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth—and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top.

The summer—no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness—
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.

They’re making my money diminish;
I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight—and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
It’s hell!—but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite—
So me for the Yukon once more.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

– by Robert W. Service

_________________________________________

College professors will tell you this is bad poetry, and I understand what they’re saying. The verse lacks subtlety; the rhythm is heavy-handed. You see a line that ends with “sham-fight”, and you can’t help but wonder how he’s going to pull this one off with a rhyme, only to be rewarded with “damsite”. The words don’t work with the meaning to create a transcendent crystal.

But this is poetry at its most elemental. This is the sort of poetry that thrilled our ancestors around campfires back before electricity; this is the poetry that bards traveled from town to town reciting for alms. And Service reaches in and finds the non-cynic within me – I read this poem and I want to go see Alaska. Who, other than a tweedy professor choked with dusty theories, could resist it?