Archive for the ‘Sunday Poetry’ Category

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)
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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

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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
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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
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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

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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?

Sunday Poetry: Evening Hawk, by Robert Penn Warren

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Evening Hawk

From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes.
His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.

The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.

Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.

Long now,
The last thrush is still, the last bat
Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.

If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
The earth grind on its axis, or history
Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.

– by Robert Penn Warren
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Robert Penn Warren would be better known as a brilliant poet if he were not such a brilliant novelist. I first encountered his overwhelming genius when I read “All the King’s Men”, an historical novel based on the life of Huey Long. It seemed like every word on every page was placed with steady purpose – that every word choice was important and deeper than I could fathom. Reading Robert Penn Warren was the first time that I really “got” how much genius goes into great writing – that writing isn’t just a gushing of what you want to say, but a composition of reinforcing meanings and sounds that work like the lacy steel in a suspension bridge to carry bigger truths. It was the first time I had the awareness and sense to marvel at great writing.

In his poetry, Robert Penn Warren shows the same control and purpose. Unlike untrained poets, he is not content to gush forth with sentimental thoughts of death or love. Unlike academic poets, he is not content to use language to construct meaningless cathedrals of “experimental lyricism”. Instead, he works at his craft until the poem thrills with its language and provokes thought with its meaning.

The first few lines introduce a sight we can relate to – a hawk flying through shadows near the end of a day. In RPW’s hands, though, he transforms the shape of a hawk flying into a scythe, and I realize he’s describing something I’ve seen dozens of times, but never had the imagination to make that very plausible connection.

And then he carries the image a step further – what is this scythe cutting down? Another day – which brings us to the stalks Time, and then to the harvest of this scythe – “The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.”

BOOM! In a few words, RPW has taken me from a fresh description of a hawk flying to the gold of my error – my failings, flaws and mortality.

Then, to put me further in my place, he tells me I don’t matter. The hawk is unforgiving of my error, but only because the hawk doesn’t understand Time or error – indeed, the whole world is unforgiven. In the steady, immense, ancient turnings of the world, I amount to less than a bat, and all of history amounts to a leaking pipe in the cellar of the world.

Now, just think about that description of history! In utter silence, we think we might hear “history/Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” Wow! Have you ever lain awake at night because a tiny little drip in a remote part of the house is driving you nuts with its tiny but incessant rhythm? That drip takes over and dominates your mind. It’s tiny but powerful enough to ruin your night.

In the sense of ancient mountains and steady wisdom, the tribulations of our history are nothing. The crying out of tens of thousands dying in Haiti does not disturb the steady grinding of the earth on its axis. In the context of time, the heavy gold of my own errors and faults is no more than one stalk in a vast, immeasurable harvest.

But human history is like a dripping pipe in the cellar. It is what we hear, it grabs our focus and, for the time we lie awake, it is all we can think about.

Sunday Poetry: Birds on the Family Tree, by R. May Evans

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Birds on the Family Tree

The women in my family are birds,
chirping crisply to communicate,
flitting here and there on a constant quest
for what catches only our shining eyes.

Ever alert, we may startle at any hint of danger
unless you mean to molest our nest – then we peck
with a fury that deters even the noblest birds of prey.

We grind down our problems to a palpable size,
worrying them in our stomach like stones.
(When we think no one’s watching,
you should hear the music we pour from our throats.)

– By R. May Evans
__________________________________________________

Imagery carries this poem, jumping from metaphor to simile and back, finally, to metaphor. The author, R. May Evans, is a local “artist, writer, activist, feminist, and all-round complex person with Asperger’s syndrome,” so it should come as no surprise that her poetry manages to be challenging yet seemingly naive, deeply personal yet approachable, and accessible but somehow distant.

In “Birds on the Family Tree”, Evans takes a fairly mundane image of ancestral women as birds and pushes it a little further. The first stanza presents introduces the central theme that the women in her family are bird-like, and communicate like birds on a tree. Nothing particularly novel about the presentation or the concept; women as birds is a common, almost universal image in literature and in common language (cute chicks, etc.).

In the second stanza, she introduces danger and strength. Easily startled suggests that they are nervous, while their willingness to take on birds of prey demonstrates that they have the courage to face the challenges of life, particularly when they threaten that which they hold dear. But why are the birds of prey, threatening nests, “noble”? Evans’ work choice indicates a distance from societal norms – the women in her family are willing to fiercely attack what the rest of society deems “noble”, as women throughout history have forced change.

The third stanza is particularly tricky. Her metaphor of women as birds encompasses a simile within it. They are birds, and their problems are “like” stones, grinding in a bird’s gizzard. The metaphor has achieved sufficient reality in the voice of the speaker that it is capable of including its own artifice.

The final two lines return to metaphor – the “music” should not be read to mean only literal music. But why is it only when they think others are not listening that they produce their “music”? The irony is that the poet is producing her own form of music, and publishing it for others to listen to. To be enjoyed, music and poetry must be heard.

You may purchase Truth, Love, Blood and Bones, the volume which includes this poem, from Qoop in either a saddle stitched hard copy for $17.38 or as an ebook to be downloaded in .pdf format for $7.00. It’s raw, emotional stuff – I probably chose the “safest” poem in the collection to write about. You should definitely venture into the world of R. May Evans if you care about helping young artists keep producing challenging work.

Sunday Poetry: Homage to My Hips, by Lucille Clifton

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Homage to My Hips

these hips are big hips.
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top

– by Lucille Clifton

____________________________________________________

If women’s poetry is supposed to be quiet and reflective, if large women are supposed to envy their slimmer sisters, if sexuality is supposed to be hushed and reverent – well, Lucille Clifton did not get the memo.

The most obvious element of this poem is its boastful humor. (Note: I initially used the word “cocky” in the place of “boastful”, but the gender issues of my word choice were too distracting.) It clearly is a fun poem, and when you watch Lucille Clifton read the poem, you can see she means it to be fun. Likewise, when you listen to her read it to an appreciative audience, she obviously plays it like a skit.

I won’t murder humor by dissecting it, but I will point out that there is some real artistry involved in this poem. The rhythm is a roughed-up iambic beat, and the line breaks help bring out the meaning. Consider the line “they don’t fit into”. What does your mind fill in when you reach the end of that line? Size 2 jeans? Lacy underwear? Airline seats? Instead, Clifton sweeps all your answers into the dismissive “petty places” and moves forward.

Clifton has been compared to a less verbose Walt Whitman for her free celebration of herself, and I think the comparison is a good one. Her lines are trim and short, while his go on and on, but the joyful spirit bounds through both. Both write in everyday, proudly non-academic language of people on the street. Clifton even brings in a whiff of the Mamas and the Papas’ Go Where You Wanna Go with her “they go where they want to go/ they do what they want to do.” If you want to have some fun at the expense of academia, spend some time with Google and find a few stuffy, pedantic essays by grad students trying to explain in thousands of polysyllabic words what Clifton does in under 80 one and two syllable words.

(Buy Lucille Clifton’s poetry at your favorite independent bookseller. It is approachable and completely appropriate for someone who will appreciate some poetic joy in their life.)

Sunday Poetry: Prosody 101, by Linda Pastan

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Prosody 101

When they taught me that what mattered most
was not the strict iambic line goose-stepping
over the page but the variations
in that line and the tension produced
on the ear by the surprise of difference,
I understood yet didn’t understand
exactly, until just now, years later
in spring, with the trees already lacy
and camellias blowsy with middle age,
I looked out and saw what a cold front had done
to the garden, sweeping in like common language,
unexpected in the sensuous
extravagance of a Maryland spring.
There was a dark edge around each flower
as if it had been outlined in ink
instead of frost, and the tension I felt
between the expected and actual
was like that time I came to you, ready
to say goodbye for good, for you had been
a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in
you laughed and lifted me up in your arms
as if I too were lacy with spring
instead of middle aged like the camellias,
and I thought: so this is Poetry!

- by Linda Pastan
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Poems about poetry are rarely as much fun or as good as this. It starts off by announcing and demonstrating one of the essential secrets to poetry that I love – variations on noticeable rhythm. Pastan does not settle into a “strict iambic line goose-step”; instead, she kicks us around with every form of foot imaginable.

She also treats us to the second secret to poetry that I love – “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” as described by Marianne Moore in another poem about poetry. In this case, the garden itself is the bit of concrete reality that anchors the poem in the everyday world we can relate to. The frost described is a real phenomenon, but it becomes a symbol for the unexpected – both when it comes as common language, or as a warm greeting from a spouse.

(Linda Pastan’s poetry may be purchased at your favorite local bookseller.)