Poetry and Poets: September 2002 Archives

John Keats


John Keats

I find sometimes the need of great calmness. Sometimes I retire to the psalms, sometimes, to bad vintage television. But here I post one of the most delightful and relaxing ways I come to terms with the world. I don't post the entire poem, merely for length. If you wish to find it, visit the Representative Poetry On-Line and Look for Keats. His poetry, even though he isn't 17th century, is among the very best in the language.

from "Ode to a Nightingale"
John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,--
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

I don't know what I find so calming--perhaps it is just the loveliness of some of the image, or some of the words. "A drowsy numbness pains/ My sense." Say it aloud, let the words roll over the tongue and echo in the brain. "With beaded bubbles winking at the brim. . ." Just be lulled by the gentle language, the beautiful images and let the blood pressure drop. The very best of the Romantic Era of poetry seems to do this as a matter of course. Yes, you have Shelley occasionally railing away, and Byron tends to be more sardonic than pastoral. But Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge all seem to have a sense of the beauty of nature that is embedded and inextricable from their beautiful language. Read "Kubla Khan" or "Ode: Intimations of Immortality Recollected from Early Childhood."

You know, until you get to the modern era I like more poetry than I dislike. And perhaps with such an able guide as Dylan I can even convert my anti-modernism.

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From One of My Favorites


From One of My Favorites

Okay, you've already noticed that I tend to favor seventeenth century poetry--American or European. But another of my favorite schools of poetry is the imagist school, largely derived from the very compressed ultimately imagist poetry of China and Japan. So, without further ado, a tanka from Ogura Hyakunin Isshu or One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets (See the left-hand column for a link to the entire work.)

Ono no Komachi

Color of the flower
Has already faded away,
While in idle thoughts

My life passes vainly by,
As I watch the long rains fall.

The gentle melancholy of this particular tanka appeals to me. Many of these poems have references to places that must conjure images for the Japanese, but for Westerners they serve only to produce some distance. But here, there are no such references. This could occur on the slopes of Fujiyama, or in Indiana. The universalilty of the thought and experience causes this poem, among many others, to really speak to the human heart.

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More from the AVP


There are some advantages to the small domestic disturbances that of an evening cause us some loss of sleep. The discovery of the huge collection of poetry at the AVP is one of these. Among the collections is a book of verse by Jones Very, a poet with whom I am little acquainted, having heard the name and seen a few poems at Dylan's site one time.

Jones Very

I cannot tell the sorrows that I feel
By the night's darkness, by the prison's gloom;
There is no sight that can the death reveal
The spirit suffers in a living tomb;
There is no sound of grief that mourners raise,
No moaning of the wind, or dirge-like sea,
Nor hymns, though prophet tones inspire the lays,
That can the spirit's grief awake in thee.
Thou too must suffer as it suffers here
The death in Christ to know the Father's love;
Then in the strains that angels love to hear
Thou too shalt hear the Spirit's song above,
And learn in grief what these can never tell,
A note too deep for earthly voice to swell.

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Adelaide Crapsey


Okay, okay, okay. I need to curl up with my Luci Shaw, but first I needed to post a couple of things by this poet whom I have only recently discovered. She apparently wrote in the early part of the twentieth century and composed many different types of poems. Some of the most effective are reminiscent of the poetry of our own Mr. Core, q.v. I find it very similar to one of my favorite schools of more recent poetry--imagist. (Of course no one can even hope to equal the grandeur of the Cavalier and Metaphysical poets.) Here's a couple of short pieces by Ms. Crapsey.

Poems by Adelaide Crapsey

The Warning

Just now,
Out of the strange
Still dust . . . as strange, as still . . .
A white moth flew . . . Why am I grown
So cold?

The Guarded Wound

If it
Were lighter touch
Than petal of flower resting
On grass, oh still too heavy it were,
Too heavy!

There is a haiku-like simplicity and a sheer joy in careful creation and cultivation of image. There is an oblique relation between title and poem that sets up a kind of dynamic tension. What precisely is the guarded wound? We might never know, and yet the image puts us tantilizing close to grasping the reality the poet was trying to convey. In short, I have found another poet I need to study in depth. There is a brilliant, subtle, quiet, passionate, and sad beauty in these two short pieces.

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On Reading Poetry


On Reading Poetry

Mr. Abbot posts something provocative in the comments column of a post below and I thank him both for his generosity of comment and for his deep humility:

I liked the final four lines, but the everything prior to that I'm having a hard time interpreting. Like I said, though, I'm poetically illiterate, so it's probably like a kindergartner trying to solve a high school algebra problem.

And I want to respond first with a profound, and deeply humble, thank you for reading it at all. And then with the following encouragement. The short form is--everyone out there can read any poem there is and appreciate it or not--it is not a reflection on the individual's ability to understand poetry or the on individual. I've had dozens of people scan my site for my insights into "Holy Sonnet 14" and Thomas Hardy's "Total Eclipse." Let me tell you all something--you are all capable of reading these and making them your own. I know your professors don't help you feel confident in this--but take my word for it, you are capable, you needn't share or even believe my insights, as they come from personal experience, not necessarily deep study.

I didn't want to talk about this in the context of the poem involved, because it begins to sound defensive. The point I want to make from this is that our educational system makes people feel poetically illiterate and inept. In truth, poetry is one of the easiest of the writing disciplines to appreciate if you are not concerned with "interpreting" it. Sometimes the images and words are unclear--that is certainly a possibility I must examine in the poem in question as I revise and reconsider, but more often, we are taught to seek what is not necessarily there, to fabricate some web of meaning. T. S. Eliot did us all a serious disservice with "The Waste Land." He stole poetry from the populace and remanded it to the ivory tower.

I am not a poet of the ivory tower school, nor do I particularly relish many such poets. Poetry needs to appeal on a fundamental level--are the images accurate and clean does the language flow? There is no particular skill needed to read a poem. Perhaps you don't immediately absorb all the levels of meaning. But then one wouldn't expect to do so in looking at any text.

Enjoy it first. Listen to the words, read it aloud. I'm not saying my poetry is the best for this. Start with the Keats below and read aloud the Sonnet "To Sleep." Savor the sound of the words and don't worry about interpreting it.

Sometimes things are obscure because they may be too personal. This is likely in the San Antonio Poem--it is a very personal reflection. But poetry IS personal and it is personal both for the poet and for the audience. Even the very best audience cannot make every poem personally their own. Witness my appalling inability to read very many of the moderns. I'm sure even Dylan, who is the among the best of us in the appreciation of poetry, has poets he has difficulty with. This does not mean that the reader is illiterate, merely that not everything speaks to everyone.

But I think my most important advice to anyone reading a poem is--relax. Don't interpret, enjoy. There isn't going to be a quiz. No one is going to cross-examine you to see if you obtained every nuance of meaning. I promise I will not send you an e-mail that asks you if you got the obscure cross reference to a forgotten Irish-Scots expatriate Elizabethan poet in line seven. It doesn't matter if you do. What matters is that you allow yourself the pleasure of enjoying the poetry at the very surface. Swim with it, speak with it, read it aloud. If it has a message for you, listen. If not, don't worry, not everything will.

Edgar Allan Poe is one of my guilty pleasures. I don't know if any of his poetry has any meaning whatsoever outside of the surface of the poem. But when I read something like "The Bells" with a refrain similar to this from the first section:

from "The Bells" Edgar Allan Poe Keeping time, time, time, In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells From the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells- From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

I find that I want to say it, sing it, shout it, play with it. Does it have any great meaning? Perhaps, but even so, so what? Revel! feast! enjoy! That is what poetry is about. We knew that as children and had it torn out of us by relentless teachers who were desperately trying to impart to us a sense that there is another way to enjoy poetry. Many of us came to learn that way, but it is important to remember neither is better nor worse, poetry should be enjoyable on whatever level you try to read it.

So, my advice to readers. Don't worry about interpretation. If you love a poem you will read it and reread it and reread it and it will come to have meaning after meaning after meaning based on your experience of it and your experience of the truths that it tells.

Do we understand every nuance of Psalm 23--I doubt it. But as we have grown, our understanding of it has changed from something like a word-picture (when we were little children) to something portending great comfort and great support.

So, I appreciate the compliment of a good soul reading my poetry and struggling with levels of meaning, but please don't trouble yourself with that. Enjoy the word-picture first, if it appeals, read it again, and accept whatever meaning it may have for you. If it doesn't appeal, if the picture doesn't make sense, don't attribute it to your own deficiencies as a reader, but understand that sometimes communication is imperfect. Poets are imperfect and the poetic craft is such that not every poem is meant for every ear or heart. That is okay. Remember, you probably like some Psalms a great deal more than you like others. Even the grandest poetry inspired by God cannot appeal to every person at every point in life's journey. Please believe me when I say I am not one of the great intellects in the world, anything I write is accessible to nearly everyone, and everyone is welcome. I don't anticipate that all poems will appeal to everyone. Dylan has an extraordinarily broad range of tolerance, appreciating poetry that I find, to put it politely, not to my taste. But in reading what he has posted, I begin to understand that part of my deficiency in taste is a reaction people who wanted me to interpret and "get something out of" the poem, to poseurs who read certain kinds of poetry because it was de rigeur in the prevelant intellectual atmosphere. This is simply the wrong approach. Take heart everyone, poetry really is open to you all, and as you read more and simply move with its rhythms and enjoy its language. You will discover that your ability to read it vastly increases. You may never be one of the foremost poetry critics of the world, but you will find that poetry present a pleasant little occupation for a still moment. After all, you needn't spend the time on a poem that you spend on a novel!

My last word--ENJOY!!!

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A Magnificent Magnificat


A Magnificent Magnificat

I have written before that I thought the villanelle must be among the more difficult poetic forms to get right. The right balance of line with new material is absolutely critical--and the better villanelles, it seems to me, allow for minor variations in the repeated lines. Dylan has offered a truly magnificent villanelle based on the Magnificat. EVERYONE, poetry lover or not, should see this truly wonderful poem. It is of such quality that one feels that momentary "Salieri" feeling in the presence of a Mozart. Thank you, Dylan the poem is superb--and it should have made its debut somewhere like "First Things" or some such other publication, not on a website. You must see about getting this wider circulation.

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A 17th Century Wonder I Stumbled Onto


A 17th Century Wonder I Stumbled Onto

I found this poem while looking through the Classical Christian Poetry Site. The poet was unfamiliar to me--I knew John Fletcher of Beaumont and Fletcher fame, but I had not heard of Phineas. I don't know the relationship, if any, between these two.

A Litany
Phineas Fletcher

Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

There is a very gentle rhythm here and a beauty in the pleas of the the poet. "Nor let His eye/See sin, but through my tears," is a beautiful evocation of what every act of contrition begs of Jesus.

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Thomas Hardy as Poet


The purveyor of the largest number of the most completely depressing novels written in English (note, by number we eliminate Malcolm Lowry, and by Enlgish we eliminate Celine and Zola) also wrote some of the most depressing poetry in English. Here's an example. Down, but lovely.

At a Lunar Eclipse
Thomas Hardy

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

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Poetry is Breaking Out All Over


In my short sojourn in the blogworld, I have been delighted by the number of talented writers and now poets I have found. Recently (as in this morning) Dylan, our friend at La Vita Nuova, and able poetry critic decided to be more forthcoming about his own career as poet. Check out his contribution.

Our own Lane Core has a page devoted to his poetry. I owe Mr. Core an apology for not explaining myself better in a note about his own poetry. I indicated that his poetry was "not to my taste." And this is actually an inaccurate representation--it was, in fact, "not immediately to my taste." As with all such things that I do not take to immediately, I find that they grow upon reflection. Those interested in the poetry world would do themselves a service by visiting his poetry page and then dropping a note. There is nothing a poet or writer appreciates so much as hearing from someone who has read something. I may need to add Mr. Core's poetry page to my own side list here.

Again, you owe to yourselves and to the world at large to support your local poets. Heaven knows there are few enough to start with , and those with some form of recognizable faith informing their writing are vanishingly few. And Catholic Poets--to date I can name 4 worthy of the name and a possible fifty. (Of course Dylan could name twenty-three without pausing for a breath--but then, we all have our skills.)

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Philip Freneau


Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau was once one of the most famous poets in America. For the most part, his poetry has, unjustly, been forgotten. The following elegy, written for those who died in a battle of the Revolutionary War is distinctive, but much of what it has to say works well to commemorate this day.

To the Memory of the Brave Americans
Philip Freneau

Under General Greene, in South Carolina,
who fell in the action of September 8, 1781

AT Eutaw Springs the valiant died;
Their limbs with dust are covered o'er--
Weep on, ye springs, your tearful tide;
How many heroes are no more!
If in this wreck or ruin, they
Can yet be thought to claim a tear,
O smite your gentle breast, and say
The friends of freedom slumber here!
Thou, who shalt trace this bloody plain,
If goodness rules thy generous breast,
Sigh for the wasted rural reign;
Sign for the shepherds, sunk to rest!
Stranger, their humble graves adorn;
You too may fall, and ask a tear;
'Tis not the beauty of the morn
That proves the evening shall be clear.--
They saw their injured country's woe;
The flaming town, the wasted field;
Then rushed to meet the insulting foe;
They took the spear--but left the shield.
Led by thy conquering genius, Greene,
The Britons they compelled to fly;
None distant viewed the fatal plain,
None grieved, in such a cause to die--
But, like the Parthian, famed of old,
Who, flying, still their arrows threw,
These routed Britons, full as bold,
Retreated, and retreating slew.
Now rest in peace, our patriot band,
Though far from nature's limits thrown,
We trust they find a happier land,
A brighter sunshine of their own.

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Edwin Arlington Robinson


Certain forms of poetry constitute a challenge all their own. The sestina, which has an elaborate rhyme scheme that retains the same six end-rhymes but rotates them from stanza to stanza. The villanelle must be one of the most difficult such forms. One of the most famous of these is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle." The scheme of the villanelle isn't to keep simply an end-rhyme, but to retain one full line of the original triolet in each subsequent stanza and then in the final stanza to repeat all three lines with one additional line.

Here's an example from Edwin Arlington Robinson which is quite pleasing.

Villanelle of Change Edwin Arlington Robinson Since Persia fell at Marathon, The yellow years have gathered fast: Long centuries have come and gone.

And yet (they say) the place will don
A phantom fury of the past,
Since Persia fell at Marathon;

And as of old, when Helicon
Trembled and swayed with rapture vast
(Long centuries have come and gone),

This ancient plain, when night comes on,
Shakes to a ghostly battle-blast,
Since Persia fell at Marathon.

But into soundless Acheron
The glory of Greek shame was cast:
Long centuries have come and gone,

The suns of Hellas have all shone,
The first has fallen to the last:—
Since Persia fell at Marathon,
Long centuries have come and gone.

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Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is considered amongst the finest flowering of the "graveyard school" of poetry. Yes, there is such a thing--fortunately a phenomenon relatively short lived, but giving rise to this one great elegiac tribute. Here is an excerpt that gave us another famous work.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Thomas Gray . . . Th' applause of list'ning senates to command, The threats of pain and ruin to despise, To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land, And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
. . .

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More Notes on Japanese Poetry


If you want a perfect example of the nearly complete opacity of Japanese Verse, go to the link below and visit Station 23, Hiraizumi. Click on each of the four different translations and see what the different translators make of the haiku that are included in the narrative. My own reading suggests that Corum's translation is the most accurate of the four, but it is nearly completely disjointed--abbreviated to the point of obscurity. What a challenge translating this must be!

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Selections from Japanese Poetry


Selections from Japanese Poetry
Just a couple of short pieces:

Lady Heguri
A thousand years, you said,
As our hearts melted.
I look at the hand you held,
And the ache is hard to bear.

from Six Tanka for Yakamochi
Lady Kasa

Like the pearl of dew
On the grass in my garden
In the evening shadows,
I shall be no more.

Even the grains of sand
On a beach eight hundred days wide
Would not be more than my love,
Watchman of the island coast.

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One for Dylan


One for Dylan

Here's a relatively contemporary poet whom, I imagine, even Dylan has not had much of an encounter with. I knew this man personally and his poetry was potentially some of the very finest I have ever set eyes on. The only problem is that he did not believe in revision or revisiting in any extensive sense. It gave rise to some infelicities in language. But, all that can be forgiven for some of this beauty:

The Moon Has No Motion I Can Move
Jay Bradford Fowler Jr.

The moon has no motion I can move
Nor the trees in the night can I have
As my green leaves.

The moon made a soft motion
In the night and the leaves
Whispered closer to themselves.

My dream turns as softly
As the moon and thought, like leaves,
Grow in peace among their branches.

The moon is no maker. It does not mean.
And the leaves in the wind I cannot do.
The moon is no maker but for me to make

The letting of the moon grow soft
Upon my shoulder. The leaves are no wisdom.
They do not speak, but for saying
my prayers as I sleep.

from "When the Secret Taper Descends

When the secret taper decends
And holds steady on the tips of the phlox
Until they burst into blooms of pink
The man on the porch opens the door
To the yard and walks out into
The dark garden to hold his face among
Their blooms and smell their incense. . .

from "A Straight Line of Love

My father will not ascend into heaven.
He will drive there in his Packard.
And the drive will be north, through
Connecticut and New Hampshire, to Maine,
And beyond. One night my father will rise
From his bed and leave the little
Room with the chest of drawers and its wild
Garden of photographs. . .

Jay was a beautiful and unique voice in poetry. It is a shame he is no longer with us. It would be a greater shame if his poetry, which he loved as nothing else, were to be utterly unremembered.

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More Modern Christian Poets


More Modern Christian Poets

I've long wanted to blog some of the poetry of Luci Shaw. You can find one here. Search the index for this site to find other, she is often published in magazines such as First Things.

Sister Miriam Pollard O.C.S.O. is another fine poet. Here is a short excerpt from her poem "Elijah in December." Many of her poems follow this pattern of prosody. The book is available from Ignatius Press.

from "Elijah in December"
in Neither Be Afraid
Sr. Miriam Pollard OCSO

Nothing now sparkles and flashes,
Notheing here thunders or rings.
There's only the silvery rustle
Of something like wings.

Not in the sky's explosion,
Not where the mountains fall--
Stand and cover your face
Where a hush is all.

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The Poetry of Science


I was seeking to regale you with the delightsome poetry of Erasmus Darwin and I stumbled upon this wonderful site. It contains something close to 100 poems and I include a couple of highlights here.

from The Botanic Garden
Erasmus Darwin

She comes!--the Goddess!--through the whispering air,
Bright as the morn, descends her blushing car;
Each circling wheel a wreath of flowers intwines,
and gemd with flowers the silken harness shines;
The golden bits with flowery studs are deck'd,
And knots of flowers the crimson reisn connect.--
And now on earth the silver axle rings,
And the shell sinks upon its slender springs;
Light from airy feat the Goddess bounds,
And steps celestial press the pansied grounds.

In my years as geologist one of the great prizes in fossil collecting was a trilobite. I did much of my work in areas where these were not uncommon; however, you often found only bits and pieces. I found a single sclerite (body plate) of the Ohio State fossil--Isotelus gigas (for a photograph see this site)that was more than an inch across it's anterior-posterior dimension. Estimating the overall size, the trilobite would have been on the order of three and a half feet long. Hence this excerpt:

Lay of the Trilobite May Kendall

A mountain's giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.

So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him even with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!

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More Early American Poetry


More Early American Poetry

Here's another I stumbled upon in my reading which I find "rich and strange" by its juxtaposition of Christ and, or all possibilities, an apple tree.

Christ the Apple-Tree
Anonymous circa 1761

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compared with Christ the apple-tree.

His beauty doth all things excel;
By faith I know, but ne'er can tell,
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the apple-tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I miss'd of all; but now I see
'Tis found in Christ the apple-tree.

I'm weary'd with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest a while:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple-tree.

With great delight I'll make my stay,
There's non shall fright my soul away:
Among the sons of men I see
There's none like Christ the apple-tree.

I'll sit and eat this fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spirit'al wine;
And now this fruit is sweet to me
That grows on Christ the apple-tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my would in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple-tree.

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Shaker Songs and Poetry


I have a very soft spot in my heart for both Shakers and Quakers. Shakers particularly grab my imagination, as they were the closest thing the protestant faiths had to a monastic, contemplative society. Founded by Mother Ann Lee in England, quickly transported and rooted in American soil--Shakers have left a lasting mark on the landscape, furniture, faith, and music of America. Here's one of their hymns.

Walk Softly
Shaker Hymn

When we assemble here to worship God,
To sing his praises and to hear his word
We will walk softly.

With purity of heart; and with clean hands,
Our souls are free, we're free from Satan's bands
We will walk softly.

While we are passing thro' the sacred door,
Into the fold where Christ has gone before,
We will walk softly.

We'll worship and bow down we will rejoice
And when we hear the shepherd's gentle voice
We will walk softly.

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Melville's Poetry


Melville's Poetry
As a general thing, I'm not overly impressed with Melville either as a prose stylist or as a poet. However, all rules (except this) have their exceptions and I was reading through some Early American poetry and stumbled on this delightful ditty.

The Maldive Shark
Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghostly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and fiendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat--
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargie and dull,
Pale raverner of horrible meat.

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I started this as a response over on Dylan's blog, but realized it was too long-winded and too intricate for a mere comment box. So please bear with the thank you section (or skip it).

First to Dylan--thanks for introducing or reintroducing me to Countee Cullen. Not enough good can be said of what you have done for me in terms of poetic life. Before I get mawkish and embarrassing, let me leave it, but let me also say to everyone who blesses my blog with a visit--you would do yourself a great favor by visiting Error 503--La Vita Nuova every day to see what treats Dylan has very courteously prepared for you. I have noted that if you are very nice to him, he will even go to the extent of laying out special things on occasion. That said, on with the main thrust of this portion of the blog.

Of recent date, I've become a Cullen evangelist, wondering why he isn't in more of our text books. You've read some of his selections here and at Dylan's blog, and you can recognize fine poetry. Too often textbook publishers and anthologists in their desperation to represent diversity include some of the most incredibly awful second- or third- rate poetry by modern Hispanic and/or African American authors. Were one to judge from such texts, one might conclude that the tradition of African American poetry in this country began with Nikki Giovanni and culminated with the writings of Maya Angelou. And I am certain both of these fine writers would be among the first to try to disabuse you of the notion.

However, the name of Countee Cullen rarely, if ever shows up in the annals of poetry from this century taught at anything below the college level. I know that in eighth grade students are often reading, if not analyzing sonnets--why is his writing not included. Here is where I draw the line in the sand.

I am not a multiculturalist for the sake of representation. I find that kind of nonsense does a service to no one. However, true multiculturalism--people who with an eye to good writing return to the writers of the past who have been glossed over and neglected, for whatever reason--these people should be taken seriously and respected. African American writers have contributed extensively to the American Idiom and to the poetic venture. And yet we seem to neglect, with impunity, such fine writers as Countee Cullen and Phillis Wheatley.

People who have championed the multicultural cause have done us all both a great service and a grave disservice. Those who seek to rewrite history and literature to enhance the contributions of underrepresented writers simply damage the integrity of the cause. But those who have directed our attention to much neglected writers such as Countee Cullen (a deeply religious poet), Phillis Wheatley, and, on the African Continent, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tuoela, Chinua Achebe, and others, serve us all well. Great poetry, great writing, greatness of heart should not be judged by presence in the established pantheon nor by skin color or any other external attribute. I can think of a dozen frequently anthologized white and minority poets who I could easily dispense with for the sake of the real art embodied in some of these writers.

The purpose of multiculturalism--to bring to a struggling people examples from the past and present of persons to emulate, to show that our culture isn't composed solely of the writings and thoughts of white men of the past--are admirable. Where the goal goes astray--seeking to entirely eradicate the contributions of white males as representative merely of the oppression of past years, or overbalancing in favor of writers who have neither influenced nor contributed much, if anything, to the mainstream of American Writers--multiculturalist should be criticized. But when a person says to me, "Countee Cullen has not influenced poetry as much as he would have had he been given proper representation in materials presented to students," I find myself nodding in agreement.

People who truly love the arts serve us all well when they hold up examples of extraordinary work. Dylan does this consistently at his blog. I attempt to do it, but I admit to diluting the overall effect by including things that I may like regardless of their actual merit. (In case you couldn't tell I'm extremely fond of poets prior to 1770, or so. I like a lot after that as well, but it seems most people would probably be better acquainted with poets from those centuries. Moreover, it is perhaps better to stay with what you love because you can at least explain what it is about the poem that you find meaningful or important.) I am profound grateful for every blogger who takes time to post even a single poem or great piece of prose. Great writing is only one of the gifts God has showered upon us, but in such a medium it is certainly one that we can all share and enjoy.

Thank you all for your patience, and I would dearly love to continue the discussion of multiculturalism if anyone would like to take up the thread.

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I fear I may have been misinterpreted because my language was so lax. When I indicated that I would "not go there" with respect to Edwin Arlington Robinson, I meant merely that I would not defend the following two poems, which, while not in my top Ten, are very, very high indeed in my estimation. But I leave it at that. I can't "justify" my liking on literary merit or poetic merit (not because they lack it, but because I simply don't see them in those ways any more, they are too close.) So, without further ado--"Miniver Cheevy" (spelled it incorrectly in prior post) and "Richard Cory."

Edward Arlington Robinson Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Richard Cory
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Mr. Robinson endeared himself to me as a poet with his remarkable Arthurian Poetry. It may be finer than nearly everything (post Medieval/Renaissance). I would prize only Tennyson's remarkable "Lady of Shalott" above Arlington's quite remarkable "Merlin." If you can find it, highly recommended. (I like long narrative poetry A LOT--it is conceivable that I am the only living fan of Alexander Pope (love almost everything) and John Dryden (in part).)

[Note: correct Edward to Edwin above in response to Dylan's note. Thank you.

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The Great T'ang Poets


Fr. Jim at Dappled Things references a couple of epitaphs by Pound at the Widening Gyre. These epitaphs are for the great Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty Li Po and Tu Fu. (Yes, I use the Wade-Giles transliteration system rather than the abominable, unpronounceable, and often incomprehensible PinYin system, which, I swear, must have been developed with Irish orthography [explain to me sometime how Siobhan eventually becomes something vaguely like Jah-vahn]).

The post put me in mind of the fact that we have not much talked about the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese poets, and that is a shame. In future times I will post here not merely Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang-an Shih, Ou-yang Shih, Su-T'ung Po, but Saigyo, Basho, and others. The poetry (particularly of Li Po and Tu Fu) can be extraordinarily beautiful, but it is very strange to western ears and does take a certain amount of adjustment to read and appreciate. However, that said, even in translation, these poems can be quite lovely. And some of the Japanese Court poetry experiments lend themselves to a rather interesting possibility of internet collaborative poetry. One poet introduces a haiku (poem of 5/7/5 syllables or various other possibilities in English), the second "finishes" the Haiku into a Tanka by adding two seven syllable lines, and then adds an additional haiku that elaborates on the theme or diverts the theme into a new channel. I have done this numerous times and ended up with gigantic wandering poems, which, while not tremendous literature, were extraordinary fun to compose.

Anyway, more on oriental poets at a later date. Thanks Fr. Jim for the goad.

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Countee Cullen Revisited


Some days or weeks ago, Dylan included Mr. Cullen in a list of underrated poets. The name rang a bell although I don't know that I had read anything by him before that time. I recognized the name as one of the "Harlem Renaissance" school of poets (although labels tend to get in the way of the real power of any poet). I picked up a thick volume of his work and started to read--I was surprised by the power and the beauty of the poetry. A poem from Mr. Cullen is, perhaps, a good introduction to the thoughts on my mind for the day.

Any Human to Another
Countee Cullen

The ills I sorrow at
Not me alone
Like an arrow,
Pierce to the marrow,
Through the fat
And past the bone.

Your grief and mine
Must intertwine
Like sea and river,
Be fused and mingle,
Diverse yet single,
Forever and Forever.

Let no man be so proud
And confident,
To think he is allowed
A little tent
Pitched in a meadow
Of sun and shadow
All his little own.

Joy may be shy, unique,
Friendly to a few,
Sorrow never scorned to speak
To any who
Were false or true.
Your every grief
Like a blade
Shining and unsheathed
Must strike me down.
Of bitter aloes wreathed,
My sorrow must be laid
On your head like a crown.

There are two points I'd like to make about this wonderful little poem. First, the comparison with John Donne's remarkable "No man is an iland" meditation is immediate and interesting. The themes of both are the shared burden of each individual--what affects one affects all through our incorporation in the Body of Christ. These meditations are sisters.

But the Cullen piece adds a unique interpretive twist. Because there is no audience and the title "Any Human to Another" opens up the possibility that we have at points the poetic voice speaking to Christ, and Christ returning that speech. The final seven lines are indicative of the possible fruitful ambiguity of the poem. I could see the lines "Your every grief/ Like a blade/ Shining and unsheathed/ Must strike me down.", as spoken by Jesus, and I think particularly of the scene at Mary and Martha's before the tomb of Lazarus. Or for that matter, weeping for lost Jerusalem. Every grief weighs heavily of Christ's head. The last three lines, I speak to Him, "Of bitter aloes wreathed,/ My sorrow must be laid/ On your head like a crown." My sorrows, and particularly those sorrows and sicknesses of spirit that we call sins helped to form the crown of thorns (I imagine that this crown of aloes is little less painful) pressed down upon the sacred brow.

Now, I don't insist that this is what Countee Cullen was trying to do, nor is it an exposition of the fullness of the poem. But good poetry and good poetic language gives rise to "fruitful ambiguities" that allow a reader to , in Harold Bloom's famous phrase, "be read by the work of literature." I see in this poem, in part, what I bring to it. The poem acts as a partial mirror, as any great poem will. We can find within its structure things that may not have been intended by the poet, but which naturally arise because the poet is communicating with a vast audience all of whom have different backgrounds, and so different interpretive texts. In good poetry, all interpretive texts will find a key in the words. I believe this to be not merely a good poem, but truly a beautiful poem, and ultimately a truthful poem. Mr. Cullen has opened up a rich storehouse of meaning and possibility in a very simple, very streamlined poem. And he notes a truth--whatever happens to any one of us ripples out and touches all of us, directly or indirectly.

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The Amazing Margaret Cavendish


Now, here's a poet who would give the Sitwell Family a run for its money (although her poetry is, shall we say, not of the first water). Ms. Cavendish was not what we would call a happy person. She was one who felt the oppression of her sex more than many others. She wrote a great many poems, here's a couple of poems from a series called "The Atomic Poems."

from "The Atomic Poems"
Margaret Cavendish
What Atomes make Life.

ALL pointed Atomes to Life do tend
Whether pointed all or at one end.
Or whether Round, are set like to a Ring;
Or whether Long, are roul'd as on a String.
Those which are pointed, straight, quick Motion give;
But those that bowe and bend, more dull do live.
For Life lives dull, or merrilie,
According as Sharpe Atomes be.
The Cause why things do live and dye,
Is, as the mixed Atomes lye.

What Atomes make Death.

LIfe is a Fire, and burnes full hot,
But when Round watry Atomes power have got:
Then do they quench Lifes Atomes out,
Blunting their Points, and kill their courage stout.
Thus they sometimes do quite thrust out each other,
When equall mix'd, live quietly together.
The cause why things do live and dye,
Is as the mixed Atomes lye.

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Sara Teasdale


Sara Teasdale

Dylan has tried, and come close, but no cigar. Sara is still Sara, hard as she tries. She takes a subject like moonlight--one that is literally dipping with poetic cliche and ready to drool poetry all over some innocent bystander, and turns it into. . . well read the poem and decide for yourself. For Sara, I'd say it was magnificent, but, we are all given different talents and I fear Ms. Teasdale's were not among the first order.

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Still Searching


My search continued, and in so doing, I stumbled across the first chapter of a book on the Psalms by Rowland E. Protheroe. This passage spoke to me:

from The Psalms in Human Life, Chapter 1 Rowland E. Protheroe Above the couch of David, according to Rabbinical tradition, there hung a harp. The midnight breeze, as it rippled over the strings, made such music that the poet-king was constrained to rise from his bed, and, till the dawn flushed the eastern skies, he wedded words to the strains. The poetry of that tradition is condensed in the saying that the Book of Psalms contains the whole music of the heart of man, swept by the hand of his Maker. In it are gathered the lyrical burst of his tenderness, the moan of his penitence, the pathos of his sorrow, the triumph of his victory, the despair of his defeat, the firmness of his confidence, the rapture of his assured hope. In it is presented the anatomy of all parts of the human soul ; in it, as Heine says are collected `sunrise and sunset, birth and death promise and fulfilment-the whole drama of humanity'.
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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from September 2002.

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