Once, when I was young and true,
Someone left me sad-
Broke my brittle heart in two;
And that is very bad.
Love is for unlucky folk,
Love is but a curse.
Once there was a heart I broke;
And that, I think, is worse.
Sonnet On An Alpine Night
by Dorothy Parker
My hand, a little raised, might press a star-
Where I may look, the frosted peaks are spun,
So shaped before Olympus was begun,
Spanned each to each, now, by a silver bar.
Thus to face Beauty have I traveled far,
But now, as if around my heart were run
Hard, lacing fingers, so I stand undone.
Of all my tears, the bitterest these are.
Who humbly followed Beauty all her ways,
Begging the brambles that her robe had passed,
Crying her name in corridors of stone,
That day shall know his weariedest of days –
When Beauty, still and suppliant at last,
Does not suffice him, once they are alone.
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
Sonnet For The End Of A Sequence
by Dorothy Parker
So take my vows and scatter them to sea;
Who swears the sweetest is no more than human.
And say no kinder words than these of me:
“Ever she longed for peace, but was a woman!
And thus they are, whose silly female dust
Needs little enough to clutter it and bind it,
Who meet a slanted gaze, and ever must
Go build themselves a soul to dwell behind it.”
For now I am my own again, my friend!
This scar but points the whiteness of my breast;
This frenzy, like its betters, spins an end,
And now I am my own. And that is best.
Therefore, I am immeasurably grateful
To you, for proving shallow, false, and hateful.
When it comes to suitors and publishers…”Although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Love Is Not All
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
Few poets have seen their fame shine so brightly, only to rapidly fade, and then hang on in the periphery than Edna St. Vincent Millay. If ever there was a rock star female poet, her shooting star success allowing a lifestyle of sex and drugs, it was Millay. Millay was an unabashed drug addict, love addict and alcoholic who died as recklessly as she lived, by falling down a flight of stairs and breaking her neck at the age of 58.
I adore Millay for her excesses. It is in her frank reality that Millay’s writing survives as relevant. Millay wrote about love and passion with unapologetic honesty. Millay refused to live by the rules of her time, never settling down, never having children. She was an elfin siren-diva of perfect proportions, standing a mere 5 foot 1 inch, weighing only 100 pounds, with all the female physical attributes that men find attractive, not the least of which was a willingness to live with abandon with no apologies for the consequences.
Few writers have used the sonnet form to more skillfully narrate their inner life when it comes to love and sex than Millay. She could be spectacularly heartless and in doing so, the reader finds a satisfactory glimpse of their own complex psyche when it comes to their own crimes of passion.
Millay’s life and writing does not lend itself to a short narrative. Her biographer, Nancy Milford failed miserably at the task, taking over 30 years to deliver an overly long, overly academic brick. Milford then repeated her offense by publishing an incomplete collection of Millay’s poems that leaves out whole sections of some of Millay’s finer sonnets written late in her life. The problem with biographers is it’s hard for them to leave out salacious details and still capture the essence of something they may know nothing about. I propose that a poet’s biography should only be written by another poet of similar complex character and disposition and in the case of a sonneteer like Millay, be limited to 14 lines. I think George Meredith may have been up to the task, but their lives did not intersect chronologically. George understood modern love, his 50 sonnet sequence of 16 line sonnets by the same title, explores many of the same themes that Millay would explore in her writing throughout her career. Maybe this sonnet of Meredith’s would suffice for both their biographies….
Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.
The Last Cigarette
by Billy Collins
There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.
The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.
How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.
Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,—I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,—with moonlight so.
Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink—and live—what has destroyed some men.
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.
It was my birthday this week, I turned a speed limit. A most excellent age to be I have decided! Gone are the pretensions that I’ll get in better shape and run a marathon again. Instead, I’ve settled comfortably into a modest layer of middle age fat and come to grips that better only implies getting more comfortable with my infirmities and eccentricities. The good thing is mostly everything still works as a factory original. There are only a few age spots on the chassis and though it’s in need of an oil change, that can be arranged.
A birthday tradition going back a number of years is for me to see Greg Brown at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. The Cedar is a miserable, uncomfortable, stifling hot theater whose air conditioning never works because it’s a non-profit. It is located in the arm pit of the West Bank of the University of Minnesota. Neither he, nor the venue, nor the aging hippies attending, have changed much, the smell of pot overwhelming on the patio during intermission.
Why do I put up with going to the Cedar when there are umpteen better venues to see live music in the Twin Cities? It’s because it’s where I have to go to see Greg. I like to remember when sitting on folding chairs in a shit hole made me feel right at home. It grounds me that I haven’t gotten too big for my breeches. I can sweat right alongside the white-collar ex-hippies who all wish he would give up on this place and go play the Turf Club where the toilets don’t have a line half way around the lobby and the whole place doesn’t stink of urine from the homeless pissing on the concrete outside The Weinery next door. (Wish I was making this up, but even fiction can’t get that creative).
Brown plays the Cedar every year around my birthday. He has the current distinction of being the musician I have seen play live, more than any other, only because I have been going to see him since 1979 on the West Bank. Back then at the long since defunct Coffee House Extempore, the venue that the musicians headlining on Prairie Home Companion would often play for tip money the night before going on air with Garrison Keillor.
I have aged with Greg. I remember him as a lean, leather clad long-haired hipster, then as a rotund, overweight middle-aged hick in overalls, to now a slimmed down old man in a felt hat and faded sport coat. I remarked last night when he walked on stage, “damn he’s lost some weight” and the three overweight men all around me, looked at me wishing they had too.
Greg is not a great singer. He’s an average guitar player. What he is, first and foremost is an outstanding story-teller. His songs get under my skin. His music is the music of the midwest, the music of my landscape, the music of my experience. It is music that has marked time in my life and will continue to do so. Greg is the father of Pieta Brown, also one of my favorite musicians. Great songsmanhip runs in their blood.
Greg talked about his love of poetry and specifically William Carlos Williams last night. He admitted he lifted the title for his song Spring and All from WCW before he played it. I think WCW would be honored. Although Brown’s lyrics are not in any way related to the poem, they have one thing in common; each is the genuine voice of the artist that created them.
Spring And All
by William Carlos Williams
the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —
Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf
One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge is one of Wordsworth most popular sonnets. What makes it remarkable is that it is an important shift in poetic ideals where the cityscape has replaced the pastoral countryside or nature as the inspiration for beauty. Wordsworth captures the warmth and pride he has in the city of London and the kinship he feels with his countryman in the poem.
Eighty years later T. S. Elliot makes an unnamed city (probably London where he was living at the time) a central character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This time it is not a place of beauty, it is a place of grit and grime, possibly only existing in the poet’s imagination, a tawdry place that men of certain ages like to slouch about in.
My attempt at connecting purpose with place in my sonnet In The Hand of Heaven deals with the idea that we are shaped by the places we live, the place we call home. The idea that both the city and its inhabitants have an obligation to look after each other, an investment in each other, a responsibility to take care of where we live and who we live with.
No poet has taken that metaphor further than William Carlos Williams in his surreal and unfinished poem Paterson. Paterson is one of my least favorite things that Williams wrote. It reads to me like an inner dialogue, prose not meant for outside interpretation. It is rambling, disjointed, sometimes illogical, in ways much like our own inner dialogue often is and in that way creates a bit of a voyeuristic fascination. He allegedly wrote it as his kryptonite to T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, to counter what was popular and build upon his voice that I find much more eloquent in his book Cora in Hell. But I like his premise, that a man (or woman) is a city and a city is a man. It brings humanity back into the equation of the concrete, bricks, buildings, parks, roads and bridges that we live amongst in our daily lives. William Carlos Williams loved his city, Paterson, N. J. and its inhabitants. His poem Paterson is in my mind his love song to the place he called home. He describes a Paterson that is imperfect, complicated, incomplete, but human, just like the men and women who inhabit it.
Here’s a couple of brief snippets from Paterson….
Excerpts from Paterson
by William Carlos Williams
Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in
himself is a city, beginning, seeking v achieving and con-
cluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a
city may embody— if imaginatively conceived — any city,
all the details of which may be made to voice his most
intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental
character of the place. The Second Part comprises the
modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them
vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be remi-
niscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in
“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty
when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”
To make a start,
put of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means —
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? And to do?
The .rest-have run out —
after the rabbits.
Only the lame stands— on
three legs. Scratch front and back.
Deceive and eat. Dig
a musty bone
For the beginning is assuredly
the end — since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.
Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months’ wonder, the city
the man, an identity — it can’t be
otherwise — an
interpenetration, both ways. Rolling
Sunday in the Park
there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
— a world
(to me) at rest,
which I approach
The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city
— upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
— late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!
— and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
himself among the others,
— treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!
laughing, calling to each other-
Wait for me!
You ought to see this place.
There was a hellicopter (?) flying all over the river today
looking for the body of a suicide, some student, some girl
about my age (she says . a Hindu Princess). It was in the
papers this morning but I didn’t take notice. You ought to
have seen the way those gulls were winging it around* They
went crazy .
You must have lots of boy friends, Phyllis
Only one I’m interested in
What is he like?
Oh him. He’s married. I
haven’t got a chance with him
You hussy! And what do you do together?
Phyllis <£f Paterson
Are you happy?
Happy IVe come?
Happy? No, I’m not happy
• • . « * •
Oh Paterson! Oh married man!
He is the city of cheap hotels and private
entrances , of taxis at the door, the car
standing in the rain hour after hour by
the roadhouse entrance
Good-bye, dear, I had a wonderful time.
Wait! there’s something . but I’ve forgotten
what it was . something I wanted
to tell you. Completely gone! Completely,
from Paterson. I do have a whitmanic mania & nostalgia for cities
and detail & panorama and isolation in jungle and pole, like the
images you pick up. When I’ve seen enough I’ll be back to splash in
the Passaic again only with a body so naked and happy City Hall
will have to call out the Riot Squad. When I come back 1*11 make
big political speeches in the mayoralty campaigns like I did when
I was 1 6 only this time I’ll have W. C. Fields on my left and
Jehovah on my right. Why not? Paterson is only a big sad poppa
who needs compassion. • In any case Beauty is where I hang
my hat. And reality. And America.
There is no struggle to speak to the city, out of the stones etc.
Truth is not hard to find . . . I’m not being clear, so Til
shut up . . I mean to say Paterson is not a task like
Milton going down to hell, it’s a flower to the mind too etc etc.
“Whose virtue has renounc’d thy Father’s Crimes, Seest thou, how just the Hand of Heav’n has been? Let us that thro’ our Innocence survive, Still in the Paths of Honour persevere, And not from past or present Ills Despair: For Blessings ever wait on vertuous Deeds; And tho’ a late, a sure Reward succeeds.”
The idea of a muse is very real to me. I often have had the sensation in the act of writing that feels like an out of body experience, like I am an observer watching letters and words unfold on my computer screen, as if they are being typed by fingers controlled by something or someone else. It is at those times when words flow or entire poems appear nearly fully formed in an initial draft, having been worked out in my subconscious unknowingly and it is just waiting patiently for stillness for them to come tumbling out that I am most conscious of my muse, to the point that it can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, almost as if someone is watching me from behind.
The sonnet In The Hand of Heaven was not such a poem. It is an example of good old fashioned hard work, with several failed attempts at starting and stopping. It was an idea that came from multiple sources of inspiration and took a long time to write. The first source of inspiration was a gift from a friend, a translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the second The Mourning Bride by William Congreve. The first is an easy read, short, intriguing, wise and I found shockingly aligned with my own values. The second is a slog, the old English grammar and sentence construction both familiar and unfamiliar to the ear, it was not something that I found instantly compelling, but there are short sections that are hauntingly beautiful and pure poetry. Each of these swirled together and after many revisions, the sonnet worked itself out.
I have not written many things where I have taken a quote from someone else and incorporated it into my writing, transforming it into something new and original. It is an interesting paradox, because it feels a bit like it makes your own writing derivative, but at the same time it gives your writing a deeper context from which the reader can free associate to make their own connections or discoveries.
One of the long term projects that has sustained my writing is attempts to capture the equivalent of short prayers as sonnets, in essence, write my own meditations. Simple Praise is one of the sonnets that falls in that category, (shared in an earlier blog post) and so is In The Hand of Heaven. I often return to reread these poems when in need of contemplation, (i.e. forgiveness), and to be mindful that kindness is at the center of what it is to love and be loved.
In The Hand of Heaven
By T. A. Fry
“No longer talk about the kind of man a good man ought to be, but be such.”* Who through innocence perseveres to touch The confluence of my imperfect clan. To walk their chosen pace, with no less than The grace of kindness. To thrive without much. For no better hour will I find, to clutch The bone and rattle of my neighbor’s hand.
If in the hand of Heaven I have a choice? I’ll proclaim Love’s name with unclouded voice. Send care to conquer as Calvary. Give self to self – free from self pity. Take salary and stock in earned goodwill, Until, I’m square with my begotten city.
*The first two lines come from the George Long translation Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Peter Pauper Press 1957..
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
Then can I drown an eye unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.
Loss is the unflinching gift and mantle of time, unforgiving, unstoppable and inevitable. I have been surrounded by loss the past few weeks. It can feel overwhelming and strangely rejuvenating at the same time.
Loess soils are some of the most productive soils in North America. Loess soils are found in the corn belt from Nebraska to Ohio and Missouri to Minnesota. These soils were formed over millions of years by deposition of small particles from the wind. These particles originated from erosion caused by wind, rain, freeze/thaw, glaciers, the grinding and wearing down that our environment imposes on even the stoutest of mountains. Loess is a sedimentary deposit of mineral particles which are finer than sand but coarser than dust or clay, it slowly accumulates to as much as 6 feet of depth and loess is formed. Loess often develops into extremely fertile agricultural soil. It is full of minerals, has good internal structure and drains water well, all the things plants require to prosper.
Loss and Loess are phonetically identical. Do you find it interesting that soil scientists have categorized the soils of the most productive farmland in the world as the accumlation of the unpredictable and random deposition of the debris of the surrounding environment? Is there a metaphor there for the human condition? Is our loss less the wearing down of our beings, but rather the creation of fertile soil from which we will sprout new life…
A Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning
By Algernon Charles Swinburne
What secret thing of splendour or of shade
Surmised in all those wandering ways wherein
Man, led of love and life and death and sin,
Strays, climbs, or cowers, allured, absorbed, afraid,
Might not the strong and sunlike sense invade
Of that full soul that had for aim to win
Light, silent over time’s dark toil and din,
Life, at whose touch death fades as dead things fade?
O spirit of man, what mystery moves in thee
That he might know not of in spirit, and see
The heart within the heart that seems to strive,
The life within the life that seems to be,
And hear, through all thy storms that whirl and drive,
The living sound of all men’s souls alive?