To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer-jaws of heaven.
by Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)
You will not always be far away and pure
As a word conceived in a poet’s silver womb
You will not always be a metaphysical signature
To all the poems I write. In my bleak room
This very year by gods will you may be
A woman innocent in her first sin
Having cast off immortality.
Of the never to be born. The violin
Is not more real than the music played upon it.
They told me this – the priests – but I am tired
Of loving through the medium of a sonnet
I want by Man, not God, to be inspired
This year O creature of the dream-vague face
You’ll come and be a thing in time and space.
by Patrick Kavanagh
And sometimes I am sorry when the grass
Is growing over the stones in quiet hollows
And the cocksfoot leans across the rutted cart-pass
That I am not the voice of country fellows
Who now are standing by some headland talking
Of turnips and potatoes or young corn
Of turf banks stripped for victory.
Here Peace is still hawking
His coloured combs and scarves and beads of horn.
Upon a headland by a whinny hedge
A hare sits looking down a leaf-lapped furrow
There’s an old plough upside-down on a weedy ridge
And someone is shouldering home a saddle-harrow.
Out of that childhood country what fools climb
To fight with tyrants Love and Life and Time?
Suppose you screeve? or go cheap-jack?
Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot;
You can not bank a single stag;
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Suppose you try a different tack,
And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
Or with the mummers mug and gag?
For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag!
At any graft, no matter what,
Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
It’s up the spout and Charley Wag
With wipes and tickers and what not.
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Ricky Jay Potash died several days ago. Known as Ricky Jay, he was one of the greatest sleight of hand magicians and card performers over the past 50 years. His talents a combination of incredible skill, brilliant memory and showmanship. The video below is an hour-long stage act produced by the famed director David Mamet which showcases Jay’s prowess with a deck of cards. In it he recites at about the 5:30 mark Henley’s translation of Villon’s masterful poem about the life of pick pockets, con men, thieves and swindlers. Henley uses the idiom’s of 19th century London street slang in place of Villon’s 15th century French Paris. As poems go, it is as fun to read aloud as Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Both are great examples that sometimes poetry doesn’t have to make sense, it simply has to be fun to read.
Francois Villon’s real life reads a bit like Miguel Cervantes’ fiction. Villon was a scoundrel, brawler, purported murderer and thief, whose quick wits and propensity for humorous and finely rhymed poetry gained him enough recognition during his lifetime to obtain several pardons, including once by King Louis XI himself who allegedly said “I cannot afford to hang François Villon. There are a hundred thousand rogues in France as great as he, but not such another poet.”
Villon was born poor and orphaned early, but his keen intelligence attracted a priest as benefactor, and he eventually won scholarship at the University of Paris, earning both a Baclaurate and Master’s degree in the Arts. Though his poetry gained him little income in his lifetime, his humor and candor about both his life as a scoundrel, and his depiction of the common poor and the rich in verse usally reserved for courtly elite, made him popular in France. Villon’s unique approach to lyric poetry influenced and inspired many of the innovative French poets of the 19th century including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarme.
Villon was largely unknown outside of France as a poet until a few English poets began translating some of his work in the 19th century. It is a testament to Villon’s talent that brilliant minds like William Earnest Henley, Charles Algernon Swinburne, Galway Kinnell and Dante Gabriel Rossetti tackled translations faithful to his originals in both intent and playfulness. Today Villon is likely the most well known French poet of the middle ages, his poetry translated into more than 25 languages.
So why are men like Henley, Rossetti, Baudelaire and Jay attracted to Villion’s verse? I think its because they recognize in his poetry a kindred soul, a fellow poet and thief. All poet’s are thieves. They steal their best lines by listening for the poetry that is all around them and then pawn it off as original. I think they applaud his originality, his avante garde style for his day. And who doesn’t admire a man whose poetry kept him more than once from the gallows as a metaphor for what every poet aspires.
Skip an hour of Netflix tonight and check out the video below. Jay’s card tricks and sleight of hand are incredible.
Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis
by François Villon
Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “Ballad of the Dead Ladies”
Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where’s Hipparchia,and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?.
Where is Echo,beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,
She whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yester-year?.
Where’s Héloise, the learned nun,.
For whose sake Abeillard, ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?.
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen.
Who willed that Buridan should steer.
Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine?
But where are the snows of yester-year?
White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,.
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,
And that good Joan whom Englishmen.
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,
Mother of God, where are they then?
But where are the snows of yester-year?
Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,
But where are the snows of yester-year?
“Be like the cat, so alive after the mouse, never wondering or questioning why,
when there is really only God, only God…
Rumi – The Purity of Desire, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Those Who Surrender
Translated by Coleman Barks
I have been tricked by flying too close
to what I thought I loved.
Now the candle flame is out, the wine spilled,
and the lovers have withdrawn
somewhere beyond my squinting.
The amount I thought I won, I’ve lost.
My prayers become bitter and all about blindness.
How wonderful it was to be for a while
with those who surrender.
Others only turn their faces one way,
then another, like pigeons in flight.
I have known pigeons who fly in a nowhere,
and birds that eat grainlessness,
and tailors who sew beautiful clothes
by tearing them to pieces.
It’s incredible how the smell of a cat’s stomach fur while lying together in a sunshine patch on the carpet in the living room, can transport me back to my childhood completely. Maybe that’s the secret elixir of eternal youth? Ponce de Leon didn’t have to risk life and limb traipsing about the New World searching for the fountain of youth. He failed to recognize it was waiting for him, curled up purring, in his living room.
I adopted Rumi on Wednesday from the local Humane society. Rumi seems a fitting name for a love cat and he’s my roommate. My house finally smells like home, a faint odor of cat food musking the kitchen with eau de Purina.
As for Rumi the poet, there are almost not enough words for the wonder that his poetry conveys. His friendship with Sham and his joy are something we can all aspire to find one tenth of what he savored in his life. I found a reference on the internet that Rumi is the most read poet in English today. If that’s true, I wonder what Rumi would think about that fact? Creating multiple international, timeless best sellers I doubt was on Rumi’s list of things to do as he sat down each night to write another poem. Or maybe he would be ecstatic that his messages of love, transcendence, spiritual unity with the universe are being embraced around the world eight centuries after his death.
Picking out only two Rumi poems is like trying to eat only 2 slices of pie at Thanksgiving when there are four to choose from. Inevitably you are going to come back for seconds or thirds to nibble on the ones you passed by the first time. There are too many good Rumi poems to pick from that I dared not even try to share my absolute favorite(s). It would be like violating the secrets Rumi whispers in my ear every time I read them.
I do love the lines in the poem below: “There is a secret medicine given to those who hurt so hard they can’t hope. The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.” If you’re a hoper you’ve already been given the medicine. If you are hurting so hard you can’t hope, take some Rumi daily, you’ll feel better.
Do you have a memorable Rumi poem or quote? Please share it in the comments section, just don’t share your favorite, that would be violating a thing that’s sacred between you and Rumi.
My Worst Habit
Translated by Coleman Barks – The Essential Rumi
My worst habit is I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I am with.
If you’re not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity. My words
tangle up and knot.
How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.
When water gets caught in the habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.
Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter if that friend is moving away from you
or coming back towards you.
It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows
Of Nature have their image in the mind,
As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close,
Only the empty nests are left behind,
And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.
Vinegar may preserve pickles, but it isn’t effective in extending longevity in humans. A common mindset among the aged is gratitude. A sense that life is special and they are grateful for what it has brought them, both good and bad experiences. People who are sour-pusses spoil in their own juices.
A year ago I shared on Fourteenlines on Thanksgiving my favorite poem of gratitude, aptly titled Gratefulness by George Herbert. I shared a shortened version of the poem that I have used for many years as a prayer of gratitude at Thanksgiving. I like it because it is divinity neutral. Regardless of what you believe, everyone should have someone or something for which you are grateful. “Thou that has given so much to me….” is a wonderful way to bring into focus in our minds who we want to thank and give blessings of gratitude to this day.
What is interesting, is last year’s Thanksgiving day blog was read by only a few people on Thanksgiving day. But it has been one of the most read of all my blog entries ever since. The terms grateful, gratitude and gratefulness are consistently some of the most searched terms on search engines that brings people to Fourteenlines. I think that illustrates one of the things I most appreciate about sharing this blog, it reinforces everything good about my fellow travelers and humanity. It is reassuring to know that people from countries all over the world are looking for ways to express gratitude in their lives and looking to poetry to express it elegantly.
This year’s Thanksgiving poems are a little outdated in their language but the words have such a beautiful flow and they are marvelous poems. I have a feeling that many readers of Wordsworth’s poem may not have ever seen a sheave and might not even know what one is. Prior to the invention of diesel-powered combines, grain was swathed and sheaved by hand prior to the grain being threshed or winnowed. It was an enormous amount of work, and one would have been certainly grateful when it was done for the year.
Today I will be gathering with family and friends around a bountiful table. My family and I are truly blessed in all we have, the place that we live, the opportunities we enjoy, the health and well being of those present and those in our thoughts. I will offer the first and last stanzas of the Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s fine poem Thanksgiving as this year’s prayer of gratitude. If you have a favorite prayer or poem of thanksgiving please share it. And if you are in need of one feel free to follow my lead.
By Ella Wheeler Wilcox
We walk on starry fields of white
And do not see the daisies;
For blessings common in our sight
We rarely offer praises.
We sigh for some supreme delight
To crown our lives with splendor,
And quite ignore our daily store
Of pleasures sweet and tender.
Our cares are bold and push their way
Upon our thought and feeling.
They hand about us all the day,
Our time from pleasure stealing.
So unobtrusive many a joy
We pass by and forget it,
But worry strives to own our lives,
And conquers if we let it.
There’s not a day in all the year
But holds some hidden pleasure,
And looking back, joys oft appear
To brim the past’s wide measure.
But blessings are like friends, I hold,
Who love and labor near us.
We ought to raise our notes of praise
While living hearts can hear us.
Full many a blessing wears the guise
Of worry or of trouble;
Far-seeing is the soul, and wise,
Who knows the mask is double.
But he who has the faith and strength
To thank his God for sorrow
Has found a joy without alloy
To gladden every morrow.
We ought to make the moments notes
Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
A grand Thanksgiving chorus.
I’m sitting in the air, where there once was
nothing; now I’m looking down on people
walking on a plaza which was never
there. I could be sitting on a steeple
(just as likely) but I’m not; I’m walking
through the wind—where it goes, I do not know.
Once I saw clear through these walls; shocking
now to think of it, how the world is so
capricious that it changes air to brick
and cloud to window sill. Everything
gives way to progress—such a rhetoric
of loss, such a way to stop us singing.
If they build it, we will climb into the air
and forget that blue was everywhere.
Maybe I like Joyce Sutphen’s poetry so much, because we have so much in common. Sutphen is Minnesota’s second Poet Laureate, having been appointed by outgoing Governor Mark Dayton in 2011. She is a long time resident of St. Peter, just upstream and down the road a little in the Minnesota River valley from Mankato, where I lived for 13 years.
Sutphen’s work expresses a voice I recognize, a Midwestern, Minnesotan love of place, love of people, love of life. It is a less harried voice and maybe a slightly softer voice, than poets that come from harsher places and crueller times. Sutphen writes in many styles and sonnets make up only a small portion of her work. I enjoy that she uses the structure of sonnets as part of her love affair with life, but truth be told, I have a short attention span for long poems. I like a poet that can get something conveyed in twenty lines or less, and even better if its fourteen.
I particularly relate to her poem At The Moment. At the moment I have stopped thinking about love as well, stopped considering that love is realistic or even possible. New relationships get terribly complicated in your late 50’s and my circumstances make it even more so.
I am contemplating getting a cat. It is about as much intimacy as I am capable at the moment in my one bedroom condo of a life. A cat wise enough to stand gaurd over me and interview any future prospective entanglements. By getting a cat, I’m sending a declaration to any possible future lover; love my dependent, if you’re going to love me. And if you don’t like cats or are allegeric to cats, we aren’t going to get along, so please move along, before one of us starts growling or howling. However, a cat would have warded off all the love I received in the past four years. It’s absence was just what I needed then, and its presence is just what I need now.
At The Moment
by Joyce Sutphen
Suddenly, I stopped thinking about Love,
after so many years of only that,
after thinking that nothing else mattered.
And what was I thinking of when I stopped
thinking about Love? Death, of course—what else
could take Love’s place? What else could hold such force?
I thought about how far away Death once
had seemed, how unexpected that it could
happen to someone I knew quite well,
how impossible that this should be the
normal thing, as natural as frost and
winter. I thought about the way we’d aged,
how skin fell into wrinkles, how eyes grew
dim; then (of course) my love, I thought of you.
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
by Chana Bloch
A man after sex
has that squishy thing in the nest of his lap.
A bashful appendage
like a Claes Oldenburg vinyl drainpipe,
a soft saxophone that won’t toot a note.
A man’s got to wear his susceptibility
out in plain sight.
No wonder he’s keeping his soul
A woman’s got that rock of a belly,
that baby cave,
breasts swaggering erect
when they swell with milk.
Oh she knows what it’s like to sing
the stand-up song of a man.
Now you and I soften in the wash,
the body-elastic goes slack.
We see ourselves in each other,
we grow alike.
We want to curl up in a sunny corner
and doze like the cat.
Come, flick a whisker,
make me remember.
It’s nearly Thanksgiving here in the United States, time for some serious training to help us through a day of feasting. Fourteenlines has been doing its part in helping you prepare, with poems about eating. First we had Eating Poetry by Mary Strand and now Eating Babies by Chana Bloch.
Every once in a while as I prepare a blog entry my searching around on the web results in me stumbling across a poet I have never heard of before and that poet proceeds to completely blow me away. Chana Bloch is one such poet. I need to order on Alibris several of her books, including her translation of The Song of Songs.
I had a hard time picking out which two poems to share of hers, there are so many good ones. Eating Babies brilliance floated it to the top. This poem brought back such wonderful memories and even smells of my children as babies from long ago. So eat up, give yourself a second helping of poetry and take home some leftovers. I promise it will be most satisfying and low calorie at the same time.
Click on the link below to hear Chana Bloch read her poem Eating Babies:
by Chana Bloch
is the soul of this flesh.
Eat with your hands, slow, you will understand
breasts, why everyone
adores them—Rubens’ great custard nudes—why
we can’t help sleeping with
The old woman in the park pointed,
Is it yours?
Her gold eye-teeth gleamed.
I bend down, taste the fluted
nipples, the elbows, the pads
of the feet. Nibble earlobes, dip
my tongue in the salt fold
of shoulder and throat.
Even now he is changing,
as if I were
licking him thin.
HE SQUEEZES his eyes tight
and blink! he’s still here.
It’s always a surprise.
steal it in mouthfuls,
store it away
where you save
the face that you touched
for the last time
over and over,
your eyes closed
so it wouldn’t go away.
WATCH HIM sleeping. Touch
the pulse where
the bones haven’t locked
in his damp hair:
the navel of dreams.
His eyes open for a moment, underwater.
His arms drift in the dark
as your breath
washes over him.
Bite one cheek. Again.
It’s your own
life you lean over, greedy,
going back for more.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
William Shakespeare – Prospero’s Epilogue in The Tempest
by Louise Wareham Leonard
You’re looking for the one hard core,
the knot that must be; your own
unmistakable will, centered in you as the
heart was, but not so complacent
something must give it rise, must
waken it, some word or wrong, some
misplaced hand or affection, so your will
can come blazing through; your savior,
full of certainty. Instead there is only
the dull ache, a settling as you move further
and deeper into a life, that arranges itself
that arranges you in itself. Loss or hope
you can’t distinguish. It’s like dust:
how it color’s sunsets, shapes rain, buries cities.
I don’t have to count anymore, to see that a poem has fourteen lines. I still do sometimes, out of habit, but I can look at it on the page and know it’s fourteen. You could argue that neither of these incredible poems are sonnets. You would be both right and wrong. I have become a huge fan of the un-rhymed sonnet; more prevalent than you might think, lurking about in literature like a black cat, getting ready to pounce on your soul.
I often wonder did the writer consciously or unconsciously structure the poem within the sonnet form? Take these two poems as examples. There is not a strict adherence to 10 syllables per line, but most of the definitive lines are 10 syllables. Some are shorter, but if a line is longer than 10 syllables the preceding is shorter by that amount such that it works out to be 20 within two lines. Look at the last two lines of Some Wrong. It flows to the conclusion of a sonnet. Look at the 9th line. There’s the volta waiting, to take a swipe and with one claw, turn your mind to where the poem is unsuspectingly taking you.
It could be that its only coincidence that each of these poems have precisely fourteen lines. It could be just a coincidence that they are about love, love gone wrong, or as right as it could, but still about love. It could be another coincidence that most of the literature that Louise Wareham Leonard has written has been about sexuality, both healthy and unhealthy, as a form of violence. But then again, the sonnet is so woven into the fabric of western literature, and western writers that whether we recognize these poems as sonnets or not, they sit within that framework. The poet wrote the words, broke the lines and ended the poem in such a way, that it just worked out to be fourteen; because the glove that fit the hand with the pen, knew when it was time to end.
by Louise Wareham Leonard
You’ve done it again, for the eighteenth time.
and so many more that you’ve lost count but not
obviously hope, forcing love
from those that have none, but touch you anyway,
open you anyway, like the first one,
who knew he shouldn’t,
so it made him wild with shame, and hateful,
sickened by the sight of you,
as you were, but still craving you,
as you crave those now who could make it right,
who come so close, so dizzyingly close sometimes,
gripping your hand like they have been there too,
and they probably have – that’s why
you chose them – to fail you.
Some Wrong and Compulsion were both published in the February 1995 issue of Poetry Magazine.