Hope Beyond The Shadow of a Dream

shrike
The Shrike from Dan Simmons brilliant imagination in Hyperion

“To be a poet, I realized, a true poet, was to become the Avatar of humanity incarnate; to accept the mantle of poet is to carry the cross of the Son of Man, to suffer the birth pangs of the Soul-Mother of Humanity.”

Dan Simmons

Carrion Comfort

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

A pandemic by its definition is something novel, something new, for which there is no resistance or immunity.  For all of history, disease was simply endemic, the novelty wears off fast.  Keats labored under ill health from tuberculosis.  Countless other poets, writers, musicians and composers died prematurely from the same.  The thing that proved most useful in reducing the impact of TB was a concept called public health.  The idea that what was best for an individual was what was best for society.  The idea that if we improved the quality of the public works in sanitation, sewage, better housing and clean drinking water for all we could stop or at least reduce the impact of cholera and TB.

There are other pandemics that happen that are more  metaphorical in their influence, but just as powerful in impacting human lives.  Truly novel new ideas in technology, art, literature, governance, religion, that travel like a virus, carried from one human to the next, until those ideas become ingrained as part of our culture.

Dan Simmons is one of those big intellects, whose writing stretches me, so nuanced are the things that capture his imagination.  Simmons has that rare talent who can write a good yarn, filled with complex ideas and not feel the need to hit you over the head, but let you find from it what you will. I have read and reread more than one of Simmons novels. The first time reading it for the excitement of the plot and then a careful rereading to try and understand the more complex connections. I have shared two poems that Simmons used as titles for novels, two of my favorites novels that he has written.

Simmons has written science fiction, horror, detective novels, historical fiction and there is only one thing that connects all of his writing in my perspective – the ability to expand his curiosity around a central idea rooted in literature and then let his creativity take it someplace new.  It is not without great thought that the titles and characters of many of his novels come directly from some of the greatest poets and writers of all time.  Tacit in his books is an understanding that ideas and literature have a power unto themselves that can move like energy across time and materialize action as real as any imaginary time machine.  Literature can bring to life a new reality in our minds.

There is not a cure for COVID-19 to be found in reading Keats or Hopkins or Donne or Shakespeare or Wordsworth.  But there is hope to be found in reading the classics, inspiration lays in wait. And in the end, hope is what’s needed during times like this.


Endymion
(Excerpt from Book 1)

By John Keats
     “Now, if this earthly love has power to make
Men’s being mortal, immortal; to shake
Ambition from their memories, and brim
Their measure of content; what merest whim,
Seems all this poor endeavour after fame,
To one, who keeps within his stedfast aim
A love immortal, an immortal too.
Look not so wilder’d; for these things are true,
And never can be born of atomies
That buzz about our slumbers, like brain-flies,
Leaving us fancy-sick. No, no, I’m sure,
My restless spirit never could endure
To brood so long upon one luxury,
Unless it did, though fearfully, espy
A hope beyond the shadow of a dream.

Come Away With Me

cst 40193 Lake Calhoun Bde Maka Ska

April

by William Carlos Williams

If you had come away with me
into another state
we had been quiet together.
But there the sun coming up
out of the nothing beyond the lake was
too low in the sky,
there was too great a pushing
against him,
too much of sumac buds, pink
in the head
with the clear gum upon them,
too many opening hearts of lilac leaves,
too many, too many swollen
limp poplar tassels on the
bare branches!
It was too strong in the air.
I had no rest against that
springtime!
The pounding of the hoofs on the
raw sods
stayed with me half through the night.
I awoke smiling but tired.


One of the true blessings of where I live are all the lakes and parkways near by with walking and biking trails.  It’s a pleasure to be out and moving during these strange days. We have had our first real taste of spring weather, early bulbs and perennials poking through and trees beginning to leaf out.   Grass is starting to turn green and the smell of earth worms is in the air.  The spring peepers are singing in the ponds and on an evening stroll last night several large toads joined me in hopping along the path on their way to their summertime destinations to hide under their favorite patch of rhubarb leaves.

There are many writers who were prodigious walkers.  Wordsworth, Dickens, Ben Johnson, Walt Whitman among many others were said to have daily rituals of walking many miles during the day to clear their thoughts and then write in the evening and on into the night.  Walking is such a relaxing form of transportation.  It is astounding how far one can go at a pace that allows for pleasant conversation and the ability to day dream.   During this pandemic, a daily walk is one of the highlights of my day.

What’s your favorite walk?  What cityscape, landscape, hike or neighborhood do you most enjoy exploring  in your vicinity?  What adventure awaits you when we get back to being able to go where your heart desires? On a walk with my sister around a lake last week, she mentioned she was watching videos of people walking in Paris, she found it oddly soothing to see normality on an everyday stroll in a place she has visited many times and recalls fondly.  If you’re feeling stressed get out for a walk and if that’s not possible find a virtual walk to have an out of body experience.

 


Rom: On The Palatine (April, 1887)

by Thomas Hardy

We walked where Victor Jove was shrined awhile,
And passed to Livia’s rich red mural show,
Whence, thridding cave and Criptoportico,
We gained Caligula’s dissolving pile.

And each ranked ruin tended to beguile
The outer sense, and shape itself as though
It wore its marble hues, its pristine glow
Of scenic frieze and pompous peristyle.

When lo, swift hands, on strings nigh over-head,
Began to melodize a waltz by Strauss:
It stirred me as I stood, in Caesar’s house,
Raised the old routs Imperial lyres had led,

And blended pulsing life with lives long done,
Till Time seemed fiction, Past and Present one.

For Old Religion’s Sake

download (2)
Ben Johnson (1572 – 1637)

“Tears are the noble language of eyes, and when true love of words is destitute. The eye by tears speak, while the tongue is mute.”

Robert Herrick

 

A Prayer To Ben Johnson

by Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)

When I a verse shall make,
Know I have pray’d thee
For old religion’s sake,
Saint Ben to aid me.

Make the way smooth for me,
When I, thy Herrick,
Honouring thee, on my knee
Offer my lyric.

Candles I’ll give to thee,
And a new altar,
And thou, Saint Ben, shalt be
Writ in my psalter.


Ben Johnson has the unique position of being the only person buried upright in Westminster Abby.   Is it because he preferred people trampling on his head and not his heart or was that all the room the church could find at the time?  Johnson was a playwright, humorist, scholar and poet.  His writing landed him in jail several times and got him out of it just as quickly.   A young Shakespeare was in the cast of one of Johnson’s plays,  Every Man in His Humour.  Johnson was a man who had the good fortune of royal patronage and the ear of James I for his clear thinking and philosophical approach to academic rigor.  In 1616 he was given an annual pension by the King, making him possibly England’s first poet laureate.

By the 1620’s Johnson’s health and productivity was in decline and several poets that followed in his footsteps, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling called themselves the Sons of Ben. Johnson’s late plays were a critical and financial disaster, but he had at least the good humor to write an ode to himself poking fun at his expense.

The last line of the sonnet below is confusing with the word “ceston”.  I admit I was not sure of the meaning when I first read it and after several searches of online dictionaries I am not sure I am clear yet.   Ceston is not an English word today.   Seston are minute particles in water or soil, but I don’t think that’s what is meant.  In French Ceston means basket, that makes a little more sense.  But if you know the renaissance meaning of the word ceston please help solve the mystery.  What does ceston mean?


A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth

by Ben Johnson

I that have been a lover, and could show it,
Though not in these, in rithmes not wholly dumb,
Since I exscribe your sonnets, am become
A better lover, and much better poet.
Nor is my Muse or I ashamed to owe it
To those true numerous graces, where of some
But charm the senses, others overcome
Both brains and hearts; and mine now best do know it:
For in your verse all Cupid’s armory,
His flames, his shafts, his quiver, and his bow,
His very eyes are yours to overthrow.
But then his mother’s sweets you so apply,
Her joys, her smiles, her loves, as readers take
For Venus’ ceston every line you make.

Gather the Roses Of Your Life Today

 

Ronsard
Pierre Ronsard

“Love wants everything without condition.  Love has no law.”

by Peirre de Ronsard

Sonnet to Helen
By Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

When you sit aging under evening’s star
By hearth and candle, spinning yarns and wool,
You’ll sing my verse in awe and say “Ronsard
Wrought song of me when I was beautiful”


Hearing such words, your serving-maid that night,
Though half-asleep from drudging, all the same
Will wake at my name’s sound and stand upright
Hailing the deathless praises of your name.

I’ll be a boneless phantom resting sound
Amid the myrtly shades1 far underground.
You, by the hearth, a crone bent low in sorrow
For your proud scorn that willed my love away.
Live now, I beg of you. Wait not the morrow.
Gather the roses of your life today.

 

Sonnet à Hélène

by Pierre de Ronsard

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant:
« Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle ! »

Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant1 vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seroy sous la terre, et fantaume sans os ;
Par les ombres Myrtheux je prendray mon repos.
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour, et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez2, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.


Is it that lyric poetry fell out of popular taste in the 20th century because people stopped enjoying reading it or was it because poets tired of writing it? The reality is when constrained by rhyme and meter it is nearly impossible to build upon what great minds have already thought up and put to paper beautifully centuries before.  Take Yeats classic poem When You Are Old.  It’s an obvious homage to Ronsard’s Sonnet to Helen.  Ronsard having to be a bit more clever in his use of sexual innuendo’s to adhere to the social norms of his day, while Yeats’ poem is more nostalgic in nature.  I have included Yeats poem in an earlier Fourteen Lines blog post, you can compare the two.

When You Are Old by W. B. Yeats

But it also interesting to see the connections between Ronsard and Herrick’s classic To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time.   Is it coincidence?  Or is it a function of lyric poetry of that time period, which focused mostly on subjects of love,  has limited metaphors to choose from and so it’s inevitable there would be connections and overlap? I think the truth probably lies squarely on both.  I think poets like to play and in doing so create connections and homage to writers they admire.  I think that was true in the 16th Century and I think it is true today, regardless of the style with which writer’s write. Literature is a continuum of ideas where no one person is the beginning or the end.  It is a sine-cosine wave that reverberates throughout time.  Each of us have different length strings that resonate with the vibrations of the songs that stir our imaginations.

What two poems do you find connections, obvious or obscure?  Have you written an ode to poet?  If not, what poet would you most like to write an homage?


To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

by Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

If Someone Should Find These Pearls

Abraham-Sutzkever-
Abraham Sutzkever to the right

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”

Abraham Sutzkever

The Blade of Grass From Ponar

by Abraham Sutzkever
Translated by Maia Evrona

I kept a letter from my hometown in Lithuania, from one
who still holds a dominion somewhere with her youthful charm.
In it she placed her sorrow and her affection:
A blade of grass from Ponar.

This blade of grass with a flickering puff of dying cloud
ignited, letter by letter, the faces of the letters.
And over letter-faces in murmuring smolder:
The blade of grass from Ponar.

This blade of grass is now my world, my miniature home,
where children play the fiddle in a line on fire.
They play the fiddle and legendary is their conductor:
The blade of grass from Ponar.

I will not separate from my hometown’s blade of grass.
My good, longed-for earth will make room for both.
And then I will bring a gift to the Lord:
The blade of grass from Ponar.


In this period where many of us are home, isolated and a little stir crazy, more than the usual level of crazy, poetry can be a much needed tonic.  I object a bit though, when I see heroic words attached to articles and blog posts about how poetry is a “life saver.” I also object to the constant shaping of our pandemic response in militaristic terms. This is not a healthy mindset or discourse for our society in my opinion.  Framing everything as it were a battle, is war mongering of a different sort, that could lead to unhealthy bias and discrimination around cause and effect, resulting in finger pointing at the “other” as the cause, rather than searching for deeper understanding that blame is not a cure for COVID-19. The constant use of military terms for this public health crisis is unnecessarily violent hyperbole that serves no real value. These aren’t battles being fought, despite how distressing and grim they are for families impacted by this pandemic, health care workers working to exhaustion, laid off workers and bankrupt business owners. This is a disease. Battles are fought with guns and bombs. Disease is fought with shared purpose, sound public health strategies, good will, intelligent medical intervention and patience. No one is shooting at each other with intent to kill despite the rhetoric by news commentators.

However, there are poets who can say, “poetry saved my life.” When Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever said that poetry was his salvation, he meant it, literally. In 1944, Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke, needed to walk through a minefield to reach a plane that would take them to freedom. And to do so, they stepped to the rhythm of poetic meter — short, short, long, then long, short, long.  Was it luck or poetry that saw them through that immediate and present danger safely?  Regardless, it was his writing which had secured their opportunity for freedom. Sutzkevers writing about the Holocaust in Vilnius caught the attention of Russian leaders and with it his role in protecting and hiding historical Jewish texts from the Nazis. This prompted the Soviets to send not one but two rescue missions into Nazi-occupied Lithuania to fly the Sutzkevers to Moscow. Two years later Sutzkever testified on behalf of the Soviet Union at the Nuremberg trails in Germany. Sutzkever’s poetry stands as a testament of how poetry can triumph over tyranny and ultimately the ability of words to deliver justice, equally or more powerfully than bullets from guns.

 

 

 

From Epitaphs

by Abraham Sutzkever
Translated by Jacqueline Osherow

Written on a slat of a railway car:

If some time someone should find pearls
threaded on a blood-red string of silk
which, near the throat, runs all the thinner
like life’s own path until it’s gone
somewhere in a fog and can’t be seen—

If someone should find these pearls
let him know how—cool, aloof—they lit up
the eighteen-year-old, impatient heart
of the Paris dancing girl, Marie.

Now, dragged through unknown Poland—
I’m throwing my pearls through the grate.

If they’re found by a young man—
let these pearls adorn his girlfriend.
If they’re found by a girl—
let her wear them; they belong to her.
And if they’re found by an old man—
let him, for these pearls, recite a prayer.

Made It Again! Made It Again!

John Prine
John Prine (1946 – 2020)

“Writing is a blank piece of paper and leaving out what isn’t supposed to be there.”

John Prine

After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent

by William Stafford

Whispering to each handhold, “I’ll be back,”
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind—
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward. . . .

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark—
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!
—the whispering to stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
“Made it again! Made it again!

 


It has been heartwarming for me to see the remembrances posted on-line in the wake of John Prine’s passing, the admiration for his song writing and humanity pouring out from so many.  I have been a John Prine fan for over 40 years, buying my first John Prine album in 1978.  I have purchased I think almost every album and CD Prine ever released, even a couple of the mediocre ones mid career because there was always at least one great song. And there are more than one that I have bought several times because I wore the original copy out playing it so frequently.

“I edit as I go.  Especially when I go to commit it to paper.  I prefer a typewriter even to a computer.  I don’t like it.  There’s no noise on the computer. I like a typewriter because I am such a slow typist.  I edit as I am committing it to paper.  I like to see the words before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear before and they fit.  I don’t usually take large parts out.  If I get stuck early in a song, I take it as a sign that I might be writing the chorus and don’t know it.  Sometimes, you gotta step back a little bit and take a look at what you’re doing.”

John Prine

 

Part of living the journey alongside Prine over the last 42 years was watching how he responded to everything that life can throw at you, from career ups and downs, to true  love, to divorce and heartbreak, back to true love and happiness, to substance abuse, to depression to disease and disfigurement, to recovery and hope and success and fulfillment. One of the many defining moment in Prine’s life is when his good friend and early touring partner, Steve Goodman passed from leukemia at the age of 36, just as their careers were taking off.  Prine and Goodman each mastered their craft in Chicago’s small stages and bars in the late 1960’s. Goodman’s harmony on vocals and guitar playing on the original recording of Paradise on Prine’s debut album in 1971 is what makes that song stand out.

 

“The best  way to write a song is to think of something else and then the song kind of creeps in.  The beginning makes no sense whatsoever.  it just, like rhymes.  And then all of a sudden I’ll go into, I am an old woman named after my mother.”

John Prine commenting on how the iconic line in Angel From Montgomery came about

A sign of a great song writer is when the version’s of the song that they wrote that you remember best were recorded by someone else. It means other great song writers and singers were so moved by that song that they made it there own.  One of the reasons that I have loved Prine all these years, beyond his deft lyrics, simple yet complex guitar playing and always good humor, is that Prine and I share the same vocal range, which is about 6 good notes. There is not a single Prine song I can’t sing along. In poking around one morning this week I found on YouTube a link where someone had assembled every song John Prine wrote and recorded in a one stop shop of good humor. It’s staggering to see the list of how many great songs this man has written.

I often feel the same way about poets I enjoy.   Poet’s who speak in a language that just makes sense to me, like John Prine songs. One of those poet’s is William Stafford. Stafford writes with a range of emotions and connections to nature and humanity that are right on key with my heart. Stafford and Prine share some common sensibilities in their kind pacifism and their ability to reflect back upon ourselves a mirror of how good this lonely business of living can be. Prine and Stafford both mix humor and suffering in darn near equal proportions, served with a touch of ironic bitters, for the perfect cocktail of genuine American art.

If it’s been a long time since you took Prine seriously,  check out the final 4 CDs of his career after beating his first round of throat cancer.  His songs and ability to regain his voice after multiple health setbacks, along with the litany of amazing musicians who partnered with him to make those albums are well worth a listen.  


 

Lines To Stop Talking By

by William Stafford

In your city today outside my room
some quiet animal or only the rain
at its patient task was opening the wall
by touching it, and whatever was there
spread outward a bit at a time toward the horizon
cresting ahead and breaking, the way
all through your life whatever is near extends
when you think.  In your city today
I thought of Never, hiding inside
an iceberg floating south rinsed by the days
till that great blind ice blinks open in the center.
I heard an ambulance carry its banner away
in the rain in your city.  And I though of
my poems – how they are always there
waiting to try for that circumference
it takes all of us to find. . . .

Over The Land Is April

 

Absent Place—an April Day—
Daffodils a-blow
Homesick curiosity
To the Souls that snow—

Drift may block within it
Deeper than without—
Daffodil delight but
Him it duplicate—

Emily Dickinson

Over The Land Is April

by Robert Louis Stevenson

OVER the land is April,
Over my heart a rose;
Over the high, brown mountain
The sound of singing goes.
Say, love, do you hear me,
Hear my sonnets ring?
Over the high, brown mountain,
Love, do you hear me sing?

By highway, love, and byway
The snows succeed the rose.
Over the high, brown mountain
The wind of winter blows.
Say, love, do you hear me,
Hear my sonnets ring?
Over the high, brown mountain
I sound the song of spring,
I throw the flowers of spring.
Do you hear the song of spring?
Hear you the songs of spring?



A Song of a Second April

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

April this year, not otherwise
Than April of a year ago,
Is full of whispers, full of sighs,
Of dazzling mud and dingy snow;
Hepaticas that pleased you so
Are here again, and butterflies.

There rings a hammering all day,
And shingles lie about the doors;
In orchards near and far away
The grey wood-pecker taps and bores;
The men are merry at their chores,
And children earnest at their play.

The larger streams run still and deep,
Noisy and swift the small brooks run
Among the mullein stalks the sheep
Go up the hillside in the sun,
Pensively,—only you are gone,
You that alone I cared to keep.