Poetry is the power of defining the indefinable in terms of the unforgettable.
Prayer For This House
by Louis Untermeyer
MAY nothing evil cross this door, And may ill-fortune never pry About these windows; may the roar And rains go by.
Strengthened by faith, the rafters will Withstand the battering of the storm. This hearth, though all the world grow chill, Will keep you warm.
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms, Touching your lips with holy wine, Till every casual corner blooms Into a shrine.
Laughter shall drown the raucous shout And, though the sheltering walls are thin, May they be strong to keep hate out And hold love in.
Louis Untermeyer was a businessman, poet, translator, educator and editor who followed his passion mid-life to become one of the most influential anthologists of poetry in the early 20th Century. Untermeyer spent his 20’s and early 30’s in the family jewelry business in New York City, but eventually followed his literary passions. He was fond of puns and rhymes and felt that poetry didn’t need to be an elite artistic endevour but was something that should be enjoyed by everyone. He focused on a wide range of poetry, from children’s verse to poetry anthologies used in Universities to introduce countless college students to English literature.
Untermeyer was a liberal all his life and aligned his politics around civil rights and a more just society. Late in life he left New York City and like Frost, retired to the country, preferring the solitude of his gardens and nature over the busy streets of New York City.
Untermeyer is known more for his work as an anthologist and translator, but his own poetry I find playful and inspiring. I was particularly taken with the poem above, but wonder how successful he was in his own right in the affirmation expressed. Married and divorced four times, martial harmony in Untermeyer’s households seemed to have eluded him, now matter how strong the sentiments he successfully put to rhyme.
Both Adams and Untermeyer share the distinction of serving as Poet Laureate when the title was known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Adams poem below took a bit for me to wrap my head around. It is an example of a poem that I have a hard time connecting to the whole of it, but I was taken with these three lines; Thus I lived then, till this air breathed on me. Till this kind are breathed kindness everywhere, There where my times had left me I would stay. For me sometimes a couple of lines is all I take from a poem and the rest takes a while to sink in before the emotion or thoughts expand beyond the portion that I am attracted. Sometimes the entirety of a poem I never understand. Do you have poems like that; where there is only one line that stays with you, inspires you?
So there are no more words and all is ended; The timbrel is stilled, the clarion laid away; And Love with streaming hair goes unattended, Back to the loneliness of yesterday.
I Know It Will Be Quiet When You Come
by Joseph Auslander (1897-1965)
I know it will be quiet when you come: No wind; the water breathing steadily; A light like ghost of silver on the sea; And the surf dreamily fingering his drum. Twilight will drift in large and leave me numb With nearness to the last tranquility; And then the slow and languorous tyranny Of orange moon, pale night, and cricket hum.
And suddenly there will be twist of tide, A rustling as of thin silk on the sand, The tremor of a presence at my side, The tremble of a hand upon my hand: And pulses sharp with pain, and fires fanned, And words that stumble into stars and hide.
In Envy of Cows
by Joseph Auslander (1897-1965)
The cow swings her head in a deep drowsy half-circle to and over Flank and shoulder, lunging At flies; then fragrantly plunging Down at the web-washed grass and the golden clover, Wrenching sideways to get the full tingle; with one warm nudge, One somnolent wide smudge Sacred to kine, Crushing a murmurous of late lush August to wine!
The sky is even water-tone behind suave poplar trees— Color of glass; the cows Occasionally arouse That color, disturb the pellucid cool poplar frieze With beauty of motion slow and succinct like some grave privilege Fulfilled. They taste the edge Of August, they need No more: they have rose vapors, flushed silence, pulpy milkweed
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
In the period of years from 1930 to 1967, England had one poet laureate, John Masefield, while the United States had 18 different poet laureates, nearly every one of them showcased on this blog. Their names are Joseph Auslander (1937 – 1941) , Allen Tate (1943 – 1944), Robert Penn Warren (1945 – 1945), Louise Bogan (1945 – 1946), Karl Shapiro (1946- 1947), Robert Lowell (1947-1948) Leonie Adams (1948-1949), Elizabeth Bishop (1949-1950), Conrad Aiken (1950-1952), William Carlos Williams (1953 to 1956), Randall Jarrell (1957 – 1958), Robert Frost (1958-1959), Richard Eberhart (1959-1961), Louis Untermeyer (1961 – 1963), Howard Nemerov (1963-1964), Reed Whitemore (1964 – 1965), Stephen Spender (1965 – 1966), James Dickey (1966 – 1968).
In scanning this list, it is remarkable how diverse a group of writers and styles are encapsulated in this group, a bit heavy from a white male perspective, but it reflects the times. None the less, it illustrates the evolution of poetry in the United States. Its why I was shocked that I had never heard of John Masefield until stumbling across some of his sonnets. His sonnets are a bit pedestrian and so I am a bit baffled what so captured the English imagination as to have him serve in the capacity of poet laureate for such a long time? Being named poet laureate is largely a popularity contest and serves little purpose other than in some cases a small stipend and a way of both recognizing a writer and maybe linking the soul of a nation or a state to a poetic voice. Over time, in retrospect, there are questionable appointments, no different than Cooperstown for baseball and there are those that are highly deserving. But there are also a surprising number of names that my reaction is who; never heard of them, names that show how fast writers can fade from the public consciousness.
Many of John Masefield’s sonnets deal with concepts of beauty. It would be interesting to know more about what inspired him? Was it the ugliness of the wars during his prime and the devastation they had on England and Europe that made the epitome of beauty his muse? I enjoyed both these poems, the linking of cosmic dust with nature’s beauty is a surprisingly modern way of thinking how in part our planet was formed. It’s estimated 5,200 tons of space dust falls to earth every year. Not much in the big scheme of things, but multiply it by several billion years and it adds up. The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. The earth weighs roughly 13,170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 lbs. Even over its long life span, space dust accounts for only 0.00000036% of earth’s mass. As small as that it is, the mass of all the people on earth is less than a trillionth of the earth’s weight and less than amount of stardust that has fallen, so its very possible that as Joni Mitchell sings, we are stardust…..
If All Be Governed By The Moving Stars
by John Masefield
If all be governed by the moving stars, If passing planets bring events to be, Searing the face of Time with bloody scars, Drawing men’s souls even as the moon the sea; If as they pass they make a current pass Across man’s life and heap it to a tide, We are but pawns, ignobler than the grass Cropped by the beast and crunched and tossed aside. Is all this beauty that does inhabit heaven Trail of a planet’s fire? Is all this lust A chymic means by warring stars contriven To bring the violets out of Cæsar’s dust? Better be grass, or in some hedge unknown The spilling rose whose beauty is its own.
Duluth was far across the blue waters of the lake in the hills of Minnesota. A wonderful thing had happened to him there.
Ernest Hemingway, The Torrents of Spring
The Angel of Duluth (An Excerpt)
by Madelon Sprengnether
I lied a little. There are things I don’t want to tell you. How lonely I am today and sick at heart. How the rain falls steadily and cold on a garden grown greener, more lush and even less tame. I haven’t done much, I confess, to contain it. The grapevine, as usual, threatens everything in its path, while the raspberry canes, aggressive and abundant, are clearly out of control. I’m afraid the wildflowers have taken over, being after all the most hardy and tolerant of shade and neglect. This year the violets and lilies of the valley are rampant, while the phlox are about to emit their shocking pink perfume. Oh, my dear, had you been here this spring, you would have seen how the bleeding hearts are thriving.
Awhile back in an earlier blog entry I posed the question of whether there were any known poetic forgeries, where an anonymous writer wrote a poem and attempted to pass it off as the work of another famous writer fraudulently. I came across an example of one this week, a poem that originally was claimed to be in a letter from Walt Whitman that was written to a friend following a visit to Duluth, Minnesota, shortly before Whitman’s death. The poem was picked up in several newspaper articles as part of tributes to Whitman and for a while held some legitimacy as a previously un-published poem by Whitman. But when historians applied a little common sense while investigating the authenticity of the poem, (and the fact the poem is likely the worst thing Whitman ever wrote), they discovered the so-called Whitman letter was signed Mendax, which means liar in latin. All in all, knowing its a forgery actually makes it more entertaining in my book, as it’s not a poem I would include of Whitman’s otherwise, but as a farce, its kind of fun.
Has anyone else come across any examples of poetic forgeries?
by Walt Whitman-ish (Mendax)
The nations hear thy message A fateful word; oh momentous Audition! The murmur of waves Bearing heavy-freighted argosies; the sigh Of gently stirring life in the birth-beds Of not oer-distant grain field; the Solemn plaint of pines whose limbs Quite feel the bite of men’s Omnivorous axe; the roar, like Old Enceladus’s, of furnaces volcanic And Hell-like; the thunderous and Reverberant iteration Of hammers striking the uncomplaining Anvil; These are all in thy voice, To what end? Because thou sing’s Of empire and the great To-Come, General good, Democracy, the Return at length to things primeval And, therefore, real and true And worth returning unto. Then sing, Duluth, thy Song; and listen, Nations! Or it will repent ye When the bridegroom cometh.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills We trekked and picked until the cans were full Until the tinkling bottom had been covered With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s. We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. But when the bath was filled we found a fur, A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
Botanists define the difference between a fruit and a vegetable this way; a fruit is anything that develops from the flower of a plant and the a vegetable is anything we eat that comes from another portion of the plant like leaves, stems, roots or stalk. Of course plant breeders have ingeniously discovered genes that allow for seedless grapes, seedless watermelons and all matter of seedless fruits, but as a whole, most fruits can be identified by containing seeds. So what are nuts? In most cases they are the seed and we would classify them as a fruit. Even peanuts, which flower above ground have a unique adaptation where the fertilized flower sends a unique structure below ground to form the fruit, which we think of as the peanut hull with the fruits inside.
So why are most fruits sweet? There are several reasons; either energy for the developing plant or enticement for transport by birds or animals, transport beyond what would normally happen if it fell to the ground where it would compete with the mother plant. Why are some vegetables sweeter than some fruits? It all comes down to what mixture and concentration of sugars are contained in the plant. There are three primary sugars in plants, sucrose, fructose and glucose. Sucrose consists of one fructose molecule and one glucose molecule. Fructose is the sweetest on our tongues, sucrose next and glucose the least. All three are the building blocks for carbohydrates that fuel the energy cells need for all living organisms. In the graphic below, tomatoes, a fruit, have the lowest concentration of sugars, while sugar beets, a vegetable, have the highest, so its impossible to paint with a broad brush, saying fruits are always sweeter than vegetables, as plant selection over time and modern plant breeders have been able to select for varieties that maximize the value of the plant for which its used. In northern latitudes most granulated sugar is made form sugar beets, whereas in the rest of the world it is made from sugar cane. Which is better for the environment and cheaper to raise? Hands down, sugar cane. Without a strong lobby and without government subsidies, sugar beets and the sugar industry in North America and Europe would cease to be able to compete with cane sugar produced more sustain-ably and far cheaper.
What is high fructose corn syrup? A by-product of the ethanol industry, this concentrated sweetener has become endemic in processed foods as a cheap, sweet alternative to granulated sugar. HFCS (which is produced from corn starch through industrial processing) contains 45% glucose and 55% fructose. Whereas granulated sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Some types of agave nectar contain 90% fructose and 10% glucose. Glucose and fructose have different metabolic fates, so in theory consuming one over the other could lead to differences in metabolic health. For example, glucose is absorbed from the intestine into the blood and is and taken up into muscle, liver, and fat cells in response to the release of insulin from the pancreas. In contrast, fructose is metabolized in the liver and does not increase blood glucose or insulin levels. But since glucose and fructose travel together in the foods and beverages we eat, we need to consider their effects holistically. In reality health impacts are less around the types of sugars we eat, (including lactose) and more around the quantity of sugars we consume. The negative health impacts on weight gain and increased incidence of type II diabetes have more to do with the hidden calories in sweetened drinks and the larger portion sizes that have dramatically risen as a marketing tool over the past several decades, than the type of sugar contained in them. The advantage of eating fruits and vegetables over processed foods, is the additional fiber, nutrients and the way the sugars are packaged that make it easier for our bodies to process and digest. In the end just buy some blackberries and enjoy them. Its one of the glorious staples of August.
by Margaret Atwood
In the early morning an old woman is picking blackberries in the shade. It will be too hot later but right now there’s dew.
Some berries fall: those are for squirrels. Some are unripe, reserved for bears. Some go into the metal bowl. Those are for you, so you may taste them just for a moment. That’s good times: one little sweetness after another, then quickly gone.
Once, this old woman I’m conjuring up for you would have been my grandmother. Today it’s me. Years from now it might be you, if you’re quite lucky.
The hands reaching in among the leaves and spines were once my mother’s. I’ve passed them on. Decades ahead, you’ll study your own temporary hands, and you’ll remember. Don’t cry, this is what happens.
Look! The steel bowl is almost full. Enough for all of us. The blackberries gleam like glass, like the glass ornaments we hang on trees in December to remind ourselves to be grateful for snow.
Some berries occur in sun, but they are smaller. It’s as I always told you: the best ones grow in shadow.
BY this stairway narrow, steep, Thou shalt climb from song to sleep; From sleep to dream and song once more;— Sleep well, sweet friend, sleep well, dream deep.
Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there]
Hughes Mearns (1875 – 1965)
Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three The man was waiting there for me But when I looked around the hall I couldn’t see him there at all! Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more! Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair A little man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today Oh, how I wish he’d go away..
The concept of a one-hit wonder is usually applied to pop-songs, but the same can be said of novelists and poets. Hughes Mearns’ poem Antigonish, is an example of a one hit wonder, as I can’t find any other poems attributed to him that have survived in the common domain. This little nursery rhyme like poem apparently had quite an influence on some children in the English speaking world, maybe because of its slightly scary imagery and the fact that children and adults are sometimes afraid of things that don’t exist in the dark. Antigonish is about the bogeyman who makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up. David Bowie’s rock song is rumored to have been influenced by this poem and if you listen to the lyrics, there are similarities, whether it is intentional or by coincidence is up for debate.
By Jack Prelutsky
In the desolate depths of a perilous place
the bogeyman lurks, with a snarl on his face.
Never dare, never dare to approach his dark lair
for he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
He skulks in the shadows, relentless and wild
in his search for a tender, delectable child.
With his steely sharp claws and his slavering jaws
oh he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
Many have entered his dreary domain
but not even one has been heard from again.
They no doubt made a feast for the butchering beast
and he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
In that sulphurous, sunless and sinister place
he’ll crumple your bones in his bogey embrace.
Never never go near if you hold your life dear,
for oh! . . . what he’ll do . . . when he gets you!
All yesterday it poured, and all night long I could not sleep; the rain unceasing beat Upon the shingled roof like a weird song, Upon the grass like running children’s feet. And down the mountains by the dark cloud kissed, Like a strange shape in filmy veiling dressed, Slid slowly, silently, the wraith-like mist, And nestled soft against the earth’s wet breast. But lo, there was a miracle at dawn! The still air stirred at touch of the faint breeze, The sun a sheet of gold bequeathed the lawn, The songsters twittered in the rustling trees. And all things were transfigured in the day, But me whom radiant beauty could not move; For you, more wonderful, were far away, And I was blind with hunger for your love.
Long Island Sound
by Emma Lazarus – 1849-1887
I see it as it looked one afternoon In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown. The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon, A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon. The shining waters with pale currents strewn, The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove, The semi-circle of its dark, green grove. The luminous grasses, and the merry sun In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide, Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide, Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon. All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.
“In youth, it was a way I had, To do my best to please. And change, with every passing lad To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know And do the things I do, And if you do not like me so, To hell, my love, with you.”
An August Midnight
by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
A shaded lamp and a waving blind, And the beat of a clock from a distant floor: On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined— A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore; While ‘mid my page there idly stands A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands…
Thus meet we five, in this still place, At this point of time, at this point in space. —My guests besmear my new-penned line, Or bang at the lamp and fall supine. “God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why? They know Earth-secrets that know not I.
I don’t remember a summer where the drum beat of doom has sounded so regularly from the encroaching jungle. I can’t hardly listen to NPR anymore, every news item goes from bad to worse, from drought to flood, from fire to furnace, from peace to war, it takes its toll on optimism. I keep reminding myself, yes, its dry and its been dry before. Likely it will rain again and refill the wetland that lays to the north of my driveway; more likely it will do that than dry up completely. In the interim, the sky is blue, the purple loosestrife is purple and the trumpeter swans swimming on what remains of the lake are white, just like last year and all is just as beautiful. I have to remind myself that of all the things I should be feeling with all the bad news around the world, the one that stands is out in my mind is gratitude. I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position to pick and choose what I allow to enter my mindset because I have choices, something most people around the world do not.
Today’s poems are a bit of fluff to enjoy on a late summer day. I was struck by the word dumbledore in Hardy’s poem, given that anyone who is a fan of the Harry Potter books thinks of that word in the context of a character in the book. It sent me looking it up in the Oxford dictionary and discovered the word dumbledore is synonymous with bumblebee or a type of beetle, which also makes a sound when it flies, in my mind’s eye I hear the likes of a June bug. The Parker poem is easier to connect with if you know the definition of the word slattern – which means harlot. Parker has a tendency towards a self-deprecating style. I think of her use of the word like a current female rapper using the word “bitch”; it’s possible to call yourself all manner of things without taking offense.
I found Parker’s poem took on more interesting ideas if I read it several times through, putting myself in as the person experiencing the words, writing the words, with eyes as weeds, and new lilac sprouts pushing up through my heart….
by Dorothy Parker
When my eyes are weeds, And my lips are petals, spinning Down the wind that has beginning Where the crumpled beeches start In a fringe of salty reeds; When my arms are elder-bushes, And the rangy lilac pushes Upward, upward through my heart;
Summer, do your worst!
Light your tinsel moon, and call on Your performing stars to fall on Headlong through your paper sky; Nevermore shall I be cursed By a flushed and amorous slattern, With her dusty laces’ pattern Trailing, as she straggles by
“As for the common men apart, Who sweat to keep their common breath, And have no hour for books or art– What dreams have these to hide from death!”
Sonnet to Beauty
by Lola Ridge
Show me thy way. Though I have held thy name, that tremulously now my lips let fall, as word too dear for traffic of the tongue, yet I have loved thee, Beauty, beyond all. Be with me in this hour: dread shapes of thee apparelled in the lustre not their own – as buzzard, gracened by the wizardry of light, looks all but lovely as the swan, shall not appal. In thy high company – whereof all things are free and each wild theme weaves in a relentless rise and fall to resolution. I shall brokenly – hear through the fury, through the windless dream, heart of the terror, chiming at thy call.
Lola Ridge was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1873. The only surviving child, her and her parents immigrated to New Zealand six years later. Ridge married Peter Webster, a gold mine manager, at the age of 21, but the marriage failed quickly and she moved to Sydney and enrolled at Trinity College, studying painting and writing poetry. Ridge had some success as a writer in Australia and published several poems. Following the death of her mother in 1907, Ridge moved to San Francisco and re-invented herself. She claimed the name Lola, having been born Emily, and shaved 10 years off her age and posed as a just recently graduated fresh faced 23 year old.
Ridge cultivated the life she dreamed of living. She was politically active in socialism and the labor movement on both the east and west coasts. After several years, she moved to New York City and supported herself writing for journals, advertising copy, writing pulp fiction and occasionally posing as an artist’s model. Ridge lived her dream of being an artist, sacrificing financially in cold water flats in New York City, but she navigated a difficult, inspiring life and published her art successfully.
In 1918 her poem “The Ghetto” was published in the New Republic and it instantly opened doors for Ridge as a poet. Ridge was recognized alongside William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Waldo Frank as poets pushing the boundaries of modern poetry. Ridge published multiple books of poetry in the 1920’s with a definite socialist leaning. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 and received numerous awards during her career. Ridge died of heart failure from complications from TB in May of 1941, in her home in Brooklyn, at the age of 67, though her close friends believed she was 57 at the time, maintaining her youthful ruse successfully, right up until the very end.
by Lola Ridge
That day in the slipping of torsos and straining flanks, On the bloodied ooze of fields, plowed by iron, (And the smoke, bluish near earth and gold in the sunshine, Floating like cotton down) Do you remember how we heard All the Red Cross bands on Fifth Avenue, And bugles in little home towns, And children’s harmonicas bleating AMERICA! – And the harsh and terrible screaming, And that strange vibration at the roots of us – Desire, fierce like a song?
And after . . . Do you remember the drollery of the wind on our faces, and horizons reeling, And the terror of the plain, heaving like a gaunt pelvis to . . the sun Over us – threshing and twanging Torn-up roots of the song?