When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
These two poems may appear at first to sit at two ends of love’s spectrum, but look more closely, as it takes more than a minor tempest of the heart to create “wreckage gathered in the gales.” I have been reading a book about a man’s journey in China to the site of ancient poet’s reputed refuge from the world. Part poetry, part myth, part travel log, the book is a reminder that even mystic hermits had dear friends that visited them in their caves. People are not people without other people. The same may be true of elephants, but it doesn’t make it any less true about homo sapiens. And, poetry isn’t poetry unless someone else is there to read the scratching’s on the trees and write it down so that their friends can enjoy their wonderful discovery.
Do you ever find a poem, you can’t wait to share with someone else? Who is that someone? What is the poem? Here’s a gentle reminder to send it off right away….
Pity Me Not Because The Light of Day
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 -1950)
Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always; Love is no more
Than the wide blossom on which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Arms and The Boy
by Wilfred Owen
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
It wasn’t until I was doing some research to prepare for honoring the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War I, reading a wide array of poets, that I realized the context behind Millay’s sonnet below. I have read it many times and incorrectly assumed it referred to spurned lovers. It was not until now I understood it as a homage to the men of her generation that went off to war to never return.
This deeper understanding totally changes the way I look at this sonnet. It had never been one of my favorite sonnets of hers, seeming more callous than sentimental, but now I look at it with whole new eyes, appreciating the sadness and fitting callousness that war brings to the generation caught within its fury.
Do you have a poem that you suddenly have experienced a change in contextual awareness that increased your appreciation for how it spoke to you? I welcome your feedback and insights in the comments section below.
What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Where do I sail to find a peace lasting? Before the sunrise, beneath rosy skies. A calm to break my keen heart’s fasting. An unexpected surprise, in your arms to lie.
Let’s leave these fierce seas for a safer bastion. This bed our keep, your kiss a vise. Enjoy this moment lest it be our last one, Either awake or asleep, love has its price.
What be the truth with but faith to carry? Don’t question why, hold fast to grace. Unfold your heart be it ever so wary. Our tenderness shy, only hope to embrace.
What good is logic when hearts yearn for glory? I’ll dream these dreams, scheme my schemes. Your hand on my face, the simplest of stories, As your smile gleams, love’s brightest beams.
Lying side by side we could shelter forever, A harbor, this union; two bodies entwined. Let us pray even death is unable to sever this communion of souls, together enshrined.
As my warmth enfolds you above the waves beating, time inches forward, alone I awake. Your memory sustains me. Our passion though fleeting, turned sailor from coward, unmoored fear from its stake.
Serene, I lay silent, daydreaming your presence, recalling past loving when we slipped our skin. I ask of no one, to grant me my essence, or becalm my peace roving, there you are, once again.
I wrote the first stanza of this poem, in my head, while out for a walk on a September day in 2014 before the sun had risen above the horizon along the Maumee River in downtown Toledo, Ohio. I was making my way down the river front and came across the abandoned coal-fired Edison Electric plant that is of some historical importance but not enough to save it from dereliction. A ground hog was having some breakfast in the grass and I stopped to keep him company. It made me look around and take stock of my surroundings. Near the relic is a beautiful life-like bronze statue of a woman, sitting atop a ships mooring. Slightly upstream from her, on that particular morning, was a dock at water level that was covered in sleeping sea gulls. The bronze statue of the naked young woman looked to me to be searching the horizon. Her hand to her face, her knee raised, she was looking out over the river, as a bather, a lover, or an adventurer, day-dreaming and my inspiration.
Either she or the ground hog was my muse that morning, at least for the first 4 lines. I wrote this poem before my obsession with sonnets had begun. It would be many weeks later until a workable draft of this poem would emerge and several months before the finished version would take hold.
I am always fascinated by how some poetry flows when read aloud and some, like much of John Berryman’s or Donald Hall’s is clunky or stilted, the words preferring the silence of an inner reading voice to match the dialogue of the poets mind as it was written. Peace Lasting is a poem that I recommend reading aloud. I took great care in word-smithing every line to insure it flowed, in meter, in word selection and in rhyme. The idea of word-smithing, like a blacksmith, is something I take very seriously as a writer. I wonder sometimes if readers understand this and see in poetry a glimpse of the writer, writing like they have a piece of red hot iron in tongs, too hot to touch directly with their hands, a writing instrument separating the words from their flesh, heating it, beating on it, re-heating, shaping, forming through fire, as if the words on the paper are being flattened on an anvil at the forge, until its finally ready to be quenched and solidified. Peace Lasting is about the quiet resonance of past and current relationships in our dream state of waking.
Time Does Not Bring Relief
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,–so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!
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.
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, —let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.