As gay for you to take your father’s ax
As take his gun – rod – to go hunting – fishing.
You nick my spruce until its fiber cracks,
It gives up standing straight and goes down swishing.
You link arm in its arm and you lean
Across the light snow homeward smelling green.
I could have bought you just as good a tree
To frizzle resin in a candle flame,
And what a saving it would have meant to me.
But tree by charity is not the same
As tree by enterprise and expedition.
I must not spoil your Christmas with contrition.
It is your Christmases against my woods.
But even where, thus, opposing interests kill,
They are to be thought of as opposing goods
Oftener than as conflicting good and evil;
Which makes the war god seem no special dunce
For always fighting on both sides at once.
And though in tinsel chain and popcorn rope
My tree, a captive in your window bay,
Has lost its footing on my mountain slope
And lost the stars of heaven, may, oh, may
The symbol star it lifts against your ceiling
Help me accept its fate with Christmas feeling.
I was recently informed that only men over the age of 50 still watch Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. I often watch it more than once during the holidays, so I fit the type casting. I have such positive memories around the gentle humor of Rudolph. It is a love story of misfits and many of us feel a bit like a misfit at Christmas.
I am well along in my holiday preparations. My Tom’s best of music CD for 2019 is complete in figuring out the two CD set and the CD’s nearly completely burned, I have to finish printing covers and put them together. My Tom’s best of poetry for 2019 is figured out, the poems selected and the pages nearly completely printed. I need to finish making covers and then bind them together. It all feels doable by Christmas. One more night of watching Rudolph while working on gifts and I will have it all done. I hope you indulge yourself in holiday traditions and sentimental journeys and a bit of gift making. Happy Holidays.
Love Came Down At Christmas
By Christina Rossetti
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Morning is flashing from a glorious sun
On the broad shoulders of the giant fells
That outreach arms across the narrow dells
And form a silent brotherhood of one
Listening their skylark laureate! New begun
He up the heavens in ever-rising swells
Carries their thanksgiving in song that wells
From his small breast as if ‘twould ne’er be done.
What life his music gives them! They are free
In the wild freedom of his daring wing;
And in the cataract of his song, the sea
Of poetry that fills all heaven, they sing;
He is their poet-prophet in his glee,
And in his work and worth their priest and king!
The wild blueberries were at their peak during my time in Roan, Norway in the high country last week. These are blueberries unlike anything you experience in domesticated production from the grocery store. The plants have found a hard won foothold among rocks, trees, lichen and moss, and thrive to produce one to a small handful of fruit per plant. The plants can be as short as a couple of inches and the berries though small are loaded to the brim in color and flavor. We had brought traditional Norwegian potato-fish cakes and I made a wild blueberry sauce to go over the top to give it that special wilderness magic.
by Robert Frost (1874-1963)
“You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”
“I don’t know what part of the pasture you mean.”
“You know where they cut off the woods–let me see–
It was two years ago–or no!–can it be
No longer than that?–and the following fall
The fire ran and burned it all up but the wall.”
“Why, there hasn’t been time for the bushes to grow.
That’s always the way with the blueberries, though:
There may not have been the ghost of a sign
Of them anywhere under the shade of the pine,
But get the pine out of the way, you may burn
The pasture all over until not a fern
Or grass-blade is left, not to mention a stick,
And presto, they’re up all around you as thick
And hard to explain as a conjuror’s trick.”
“It must be on charcoal they fatten their fruit.
I taste in them sometimes the flavour of soot.
And after all really they’re ebony skinned:
The blue’s but a mist from the breath of the wind,
A tarnish that goes at a touch of the hand,
And less than the tan with which pickers are tanned.”
“Does Mortenson know what he has, do you think?”
“He may and not care and so leave the chewink
To gather them for him–you know what he is.
He won’t make the fact that they’re rightfully his
An excuse for keeping us other folk out.”
“I wonder you didn’t see Loren about.”
“The best of it was that I did. Do you know,
I was just getting through what the field had to show
And over the wall and into the road,
When who should come by, with a democrat-load
Of all the young chattering Lorens alive,
But Loren, the fatherly, out for a drive.”
“He saw you, then? What did he do? Did he frown?”
“He just kept nodding his head up and down.
You know how politely he always goes by.
But he thought a big thought–I could tell by his eye–
Which being expressed, might be this in effect:
‘I have left those there berries, I shrewdly suspect,
To ripen too long. I am greatly to blame.'”
“He’s a thriftier person than some I could name.”
“He seems to be thrifty; and hasn’t he need,
With the mouths of all those young Lorens to feed?
He has brought them all up on wild berries, they say,
Like birds. They store a great many away.
They eat them the year round, and those they don’t eat
They sell in the store and buy shoes for their feet.”
“Who cares what they say? It’s a nice way to live,
Just taking what Nature is willing to give,
Not forcing her hand with harrow and plow.”
“I wish you had seen his perpetual bow–
And the air of the youngsters! Not one of them turned,
And they looked so solemn-absurdly concerned.”
“I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
I met them one day and each had a flower
Stuck into his berries as fresh as a shower;
Some strange kind–they told me it hadn’t a name.”
“I’ve told you how once not long after we came,
I almost provoked poor Loren to mirth
By going to him of all people on earth
To ask if he knew any fruit to be had
For the picking. The rascal, he said he’d be glad
To tell if he knew. But the year had been bad.
There had been some berries–but those were all gone.
He didn’t say where they had been. He went on:
‘I’m sure–I’m sure’–as polite as could be.
He spoke to his wife in the door, ‘Let me see,
Mame, we don’t know any good berrying place?’
It was all he could do to keep a straight face.
“If he thinks all the fruit that grows wild is for him,
He’ll find he’s mistaken. See here, for a whim,
We’ll pick in the Mortensons’ pasture this year.
We’ll go in the morning, that is, if it’s clear,
And the sun shines out warm: the vines must be wet.
It’s so long since I picked I almost forget
How we used to pick berries: we took one look round,
Then sank out of sight like trolls underground,
And saw nothing more of each other, or heard,
Unless when you said I was keeping a bird
Away from its nest, and I said it was you.
‘Well, one of us is.’ For complaining it flew
Around and around us. And then for a while
We picked, till I feared you had wandered a mile,
And I thought I had lost you. I lifted a shout
Too loud for the distance you were, it turned out,
For when you made answer, your voice was as low
As talking–you stood up beside me, you know.”
“We sha’n’t have the place to ourselves to enjoy–
Not likely, when all the young Lorens deploy.
They’ll be there to-morrow, or even to-night.
They won’t be too friendly–they may be polite–
To people they look on as having no right
To pick where they’re picking. But we won’t complain.
You ought to have seen how it looked in the rain,
The fruit mixed with water in layers of leaves,
Like two kinds of jewels, a vision for thieves.”
by Edward Thomas
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
To E. T.
by Robert Frost
I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,
I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.
I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.
You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.
How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?
Edward Thomas never saw any of his poetry in print, a small volume of six poems under an alias came out shortly after his death in the Battle of Arras in 1917, having enlilsted in the infantry two years prior in 1915. Thomas was a poorly paid hack for most of his life, putting out anything that would pay a modest wage to feed an ever growing family. He wrote mostly criticisms and reviews of other writers work for most of his career, until a year long friendship with Robert Frost unleashed his creative potential, when Frost encouraged him to start writing poetry in the final three years of his life.
I wonder reading Thomas’ poetry if he would be half as admired if he had not died in France in World War I? I don’t mean that as an insult but an honest question. I do not find Thomas’ poetry particularly compelling, in fact I find the poems written about him far more interesting. However I realize it is poor manners to admit you don’t particularly like the poetry of war heroes, being far easier to just accept that the many learned academics who have reviewed him kindly after he died as accurate in their warm regards for his contribution to 20th century literature.
Thomas was a gifted prose writer whose critiques and reviews were witty, biting and insightful. Thomas’ undeniable contribution to American Literature was the push his passionate review of Frost’s 1914 collection of poems titled North of Boston provided, it being the first volume of Frost’s poetry that was met with critical and financial success.
I realize I may need to read more of Thomas’ work to better understand his vibe as a poet. Do you have a favorite E. T. poem? Please share it and tell me why.
Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T. )
by Eleanor Farjeon
In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.
“In three words I can sum up everything I have learned about life, it goes on.”
Into my Own
By Robert Frost
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Over back where they speak of life as staying
(‘You couldn’t call it living, for it ain’t’),
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.
Out in the plowed ground in the cold a digger,
Among unearthed potatoes standing still,
Was counting winter dinners, one a hill,
With half an ear to the piano’s vigor.
All that piano and new paint back there,
Was it some money suddenly come into?
Or some extravagance young love had been to?
Or old love on an impulse not to care–
Not to sink under being man and wife,
But get some color and music out of life?
It would not be grandiose of me to say that poetry has transformed my life. Poetry has been a journey, a trial, an unveiling and an unraveling the past 5 years. That it is 5 years since my mind suddenly took a left turn and found poetry soothing an ache that lost love had left behind, gives me pause on how fast the years recede and how important it is to make a few investments along the way, to get some color and music out of life.
I find myself suddenly in love again, which is not something that has happened very often in my lifetime, only three times prior. To have been in love with four women, each distinctly unique, is a gift that I do not take lightly, each having brought something completely different in terms of insights their love of me opened. I hope they would say the same of my love, at least the best of my love.
I know that a defense of anyone accused of misdeeds raises the specter that you are wrong, for we never really know what another human being is capable in the privacy of their life. Yet, if writing is a window into our souls, and a writer who lives to write is constantly exposing some versions of their truths, then can we not deduce something of a person’s character by how they speak, by what they leave behind in words? The answer, is both yes and no. I have spent the past 5 years writing my beliefs as centering prayers, sonnets, and have completed a draft of a chap book titled The Canticle of Divine Doubt. I am in the process of sharing it, socializing it among friends and family, welcoming their feedback, positive or negative. But what will they take from those words, my poems? What can they deduce of my character from them? I wrote them not because I believe I have attained the attributes that the work describes, but because I hope by writing them and then reading them over and over, they will change me, and I will become more like the thoughts conveyed. Writing, for me, is not about arrival, it is about setting a course for my journey and correcting course as needed along the way.
If I were to judge Garrison Keillor solely based on his words, the volumes of his writing shared on public radio as The Writer’s Almanac, what could I deduce? That he is a person emboldened by sharp intellect, that he has a tremendous taste in poetry and that he is able to share his love of writing and literature with an audience through his voice in ways that far exceed the gifts of but a very few. That he is also human and potentially has committed acts that would neither honor the best of himself or those he might have assailed is the conundrum that makes the mystery of what compromises each life such a fascinating contradiction. In offering a defense solely based on his public contributions, I do not deny the very real suffering that occurred by his accuser, for the courage to come forward and make an allegation is a weighty thing. And regardless of what happened between them, I hope that she has the support she needs to move on in her life and find healing, forgiveness and a return to what is good and best for her. Something happened that drove her to come forward and in no way, does my seeing some measure of redemption in the man she accused negate the harm he may have caused her and others along the way. We are not one things as human. No one is purely good or purely bad. If we are lucky we find someone who is willing to love us fully, in spite of the entirety of our contradictions.
If you are not familiar with the Writer’s Almanac then there is a storehouse of podcasts just waiting for you. Here is a selection from March 16, 2017 along with a link so that you can explore on your own. Enjoy them for what they are and in Keillor’s signature sign-off;
Geniuses of countless nations
Have told their love for generations
Till all their memorable phrases
Are common as goldenrod or daisies.
Their girls have glimmered like the moon,
Or shimmered like a summer noon,
Stood like lily, fled like fawn,
Now like sunset, now like dawn,
Here the princess in the tower,
There the sweet forbidden flower.
Darling, when I think of you
Every aged phrase is new,
And there are moments when it seems
I’ve married one of Shakespeare’s dreams.
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.
As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be-
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
What watch are we keeping these days? It feels like not being able to look out far or in deep is the curse of the collective human condition. Yet, it’s too easy to say that this is more so today than in the past. Actual facts would say the modern world is continuously improving and our ability to deal with complex problems, like poverty is working and we should be back-slapping each other giving each other credit for the fact things are getting better. We aren’t to the point we can say we are globally great, but we are a darn sight better than we were 40 years ago by nearly every economic and meaningful measure that is vital to the health and well-being of our fellow global citizens. The problem is that optimism doesn’t make headlines. Disasters make headlines, so if you are a consumer of any kind of news, whether that’s on-line, TV, radio or news print, you are bombarded with a daily barrage of murder, mayhem, disaster and stupidity, until you are worn down believing everything is getting worse not better.
The writer Johan Norberg, a Swedish historian, published a book titled Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future in 2016. In it he makes the case that if we look at statistics like number of people living in extreme poverty, number of people with access to education, number of people who are illiterate, number of active global conflicts, number of countries controlled by repressive regimes and dictators, number of woman with access to health care, etc, etc. that by every measure that we can look at that measures our collective global well-being, the statistic has improved since 40 years ago. If you are interested in the topic of optimism, check out the link to the Guardian article on Norberg and check out the podcast that is available.
On the topic of optimism, I believe that poetry, particularly poetry about love, in which sonnets play a central role in the history of poetry, are at their core optimistic. Poetry is about capturing a tiny sliver of the human condition that is timeless and immortal, and by that very definition the poems that stand the test of time and live on in literature are those that hold up the best of what we can be. Poetry’s central role in our lives is to keep optimism’s lamp lit, for generations of readers.
By Edmund Spenser
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
‘Vain man,’ said she, ‘that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.’
‘Not so,’ (quod I); ‘let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.’
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,”
John F. Kennedy’s Call To Service during 1960 Inauguration
The Gift Outright
by Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
President Trump’s limited vocabulary and hate mongering is a stark contrast to the eloquence of former Presidents who strove through the power of their bully pulpit to inspire everyday Americans. In a little over a 1,000 days, John F. Kennedy, delivered some of the most powerful speeches of the 20th Century. Kennedy used his short time in office to create a vision of change that included everyone, not just in America, but around the world. His famous line; My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, is recognized by most of us, but the second part of that quote is less remembered. Kennedy doubled down and asked immediately afterward; My fellow citizens of the World, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man?
Yes, indeed, what together can we do for the freedom of human beings? A great question during a time when the United States government has authorized taking away children from their parents and putting them in concentration camps and our collective moral outrage has not yet, been enough to sway the course of our political destiny and right this leaky, floundering ship of our democracy.
A little known fact, is that shortly after Kennedy delivered those iconic lines, a first occurred in a Presidential inauguration. President Kennedy had asked a poet, Robert Frost, to deliver a poem that he had specifically written for the occasion called Dedication. It was a first time a poet was part of the inauguration program. But when Frost stepped to the podium, the sun was so blinding that the 86-year-old couldn’t read his own hand writing. So instead, he delivered his sonnet, The Gift Outright, from memory.
Great speakers understand that their words are only part of the way we communicate. In fact communication experts say that words make up about 10% of the way humans communicate with each other. The remaining 90%, is conferred through tone, inflection, body language, emotion and authenticity (reputation). So what is a poet to do, when words are all they have to work with on the page? Choose them wisely, is the answer; And on this noon-day’s beginning hour, begin a golden age of poetry and power!
By Robert Frost
(The undelivered poem at Kennedy’s Inaguration).
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgment I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded His approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood–
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison–
So much they knew as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what now appears
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did we say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.