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.
It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows
Of Nature have their image in the mind,
As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close,
Only the empty nests are left behind,
And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.
Vinegar may preserve pickles, but it isn’t effective in extending longevity in humans. A common mindset among the aged is gratitude. A sense that life is special and they are grateful for what it has brought them, both good and bad experiences. People who are sour-pusses spoil in their own juices.
A year ago I shared on Fourteenlines on Thanksgiving my favorite poem of gratitude, aptly titled Gratefulness by George Herbert. I shared a shortened version of the poem that I have used for many years as a prayer of gratitude at Thanksgiving. I like it because it is divinity neutral. Regardless of what you believe, everyone should have someone or something for which you are grateful. “Thou that has given so much to me….” is a wonderful way to bring into focus in our minds who we want to thank and give blessings of gratitude to this day.
What is interesting, is last year’s Thanksgiving day blog was read by only a few people on Thanksgiving day. But it has been one of the most read of all my blog entries ever since. The terms grateful, gratitude and gratefulness are consistently some of the most searched terms on search engines that brings people to Fourteenlines. I think that illustrates one of the things I most appreciate about sharing this blog, it reinforces everything good about my fellow travelers and humanity. It is reassuring to know that people from countries all over the world are looking for ways to express gratitude in their lives and looking to poetry to express it elegantly.
This year’s Thanksgiving poems are a little outdated in their language but the words have such a beautiful flow and they are marvelous poems. I have a feeling that many readers of Wordsworth’s poem may not have ever seen a sheave and might not even know what one is. Prior to the invention of diesel-powered combines, grain was swathed and sheaved by hand prior to the grain being threshed or winnowed. It was an enormous amount of work, and one would have been certainly grateful when it was done for the year.
Today I will be gathering with family and friends around a bountiful table. My family and I are truly blessed in all we have, the place that we live, the opportunities we enjoy, the health and well being of those present and those in our thoughts. I will offer the first and last stanzas of the Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s fine poem Thanksgiving as this year’s prayer of gratitude. If you have a favorite prayer or poem of thanksgiving please share it. And if you are in need of one feel free to follow my lead.
By Ella Wheeler Wilcox
We walk on starry fields of white
And do not see the daisies;
For blessings common in our sight
We rarely offer praises.
We sigh for some supreme delight
To crown our lives with splendor,
And quite ignore our daily store
Of pleasures sweet and tender.
Our cares are bold and push their way
Upon our thought and feeling.
They hand about us all the day,
Our time from pleasure stealing.
So unobtrusive many a joy
We pass by and forget it,
But worry strives to own our lives,
And conquers if we let it.
There’s not a day in all the year
But holds some hidden pleasure,
And looking back, joys oft appear
To brim the past’s wide measure.
But blessings are like friends, I hold,
Who love and labor near us.
We ought to raise our notes of praise
While living hearts can hear us.
Full many a blessing wears the guise
Of worry or of trouble;
Far-seeing is the soul, and wise,
Who knows the mask is double.
But he who has the faith and strength
To thank his God for sorrow
Has found a joy without alloy
To gladden every morrow.
We ought to make the moments notes
Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
A grand Thanksgiving chorus.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge is one of Wordsworth most popular sonnets. What makes it remarkable is that it is an important shift in poetic ideals where the cityscape has replaced the pastoral countryside or nature as the inspiration for beauty. Wordsworth captures the warmth and pride he has in the city of London and the kinship he feels with his countryman in the poem.
Eighty years later T. S. Elliot makes an unnamed city (probably London where he was living at the time) a central character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This time it is not a place of beauty, it is a place of grit and grime, possibly only existing in the poet’s imagination, a tawdry place that men of certain ages like to slouch about in.
My attempt at connecting purpose with place in my sonnet In The Hand of Heaven deals with the idea that we are shaped by the places we live, the place we call home. The idea that both the city and its inhabitants have an obligation to look after each other, an investment in each other, a responsibility to take care of where we live and who we live with.
No poet has taken that metaphor further than William Carlos Williams in his surreal and unfinished poem Paterson. Paterson is one of my least favorite things that Williams wrote. It reads to me like an inner dialogue, prose not meant for outside interpretation. It is rambling, disjointed, sometimes illogical, in ways much like our own inner dialogue often is and in that way creates a bit of a voyeuristic fascination. He allegedly wrote it as his kryptonite to T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, to counter what was popular and build upon his voice that I find much more eloquent in his book Cora in Hell. But I like his premise, that a man (or woman) is a city and a city is a man. It brings humanity back into the equation of the concrete, bricks, buildings, parks, roads and bridges that we live amongst in our daily lives. William Carlos Williams loved his city, Paterson, N. J. and its inhabitants. His poem Paterson is in my mind his love song to the place he called home. He describes a Paterson that is imperfect, complicated, incomplete, but human, just like the men and women who inhabit it.
Here’s a couple of brief snippets from Paterson….
Excerpts from Paterson
by William Carlos Williams
Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in
himself is a city, beginning, seeking v achieving and con-
cluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a
city may embody— if imaginatively conceived — any city,
all the details of which may be made to voice his most
intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental
character of the place. The Second Part comprises the
modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them
vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be remi-
niscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in
“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty
when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”
To make a start,
put of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means —
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? And to do?
The .rest-have run out —
after the rabbits.
Only the lame stands— on
three legs. Scratch front and back.
Deceive and eat. Dig
a musty bone
For the beginning is assuredly
the end — since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.
Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months’ wonder, the city
the man, an identity — it can’t be
otherwise — an
interpenetration, both ways. Rolling
Sunday in the Park
there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
— a world
(to me) at rest,
which I approach
The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city
— upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
— late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!
— and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
himself among the others,
— treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!
laughing, calling to each other-
Wait for me!
You ought to see this place.
There was a hellicopter (?) flying all over the river today
looking for the body of a suicide, some student, some girl
about my age (she says . a Hindu Princess). It was in the
papers this morning but I didn’t take notice. You ought to
have seen the way those gulls were winging it around* They
went crazy .
You must have lots of boy friends, Phyllis
Only one I’m interested in
What is he like?
Oh him. He’s married. I
haven’t got a chance with him
You hussy! And what do you do together?
Phyllis <£f Paterson
Are you happy?
Happy IVe come?
Happy? No, I’m not happy
• • . « * •
Oh Paterson! Oh married man!
He is the city of cheap hotels and private
entrances , of taxis at the door, the car
standing in the rain hour after hour by
the roadhouse entrance
Good-bye, dear, I had a wonderful time.
Wait! there’s something . but I’ve forgotten
what it was . something I wanted
to tell you. Completely gone! Completely,
from Paterson. I do have a whitmanic mania & nostalgia for cities
and detail & panorama and isolation in jungle and pole, like the
images you pick up. When I’ve seen enough I’ll be back to splash in
the Passaic again only with a body so naked and happy City Hall
will have to call out the Riot Squad. When I come back 1*11 make
big political speeches in the mayoralty campaigns like I did when
I was 1 6 only this time I’ll have W. C. Fields on my left and
Jehovah on my right. Why not? Paterson is only a big sad poppa
who needs compassion. • In any case Beauty is where I hang
my hat. And reality. And America.
There is no struggle to speak to the city, out of the stones etc.
Truth is not hard to find . . . I’m not being clear, so Til
shut up . . I mean to say Paterson is not a task like
Milton going down to hell, it’s a flower to the mind too etc etc.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Milton wrote Paradise Lost at a time when the power struggle between the Monarchy and Parliament was coming to a head and while the Monarchy still held tightly to the reins of power, Cromwell and his supporters, such as Milton, were turning the tide of public sentiment in favor of the Republic. Was Milton’s literature as powerful a tool as armies in fomenting rebellion or is it in retrospect given more credit than it deserves and is simply the elegance of history shaped in metaphor? The bold politics of Paradise Lost amidst its pure literary style is Milton’s genius. Satan has rarely had such a star turn in literature as Milton provides him in Paradise Lost. Milton’s Satan is depicted as the most beautiful and intelligent of all the angels, who proclaims; “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven….”
What role does literature play in society in 2018? Sadly, video games and Netflix have usurped our children’s imagination. First person shooter games and violent programing have overtaken literature as centers of entertainment, worthy of their time and ingeniuty.
What role does poetry play in shaping the discourse of our nation, of our world? I believe poetry is as vibrant a vehicle for challenging the status quo of lassitude as ever, but we lack the dominant voices in poetry that once were as popular as today’s rock stars or fashion divas. I wonder, who will be the first rock star poet of the 21st Century and what will be their message that invigorates the public’s imagination? What poet’s genius is already rousing us from sleepy acceptance of the crude politics of divisiveness that dominate our polarized world? Whose words inspire you to build a bridge between the political rifts that divide your communities? It certainly is not the loud blustery voices on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. So maybe its time we tune out the rabid 24/7 news cycle and take the time to read a book, read a poem, listen to music and find in them, new ideas that stretch us in unexpected ways. For all of human history, in tension and conflict are sown the seeds of artistic expression. If I view current conflicts as the incubator of great art, then I awaken to the reality that art is all around me to seek out and enjoy.
On The Pulse of Morning
by Maya Angelou
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.
I am currently reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railway. It is a moving fictional account of what the human spirit will endure to achieve freedom. Whitehead is a brilliant writer; his poetic prose, steeps you in the moral corruption of the South, the barbaric cruelty that powered the wealth that came from indigo, cotton and sugar production. It is a legacy of the ruthlessness of fellow human beings that casts a shadow all the way to today over the United States. How do we address the history of atrocities that paved the way for the economic foundation that allowed for the United States to become the world’s wealthiest country? I tire of the willful ignorance, the pretension that American prosperity was built solely upon ingenuity and self determination, without acknowledging that prosperity also came with a legacy of genocide and the immorality of slavery that still bears a responsibility of recognition and forgiveness.
Touissant L’Ouverture is not a historical figure with whom many in the United States are familiar. Touuissant was one of the leaders of a rebellion that parallels our own revolution, when the slaves of then Hispaniola and Saint-Dominique, modern day Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, fought back and won their freedom. The ideas of independence which spawned the French Revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man in 1789, made the hypocrisy of slavery in French colonies unsustainable and its overthrow inevitable. The idea that all men had unassailable rights that extended beyond skin color was an idea that threw gasoline on what was already an inferno of madness in slavery. Although Haiti is an impoverished nation today, it as a direct result of a conspiracy of economic retribution by Europe and the United States, a continuation of the tyranny, that was overcome. Haiti (Saint-Dominique) was the richest of all European colonies 250 years ago, with over sixty percent of the coffee imported and forty percent of the sugar consumed in Europe produced there. This immense wealth only made possible by the cruelty of slave labor.
L’Ouverture was a talented provocateur, orator and military general, who would defeat the armies of France, Great Britain and the United States successfully over a 12 year period, with military casualties in excess of 50,000 men combined from those three nations, before being betrayed by his own lieutenants who thirsted for greater power themselves after the imperialist landowners were overthrown. L’Ouverture was captured, chained and returned to France, tried in court and sentenced to a remote prison to die, not realizing for himself the very freedom he had helped win for an entire nation.
For more information on Touissant L’Ouverture see the link for a documentary below.
The two sonnets I have included span a period of 200 years in their creation. Each poet, inspired by L’Ouverture’s life. Wordsworth, although not an abolitionist, recognized the courage and moral right of L’Ouverture and Agard, who envisioned a response that is neither rebuttal, nor concurrence with Wordsworth, but a tribute to the humanity of both of men.
How come I didn’t learn about the history of Haiti in high school, when it’s very history is borne of the same noble ideas of equality for all that is the foundation of the American revolution? Is it because we still bear responsibility for a collective failure to reconcile both the heroic and monstrous aspects of United States history.
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or had a close-up view of daffodils.
My childhood’s roots are the Haitian hills
where runaway slaves made a freedom pledge
and scarlet poincianas flaunt their scent.
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or speak, like you, with Cumbrian accent.
My tongue bridges Europe to Dahomey.
Yet how sweet is the smell of liberty
when human beings share a common garment.
So, thanks brother, for your sonnet’s tribute.
May it resound when the Thames’ text stays mute.
And what better ground than a city’s bridge
for my unchained ghost to trumpet love’s decree.