A SWEET disorder in the dress Kindles in clothes a wantonness : A lawn about the shoulders thrown Into a fine distraction : An erring lace which here and there Enthrals the crimson stomacher : A cuff neglectful, and thereby Ribbons to flow confusedly : A winning wave (deserving note) In the tempestuous petticoat : A careless shoe-string, in whose tie I see a wild civility : Do more bewitch me than when art Is too precise in every part.
By Robert Herrick
Fair Daffodils, we weep to see You haste away so soon; As yet the early-rising sun Has not attain’d his noon. Stay, stay, Until the hasting day Has run But to the even-song; And, having pray’d together, we Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you, We have as short a spring; As quick a growth to meet decay, As you, or anything. We die As your hours do, and dry Away, Like to the summer’s rain; Or as the pearls of morning’s dew, Ne’er to be found again.
There never was a great genius without a touch of madness.
Doing, A Filthy Pleasure Is
by Gaius Petronius Translated by Ben Johnson
Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.
Time has a way of white washing the past. In Ben Johnson’s case what has lived on into the future are his words as a brilliant playwright and poet, not his murderous misdeeds. On September 22nd, 1598, Johnson, a young man of twenty-six, a former bricklayer turned playwright, his play Every Man in his Humour only recently debuted, got in an altercation with a young actor named Gabriel Spencer. Both men had a history of violence and tempers quickly escalated. Spencer had previously publicly threatened to kill a boy who threw a candle stick at him and Johnson boasted among his drinking mates of killing a man when he was younger, which his friends could never discern if the tale was true or whether Johnson used it to polish his reputation. What is not in dispute is that Spencer challenged Johnson to a duel and Johnson promptly ran him through with his sword, killing him instantly. Johnson was arrested a week hence and thrown in Newgate Prison. He was arraigned on October 6th and confessed to the crime of manslaughter for which the court had a reputation for sentencing the lower classes to death by hanging. However, Johnson, who looked like a laborer, made a calculated defense and called upon an obscure legal statute called “neck verse.” It allowed for the trial to be made in front of the clergy as jury rather than a hanging judge. During this alternative trial, the accused would be asked to sight-translate a random passage from the Latin Bible. If the criminal could pass the test it was proof of his religious stature and advanced education. In such cases, the court had the ability to grant clemency during sentencing, considering the crime a reflection of temporary insanity and not an indication of the accused true nature. It worked, Johnson was exonerated. He left Newgate Prison a free man, with only a brand upon his thumb to remind him of the blood he had spilled. The brand was a “T” for Tyburn, the gallows, where he would have met his end. Johnson no longer had to embellish his reputation, he had the mark for life to prove he was a killer.
Believe me, if all those endearing young charms, Which I gaze on so fondly to-day, Were to change by to-morrow, and fleet in my arms, Live fairy-gifts fading away, Thou wouldst still be adored, as this moment thou art, Let thy loveliness fade as it will, And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart Would entwine itself verdantly still.
It is not while beauty and youth are thine own, And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear, That the fervor and faith of a soul may be known, To which time will but make thee more dear! No, the heart that has truly loved never forgets, But as truly loves on to the close, As the sunflower turns on her god when he sets The same look which she turned when he rose!
Thomas Moore and his wife were preceded in death by all five of their children. His poetry and faith were tested to his core and imbue his poetry with that emotion. While away in Bermuda attending to business for four years, his wife contracted small pox and though she survived, her face was disfigured. When Moore returned his wife was reluctant to let him see her, concerned how he would react to her appearance and wanting him to remember her as she was before. Moore sat down and penned the poem above to let her know that his love for her was unchanged.
This is a poem that has been set to music for so long it is hard to separate one from the other, the tune from the verse. To all lovers, young and old alike, may your love last through the vagaries of life and may you see the beauty in each other, now and forever.
by Thomas Moore
Love thee?–so well, so tenderly Thou’rt loved, adored by me, Fame, fortune, wealth, and liberty, Were worthless without thee. Tho’ brimmed with blessings, pure and rare, Life’s cup before me lay, Unless thy love were mingled there, I’d spurn the draft away. Love thee?–so well, so tenderly, Thou’rt loved, adored by me, Fame, fortune, wealth, and liberty, Are worthless without thee.
Without thy smile, the monarch’s lot To me were dark and lone, While, with it, even the humblest cot Were brighter than his throne. Those worlds for which the conqueror sighs For me would have no charms; My only world thy gentle eyes– My throne thy circling arms! Oh, yes, so well, so tenderly Thou’rt loved, adored by me, Whole realms of light and liberty Were worthless without thee
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.
by John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art— Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night, And watching, with eternal lids apart, Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite, The moving waters at their priestlike task Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores, Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask Of snow upon the mountains and the moors— No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable, Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
The Flower (An Excerpt)
by George Herbert (1593 – 1633)
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring; To which, besides their own demean, The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring. . Grief melts away . Like snow in May, As if there were no such cold thing. Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone Quite underground; as flowers depart To see their mother-root, when they have blown, . Where they together . All the hard weather, Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write; I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing. Oh, my only light, . It cannot be . That I am he On whom thy tempests fell all night.
And how can poetry stand up against its new conditions? Its position is perfectly precarious.
John Crowe Ransom
I Have Not Lived
by Walter Clyde Curry (1887 – 1967)
Though half my years besiege the aged sun,
I have not lived. My robust preparation
Lags tardily behind fit consummation,
Droops sweatily in courses just begun.
Oh, I have loved and lusted with the best,
Plucked momentary music from the senses;
I’ve kissed a lip or two with fair pretenses
And wept for softness of a woman’s breast.
My mind rebounds to nether joys and pain,
Toying with filth and pharisaic leaven;
I know the lift up sundry peaks to heaven,
And every rockless path to hell again.
I wait the hour when gods have more to give
Than husks and bare insatiate will to live.
Walter Clyde Curry is a member of The Fugitives along with more celebrated founders Donald Davidson, John Ransom, Alan Tate and Robert Penn Warren, among others. Curry was primarily a literary critic over the course of his career and left his mark teaching. A forty year faculty member of Vanderbilt University from 1915 to 1955, Curry produced exactly the kind of books I dislike, extensive academic analysis of Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. A self styled medievalist and agrarian, he felt the culture of the medieval past and the south should shape the future of literature. The Fugitives believed they had developed a new way of evaluating literature that provided a bridge from past to present. And in the end they were somewhat right. The future evolved either in part because of their influence or more likely because their ideas were fundamentally rejected by a more diverse artistic and academic community.
Some academic work stands up over time, The Fugitives and in particular Curry’s legacy is a bit more convoluted in my opinion. It’s hard to celebrate a group of coddled affluent white academics that romanticized the deep south’s history of bigotry, slavery and white supremacy when that level of white blindness falls flat on it’s face today, Curry, one of the least talented poets in the group in my opinion, wisely wrote under a pen name, keeping a healthy distance between his playful poetry and his serious refined future as a critic. Curry was by many accounts an excellent professor at least for the tastes of his period and at the Universities he taught. Would Curry garner the level of academic stature and support he received 80 years ago today? Or would he have adapted and still flourished? Good teachers are generally good story tellers, a timeless quality that affords the individual the ability to adapt to his ever changing listening habits of his audience.
In my mind The Fugitives are better known for their legacy of scholarly criticism than for their actual poetry. They were young men, still exploring their bones and figuring out where and how to build their careers. Their poetry is mingled with a touch of vulnerability. They were young men, flawed, but thinkers, who left their mark, some of it good, some of it bad. The same can be said of their poetry.
by John Crowe Ransom
How many godly creatures are there here! Miranda doted on the sight of seamen. The very casual adventures Who took a flood as quickly as a calm, And kept their blue eyes blue to any weather. This was the famous manliness of men: And when she saw it on the dirty strangers, She clapped her pretty hands in sudden joy: O brave new world!
You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.
by Pablo Neruda
Naked, you are simple as one of your hands, Smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round: You have moonlines, applepathways: Naked, you are slender as a naked grain of wheat.
Naked, you are blue as the night in Cuba; You have vines and stars in your hair; Naked, you are spacious and yellow As summer in a golden church.
Naked, you are tiny as one of your nails, Curved, subtle, rosy, till the day is born And you withdraw to the underground world,
as if down a long tunnel of clothing and of chores: Your clear light dims, gets dressed, drops its leaves, And becomes a naked hand again.
by Pablo Neruda
Desnuda eres tan simple como una de tus manos, lisa, terrestre, mínima, redonda, transparente, tienes líneas de luna, caminos de manzana, desnuda eres delgada como el trigo desnudo.
Desnuda eres azul como la noche en Cuba, tienes enredaderas y estrellas en el pelo, desnuda eres enorme y amarilla como el verano en una iglesia de oro.
Desnuda eres pequeña como una de tus uñas, curva, sutil, rosada hasta que nace el día y te metes en el subterráneo del mundo
como en un largo túnel de trajes y trabajos: tu claridad se apaga, se viste, se deshoja y otra vez vuelve a ser una mano desnuda
Body of a Woman
By Pablo Neruda
Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs, when you surrender, you stretch out like the world. My body, savage and peasant, undermines you and makes a son leap in the bottom of the earth.
I was lonely as a tunnel. Birds flew from me. And night invaded me with her powerful army. To survive I forged you like a weapon, like an arrow for my bow, or a stone for my sling.
But now the hour of revenge falls, and I love you. Body of skin, of moss, of firm and thirsty milk! And the cups of your breasts! And your eyes full of absence! And the roses of your mound! And your voice slow and sad!
Body of my woman, I will live on through your marvelousness. My thirst, my desire without end, my wavering road! Dark river beds down which the eternal thirst is flowing, and the fatigue is flowing, and the grief without shore.
Cuerpo de Mujer
by Pablo Neruda
Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos, te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega. Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.
Fui solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa. Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma, como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda.
Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo. Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme. Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia! Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste!
Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia. Mi sed, mi ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso! Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue, y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito.
It is not only the Romans who are gone. Belli, unhappy a century ago, Won from the world his fashionable stone. Where it stands now, he doesn’t even know. Across the Tiber, near Trastevere, His top hat teetered on his head with care, Brushed like a gentleman, he cannot see The latest Romans who succeed him there.
One of them bravely climbed his pedestal And sprayed a scarlet MERDA on his shawl. This afternoon, I pray his hidden grave Lies nameless somewhere in the hills, while rain Fusses and frets to rinse away the stain. Rain might erase when marble cannot save.
by James Wright
Praying down the gulley, Slowed by the rainy mire, I will discern, across the void, Two flies winding a fire, And a long thick leaf Hanging on another, And a leg of root and a leg Of bough twining together.
That will be she forever; Lightning bugs for eyes, That see no farther in the dark Than my own blind eyes; A limp leaf for a cheek, Cracking before it slips; Tendril and twig for ankle bones, And nothing at all for lips
When darkness hovers over earth, and day gives place to night, Then lovers see the Milky Way gleam mystically bright, And calling it the Way of Love they hail it with delight.
Joyce Kilmer, Summer of Love
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
In Minnesota, May is the month of trees even more so than the splendor of the fall. Minnesotan’s come out of a long winter eager for the warmth of spring. The bare and brown trees tease us all April long, with hints of green and growing things. But it isn’t until May that the canopy is filled with as many colors of green as the mind’s eye can imagine. Then, about the middle of the month, crab apples and lilacs fill our neighborhoods with their delights. By Memorial day their blossoms will be gone, their sweet smells a reminder to slow down, close your eyes and breath.
The beauty of this year’s greenness got me thinking about poems about trees. It’s what lead me to James Emanuel’s poem A Fool for Evergreen. Of course the most famous poem about trees is Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. I asked a good friend of mine who was in her 90’s at the time a few years back; “what are some of your favorite poems?” The first one she recited from memory was I think that I shall never see…. I was surprised. It feels like such a simple poem for her sophisticated and educated pallet. I hate to say I had even found Kilmer’s Trees a bit cliche prior to writing this entry. But of course I hadn’t realized Kilmer died in World War I as a young soldier, on a brave and fool hardy mission, in which lives were shed needlessly, as easily as petals fall from the trees. I had not stopped to listen to her reverence for the poem through her eyes until today.
Kilmer entered the army as a statistician for the New York National Guard in the summer of 1917, shortly after the death of his daughter Rose and the birth of his son. He left his wife and newborn son with visions of writing a book of prose and poetry based on his wartime experiences. The reality of being a soldier drained him of his creative energy and he wrote little during the final 9 months of his life. He arrived in France in November 1917 and like so many young men of that war, who thought there was glory to be found, found something else was waiting. By spring of 1918 he was volunteering for ever more dangerous assignments putting him in harms way at the front lines, possibly out of survivor’s guilt. On July 30, 1918 he was shot and killed while as an advance scout for the 165th Infantry Regiment in an open field, at the crest of a small hill, trying to identify the precise location of a nest of German machine guns that were raining down death upon his comrades.
I didn’t think about it until now, my friend who was born in the early 1920’s, that in her grade school years the healing from World War I had barely begun for the families scarred by its tragedies. She memorized Kilmer’s poem in grade school a decade after Kilmer’s death, probably from a lesson plan taught by a young female teacher; Kilmer’s poem both a way to honor those that they had known who had died in the war and as a primer for young students for a life long love of literature. The poem is sometimes looked down in the halls of literary criticism for its simplicity, an object that is not valid in my mind. Simple poems, in my opinion, are the foundation of literature that offer a foot path into the vault of our adult imaginations.
Do grade school children memorize poetry anymore? What poems will become their primers for healing for the dissonance of the past couple of years? Are the poems that this generation memorizes in childhood similar or different than the past? What literature is lurking beneath the beats of hip hop and Tik Tok, countless young people absorbing its artistic energy, without the rest of us even aware? A hundred years from now, what poems will people share with each other from this decade? Do you have a poem that has touched your heart in a different way these past two years that you will carry with you from here forward in a different light, a perfect light about you? In what form did that poem come to you? You may not even realize how it has buried itself under your skin until that day you find yourself saying it out loud to a friend….
by Joyce Kilmer
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men, Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves, Each one the pleasant outer sunshine leaves; They mingle in this stifling, loud-wheeled pen. The gate clangs to—we stir—we sway—and then We thunder through the dark. The long train weaves Its gloomy way. At last above the eaves We see awhile God’s day, then night again.
Hurled through the dark—day at Manhattan Street, The rest all night. That is my life, it seems. Through sunless ways go my reluctant feet. The sunlight comes in transitory gleams. And yet the darkness makes the light more sweet, The perfect light about me—in my dreams.
For me, the promised land, always seeming just beyond my reach, is the poetic masterpiece, that perfect union of words in cadence, each beckoned and shined and breathed into place, each moving in well-tried harmony of tone and texture and meaning with its neighbors, molding an almost living being so faithful to observable truth, so expressive of the mass of humanity and so aglow with the beauty of just proportions that the reader feels a chill in his legs or a catch in his throat.
A Fool For Evergreen
by James Emanuel
A little bit of fool in me Hides behind my inmost tree And pops into the narrow path I walk blindfolded by my wrath Or shrunken by some twist of pain, Some hope that will not wind again. He ogles with his antic eyes and somersaults a you’re-not-wise Until the patches in his pants Go colorwheeling through my glance So fast that I cannot recall That I was mad or sad at all. A little bit of fool in me Keeps evergreen my inmost tree.
Writing this blog, it is hard sometimes for me to reconcile the beauty of a poem and the sadness that is part of a poets life. Most of these poets I know nothing about their lives until I find their poem first and then do a little research about the poet. James Emanuel was born and grew up Nebraska. At age twenty he enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and served as the confidential secretary to the Assistant Inspector General of the U.S. Army during WWII. After his discharge, he went to Harvard for his undergraduate, then Northwestern for his masters and ultimately on to Columbia for his Ph. D. He then moved to New York City where he taught at City College of New York (CUNY) where he taught the college’s first course on African-American poetry.
Emanuel was a poet, an educator, a scholar, an editor and mentor to many. As the years passed Emanuel became disenfranchised with racism in America. In 1960 he moved to Europe where he continued a brilliant career at the University of Toulouse as a Fulbright scholar. He traveled and lectured at many Universities with extended stays at the University of Grenoble and University of Warsaw. In the late 1980’s his only child, a son, was brutally beaten by three racist cops in Los Angeles. In the emotional aftermath his son committed suicide and Emanuel never returned to America.
Emanuel published more than 300 poems, 13 books and was an influential editor and critic. Emanuel created a new literary genre, jazz-and-blues haiku, which he read to musical accompaniment throughout Europe and Africa. Yet despite all that success he is largely overlooked in most literary circles after 1960, in part because he left the United States and because he wrote in mostly traditional poetic forms. Emanuel was the last surviving writer from the Harlem Renaissance. He died in 2013 in Paris France. I find it interesting that both he and Ethridge Knight shared a love of haiku that went largely unnoticed in America during their lifetimes.
I listened to the video below as I wrote this blog entry. It brightened my day. I found it ironic that the critics ignored him for being “traditional” and yet there is nothing traditional about his verse. The joy in his voice, the artists he is honoring mingle with his haiku style and content and the sweet saxophone jazz. It all combines into a stunning hypnotic literary effect. Check out the video at about the 16:30 there are a couple of haiku on hip hop. I particularly enjoyed the Jazz Rabbit.
by James Emanuel
I hear a whistling Through the water. Little Emmett Won’t be still. He keeps floating Round the darkness, Edging through The silent chill. Tell me, please, That bedtime story Of the fairy River Boy Who swims forever, Deep in treasures, Necklaced in A coral toy.