They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Phillip Larkin made English Lit 101 much more interesting for a legion of young people by penning This Be The Verse. It opens with the single most identifiable first line for teenage angst of any poem every written. The holiday season has a way of raising anxiety for many people, it brings out their inner bah-hum-bug. I am the opposite. I pretty much enjoy everything about Christmas and New Years. I enjoy the fellowship with family. I like to bake. I like to cook. I like to have people over to my house. I like making and giving presents. I like the corny Christmas shows on TV. I even like Christmas music. I realize that many find this a character flaw, which is why I am bringing you a little Joni Mitchell -and Phillip Larkin to counter balance the good cheer with classic curmudgeonly poetry. If you have a bit of inner Grinch, may this no, no, no darken your day like winter solstice in Norway.
by Philip Larkin
You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That’s seen, some mornings, running down a lawn.
It is these sunless afternoons, I find
Install you at my elbow like a bore
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. You have been here some time.
My Aunt Nita’s kitchen was immaculate and dark,
and she was always bending to the sink
below the window where the shadows off the bulk
of Laurel Mountain rose up to the brink
of all the sky she saw from there. She clattered
pots on countertops wiped clean of coal dust,
fixed three meals a day, fried meat, mixed batter
for buckwheat cakes, hauled water, in what seemed lust
for labor. One March evening, after cleaning,
she lay down to rest and died. I can see Uncle Ed,
his fingers twined at his plate for the blessing;
my Uncle Craig leaning back, silent in red
galluses. No on said a word to her. All that food
and cleanliness. No one ever told her it was good.
by Walter de la Mare
When thou as little as I am, Mother
And I as old as thou,
I’ll feed thee on wild bee honey-comb,
And milk from my cow.
I’ll make thee a swan’s down bed, Mother;
Watch over thee then will I.
And if in a far-away dream you start
I’ll sing thee lullaby.
It’s many – oh ages and ages, Mother
We shared, we too, Soon now:
Thou shalt be happy, grown again young,
And I as old as thou.
I like a good poem
one with lots of fighting
in it. Blood, and the
clanging of armour. Poems
against Scotland are good,
and poems that defeat
the French with crossbows.
I don’t like poems that
aren’t about anything.
Sonnets are wet and
a waste of time.
Also poems that don’t
know how to rhyme.
If I was a poem
I’d play football and
get picked for England.
by Roger McGough
I vow to honour the commitment made this day
Which, unlike the flowers and the cake,
Will not wither or decay. A promise, not to obey
But to respond joyfully, to forgive and to console,
For once incomplete, we now are whole.
I vow to bear in mind that if, at times
Things seem to go from bad to worse,
They also go from bad to better.
The lost purse is handed in, the letter
Contains wonderful news. Trains run on time,
Hurricanes run out of breath, floods subside,
And toast lands jam-side up.
And with this ring, my final vow:
To recall, whatever the future may bring,
The love I feel for you now.
I am interested & amazed: on the building across the way
from where I vaguely live there are no bars!
Best-looking place in town.
Only them lawyers big with great cigars
and lesser with briefcases, instead of minds,
move calmly in and out
and now or then an official limousine
with a live Supreme Court justice & chauffeur
mounts the ramp toward me.
We live behind, you see. It’s Christmas, and brrr
in Washington. My wife’s candle is out
for John F. Kennedy
And the law rushes like mud but the park is white
with a heavy fall for ofays and for dark,
let’s exchange blue-black kisses
for the fate of the Man who was not born today,
clashing our tinsel, by the terrible tree
whereon he really hung, for you & me.
Sometimes mud rushes pretty darn fast, recent pictures of flash flooding in the burn scars in California show mud-rivers hurtling down mountains. Mostly mud just hangs around and slowly makes it way down watersheds as sediment to eventually settle out in slow moving places. Either way, the landscape can be changed forever. Which trajectory of mud will the Mueller investigation take in the next couple of months?
It is unsettling to me that it is suddenly the 200th post. It feels like it was just the 100th post. I am sure I’ll be saying the same about the 300th. Time speeds up as you get older. The days, weeks and months move by at an ever quickening speed. Our human agency of mud rushing us along until it sweeps us away at the end or covers us up.
I have been reading Berryman’s TheDream Songs on planes the past month. Berryman’s quixotic mind is capable of almost anything one page to the next. I go back and forth between revulsion and awe with Berryman, but no matter what, his poetry leaves a bitter after taste, the sheer self destructiveness of his real life oozing out onto the page. I am not one who glorifies the writer as romantic drunk. Which is the chicken and which is the egg for many writers: poets becoming alcoholics or alcohol becoming poetry? It is shocking how few teetotalers exist among the pantheon of great poets. What does that say about the human mind as addict and as artist?
Regardless of whether you like the man Berryman, it is hard not to be pulled under the sway of Berryman the poet, even when he is at his most self-effacing, an obvious rakish cad. It helps to remember when reading The Dream Songs that he didn’t share them publicly until decades after the real life betrayal of his by then ex-wife by seducing another man’s wife. At least he waited for the healing balm of time to scab over his amputations before showing the stumps of his scars to the world.
Berryman was original, he created his own sonnet form, to fit his own needs and poetic vision. Even when I don’t like the man and muse behind The Dream Songs, I find myself enamored by the construction of them, his use of rhyme, his unique re-imagining of the form. classical poetry is fresh under his masterful control.
For a far more academic and insightful analysis of Berryman’s sonnets, read April Bernard’s essay in Poetry Magazine.
The truth of it is that Berryman was a drunk, a stinking drunk and drunks eventually break things, even if what they break is primarily themselves, the rush of mud of into the crevices. But its interesting that numerous students remember him only with fondness. Multiple students can be found in the bowels of Google with articles, or a little video or an audio version of what sound like love letters of appreciation to what Berryman brought to them as a Professor, as a lasting influence in their life. By all accounts he was a remarkable teacher.
Of course Levine went on to be a very successful poet. But if I am honest, he is the kind of poet that I struggle reading. He writes the kind of free verse that I tend to read about 15 lines and drift away, never to return.
Levine was our Poet Laureate for a bit and when asked by a writer from the New York Times what he thought of the initiative by The Poetry Foundation to utilize a $200 million endowment to increase the popularity of poetry by encouraging poets to write more upbeat poetry, he responded by belittling the Poetry Foundation, proudly remaining an angry, angst-ridden poet right up until the end. I don’t think Levine got it, that he was exactly the kind of poet that makes poetry less popular.
I have picked out the one sonnet I can find of Levine’s. It is not representative of Levine’s body of work, which is probably why it is the one poem of Levine’s I actually like. You tell me if this poem is about Berryman?
Happy 200 Day!
by Phillip Levine
He fears the tiger standing in his way.
The tiger takes its time, it smiles and growls.
Like moons, the two blank eyes tug at his bowels.
“God help me now,” is all that he can say.
“God help me now, how close I’ve come to God.
To love and to be loved, I’ve drunk for love.
Send me the faith of Paul, or send a dove.”
The tiger hears and stiffens like a rod.
At last the tiger leaps, and when it hits
A putrid surf breaks in the drunkard’s soul.
The tiger, done, returns to its patrol.
The world takes up its trades; the man his wits,
And, bottom up, he mumbles from the deep,
“Life was a dream, Oh, may this death be sleep.”
To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer-jaws of heaven.
by Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)
You will not always be far away and pure
As a word conceived in a poet’s silver womb
You will not always be a metaphysical signature
To all the poems I write. In my bleak room
This very year by gods will you may be
A woman innocent in her first sin
Having cast off immortality.
Of the never to be born. The violin
Is not more real than the music played upon it.
They told me this – the priests – but I am tired
Of loving through the medium of a sonnet
I want by Man, not God, to be inspired
This year O creature of the dream-vague face
You’ll come and be a thing in time and space.
by Patrick Kavanagh
And sometimes I am sorry when the grass
Is growing over the stones in quiet hollows
And the cocksfoot leans across the rutted cart-pass
That I am not the voice of country fellows
Who now are standing by some headland talking
Of turnips and potatoes or young corn
Of turf banks stripped for victory.
Here Peace is still hawking
His coloured combs and scarves and beads of horn.
Upon a headland by a whinny hedge
A hare sits looking down a leaf-lapped furrow
There’s an old plough upside-down on a weedy ridge
And someone is shouldering home a saddle-harrow.
Out of that childhood country what fools climb
To fight with tyrants Love and Life and Time?
Suppose you screeve? or go cheap-jack?
Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot;
You can not bank a single stag;
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Suppose you try a different tack,
And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
Or with the mummers mug and gag?
For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag!
At any graft, no matter what,
Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
It’s up the spout and Charley Wag
With wipes and tickers and what not.
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Ricky Jay Potash died several days ago. Known as Ricky Jay, he was one of the greatest sleight of hand magicians and card performers over the past 50 years. His talents a combination of incredible skill, brilliant memory and showmanship. The video below is an hour-long stage act produced by the famed director David Mamet which showcases Jay’s prowess with a deck of cards. In it he recites at about the 5:30 mark Henley’s translation of Villon’s masterful poem about the life of pick pockets, con men, thieves and swindlers. Henley uses the idiom’s of 19th century London street slang in place of Villon’s 15th century French Paris. As poems go, it is as fun to read aloud as Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Both are great examples that sometimes poetry doesn’t have to make sense, it simply has to be fun to read.
Francois Villon’s real life reads a bit like Miguel Cervantes’ fiction. Villon was a scoundrel, brawler, purported murderer and thief, whose quick wits and propensity for humorous and finely rhymed poetry gained him enough recognition during his lifetime to obtain several pardons, including once by King Louis XI himself who allegedly said “I cannot afford to hang François Villon. There are a hundred thousand rogues in France as great as he, but not such another poet.”
Villon was born poor and orphaned early, but his keen intelligence attracted a priest as benefactor, and he eventually won scholarship at the University of Paris, earning both a Baclaurate and Master’s degree in the Arts. Though his poetry gained him little income in his lifetime, his humor and candor about both his life as a scoundrel, and his depiction of the common poor and the rich in verse usally reserved for courtly elite, made him popular in France. Villon’s unique approach to lyric poetry influenced and inspired many of the innovative French poets of the 19th century including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarme.
Villon was largely unknown outside of France as a poet until a few English poets began translating some of his work in the 19th century. It is a testament to Villon’s talent that brilliant minds like William Earnest Henley, Charles Algernon Swinburne, Galway Kinnell and Dante Gabriel Rossetti tackled translations faithful to his originals in both intent and playfulness. Today Villon is likely the most well known French poet of the middle ages, his poetry translated into more than 25 languages.
So why are men like Henley, Rossetti, Baudelaire and Jay attracted to Villion’s verse? I think its because they recognize in his poetry a kindred soul, a fellow poet and thief. All poet’s are thieves. They steal their best lines by listening for the poetry that is all around them and then pawn it off as original. I think they applaud his originality, his avante garde style for his day. And who doesn’t admire a man whose poetry kept him more than once from the gallows as a metaphor for what every poet aspires.
Skip an hour of Netflix tonight and check out the video below. Jay’s card tricks and sleight of hand are incredible.
Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis
by François Villon
Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “Ballad of the Dead Ladies”
Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where’s Hipparchia,and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?.
Where is Echo,beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,
She whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yester-year?.
Where’s Héloise, the learned nun,.
For whose sake Abeillard, ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?.
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen.
Who willed that Buridan should steer.
Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine?
But where are the snows of yester-year?
White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,.
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,
And that good Joan whom Englishmen.
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,
Mother of God, where are they then?
But where are the snows of yester-year?
Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,
But where are the snows of yester-year?
“Be like the cat, so alive after the mouse, never wondering or questioning why,
when there is really only God, only God…
Rumi – The Purity of Desire, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Those Who Surrender
Translated by Coleman Barks
I have been tricked by flying too close
to what I thought I loved.
Now the candle flame is out, the wine spilled,
and the lovers have withdrawn
somewhere beyond my squinting.
The amount I thought I won, I’ve lost.
My prayers become bitter and all about blindness.
How wonderful it was to be for a while
with those who surrender.
Others only turn their faces one way,
then another, like pigeons in flight.
I have known pigeons who fly in a nowhere,
and birds that eat grainlessness,
and tailors who sew beautiful clothes
by tearing them to pieces.
It’s incredible how the smell of a cat’s stomach fur while lying together in a sunshine patch on the carpet in the living room, can transport me back to my childhood completely. Maybe that’s the secret elixir of eternal youth? Ponce de Leon didn’t have to risk life and limb traipsing about the New World searching for the fountain of youth. He failed to recognize it was waiting for him, curled up purring, in his living room.
I adopted Rumi on Wednesday from the local Humane society. Rumi seems a fitting name for a love cat and he’s my roommate. My house finally smells like home, a faint odor of cat food musking the kitchen with eau de Purina.
As for Rumi the poet, there are almost not enough words for the wonder that his poetry conveys. His friendship with Sham and his joy are something we can all aspire to find one tenth of what he savored in his life. I found a reference on the internet that Rumi is the most read poet in English today. If that’s true, I wonder what Rumi would think about that fact? Creating multiple international, timeless best sellers I doubt was on Rumi’s list of things to do as he sat down each night to write another poem. Or maybe he would be ecstatic that his messages of love, transcendence, spiritual unity with the universe are being embraced around the world eight centuries after his death.
Picking out only two Rumi poems is like trying to eat only 2 slices of pie at Thanksgiving when there are four to choose from. Inevitably you are going to come back for seconds or thirds to nibble on the ones you passed by the first time. There are too many good Rumi poems to pick from that I dared not even try to share my absolute favorite(s). It would be like violating the secrets Rumi whispers in my ear every time I read them.
I do love the lines in the poem below: “There is a secret medicine given to those who hurt so hard they can’t hope. The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.” If you’re a hoper you’ve already been given the medicine. If you are hurting so hard you can’t hope, take some Rumi daily, you’ll feel better.
Do you have a memorable Rumi poem or quote? Please share it in the comments section, just don’t share your favorite, that would be violating a thing that’s sacred between you and Rumi.
My Worst Habit
Translated by Coleman Barks – The Essential Rumi
My worst habit is I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I am with.
If you’re not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity. My words
tangle up and knot.
How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.
When water gets caught in the habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.
Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter if that friend is moving away from you
or coming back towards you.