The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
A song in the front yard
by Gwendolyn Brooks
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.
To Change The World Enough
by Alice Walker
To change the world enough
you must cease to be afraid
of the poor.
We experience your fear as the least pardonable of
humiliations; in the past
it has sent us scurrying off
daunted and ashamed
into the shadows.
the world ending
the only one all of us have known
we seek the same
the same high place
and ample table.
The poor always believe
there is room enough
for all of us;
the very rich never seem to have heard
In us there is wisdom of how to share
loaves and fishes
we do this everyday.
Learn from us,
we ask you.
We enter now
the dreaded location
of Earth’s reckoning;
no longer far
or hidden in books
that claim to disclose
it is here.
We must walk together without fear.
There is no path without us.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home.
by Gwendolyn Brooks
Great-Mama took such care tending
the teal hydrangeas – their massive heads,
full of petals like impulse thoughts,
could fly apart in any spring breeze
and they would be left scattered, half
of themselves, and still appear full-headed.
Great-Mama nursed them with formulas,
whispered names and lullabies
under her breath, patted and cooed
the soil at the roots until her palms
were caked black. Oh, how they blossomed
and sprouted, framing the front yard
as if to say, she is ours, ours, to touch her
you must cross from flesh to flower.
Brooks combined a mastery of language and movement in her poetry with a distinct voice for the African American community. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for her volume of poetry titled, Annie Allen, becoming the first African American to win the award. She built on that recognition to eventually promote smaller Black owned presses and to tirelessly advocate for education and encouragement of students and young writers. In 1985, at the age of 68 she became the first Black woman serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. She used that position to sponsor and host literary awards and prizes. She took her advocacy of literacy and literature to the people by visiting schools, colleges, universities, prisons, hospitals and drug rehabilitation centers. She took poetry out of the realm of elites and made it relevant in the everyday world.
A long time resident of Chicago, she used her status as poet laureate of Illinois to share her vision of human rights and promote the arts. A woman of modest means throughout her lifetime, she worked tirelessly to use her art to inspire, amuse and educate, to create a kinder world, to create a greater understanding of our common experience as humans.
“One of poetry’s great effects, through its emphasis upon feeling, association, music and image — things we recognize and respond to even before we understand why — is to guide us toward the part of ourselves so deeply buried that it borders upon the collective.”
― Tracy K. Smith, Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology
American Sonnet 10
by Wanda Coleman
. after Lowell
our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row . .and boll. fenced others’
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking . .from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah’s light . .planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark . .the shame of Moloch’s mansions
built in slavery’s name. our hungered eyes . .do see/refuse the dark
illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each . .historic gain. a yearning
yearning to avenge the raping of the womb . .from which we spring.
Florence, Ala. December 7th 1866
From Wade in The Water
by Tracy K. Smith
Dear Sir I take the pleashure of writing you
A fue lins hoping that I will not ofende you
by doing so I was raised in your state
and was sold from their when I was 31 years olde
left wife one childe Mother Brothers and sisters
My wife died about 12 years agoe and ten years
agoe I made money And went back and bought
My olde Mother and she lives with me
Seven years agoe I Maried again and commence
to by Myself and wife for two thousande dollars and
last Christmas I Made the last pay ment and I have
made Some little Money this year and I wis
to get my Kinde All with me and I will take it
as a Greate favor if you will help me to get them
Never was your singular voice contrived.
Nor the passion that shaped it. Like your art,
No more separable from your racing heart
Than blood from beating, than poets from pride.
Jilted lovers, their earnest vows denied,
Your bohemian life, eagerly read,
Vainglorious words and beauty wed,
To your poetic nature like a bride.
Faithfulness to art a winsome doom.
How great was Envy’s pressure to be true,
To the siren who infamously burned?
A Pulitzer for voicing freedoms earned.
Luminous the light of being you,
Free to live and love, what you loved and whom.
It’s hard to say goodbye to Vincent, but awfully good to be about to say Hello to February. And as much fun as its been to spend a month in her company, she would be the first to tell you variety is the spice of life. Time to head out again farther afield with more spontaneity and new poets.
Here is a charming grainy home made movies of Edna with her friends. I highly recommend you turn your volume to zero when you watch it. Someone, well meaning I am sure, laid in music over the top. These were silent films, similar to the films of my mother as a child. Try watching it as Vincent would have watched it. And then we will bid adieu to Millay letting her own words have the last word.
From Not For A Nation
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
What rider spurs him from the darkening east
As from a forest, and with rapid pound
Of hooves, now light, now louder on hard ground,
Approaches, and rides past with speed increased,
Dark spots and flecks of foam upon his beast?
What shouts he from the saddle, turning ’round,
As he rides on? — “Greetings!” — I made the sound;
“Greetings from Nineveh!” — it seemed, at least.
Did someone catch the object that he flung?
He held some object on his saddle-bow,
And flung it towards us as he passed; among
The children then it fell most likely; no,
‘Tis here: a little bell without a tongue.
Listen; it has a voice even so.
I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon – his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more than less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess,
Or answer. I will only make him good.
We are young no longer, we have passed the springing
Season, and all the wild brilliance of the year.
We are young no longer, and the blood runs singing.
Less stridently in heart and throat and ear.
Springtime is past. but all the months of summer
Promise the heat and languor of the sun.
The drums of desire are muffled, the drummer
Replete, resplendent, dreams his course is run.
Not yet the ebbing tide, if not the flowing,
The sea beats high and loud upon the shore.
Deepest in hue the day before the going
Down of the sun, then dusk and day no more!
I have purposely not delved much into Millay’s political activities, from her long time association with Floyd Dell, to her demonstrating against the death penalty during the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, to her play Aria da Capo, to her myriad of friends and acquaintances who were at the forefront of radical leftist politics prior to World War II. It’s not that much of that aspect of her life isn’t interesting, it’s that I have focused on her poetry, not the complexity of her entire life. I have chosen to let her words, for the most part, speak for themselves.
Given that we are on the home stretch of Millay Month, I’ll keep things simple and close the last two posts, giving her the stage. Here are several recordings of Millay reading her poems. I have posted Love is Not all in an earlier Fourteenlines blog.
From the Harp-Weaver
Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!
Give back my book and take my kiss instead.
Was it my enemy or my friend I heard,
“What a big book for such a little head!”
Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink!
Oh, I shall love you still, and all of that.
I never again shall tell you what I think.
I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more:
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever, by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favourite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far, –
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.
A hundred years later and Millay is seeing a resurgence in respect and interest. It begs the question if she were alive today and writing the very same sonnets, would she even get a sniff from publishers? Tracey K. Smith and Terrance Hayes are using the sonnet form in innovate ways and receiving critical acclaim. But they are not metrical sonnets. Do fuddy, duddy traditional sonnets still have a role to play or has the ghost of William Carlos Williams, (who I love by the way) won the day and free verse is forever king? The problem is there are an incredible number of terrible free verse poets. Go to a local poetry reading at a coffee house sometime. There are also incredibly gifted ones. I would say the same is true for poets that still write in rhyme, but you already have three strikes against you if send in a poem that rhymes for publishing. I started this blog because I got tired of the endless rejection slips and figured that rather than waste my time sending in poetry that was unlikely to get a welcome, I would create a vehicle to share the poetry I enjoy and slip a few of my own in once in a while and see if I could get away with it. White, male, metrical poets that get published today are as rare as a breed as there is in the literary world. I can’t think of a single one that has gotten my attention in recent years as I don’t think they have much of an opportunity to find their audience. If you have a favorite present day metrical poet please share….
Several chums of Millay would pull off one of the better poetic spoofs of the 20th century. Witter Bynner, along with Arthur Ficke, would create a new fake poetic movement called the Spectra Poets. Writing under assumed names, and genders, they concocted all kinds of silliness making fun of the new fad of free verse poetry. Unfortunately, free verse got the last laugh. Frank Hudson, a friend of Fourteenlines, has an outstanding article on his blog. Check out the link below and while you are there, listen to some of his original music using poems as lyrics. Its worth the time to listen.
Bynner, although gay, and possibly involved in an on again, off again relationship with Ficke, would propose to Millay while she was in Paris via a series of letters. Millay would turn him down and then through a series of unfortunate events, (or fortunate), Millay would accept only for Bynner to ghost her, priming the pump for Eugen to come along and sweep her off her feet. I think Edna’s marriage with Eugen was a far more fulfilling one than if she had married Bynner, in what would have been a poor marriage of literary convenience.
If Words Are Wise
by Witter Bynner
Words, words and words! What else when men are dead,
Their small lives ended and sayings said,
Is left of them? Their children go to dust,
As also all their children’s children must
And their belongings are of petty worth
Against the insatiable consuming earth
But words, if words are wise, go on and on
To make a longer tone of unison
With man and man than ever faint selves make
With one another for whatever sake . . . .
Therefore I wept tonight when live words rose,
Out of a dead man’s grave, whom no one knows.
“I’m so tired of hearing about ‘Renascence,’ I’m nearly dead. I find it’s as hard to live down an early triumph as an early indiscretion.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Clearly my ruined garden as it stood
Before the frost came on it I recall –
Stiff marigolds, and what a trunk of wood
The zinnia had, that was the first to fall;
These pale and oozy stalks, these hanging leaves
Neverless and darkened, dripping in the sun,
Cannot gainsay me, though the spirit grieves
And wrings its hands at what the frost has done.
If in a widening silence you should guess
I read the moment with recording eyes,
Taking your love and all your loveliness
Into a listening body hushed of sighs . . . .
Though summer’s rife and the warm rose in season,
Rebuke me not. I have a winter reason.
We experienced the best of winter this past weekend in Minneapolis, perfect for the pond hockey events around the area. Cold enough to produce the bright white squeaky soft snow that muffles sound and reshapes the light so that you see the world in a different way. The roads were bad, bad enough to close schools and cancel activities and force everyone inside to cook and play games for 24 hours. It was warm enough, at least for Minnesotans that have the winter gear and proper attitude, that working and playing outside was comfortable. It was exactly the kind of January weekend I enjoy most.
Millay was bi-sexual, her first lovers all women during college. In my opinion, bisexuality is the least accepted consonant among the LGBQT community. It is isn’t militant enough for some political factions of sexual politics, particularly feminist sexual politics, an undercurrent of “pick a side why don’t you” running through the underbelly of the discourse. I don’t think Millay would have used that term to describe herself, labels on sexuality are a relatively new concept. She was a generous and self absorbed lover, never truly discarding anyone in her life it seems, once someone became her lover for a period of time. The passion could go out of the balloon quickly with Vincent in terms of sex, but she always surrounded herself with vibrant people and the most vibrant remained on as friends.
The circumstances leading up to her marriage to Eugen Boissevain are a bit convoluted. She had pursued and rejected several marriage proposals for various reasons prior to her marrying Boissevain. She was living in Europe and somewhat miserable and lonely, both her younger sisters having already married. Millay was tired of the constant threat of unpaid bills hanging over her head and wanted more stability that a marriage could provide. When Eugen entered Vincent’s life he was getting over the tragic death of his first wife, Inez Milholland, who had died 7 years earlier. By all accounts, Eugen was the pursuer and he got what he wanted. Eugen was a good fit for Vincent. He was not threatened by her feminist politics, nor her talent as an artist and had enough money to allow her to focus on her literary pursuits. He contained the poise and confidence to not be threatened by her love affairs with other men and women during the remainder of their lives and marriage, while being a good companion to Vincent.
A former lover of Vincent’s, Alyse Powers, described Eugen this way:
“Handsome, reckless, mettlesome as a stallion breathing the first morning air, he would laugh at himself, indeed laugh at everything, with a laugh that scattered melancholy as the wind scatters the petals of the fading poppy… One day his house would be that of a citizen of the world, with a French butler to wait on the table and everything done with the greatest bienséance, the next the servants would have as mysteriously disappeared as bees from a deserted hive, and he would be out in the kitchen washing the dishes and whistling a haunting Slavic melody, as light-hearted as a troubadour. He had the gift of the aristocrat and could adapt himself to all circumstances … his blood was testy, adventurous, quixotic, and he faced life as an eagle faces its flight.”
In short, Eugen was as complicated a personality as Vincent and they fit together intricately for the remainder of their days. The next 15 years Vincent and Eugen traveled, lived and worked at Steepletop and made a life together. Vincent worked hard as a writer and used this period to establish herself in both her place in literary and feminist history and influence. That she eventually fell both out and into vogue subsequently is a testament to her greatness that is at the core of her best work. True genius is rare and eventually finds its proper place in our collective cultural appreciation of art.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Still will I harvest beauty where it grows:
In coloured fungus and the spotted fog
Surprised on foods forgotten, in ditch and bog
Filmed brilliant with irregular rainbows
Of rust and oil, where have a city throws
Its empty tins; and in some spongy log,
Whence headlong leaps the oozy emerald frog. . . .
And a black pupil in the green scum shows,
Her the inhabiter of divers places
Surmising at all doors, I push them all.
Oh, you that fearful of a creaking hinge
Turn back forevermore with craven faces,
I tell you Beauty bears an ultra fringe
Unguessed of you upon her gossamer shawl!