Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
We can debate whether social media has enhanced or demolished the art of correspondence, but the elegance of a hand written letter still stands above all other forms of written communication in my mind. It is an artform perfected before the hustle and bustle of texting, email, Facebook and Instagram. How many of us are guilty of going an entire year, without posting a single letter to a friend, Christmas cards notwithstanding? I am a consumer of social media because I have to be, not because I enjoy it or feel that it connects me closer to anyone.
My biggest beef with social media is the un-originality of 99% of it. Most people re-tweet or re-meme or re-post something that was in their feed, with nothing added to the content. I am guilty of it too and then I often go back and think, why did I post that? What does it have to do with me? Nothing.
A hand written letter contains an element of focus that electronic forms of communication will never achieve. A letter in your mail box is a tangible extension of the letter writer, a conscious act of sharing your life and words with one singular person. The last line in Auden’s Night Mail, sums it up, “who can bear to feel himself forgotten.” A letter assures ourselves for as long as the paper remains intact, that we know that another held us in their thoughts as they penned the words.
Here is a short reading of the entire poem, Night Mail, which was commissioned for the documentary This Is The Night Mail, which can also be found on youtube.
by W. H. Auden
A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea:
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.
Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Are they motivations for change? Are they wishes unlikely to be kept? Does it matter whether we keep them or not if they signal an awareness for the possibility of change? Ben Franklin said of New Year’s; “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every New Year find you a better man (or woman).” Ben, that sounds like you are taking all the fun out of NYE celebrations. Let’s make that our goal on January 2 and dabble in vice for a couple more days.
I always have one or two New Year’s resolutions. They are usually modest nudges towards change of something that I know that I can achieve, something I am already trending towards but want to strengthen my commitment. I don’t set resolutions with expectations of something unrealistic. I purposefully dream small on New Year’s eve, the New Year still a shimmer of possibility, the past year something more substantial of accomplishments to be savored and celebrated.
William Shakespeare’s sense of humor is in full display in the sonnet below. Is the capitalized “Will” referring only to himself, or the greater mass of our collective wills? The word “will” is included twelve times in fourteen lines, making it the most willful sonnet I have ever come across, but as he says; “The sea, all water, yet receives rain still.” One simply can’t have too much will or William. Enjoy.
“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.
The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.
With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.
What a difference there is between putting up the tree and taking it down. In my experience, we usher in the grand festival of the Christmas season with the annual family ceremony of selecting, transporting and then decorating the Christmas tree, eggnog in hand, Christmas carols playing on Spotify. Then several weeks later, generally only one person finds themselves with the solitary task of taking the ornaments off, boxing them up and kicking the tree to the curb like an ugly sweater some relative gave you on Christmas Day.
A much more pleasurable final resting place for your Christmas tree, if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where you can have a fire in your back yard, is to put your tree out in the burn pit and let it get good and dry to become a natural inferno for next year’s first bonfire in the spring. That’s a sure-fire one match fire. It’s also a reminder why our great grandparents before electricity took their lives in their own hands in lighting candles on the Christmas tree. No wonder prohibition was passed in the 1920s!
My Mother always waited until 12th night to take down her Christmas tree. The twelve days of Christmas begins on Christmas day and ends on January 5. I like the term Christmastide to describe this period, as it creates an image of being swept away by the spirit of good tidings.
This year I am awash in pears, having been gifted several boxes of fruit. Trying to eat them all up before twelfth night is my challenge as pears go from perfect to putrid in about 3 days. I am making pear tatin, pear-blue cheese salad, pear sauce and would you care for a pear if I left it outside your door as I am playing ding dong ditch with my neighbors with pears in about 3 days. Please, next year, send me oranges. At least I can turn them into screwdrivers on New Years day.
by Jane Tyson Clement (1917 – 2000)
Seeking the fact that lies behind the flower
the soul will break its own mortality;
searching the time that lies beyond the hour
the soul will yield its blind serenity;
that is but briefly to be ill at ease
and then forever to be tranquil-eyed,
stirring the wrath of temporal deities
who hurl pale lightning when they are defied. The least fine sheaf of millet will repay
the soul’s slow contemplation, and the still
ages of starlight between day and day;
the climb is steep to mount a sudden hill;
but if man, fearless, follows stars, he’ll find –
lo, he is more than stars, and more than mind.
“I remember making designs in the dark with a fast moving lit cigarette.”
Joe Brainard – I Remember
The Sonnets LXV
by Ted Berrigan (1934 – 1983)
Dreams, aspirations of presence! Innocence gleaned,
annealed! The world in its mysteries are explained,
and the struggles of babies congeal. A hard core is formed.
Today I thought about all those radio waves
He eats of the fruits of the great Speckle bird,
Pissing on the grass!
I too am reading the technical journals,
Rivers of annoyance undermine the arrangements
Someone said “Blake-blues” and someone else “pill-head”
Washed by Joe’s throbbing hands
She is introspection.
It is a Chinese signal.
There is no such thing as a breakdown
Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett were part of the second wave of the New York School of poets during the 1960’s. Like their counterparts, poets Anne Waldman, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, the spirit of The New York School was heavily influenced by surrealism that mixed serious subjects with humor, wit and a playful collaborative spirit that stretched across the visual arts, art criticism and the theater.
What’s interesting about the New York School is for all the dissimilarity in poetic style among the poets, they had many things in common. Many of the poets associated with the New York School:
– Attended Harvard University
– Completed Military Service
– Were Homosexual or Bi-Sexual (Berrigan was married and had two children)
– Reviewed art
– And the obvious one, lived in New York City during the early stages of their writing career.
Both Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan were heavily influenced by The Beat Poets, in particular Kerouac. My favorite poem by Ron Padgett, How To Be Perfect, doesn’t lend itself to Fourteenlines as its too long, but is worth the read. Here’s the link if you are so inclined for something longer today and aspire to be perfect.
Berrigan used the line – “There is no such thing as a breakdown”, in more than one of his sonnets. For a man who died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 49, you have to wonder if he felt his spiral of self destruction was pre-ordained or was it a plaintive plea for a change in direction before it was too late?
Do you have a favorite poet from this movement and a favorite poem? Share in the comments section, I would love to hear your opinion.
The Love Cook
by Ron Padgett
Let me cook you some dinner.
Sit down and take off your shoes
and socks and in fact the rest
of your clothes, have a daquiri,
turn on some music and dance
around the house, inside and out,
it’s night and the neighbors
are sleeping, those dolts, and
the stars are shining bright,
and I’ve got the burners lit
for you, you hungry thing.
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the Truth of the imagination.”
On The Sonnet
by John Keats
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d, .And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d, .Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of posey;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d .By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less .Than Midas of his coinage let us be .Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free, .She will be bound with garlands of her own.
Keats commitment to poetry was metaphysical, religious. He famously rejected the Christian norms of the time, in particular the idea of salvation through a belief in Jesus Christ. The quote above comes form a letter to Benjamin Bailey dated November 22, 1817:
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not, for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty. . . . I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning. . . . O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is a “Vision in the form of Youth” a Shadow of reality to come‹and this consideration has further convinced me . . . that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in Sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth.
Isn’t that the point of poetry? Poetry provides a respite from the impossibility of truth and a chance to live for a moment in sensations. Poetry provides a brief silence in which our imaginations might be fulfilled with a glimpse of something bigger than ourselves, that ephemeral connection of our soul to the universe.
By John Keats
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
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.”
Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey; Along came a spider, who sat down beside her, And frightened Miss Muffet away.
by Robert Frost
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth
And dead wings carried like a paper kite
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height, …
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? —
If design govern in a thing so small.