If we really want to be full and generous in spirit, we have no choice but to trust at some level.
Teach Us To Number Our Days
by Rita Dove
In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor is more elaborate than the last. The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs, each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.
Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky. A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon crossed by TV antennae, dreams
he has swallowed a blue bean. It takes root in his gut, sprouts and twines upward, the vines curling around the sockets and locking them shut.
And this sky, knotting like a dark tie? The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.
The Secret Garden
by Rita Dove
I was ill, lying on my bed of old papers, when you came with white rabbits in your arms; and the doves scattered upwards, flying to mothers, and the snails sighed under their baggage of stone . . .
Now your tongue grows like celery between us: Because of our love-cries, cabbage darkens in its nest; the cauliflower thinks of her pale, plump children and turns greenish-white in a light like the ocean’s.
I was sick, fainting in the smell of teabags, when you came with tomatoes, a good poetry. I am being wooed. I am being conquered by a cliff of limestone that leaves chalk on my breasts
There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.
by Sylvia Plath
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. Whatever I see I swallow immediately Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. I am not cruel, only truthful‚ The eye of a little god, four-cornered. Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall. It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers. Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me, Searching my reaches for what she really is. Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon. I see her back, and reflect it faithfully. She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands. I am important to her. She comes and goes. Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness. In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Sonnet: To Eva
by Sylvia Plath
All right, let’s say you could take a skull and break it The way you’d crack a clock; you’d crush the bone Between steel palms of inclination, take it, Observing the wreck of metal and rare stone.
This was a woman : her loves and stratagems Betrayed in mute geometry of broken Cogs and disks, inane mechanic whims, And idle coils of jargon yet unspoken.
Not man nor demigod could put together The scraps of rusted reverie, the wheels Of notched tin platitudes concerning weather, Perfume, politics, and fixed ideals.
The idiot bird leaps up and drunken leans To chirp the hour in lunatic thirteens.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.
A (halo) of sonnets for Sylvia Plath (An Excerpt)
by Conny Borgelioen
Foreign as crutches on a wedding cake — how do we admit, how do we face, our own selves wrapped neatly in a paper? Once we release ourselves from all the frill and froth, does it still matter greatly how we eat our cake? This one’s superior position is negated. In short, he does not exist and all this glitter is hurting our eyes. Lower them now like the heavy clouds. So, I have said it. The sea will touch the sand because peace is our birthright, and his stories I don’t like. I shun them to keep them from possessing me. I no longer subscribe to a saint.
Today’s Fourteenlines is a shout out to a fellow sonneeter. Conny Borgelioen’s sonnets are crisp with experience while not overly controlled. I stumbled across her poetry one day while having my morning coffee. Having lived with someone who also faces a life-long disability, I can appreciate the courage it takes for her to persevere and keep being creative. Check it out and if you like what you find, buy her a cup of coffee.
Our saintly subscription longs for the gray, the game of tussle between soil and sky. Have no fear when the godly head lowers, just like the seagulls, low, skimming sand hills planted with tough weeds, sweeping forward like ice skaters, bent over, forming a green counterpart to our angry mother sea. All parts of us have learned to run to the house with the doors that fold back and open out upon… upon… the center. I believe along the fold is where everything resides in so far that meaning can spring out of nothing. Off balance, we scramble, ever concealing.
The American soul has been stored under the stairs In a box with the mittens and scarves For the longest time. We couldn’t think where we had put it.
Three Sonnets to Time
by Reed Whittemore
Again and again, we deceive time. We sleep, we meander As if it were nothing to us when we’d come, or be, through Or where, in the limitless world, our ship would founder, Or do what whatever ships in metaphor do.
We wear all the bright fashions, read soft books And lie in the sun in Nassau with our hides. We build our castles and line our secretest nooks With the addresses where passion or drink resides.
And though time is never deceived – it is we, with our slippers on, Who are caught by surprise when our light verse yawns its last yawn – To the last hour we must strive to keep not looking drawn From lamenting in secret, mumbling dirges at dawn.
It is a game, but a very solemn one, this that we play With art, drama and rhetoric as we decay.
Thoughts of a California Desert
by Reed Whittemore
Under palm trees, oranges, olives and pears The indolent desert slouches, half an eye closed And half an eye out for men of affairs whose cares Keep them from keeping their gaudy gaudy gardens hosed.
Slouches and yawns, that clown. Leaves in disdain Gaseous dragon their nauseous knights to nettle. Flips his tail coyly, rolls over, says he would fain Die a dry death. Haw! browning a petal.
Has it too good, too good. It vastly diverted Watching his merchants and bankers stumble out doors. Parries their blows, says he loves, loves to be squirted As at him they fiercely empty their reservoirs.
Sleeps a great deal, drinks deep, drinks deep and makes hay, Thinking he’ll swallow the bankers and all one day.
The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.
Mark Van Doren
After Long Drought
by Mark Van Doren
After long drought, commotion in the sky; After dead silence, thunder. Then it comes, The rain. It slashes leaves, and doubly drums On tin and shingle; beats and bends awry The flower heads; puddles dust, and with a sigh Like love sinks into grasses, where it hums As bees did once, among chrysanthemums And asters when the summer thought to die.
The whole world dreamed of this, and has it now. Nor was the waking easy. The dull root Is jealous of its death; the sleepy brow Smiles in its slumber; and a heart can fear The very flood it longed for, roaring near. The spirit best remembers being mute.
Dream Song 123
by John Berryman
Dapples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north, I have nothing to say except that it dapples my floor and it would dapple me if I lay on that floor, as-well-forthwith I have done, trying well to mount a thought not carelessly
in times forgotten, except by the New York Times which can’t forget. There is always the morgue. There are men in the morgue. These men have access. Sleepless, in position, they dream the past forever Colossal in the dawn comes the second light
we do all die, in the floor, in the morgue and we must die forever, c’est la mort a heady brilliance the ultimate gloire post-mach, probably in underwear as we met each other once.
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
by Louise Imogen Guiney
I: THE MOTOR: 1905
From hedgerows where aromas fain would be
New volleyed odours execrably arise;
The flocks, with hell-smoke in their patient eyes,
Into the ditch from bawling ruin flee:
Spindrift of one abominated sea
Along all roads in wrecking fury flies
Till on young strangled leaf, on bloom that dies,
In this far plot it writes a rune for me.
Vast intimate tyranny! Nature dispossessed
Helplessly hates thee, whose symbolic flare
Lights up (with what reiterance unblest!)
Entrails of horror in a world thought fair.
False God of pastime thou, vampire of rest,
Augur of what pollution, what despair?
Guiney’s old English verse is as thick as the carbon black from exhaust of early automobiles on London’s cobble stone streets, yet it is remarkably clairvoyant of what will unfold with the consequences of fossil fuel consumption. The internal combustion engine was invented in a series of breakthroughs beginning around 1870. Ford’s Model T wasn’t rolled out until 1908. But Guiney’s poem of 1905 already is dreading the despotic hold that automobiles will have on the 20th century. No single thing has caused more ecological destruction than the endless applications that internal combustion engines have caused, enabling humanity’s zeal to make money from natural resources. Internal combustion engines made it possible for people to travel to places they could never have otherwise managed to travel and live in places they could never have managed to live. The internal combustion engine has made resource extraction and exploitation possible at levels never imagined 100 years ago.
I particularly love her expression – vampire of rest. It sums up the feeling I get driving to work with endless pressure from middle aged and older men in mostly pickups, aggressively riding my bumper, wanting to drive 20 miles over the speed limit, and acting like they, and only they have a right to the road. I have coined a new phrase for them – Frustrated Older Republican Drivers – (though I am sure there are Democrats doing the same) driving mostly Ford F150s in which they are angrily ensconced. What is driving this anger? I suspect it is a frustration stemming from a nagging realization that a lifestyle they have worked so hard to create is not sustainable in the future. We have built cities and infrastructure designed for our past, not our future. Ford is aggressively marketing an all electric replacement for the Ford F150 that is impractical, range limited, excessively expensive, dangerously heavy and bound to fail. It is a marketing statement, not a transformational vehicle for the future. If America is going to get serious about climate change we are going to have to adapt and give up our obsession with large vehicles. And we all are going to have to get comfortable with that change voluntarily or get carbon taxed into it. Change makes most old men, even me, grumpy.
By Louise Imogen Guiney
You that are dear, O you above the rest! Forgive him his evasive moods and cold; The absence that belied him oft of old, The war upon sad speech, the desperate jest, And pity’s wildest gush but half-confessed, Forgive him! Let your gentle memories hold Some written word once tender and once bold, Or service done shamefacedly at best, Whereby to judge him. All his days he spent, Like one who with an angel wrestled well, O’ermastering Love with show of light disdain; And whatso’er your spirits underwent, He, wounded for you, worked no miracle To make his heart’s allegiance wholly plain.
Once individuals have the motivation to do something different, the whole world can begin to change.
a’ anit Ester, id est The Fast of Esther
By Esther Cameron
Can anyone still hear my people’s cry, Even they themselves? Can anybody stand In the blown-apart heart of the Holy Land, Can anybody see with shattered eye All that is done? Can anyone think why, Marshal a shredded brain to understand? Can anybody grasp a severed hand, Can a cut-out tongue still stammer of Sinai? O GOD, restore the image of Your Law, Restore the sacredness of human form, If not for Israel’s, for your sweet earth’s sake. Send us a sign, send forth a ray to draw Love’s faithful in against the hateful storm, To uphold the norm, and face down Amalek!”
by Esther Cameron
On the old upright piano in the gym short fingers jangle out the clanking Hymn to Anarchy the children always know. Where do they learn it? Players come and go, but it survives, jumping form span to span of their quick generations. Peter Pan must have composed the thing. Though surely he would have put into it more revelry, more reverie or more rhodomontade – something, anyway, other than this odd – angled insouciance. Here you hear no dream of islands, crocs, clocks, pirates. Aimless meme, It asks only to cause a small annoyance before relapsing into dumb compliance. Nothing will change, tink tink. Anyone care? Clank clank. Indifference, older than despair.
Give me my rein, my syce! Give me my rein!
I have a need of it, an absolute need,
To climb upon the bounding back again
And curb the bad, mad gambols of my steed.
‘Tis strange we are thus parted—by no lust
Of mine, but rather blind, unwearied force
That worked upon the sinews of my horse,
And drove me from him, howling in the dust.
Now he is neither gentle, kind nor quiet,
And he strives (though vainly) to outleap his girth,
While right and left the armed hooves are hurled.
Oh Destrier! bethink thee that this riot
Shall, in the end, bring neither rest nor mirth….
Only the heaviest bit in all the world.
By Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son
“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”
by Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1916)
The subtlest strain a great musician weaves,
Cannot attain in rhythmic harmony
To music in his soul. May it not be
Celestial lyres send hints to him? He grieves
That half the sweetness of the song, he leaves
Unheard in the transition. Thus do we
Yearn to translate the wondrous majesty
Of some rare mood, when the rapt soul receives
A vision exquisite. Yet who can match
The sunset’s iridescent hues? Who sing
The skylark’s ecstasy so seraph-fine?
We struggle vainly, still we fain would catch
Such rifts amid life’s shadows, for they bring
Glimpses ineffable of things divine.
Langston Hughes, was one of the founders of the jazz poetry movement, a style of poetry in which the beat of the words flow like the syncopation of jazz. It is a style that would be adopted by other writers, including Amiri Baraka, Marvin Bell, Sterling Brown, Hayden Carruth, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Harper, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Yusef Komunyaaka, Mina Loy, Kenneth Rexroth, and Sonia Sanchez, just to name a few. This February, I’ll explore some of these writers work and spend some time with jazz poetry.
An interesting question is whether today’s hip hop and rap music is directly connected to jazz poetry? In my mind the answer is a great big YES! Jazz poetry was written by African American writers for black audiences, using language and symbolism that grew out of a uniquely black art form – jazz. Although white writers were attracted to the modernist aspects of jazz poetry and contributed to it’s evolution, it’s legacy, like jazz, has to remain firmly tethered to the great black poets who gave the master class in its halls.
From an academic standpoint, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, is often cited as part of the beginnings of jazz poetry. Published in 1925, it broke free from the traditional verse that still confined most publishing of its time. Hughes playfulness in his rhyme is a big jump from Henrietta Cordelia Ray’s sonnets, though both are dealing with a similar theme, only approaching it from opposite poles.
Jazz poetry has gone through peaks and valleys of popularity over the years in academia and publishing, but has remained popular among black poets since its inception. A testament to the staying power of jazz poetry is since 2002, when the Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), they have produced a jazz poetry event every April as part of National Poetry Month.
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, I heard a Negro play. Down on Lenox Avenue the other night By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light He did a lazy sway . . . He did a lazy sway . . . To the tune o’ those Weary Blues. With his ebony hands on each ivory key He made that poor piano moan with melody. O Blues! Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool. Sweet Blues! Coming from a black man’s soul. O Blues! In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan— “Ain’t got nobody in all this world, Ain’t got nobody but ma self. I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’ And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. He played a few chords then he sang some more— “I got the Weary Blues And I can’t be satisfied. Got the Weary Blues And can’t be satisfied— I ain’t happy no mo’ And I wish that I had died.” And far into the night he crooned that tune. The stars went out and so did the moon. The singer stopped playing and went to bed While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.