“I will try and honor Christmas in my heart, and try and keep it all the year.”
Before The Ice Is In The Pools
by Emily Dickinson
Before the ice is in the pools—
Before the skaters go,
Or any check at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow—
Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!
A few years ago, I took the same concept as Tom’s Best of CD and applied it to poetry. I keep a crude poetry log every year. It is a google Docs that I add poems as I come across that I like throughout the year. I print it out in early December and read through it, marking my absolute favorites. I then create a little hand bound book of poetry, making covers for it and give it away at Christmas to family and friends.
The first year I made the book it took a little figuring out. I make it the size of a 1/2 sheet of paper folded over, and I had to come up with a template on where to place each poem so that it worked out. This is the fifth edition of Tom’s Best of… Poetry and I have it down to a science, being able to use the prior year’s as a template. It consists of 10 sheets of paper – which when folded provides 40 pages. I include a title page and table of contents which takes up two pages so that I am left with 37 pages as canvas with which to work. I have found over time that long poems don’t lend itself to this format, so a poem has to fit on no more than two pages to make the cut and be included. I typically include two to four poems of my own.
Several of my favorite poems from 2018 that I have included in my poetry book are listed below. I have provided a link if you would like to read them. What was your favorite poem that you came across in 2018? Do you keep a poem diary? Have you ever made your own hand bound book?
“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.”