Peace On Earth, Good-will To Men

Harper’s Weekly Christmas 1863, Illustration by Thomas Nast

The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A Nameless Grave

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807- 1882)
 

“A Soldier of the Union mustered out,”
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular American poet prior to and during the Civil War.  Longfellow was an avid abolitionist and wrote anti-slavery poems prior to the war and patriotic poems during and after.  One of his most famous poems that is still heard at the holidays is Christmas Bells.  The legend is that Wadsworth wrote it on Christmas day in 1863, but that it wasn’t published until after the war was over in a children’s magazine. 

Christmas Bells

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Duty, Something More Than Life

George Henry Booker (1823 – 1890)

Fold him in his country’s stars.
Roll the drum and fire the volley!
What to him are all our wars,
What but death bemocking folly?

George Henry Booker

[Sonnet]

By George Henry Boker
 
Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war,
    What left you? “Wife and children, wealth and friends,
    A storied home whose ancient roof-tree bends
    Above such thoughts as love tells o’er and o’er.”
Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore
    Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends
    The entering soul, when from its grasp ascends
    The last faint virtue which on earth it wore.”
You loved your home, your kindred, children, wife;
    You loathed yet plunged into war’s bloody whirl!—
    What urged you? “Duty! Something more than life.
That which made Abraham bare the priestly knife,
    And Isaac kneel, or that young Hebrew girl
    Who sought her father coming from the strife.”
 

Another poet closely linked with the Union was George Henry Boker.   Boker was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into a wealthy family.  His father Charles Boker was the president of several banks, and by whose intelligence and financial wisdom was able to successfully steer them through the troubled economic cycle of the late 1830’s.  His son took advantage of his privileged economic station by pursuing interests other than business, becoming an accomplished poet, playwright and dancer.
 
The Civil War focused Boker’s writing on the Union Cause, and changed him forever politically, from a Democrat to a Republican.  Boker published widely during the war in periodicals and magazines, including a volume in 1864 titled fittingly, “Poems of the War.”  Boker’s writing fit the times he lived.  He did not push any new boundaries in terms of style and form, but hidden among his words are some interesting phrases and ideas, the guilt of the Northern upper class caught in the maelstrom of the times, he himself, his father’s Abraham.  
 
 
 

In the Wilderness

By George Henry Boker
 
Mangled, uncared for, suffering thro’ the night
    With heavenly patience the poor boy had lain;
Under the dreary shadows, left and right,
    Groaned on the wounded, stiffened out the slain.
      What faith sustained his lone,
      Brave heart to make no moan,
To send no cry from that blood-sprinkled sod,
Is a close mystery with him and God.
 
But when the light came, and the morning dew
    Glittered around him, like a golden lake,
And every dripping flower with deepened hue
    Looked through its tears for very pity’s sake,
      He moved his aching head
      Upon his rugged bed,
And smiled as a blue violet, virgin-meek,
Laid her pure kiss upon his withered cheek.
 
At once there circled in his waking heart
    A thousand memories of distant home;
Of how those same blue violets would start
    Along his native fields, and some would roam
      Down his dear humming brooks,
      To hide in secret nooks,
And, shyly met, in nodding circles swing,
Like gossips murmuring at belated Spring.
 
And then he thought of the beloved hands
    That with his own had plucked the modest flower.
The blue-eyed maiden, crowned with golden bands,
    Who ruled as sovereign of that sunny hour.
      She at whose soft command
      He joined the mustering band,
She for whose sake he lay so firm and still,
Despite his pangs, not questioned then her will.
 
So, lost in thought, scarce conscious of the deed,
    Culling the violets, here and there he crept
Slowly—ah! slowly,—for his wound would bleed;
    And the sweet flowers themselves half smiled, half wept,
      To be thus gathered in
      By hands so pale and thin,
By fingers trembling as they neatly laid
Stem upon stem, and bound them in a braid.
 
The strangest posy ever fashioned yet
    Was clasped against the bosom of the lad,
As we, the seekers for the wounded, set
    His form upon our shoulders bowed and sad;
      Though he but seemed to think
      How violets nod and wink;
And as we cheered him, for the path was wild,
He only looked upon his flowers and smiled.
 

The Children Know

Happy Halloween


The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween

Paula Curan: October Dreams, A Celebration of Halloween

Theme in Yellow

by Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.


Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern

by David McCord (1897 – 1997)

Mr. Macklin takes his knife
And carves the yellow pumpkin face:
Three holes bring eyes and nose to life,
The mouth has thirteen teeth in place.
Then Mr. Macklin just for fun
Transfers the corn-cob pipe from his
Wry mouth to Jack’s, and everyone
Dies laughing! O what fun it is
Till Mr. Macklin draws the shade
And lights the candle in Jack’s skull.
Then all the inside dark is made
As spooky and as horrorful
As Halloween, and creepy crawl
The shadows on the tool-house floor,
With Jack’s face dancing on the wall.
O Mr. Macklin! where’s the door?

After The First Pure Fall

David Whyte

The thing about great poetry is we have no defenses against it.

David Whyte

“Stone” (Thobar Phádraig)

by David Whyte

The face in the stone is a mirror looking into you.
You have gazed into the moving waters,
you have seen the slow light, in the sky
above Lough Inagh, beneath you, streams have flowed,
and rivers of earth have moved beneath your feet,
but you have never looked into the immovability
of stone like this, the way it holds you, gives you
not a way forward but a doorway in, staunches
your need to leave, becomes faithful by going nowhere,
something that wants you to stay here and look back,
be weathered by what comes to you, like the way you too
have travelled from so far away to be here, once reluctant
and now as solid and as here and as willing
to be touched as everything you have found.

 


The Old Wild Place

by David Whyte

After the good earth
where the body knows itself to be real
and the mad flight
where it gives itself to the world,
we give ourselves to the rhythm of love
leaving the breath
to know its way home.

And after the first pure fall,
the last letting go, and the calm
breath where we go to rest,
we’ll return again to find it
and feel the body welcomed,
the body held,
the strong arms of the world,
the water, the waking at dawn
and the thankful, almost forgotten,
curling to sleep with the dark.

The old wild place beyond all shame.

My Heart Is Gladder Than All Of These

Julia Kasdorf

Age is an issue of mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Mark Twain

 

A Birthday

By Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.


My Mother would have turned 89 this week.   Despite having lived to an age beyond what her parents and sisters experienced, it feels like she died young at 83 for a person who was as vibrant as her right up until the end.  Her death combined with COVID has changed my fall and winter routines.  Normally October is the beginning of theater season, with both her or I having secured tickets to ballets, and plays and concerts to look forward to throughout the fall and winter season and to help carry us through the coldest months to spring.   It seems like a foreign concept right now, the idea of attending live events.   The Rolling Stones tour came to Minneapolis last night and by all accounts put on a good show.   Its funny to think that Mick Jagger is closer in age to my Mother than to me.  But my Mother was a rock star in her own right. 

I am not sure if I am getting better with dealing with loss with age but I seem more resigned to it these days.   A new puppy arrived at our farm over the weekend.  A 7 1/2  week old golden retriever puppy that if all goes as planned will become a breeding female for a service dog program in the future.   I haven’t had a puppy in my life for 20 years, so it is feeling like we have a new born infant in the house again.   It is also a reminder on how fast our lives move by.  This puppy will carry me into my 70’s.  For now it is a confident ball of fluff that has the entire household on its tip toes, her 12 year old golden retriever brother genuinely enjoying showing the puppy the ropes, but also a little jealous at all the attention going the puppies direction.  Tasha the cat is a bit grumpy but will come around.  I have never seen a puppy this confident, a puppy so quick to adapt to its new environment.  Her name is Vida – life!   And she is just what our household needed this fall.    


What I Learned From My Mother

By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

I Do Not Dare Breath

James Wright (1927 – 1980)

It goes without saying that a fine short poem can have the resonance and depth of an entire novel.

James Wright

Beginning

By James Arlington Wright
 
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.   
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
 

 
 

Among the Rocks

By Robert Browning
 
Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.
 
That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
Such is life’s trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!

From All Of This

César Vallego (1892-1938)

Absurdity, only you are pure. Absurdity, only before you is this excess sweated out of golden pleasure.

César Vallego

Paris, October 1936

by César Vallejo 

From all of this I am the only one who leaves.
From this bench I go away, from my pants,
from my great situation, from my actions,
from my number split side to side,
from all of this I am the only one who leaves.

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,

my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one.

And I move away from everything, since everything
remains to create my alibi:
my shoe, its eyelet, as well as its mud
and even the bend in the elbow
of my own buttoned shirt.


Cesar Vallejo was quoted as saying; “I was born on a day God was sick.”   A Peruvian poet, novelist, journalist and activist, who struggled throughout his lifetime.   Accused of a crime he didn’t commit in his native homeland, an accusation that was politically motivated because of his socialist politics and writings, he fled to Europe and spent most of his adult life in Spain and France.   Vallejo’s legal troubles in Peru haunted him in his attempts to achieve legal citizenship in both Spain and France and his increasingly communist leanings in his writing made that even more complicated.  Vallejo toiled in dire poverty throughout the 1920s and early 1930’s, but managed to make multiple trips to the Soviet Union which he documented in several books published in the early 1930s. A regular cultural contributor to weeklies in Peru, Vallejo also sent articles to newspapers and magazines in other parts of Latin America, Spain, Italy, and France, but his writing provided a scant income.   In 1930 the Spanish government awarded him a modest author’s grant which helped ease his financial situation.  Vallejo returned to Paris in 1934 and married Georgette Philippart, who became a controversial figure after his death by controlling and limiting the publication of Vallejo’s lifelong work.

Vallejo was plagued by ill health throughout his life time.   In 1938 he became bed ridden by what turned out to be a return of a latent form of Malaria which he had gotten in childhood.   He became extremely ill and died in Paris 1938 at age 46.   Vallejo’s poetry gained recognition after his death as one of the first modernist poet’s in Latin America.   Death was a common theme in his poetry.  I wonder if it rained on the day of his death as he predicted?


Black Stone Lying On A White Stone

by César Vallejo 

    I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

    It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.

    César Vallejo is dead.  Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

    with a rope.  These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . 

 

I Will Not Tell Thee Now

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 1542)

I am as I am and so will I be
But how that I am none knoweth truly,
Be it evil be it well, be I bond be I free
I am as I am and so will I be.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

My Galley, Charged With Forgetfulness

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

My galley, charged with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every oar a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain.
Drowned is reason that should me consort,
And I remain despairing of the port


Thomas Wyatt life reads like the next installment of Bridgerton, except with mostly unhappy endings.  His life is so steeped in myth, rumors and innuendo in what has been passed down that generations of academics have yet to completely unravel fact from fiction.  What is chronicled makes for juicy reading.  Wyatt was a large athletic man, who was as comfortable in the jousting ring as in matters of court and the arts.  A successful diplomat and patron of Thomas Cromwell, Wyatt ran in and out of favor with King Henry the VIII, as he pried the Catholic Church’s stranglehold from all matters of court and bloody birthed the Church of England into  being.  Cromwell was not so fortunate and was executed for his largely honorable service to his country.  Despite rumors of romantic connections to Anne Boleyne, or because of it, Wyatt escaped multiple imprisonments and charges of treason with not only his life, but eventually his reputation and standing in court restored. But luck never seemed to run on Wyatt’s side for very long and in 1941 while on a diplomatic mission with Spain he was struck down by a fever. 

Wyatt is credited with introducing the sonnet structure to English verse on whose literary accomplishments Shakespeare would use as a foundation.   Wyatt’s poetry was widely circulated during his lifetime and included in anthologies following his death.   Writing in a style that was personal, at times bitter and venomous, he was also deeply sentimental and romantic.   Wyatt wrote of love from a complex perspective having seen and experienced its many facets.  Wyatt’s poetry can run on the dark side, as betrayal was a common muse, knowing it could still a man’s heart every bit as the executioner’s ax in King Henry’s VIII court.   While in prison in 1936, he wrote following Cromwell’s execution:

Sighs are my food, drink are my tears;
   Clinking of fetters such music would crave.
   Stink and close air away my life wears.
     Innocency is all the hope I have.

Wyatt’s contribution to the sonnet was unique in history.  Wyatt’s sonnets are Petrarchian in their construction but with his own new English twist, he laid the path for Shakespeare to follow. 

 


The Apparition

by John Donne

WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent.

 

I Could Not Sleep

Claude McKay (1889 – 1948)

“Nations, like plants and human beings, grow. And if the development is thwarted they are dwarfed and overshadowed.”

Claude McKay

All Yesterday It Poured

by Claude McKay

All yesterday it poured, and all night long
I could not sleep; the rain unceasing beat
Upon the shingled roof like a weird song,
Upon the grass like running children’s feet.
And down the mountains by the dark cloud kissed,
Like a strange shape in filmy veiling dressed,
Slid slowly, silently, the wraith-like mist,
And nestled soft against the earth’s wet breast.
But lo, there was a miracle at dawn!
The still air stirred at touch of the faint breeze,
The sun a sheet of gold bequeathed the lawn,
The songsters twittered in the rustling trees.
And all things were transfigured in the day,
But me whom radiant beauty could not move;
For you, more wonderful, were far away,
And I was blind with hunger for your love.


Used

by Rita Dove

The conspiracy’s to make us thin. Size threes
are all the rage, and skirts ballooning above twinkling knees
are every man-chld’s preadolescent dream.
Tabla rasa. No slate’s that clean–

we’ve earned the navels sunk in grief
when the last child emptied us of their brief
interior light. Our muscles say We have been used.

Have you ever tried silk sheets? I did,
persuaded by postnatal dread
and a Macy’s clerk to bargain for more zip.
We couldn’t hang on, slipped
to the floor and by morning the quilts
had slid off, too. Enough of guilt–
It’s hard work staying cool.

Isn’t That Right?

Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

The end of art is peace.

Seamus Heaney

Clearances
(Excerpt 7 and 8)

by Seamus Heaney

 
7
 

In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
‘You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?’
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.


My mother was born in October, Seamus Heaney’s mother died in October.   However, I tend to think of my Mother’s death more in this month than when she actually died in July.  I think it was because her death was so sudden, shocking in some ways, just hours after I had dropped her off at her house after Church on a Sunday afternoon.  I don’t think I truly processed her death until October when we laid her ashes to rest next to her Mother and Father in Lakewood Cemetery.   I have written before that this blog and my involvement with poetry is directly attributable to my relationship with my Mother and the way we shared poetry as a unique language between us.   My poetry wouldn’t exist without my Mother.   And I hate to admit, but my writing, both quality and quantity has steadily decreased in the intervening years, almost as if I feel I don’t need to put things to paper anymore for what was my most avid critic and fan. 

Heaney’s sonnet sequence Clearances; 8 separate sonnets, are about the loss of his mother and their relationship.  I choose to share the ending, not the beginning of the sequence, but if you want to read the entire sequence here’s a link:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57042/clearances

I wrote many poems for my Mother, about my Mother, both when she was alive and afterwards.  I can relate to his motivations in Clearances.   What’s fascinating about these poems is what they don’t say.   The poems are like reading inside jokes of the Heaney family, a private  language, that only him and his immediate family will understand but at the same time its completely accessible because its about the mundane simplicity of life, which is really what life is about for the most part.  What I enjoy about Heaney’s use of the sonnet structure is the power he wields over it.   He doesn’t try to conform his ideas to an extraneous straight jacket of rhyming expectations, yet understands the structure gives it weight and bearing.  He uses the sonnet structure to simplify, highlight and ultimately elevate his words.  Heaney along with Robert Lowell, John Berryman and others evolved the sonnet in their own unique ways to take it where it belongs in the present, less fettered by expectations and free to wander in their and their readers imaginations. 

 


 

8

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.