To Pierce Our Mean Content

The Mowing

by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts

This is the voice of high midsummer’s heat.
The rasping vibrant clamour soars and shrills
O’er all the meadowy range of shadeless hills,
As if a host of giant cicadae beat
The cymbals of their wings with tireless feet,
Or brazen grasshoppers with triumphing note
From the long swath proclaimed the fate that smote
The clover and timothy-tops and meadowsweet.

The crying knives glide on; the green swath lies.
And all noon long the sun, with chemic ray,
Seals up each cordial essence in its cell,
That in the dusky stalls, some winter’s day,
The spirit of June, here prisoned by his spell,
May cheer the herds with pasture memories.


 

The Cow Pasture

by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts

I see the harsh, wind-ridden, eastward hill,
By the red cattle pastured, blanched with dew;
The small, mossed hillocks where the clay gets through;
The grey webs woven on milkweed tops at will.
The sparse, pale grasses flicker, and are still.
The empty flats yearn seaward. All the view
Is naked to the horizon’s utmost blue;
And the bleak spaces stir me with strange thrill.

Not in perfection dwells the subtler power
To pierce our mean content, but rather works
Through incompletion, and the need that irks, —
Not in the flower, but effort toward the flower.
When the want stirs, when the soul’s cravings urge,
The strong earth strengthens, and the clean heavens purge.

And Not To Yield

 

Ulysses (An Excerpt)

by Alfred Lord Tennyson  (1809 – 1892)

….Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
 

Of Old Sat Freedom On The Heights

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
The thunders breaking at her feet:
Above her shook the starry lights:
She heard the torrents meet.

There in her place she did rejoice,
Self-gather’d in her prophet-mind,
But fragments of her mighty voice
Came rolling on the wind.

Then stept she down thro’ town and field
To mingle with the human race,
And part by part to men reveal’d
The fulness of her face—

Grave mother of majestic works,
From her isle-altar gazing down,
Who, God-like, grasps the triple forks,
And, King-like, wears the crown:

Her open eyes desire the truth.
The wisdom of a thousand years
Is in them. May perpetual youth
Keep dry their light from tears;

That her fair form may stand and shine,
Make bright our days and light our dreams,
Turning to scorn with lips divine
The falsehood of extremes!

We Forever Choose

William Blake (1757 – 1827)

“Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed.”

William Blake

 

Dreams

by Helen Hunt Jackson

Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain,
Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep,
And lead us to the houses where we keep
Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain
That we can forge and bind: the crime whose stain
Is slowly fading ’neath the tears we weep;
Dead bliss which, dead, can make our pulses leap—
Oh, cruelty! To make these live again!
They say that death is sleep, and heaven’s rest
Ends earth’s short day, as, on the last faint gleam
Of sun, our nights shut down, and we are blest.
Let this, then, be of heaven’s joy the test,
The proof if heaven be, or only seem,
That we forever choose what we will dream


A Cradle Song

By William Blake

Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.

Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.

As thy softest limbs I feel
Smiles as of the morning steal
O’er thy cheek, and o’er thy breast
Where thy little heart doth rest.

O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful night shall break.

 

I Smile To Think

Motherhood is priced of God, at price no man may dare to lessen or understand.

Helen Hunt Jackson

 

Poppies On The Wheat

by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 – 1885)

 
Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I,—I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.

 


Helen Hunt Jackson’s poetry is filled with the loss she experienced in her life.  By 1865, at age 25, Jackson had lost her first husband and two children to disease and accidents.  She moved to Colorado Springs and a sanitarium seeking a cure for tuberculosis.  There she met a wealthy banker and married.  The final 20 years of her life she became devoted to the cause of improving the rights and conditions of Native Americans, after having met Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe from Nebraska at a lecture in Boston. Upset about the mistreatment of Native Americans, Jackson became an activist on their behalf, publicizing the government’s misconduct.  She began circulating petitions, raising money, and writing letters to The New York Times on behalf of the Ponca.  Jackson’s became so focused on this issue she was quoted as saying, “I would wake up in the morning and write 2,000 to 3,000 words, faster than I could write a letter, as if I could do anything else.”  She would go on to write A Century Of Dishonor (1881) which describes the mistreatment of Native Americans by the American Government.  In 1884 she shrewdly wrote a romance novel to popularize the issue among a broader audience in the novel Romana, which used the backdrop of romance to tell the plight of Native Americans in Southern California after the Mexican-American war for her heroine.   The novel was a success and reprinted over 300 times.  It attracted a large readership to the issues surrounding Native American rights. 

“If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one hundredth part of what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slaves I would be thankful for the rest of my life.” 

Helen Hunt Jackson

Jackson obviously had sufficient wealth to travel, her opening line giving it away with the reference to Ancona.  Poppies are not a frequent flower in the wheat fields of North America, but are in Europe and England.  The poppies she is referring to come from a picturesque field in Italy to which she must have traveled.  Both Jackson’s and Kemble’s poems deal with the brevity of life and use the metaphors of weeds in our own plot of land that we till.  In Jackson’s case the poppy is the carefree interloper to remind us of the enjoyment of life’s pleasures, despite her losses, whereas Kemble’s weed is more poisonous, an “evil weed of woe” that casts its shade upon the productive soils of her youth.  Both poems are a bit melodramatic and old fashioned for my tastes, but solid reminders of how the sonnet form has inspired writers over hundred of years in expressing their emotions and memories.  One of the reasons I think the sonnet lends itself to theme’s of loss, is its relatively short.  The sonnet allows the author to release and heal while not wallowing in past.   Of the two sonnets, I enjoy Jackson’s more, with the optimism and the beauty of the red poppies a reminder that even in the solidarity of wheat’s goodness, it can’t quench the exuberance and defiance of the poppy to spice up life. 


Thou Poisonous Laurel Leaf

by Frances Anne Kemble (1809 – 1893)

Thou poisonous laurel leaf, that in the soil
Of life, which I am doomed to till full sore,
Spring’st like a noisome weed! I do not toil
For thee, and yet thou still com’st darkening o’er
My plot of earth with thy unwelcome shade.
Thou nightshade of the heart, beneath whose boughs
All fair and gentle buds hang withering,
Why hast thou wreathed thyself around my brows,
Casting from thence the blossoms of my spring,
Breathing on youth’s sweet roses till they fade?
Alas! thou art an evil weed of woe,
Watered with tears and watched with sleepless care,
Seldom doth envy thy green glories spare;
And yet men covet thee—ah, wherefore do they so!

Look Again, In the Coming Summer

miguel-cervante.jpg

Sonnet

by Miguel de Cervantes

When I was marked for suffering, Love forswore
All knowledge of my doom; or else at ease
Love grows a cruel tyrant, hard to please
Or else a chastisement exceeding sore
A little sin hath brought me. Hush! No more!
Love is a god! All things he knows and sees,
And gods are bland and mild! Who then decrees
The dreadful woe I bear and yet adore?

If I should say, O Chloe, that ’twas thou,
I should speak falsely since, being wholly good
Like Heaven itself, from thee no ill can come.
There is no hope; I must die shortly now,
Not knowing why, since, sure, no witch hath brewed
The drug that might avert my martyrdom.


How many connections can you find between these two poets, these two poems?   The obvious ones and the personal that are only meant for you?   It is interesting to use poetry as a way to connect ourselves to others that we will never meet, either through time or place.   Poetry forgives all the things left out and unexplained.  There is no requirement in poetry the author must footnote each sentiment and expression.  There is no journalistic standards to which a poet must abide.  Poetry allows for more than casual punctuation, it encourages the reader to usurp the writer’s words and find in them something personal, intimate that only the two of you know to be true in the way the words speak to you.  What secret do you share with Cervantes, Lorna Dee and Miguel?


First Thought

by Lorna Dee Cervantes

best thought, you had taught
me — a river runs through it,
the foot of the soul standing
stubbornly in the freeze, all
the shards of ice crumpling up
the banks, what survives
in the ignorance. Play it away.
Be ceremony. Be a lit candle
to what blows you. Outside,
the sun gives a favorite present,
mountain nests in ironic meadows,
otter takes off her shoes, the small
hands of her feet reaching, reaching; still,
far away people are dying. Crisp
one dollar bills fold another life.
You taught me to care in the moment,
carve day into light, or something,
moving in the west that doesn’t destroy
us. Look again, in the coming summer,
the cruelest month alive still eats up
the hours. Regret is an uneven hand,
a rough palm at the cheek — tender
and calloused. I drink another glass
of water, turn on the tap
for what grows, for you,
for what lasts, for the last
and the first found thought of you.

There Is May In Books Forever

Leigh Hunt – National Portrait Gallery

Now shall I walk or shall I ride? “Ride,” Pleasure said; “Walk” Joy replied.

William Henry Davies

 

May And The Poets

by Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859)

There is May in books forever;
May will part from Spenser never;
May’s in Milton, May’s in Prior,
May’s in Chaucer, Thomson, Dyer;
May’s in all the Italian books:—
She has old and modern nooks,
Where she sleeps with nymphs and elves,
In happy places they call shelves,
And will rise and dress your rooms
With a drapery thick with blooms.
Come, ye rains, then if ye will,
May’s at home, and with me still;
But come rather, thou, good weather,
And find us in the fields together.
 

 

In May

 
By William Henry Davies
 
 
Yes, I will spend the livelong day
With Nature in this month of May;
And sit beneath the trees, and share
My bread with birds whose homes are there;
While cows lie down to eat, and sheep
Stand to their necks in grass so deep;
While birds do sing with all their might,
As though they felt the earth in flight.
This is the hour I dreamed of, when
I sat surrounded by poor men;
And thought of how the Arab sat
Alone at evening, gazing at
The stars that bubbled in clear skies;
And of young dreamers, when their eyes
Enjoyed methought a precious boon
In the adventures of the Moon
Whose light, behind the Clouds’ dark bars,
Searched for her stolen flocks of stars.
When I, hemmed in by wrecks of men,
Thought of some lonely cottage then
Full of sweet books; and miles of sea,
With passing ships, in front of me;
And having, on the other hand,
A flowery, green, bird-singing land.

A Sweet Disorder

Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)

Delight in Disorder

by Robert Herrick

A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness :
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction :
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher :
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly :
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat :
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility :
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.


To Daffodils

By Robert Herrick

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

And Now In Age I Bud Again

Joseph Severn portrait of John Keats

 

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.

John Keats

Bright Star

by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

 

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
   Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
   Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
   Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
   Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
   Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
   Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.


The Flower (An Excerpt)

by George Herbert (1593 – 1633)

How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
        To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
               .       Grief melts away
                 .         Like snow in May,
        As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shriveled heart

Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
        Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
                    .  Where they together
                      . All the hard weather,
        Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

         And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
        I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. Oh, my only light,
                    .  It cannot be
                   . That I am he
        On whom thy tempests fell all night.

        

I’ve Kissed A Lip Or Two

Walter Clyde Curry

And how can poetry stand up against its new conditions? Its position is perfectly precarious.

John Crowe Ransom

I Have Not Lived

 
by Walter Clyde Curry (1887 – 1967)
 
 
Though half my years besiege the aged sun,
     I have not lived. My robust preparation
     Lags tardily behind fit consummation,
Droops sweatily in courses just begun.
 
Oh, I have loved and lusted with the best,
     Plucked momentary music from the senses;
     I’ve kissed a lip or two with fair pretenses
And wept for softness of a woman’s breast.
 
My mind rebounds to nether joys and pain,
     Toying with filth and pharisaic leaven;
     I know the lift up sundry peaks to heaven,
And every rockless path to hell again.
 
I wait the hour when gods have more to give
Than husks and bare insatiate will to live.

Walter Clyde Curry is a member of The Fugitives along with more celebrated founders Donald Davidson, John Ransom, Alan Tate and Robert Penn Warren, among others.  Curry was primarily a literary critic over the course of his career and left his mark teaching.  A forty year faculty member of Vanderbilt University from 1915 to 1955, Curry produced exactly the kind of books I dislike, extensive academic analysis of Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer.  A self styled medievalist and agrarian, he felt the culture of the medieval past and the south should shape the future of literature.   The Fugitives believed they had developed a new way of evaluating literature that provided a bridge from past to present.  And in the end they were somewhat right.  The future evolved either in part because of their influence or more likely because their ideas were fundamentally rejected by a more diverse artistic and academic community. 

Some academic work stands up over time, The Fugitives and in particular Curry’s legacy is a bit more convoluted in my opinion.  It’s hard to celebrate a group of coddled affluent white academics that romanticized the deep south’s history of bigotry, slavery and white supremacy when that level of white blindness falls flat on it’s face today,   Curry, one of the least talented poets in the group in my opinion, wisely wrote under a pen name, keeping a healthy distance between his playful poetry and his serious refined future as a critic.  Curry was by many accounts an excellent professor at least for the tastes of his period and at the Universities he taught.   Would Curry garner the level of academic stature and support he received 80 years ago today?  Or would he have adapted and still flourished?  Good teachers are generally good story tellers, a timeless quality that affords the individual the ability to adapt to his ever changing listening habits of his audience. 

In my mind The Fugitives are better known for their legacy of scholarly criticism than for their actual poetry.  They were young men, still exploring their bones and figuring out where and how to build their careers.   Their poetry is mingled with a touch of vulnerability.   They were young men, flawed, but thinkers, who left their mark, some of it good, some of it bad.  The same can be said of their poetry. 


Men

by John Crowe Ransom

How many godly creatures are there here!
Miranda doted on the sight of seamen.
The very casual adventures
Who took a flood as quickly as a calm,
And kept their blue eyes blue to any weather.
This was the famous manliness of men:
And when she saw it on the dirty strangers,
She clapped her pretty hands in sudden joy:
O brave new world!

Naked You Are Simple

Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.

Pablo Neruda

Sonnet XXVII

by Pablo Neruda

Naked, you are simple as one of your hands,
Smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round:
You have moonlines, applepathways:
Naked, you are slender as a naked grain of wheat.

Naked, you are blue as the night in Cuba;
You have vines and stars in your hair;
Naked, you are spacious and yellow
As summer in a golden church.

Naked, you are tiny as one of your nails,
Curved, subtle, rosy, till the day is born
And you withdraw to the underground world,

as if down a long tunnel of clothing and of chores:
Your clear light dims, gets dressed, drops its leaves,
And becomes a naked hand again.

Soneto XXVII

by Pablo Neruda

Desnuda eres tan simple como una de tus manos,
lisa, terrestre, mínima, redonda, transparente,
tienes líneas de luna, caminos de manzana,
desnuda eres delgada como el trigo desnudo.

Desnuda eres azul como la noche en Cuba,
tienes enredaderas y estrellas en el pelo,
desnuda eres enorme y amarilla
como el verano en una iglesia de oro.

Desnuda eres pequeña como una de tus uñas,
curva, sutil, rosada hasta que nace el día
y te metes en el subterráneo del mundo

como en un largo túnel de trajes y trabajos:
tu claridad se apaga, se viste, se deshoja
y otra vez vuelve a ser una mano desnuda


Body of a Woman

By Pablo Neruda

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
when you surrender, you stretch out like the world.
My body, savage and peasant, undermines you
and makes a son leap in the bottom of the earth.

I was lonely as a tunnel. Birds flew from me.
And night invaded me with her powerful army.
To survive I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow for my bow, or a stone for my sling.

But now the hour of revenge falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of firm and thirsty milk!
And the cups of your breasts! And your eyes full of absence!
And the roses of your mound! And your voice slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will live on through your marvelousness.
My thirst, my desire without end, my wavering road!
Dark river beds down which the eternal thirst is flowing,
and the fatigue is flowing, and the grief without shore.

Cuerpo de Mujer

by Pablo Neruda

Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos,
te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega.
Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava
y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.

Fui solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros
y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa.
Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma,
como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda.

Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo.
Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme.
Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia!
Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste!

Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia.
Mi sed, mi ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso!
Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue,
y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito.