Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.
An Explantion of America: A Love of Death (An Excerpt)
by Robert Pinsky
The obliterating strangeness and the spaces
Are as hard to imagine as the love of death …
Which is the love of an entire strangeness,
The contagious blankness of a quiet plain.
Imagine that a man, who had seen a prairie,
Should write a poem about a Dark or Shadow
That seemed to be both his, and the prairie’s—as if
The shadow proved that he was not a man,
But something that lived in quiet, like the grass.
Imagine that the man who writes that poem,
Stunned by the loneliness of that wide pelt,
Should prove to himself that he was like a shadow
Or like an animal living in the dark.
In the dark proof he finds in his poem, the man
Might come to think of himself as the very prairie,
The sod itself, not lonely, and immune to death.
None of this happens precisely as I try
To imagine that it does, in the empty plains,
And yet it happens in the imagination
Of part of the country: not in any place
More than another, on the map, but rather
Like a place, where you and I have never been
And need to try to imagine—place like a prairie
Where immigrants, in the obliterating strangeness,
Thirst for the wide contagion of the shadow
Or prairie—where you and I, with our other ways,
More like the cities or the hills or trees,
Less like the clear blank spaces with their potential,
Are like strangers in a place we must imagine.
Robert Pinsky was the Poet Laureate during Bill Clinton’s second term, a public position that was somewhat ill suited to his quiet nature. However, change is good, even for old poets, and it offered him the opportunity to spearhead some unique projects, one of which was My Favorite Poem for the Library of Congress. Originally intended to be only 100 poems, being a poet with a panel of poets, they changed the rules because there were too many good ones and “the list” became 180. People from all over the country and backgrounds submitted entries and those that were selected were recorded as well. I am disappointed to report there were scant few sonnets, and of those included, I was not a fan. However, I am happy to report there are a lot of other great poems. If you’re looking for an eclectic free anthology on-line, check it out. Thank you Robert!
Loses his position on worksheet or page in textbook May speak much but makes little sense Cannot give clear verbal instructions Does not understand what he reads Does not understand what he hears Cannot handle “yes-no” questions
Has great difficulty interpreting proverbs Has difficulty recalling what he ate for breakfast, etc. Cannot tell a story from a picture Cannot recognize visual absurdities
Has difficulty classifying and categorizing objects Has difficulty retaining such things as addition and subtraction facts, or multiplication tables May recognize a word one day and not the next
Poetry is the power of defining the indefinable in terms of the unforgettable.
Prayer For This House
by Louis Untermeyer
MAY nothing evil cross this door, And may ill-fortune never pry About these windows; may the roar And rains go by.
Strengthened by faith, the rafters will Withstand the battering of the storm. This hearth, though all the world grow chill, Will keep you warm.
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms, Touching your lips with holy wine, Till every casual corner blooms Into a shrine.
Laughter shall drown the raucous shout And, though the sheltering walls are thin, May they be strong to keep hate out And hold love in.
Louis Untermeyer was a businessman, poet, translator, educator and editor who followed his passion mid-life to become one of the most influential anthologists of poetry in the early 20th Century. Untermeyer spent his 20’s and early 30’s in the family jewelry business in New York City, but eventually followed his literary passions. He was fond of puns and rhymes and felt that poetry didn’t need to be an elite artistic endevour but was something that should be enjoyed by everyone. He focused on a wide range of poetry, from children’s verse to poetry anthologies used in Universities to introduce countless college students to English literature.
Untermeyer was a liberal all his life and aligned his politics around civil rights and a more just society. Late in life he left New York City and like Frost, retired to the country, preferring the solitude of his gardens and nature over the busy streets of New York City.
Untermeyer is known more for his work as an anthologist and translator, but his own poetry I find playful and inspiring. I was particularly taken with the poem above, but wonder how successful he was in his own right in the affirmation expressed. Married and divorced four times, martial harmony in Untermeyer’s households seemed to have eluded him, now matter how strong the sentiments he successfully put to rhyme.
Both Adams and Untermeyer share the distinction of serving as Poet Laureate when the title was known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Adams poem below took a bit for me to wrap my head around. It is an example of a poem that I have a hard time connecting to the whole of it, but I was taken with these three lines; Thus I lived then, till this air breathed on me. Till this kind are breathed kindness everywhere, There where my times had left me I would stay. For me sometimes a couple of lines is all I take from a poem and the rest takes a while to sink in before the emotion or thoughts expand beyond the portion that I am attracted. Sometimes the entirety of a poem I never understand. Do you have poems like that; where there is only one line that stays with you, inspires you?
Bend as the bow bends, and let fly the shaft, the strong cord loose its words as light as flame; speak without cunning, love, as without craft, careless of answer, as of shame or blame: this to be known, that love is love, despite knowledge or ignorance, truth, untruth, despair; careless of all things, if that love be bright, careless of hate and fate, careless of care. Spring the word as it must, the leaf or flower broken or bruised, yet let it, broken, speak of time transcending this too transient hour, and space that finds the beating heart too weak: thus, and thus only, will our tempest come by continents of snow to find a home.
Conrad Aiken, it is reported, avoided military service during World War I by asserting writing poetry was an “essential industry”. I love the idea of that claim but suspect Aiken, like 200,000 other young men during conscription into service in WWI, registered as a conscientious objector.
I am glad that Aiken’s life experience was not distorted by the horrors of war. His poetic voice served our nation better as a gentle soul. His writing earned him the Pulitzer Price, a National Book Award, and he was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1950 to 1952. Although primarily a poet, he published novels, short stories, criticism and children’s stories during his long career. Most of Aiken’s poetry reflects an interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity. His short story Silent Snow, Secret Snow was widely anthologized and is an example of the theme in his writing about imagination and how it shapes our inner and outer world. The short film based on it, might appear outdated, but its black and white images fit the black and white of the words of Aiken’s page.
I wonder if I am a member of the last generation for which black and white photography and black and white films are nostalgic, comforting and not foreign feeling. It’s not that they were the norm when I was growing up, but it was commonplace. The short reels our parents and grandparents shot on home camera’s that were silent, by and large were black and white, photographs our our parents as children and grandparents were mostly black and white. When it came time to shoot my own wedding photographs, we choose black and white, it just felt right. There is a purity and simplicity to black and white photography that is lost in our ultra stylized, colorized, customized and filtered graphic world. We have become accustomed to high quality video and photography with brilliant colors that anything else feels amateurish. However, I often convert my favorite digital photos into black and white to see what’s really going on in the picture. Do you have a favorite black and white family photograph?
by Conrad Aiken
Broad on the sunburnt hill the bright moon comes, And cuts with silver horn the hurrying cloud; and the cold Pole Star, in the dusk, resumes His last night’s light, which light alone could shroud. And legion other stars, that torch pursuing, Take each their stations in the deepening night, Lifting pale tapers for the Watch, renewing Their glorious foreheads in the Infinite. Never before had night so many eyes! Never was darkness so divinely thronged, As now – my love! bright star! – that you arise, Giving me back that night which I had wronged. Now with your voice sings all that immortal host, That god of myriad stars whom I thought lost.
“There are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.”
Demeter’s Prayer to Hades
by Rita Dove
This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.
To understand each desire and its edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
we change. No faith comes without cost,
no one believes without dying.
Now for the first time
the trail you have planted,
what ground opened to waste,
though you dreamed a wealth
of flowers. . . There are no curses, only mirrors
hold up to the souls of gods and mortals.
And so I give up this fate, too.
Believe in yourself,
go ahead – see where it gets you.
I got shivers when I read for the first time Rita Dove’s poem titled Sonnet, which I have shared below. It cut into me, the words laceratingly familiar as I read them. Does that ever happen to you with poetry? The hair on the back of your ,neck goes up after the second line, you suddenly feel naked before the author’s words, as if they had burst in on you in a dressing room at Macy’s by accident, witnessing all your humanness and then had the audacity to write a poem about it.
My friend Liz described to me her thrill in hearing Auden lecture in person at the University of Minnesota and the lightning bolt that experience created in her mind. She had been trained in college to think that poetry was something academics interpreted and then they told you what to think. Auden declared, use your own brain, let poetry speak to you in your own voice and make of it what you will. (A bit ironic coming from a retired Presbyterian minister who was already ordained at the time, since wasn’t the reformation about not needing an elite group of academics to interpret what you find sacred?) But we all learn through parables in our lives at our own pace and at the proper time.
Rita Dove’s sonnet, Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ cements in my mind my feeling that these sonnets about Persephone are not solely about parenting in the traditional sense, except the parenting we all do of ourselves. The truth is, we never truly parent our children, we live by example. Our children have their own minds, their own filters, their own experiences. We pretend we help them grow when in reality we feed and clothe and shelter them and what they learn of love and life they learn by watching us how we parent ourselves. If we parent ourselves with wisdom, forgiveness and compassion they likely will be influenced by the example. If we parent with excessive anxiety, then do not be surprised if they follow suit. I learned as much from my parents humbly admitting their mistakes than from the 98% of their lives they lived in prosperity. If we parent ourself with consistent recklessness, stupidity and anger, they will either by seduced by its ugliness or become orphans to find their own way. So like Dove says – “believe in yourself – see where it goes.” Parent yourself in ways, you will be honored if your children follow suit, and if nothing else, “one learns to walk by walking.”
by Rita Dove
Nothing can console me. You may bring silk
to make skin sigh, dispense yellow roses
in the matter of ripened dignitaries.
You can tell me repeatedly
I am unbearable (and I know this):
still, nothing turns the gold into corn
nothing is sweet to the tooth crushing in.
I’ll not ask for the impossible
One learns to walk by walking.
In time I will forget this empty brimming.
I may laugh again at
a bird, perhaps, chucking the nest –
but it will not be happiness,
for I have known that.
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.”
In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We’re gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer’s backdrop —
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.
We’re lining up now — Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say “race,” the photographer croons. I’m in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?
by Natasha Trethewey
In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.
They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong-mis in Mississippi.
A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.
Faulkener’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.
My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.
When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year – you’re the same age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills greann in Mississippi
I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name –
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.
I will not make a sonnet from
Each little private martyrdom:
Nor out of love left dead with time
Construe a stanza or a rime.
We do not suffer to afford
The searched for and the subtle word:
There is too much that may not be
At the caprice of prosody.
From Cyclops’ Eye. Harper & Brothers, 1926
by Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374)
Translated by Joseph Auslander
Blest be the day, and blest be the month and year,
Season and hour and very moment blest,
The lovely land and place where first possessed
By two pure eyes I found me prisoner;
And blest the first sweet pain, the first most dear,
Which burnt my heart when Love came in as guest;
And blest the bow, the shafts which shook my breast,
And even the wounds which Love delivered there.
Blest be the words and voices which filled grove
And glen with echoes of my lady’s name;
The sighs, the tears, the fierce despair of love;
And blest the sonnet-sources of my fame;
And blest that thought of thoughts which is her own,
Of her, her only, of herself alone!
Can you name the current Poet Laureate of the United States?
Does your state or province have a poet laureate? If yes, who is it?
Tracy K. Smith (September 2017)
Yes – Minnesota’s poet laureate is Joyce Sutphen.
The concept of a poet laureate as a function of recognition and civic artistic contribution to society goes all the way back to the 14th Century. Petrarch was crowned Rome’s first poet laureate in 1341 and is the god-father of sonnets. So it is only slightly ironic, or a planned coincidence, that the United States first poet laureate, was Joseph Auslander. One of Auslander’s many accomplishments as a writer was an English translation of Petrarch’s sonnets.
In upcoming blog posts I’ll share poems from current and former poet laureates. Here’s a poem from the current Poet Laureate.
by Tracy K. Smith
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine and dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned.
To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once