A very awkward sketch, ’tis true:
But since it is a sketch of you,
And because I made it, too
I like it here and there; –do you?
by Maxine Cumin
I went to college in the nineteen forties
read Gogol, Stendhal, Zola, Flaubert.
Read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky
and wrote exams that asked: contrast and compare.
Male novelists, male profs, male tutors, not
a single woman on the faculty
nor was there leaven found among the poets
I read and loved: G.M. Hopkins, A.E.
Housman, Auden, Yeats, only Emily
(not quite decoded or yet in the canon).
Ten years later, I struggled to break in
the almost all-male enclave of poetry.
Here’s a small glimpse in the the hierarchy:
famed Robert Lowell praising Marianne
by Marianne Moore
My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self reliant like the cat —
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth —
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “`Make my house your inn’.”
Inns are not residences.
An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.
I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.
Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.
Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.
This past Sunday was one of those September days that was masquerading as July. It was hot, muggy, sunny and absolutely perfect, unless you found yourself on the top rungs of a ladder applying stain to siding on the southern and western sides of the house. Then, it was down right HOT! I embodied the last line of Hopkins poem below, I was my sweaty self, but worse.
The end of summer is here and fall is clearly visible in the canopy with trees starting to turn and leaves starting to drop. Mentally if I go through the check list of all the projects I aspired to complete this summer, I would give myself a B+. The problem with house projects is the idea of getting something repaired is never as easy as the reality of actually fixing it. It’s even more difficult when there are differing opinions on what actually needs to be done or how “easy” it would be to do it. Ha! But alas, I will not throw myself into damnation for my failures, like Hopkins seems want to do. Instead I’ll give myself a pass and realize all those projects will be like a good hound, waiting for me faithfully next year.
Sonnet 45 – The Terrible Sonnets
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
I WAKE and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sighs you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyest of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
“I made a list of things I have to remember and a list of things I need to forget and then I see they are the same list.”
A New Poet
By Linda Pastan
Finding a new poet
is like finding a new wildflower
out in the woods. You don’t see
its name in the flower books, and
nobody you tell believes
in its odd color or the way
its leaves grow in splayed rows
down the whole length of the page. In fact
the very page smells of spilled
red wine and the mustiness of the sea
on a foggy day – the odor of truth
and of lying.
And the words are so familiar,
so strangely new, words
you almost wrote yourself, if only
in your dreams there had been a pencil
or a pen or even a paintbrush,
if only there had been a flower.
I have been reading Linda Pastan’s book The Five Stages of Grief. There are some remarkable poems in it and last week I spent some time reading more of her work on-line. She is one of those poets that the more I read the more I wonder why I haven’t run into her before this year. Every year I put together a little book of my favorite poems from the year and I think this year half of them could be Pastan.
Pastan was born the same year as my Mother, so it could be my affinity for her writing is in part because she speaks of things in ways that ring true to my inner ears, her words expressive in ways that are not unlike things my Mother said. Each generation wrestles with its own unique challenges and opportunities. My parents and Pastan grew up during the great depression. They learned to make do with what you had and that ability carried over into their inner life as well, not expecting or wanting too much of themselves or others. Pastan’s writing is private, she reveals just enough to draw the reader into her prose, but doesn’t get carried away in personal details that would be too revealing for either. She knows how to maintain a line of modesty in her poetry that serves to keep the reader thinking without veering into lurid thoughts all on their own.
Do you have poets that remind you of your parents? If yes, what emotions does that create for you when you read them?
by Don Paterson
In the same way that the mindless diamond keeps
one spark of the planet’s early fires
trapped forever in its net of ice,
it’s not love’s later heat that poetry holds,
but the atom of the love that drew it forth
from the silence: so if the bright coal of his love
begins to smoulder, the poet hears his voice
suddenly forced, like a bar-room singer’s — boastful
with his own huge feeling, or drowned by violins;
but if it yields a steadier light, he knows
the pure verse, when it finally comes, will sound
like a mountain spring, anonymous and serene.
Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water
sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.
If there were any power in human love,
Or in th’ intensest longing of the heart,
Then should the oceans and the lands that part
Ye from my sight all unprevailing prove,
Then should the yearning of my bosom bring
Ye here, through space and distance infinite;
And life ‘gainst love should be a baffled thing,
And circumstance ‘gainst will lose all its might.
Shall not a childless mother’s misery
Conjure the earth with such a potent spell—
A charm so desperate—as to compel
Nature to yield to her great agony?
Can I not think of ye till ye arise,
Alive, alive, before my very eyes?
By Jo Walton
In midst of life is death, and life goes on
And that’s the hardest thing, for those who stay
For love and spring and work get in the way
Are consolation, balm, but still you’re gone.
We live life day by day, and days accrete
To bury you in stratigraphic time
Remembered in a place, a new-found rhyme,
Caught in the finished past, enclosed, complete.
We rage in helplessness at time and death
But onwards is the one direction left
The hope of future joy, although bereft,
For we must dare to live, while we have breath.
(On Easter morning, roll away the stone
Behold the empty tomb: but still alone.
The idea of celebrating, a celebration of our lives every day is a hard thing to achieve. There are too many things that rub at us, over due bills, nagging coughs, unpleasant tasks required of us at work or home, down right unpleasantness like having surgery or a tooth removed, not to mention deaths of loved ones and deaths of relationships, sap our energy for celebrations. Loss and grief encroach on our sense of well being and the idea of celebration, of thinking of this very day as special fades into the background of grumbles, aches and pains and we forget that life is good.
Poetry as a meditative practice to reset my brain with positive images and thoughts is something I try to do daily as a way to remember to celebrate. I admit that part of my penchant for seeking out short poems, is I tire easily from longer poems if they fail to grab my interest early, in the first 10 lines. There is something pleasing about short poems, they feel contained, readable, a message waiting just for me, whereas long poems, short stories and novels feel much more impersonal.
Clifton asks an interesting question? Do any of us have a model or is the challenges she faced unique? Certainly I benefited by being white and male in looking about at the world in seeing options of what I could be and can be, but in the end the path I took was very much individual. I appreciate the challenges she articulates even if I can never completely understand them. I am not a woman, nor a person of color. I never faced institutionalized racism. Her path was much more challenging and filled with more barriers. It’s why her poems are inspirational. I think I can take something from her poetry and remember to celebrate and celebrate with her. Celebrate what I have shaped into some kind of life. How do you remember to celebrate?
a song of mary
by Lucille Clifton
somewhere it being yesterday.
i a maiden in my mother’s house.
the animals silent outside.
princes sitting on thrones in the east
studying the incomprehensible heavens.
joseph carving a table somewhere
in another place.
i watching my mother.
i smiling an ordinary smile.
“The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet be fully alive.”
by Philip Whalen
I can’t live in this world
And I refuse to kill myself
Or let you kill me
The dill plant lives, the airplane
My alarm clock, this ink
I won’t go away
I shall be myself—
Free, a genius, an embarrassment
Like the Indian, the buffalo
Like Yellowstone National Park
Midway through Dave Chappelle’s new Netfllix special he says, “I can’t live in this world.” I don’t think he was quoting Philip Whalen. I feel that way sometimes. What world have we created in the past 50 years? We have brought more people out of poverty than at any time in history, we have created medical technology and an agricultural system undreamed of 80 years ago. We have created technology that mirrors fiction on Star Trek in the 1960s. By all measures of prosperity we have wildly succeeded globally, yet in measures of happiness, contentment, reducing anxiety, we have not moved the needle, in fact we have eroded it. Longer life, more food and more technology does not translate into happiness.
Allen Ginsburg is not a poet who made his name with sonnets. Howl is his signature poem, Woe Unto Thee Manhattan being the only example of a sonnet I have been able to find. Yet, this sonnet, written early in his career is eerily prophetic, or do we assign the tragedies of the future to words of the past simply because tragedy is always waiting in the future?
I don’t feel that way about my home – Minneapolis. I don’t relate or think my hometown will be victim to the woe that Ginsburg projects. But the good people of Odessa, Texas felt that way before gunfire shattered their peaceful co-existence. And the fine citizens of the Bahamas probably felt that way a week ago before they ever heard of hurricane Dorian. Ginsburg doesn’t declare whether the woe he predicts is from natural causes or the product of the human condition. Cities are the life blood of our society, its generally where new ideas incubate, new technology arises, the arts and diversity flourish. They are also becoming a place of division, a divide between the haves and have nots. New York is vibrant. So is every other city he names. And yet, maybe we may all be in need of repentance soon enough as we ask, who or what has made this world where mass shootings have become daily news? Where we have all become numb to this new reality and guns are so freely available we have normalized a world where the gun counter at my local Fleet Farm is literally the largest department in the store. A customer can select a hand gun, rifle or shot gun and ammo to match at any price point, caliber and purpose. And why do we need so many choices and such freedom? Woe unto thee, woe to thee, those framers of the constitution, that never could have imagined this future that we have created.
Woe Unto Thee, Manhattan
by Allen Ginsburg
Woe unto thee, Manhattan, woe to thee,
Woe unto all the cities of the world.
Repent, Chicagos, O repent; ah, me!
Los Angeles, now thou art gone so wild,
I think thou art still mighty, yet shall be,
As the earth shook, and San Francisco fell,
An angel in an agony of flame.
City of horrors, New York so much like Hell,
How soon thou shalt be a city-without-name,
A tomb of souls, and a poor broken knell.
Fire and fire on London, Moscow shall die,
And Paris her livid atomies be rolled
Together into the Woe of the blazing bell–
All cities then shall toll for their great fame.