We still need a voice that thinks before it speaks.
I Am Very Bothered
by Simon Armitage
I am very bothered when I think of the bad things I have done in my life. Not least that time in the chemistry lab when I held a pair of scissors by the blades and played the handles in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner; then called your name, and handed them over.
O the unrivalled stench of branded skin as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked, the doctor said, for eternity.
Don’t believe me, please, if I say that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen, of asking you if you would marry me.
Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss, Act One, Scene Four
ROMEO [To JULIET]
If I profane with my unworthiest hand This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, Which mannerly devotion shows in this; For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
with his words in my head I slept for thirty or forty forevers while the grass shrieked and the trees tremored…
By Deborah Landau
Dazzling emptiness of the black green end of summer no one
running in the yard pulse pulse the absence.
Leave them not to the empty yards.
They resembled a family. Long quiet hours. Sometimes
one was angry sometimes someone called her “wife”
someone’s hair receding.
An uptick in the hormone canopy embodied a restlessness
and oh what to do with it.
(How she arrived in a hush in a looking away and not looking.)
It had been some time since richness intangible
and then they made a whole coat of it.
Meanwhile August moved toward its impervious finale.
A mood by the river. Gone. One lucid rush carrying them along.
Borderless and open the days go on—
A friend of Ivor Gurney’s described him as being “so sane in his insanity.” Gurney spent the last 15 years of his life in psychiatric hospitals in England, believing himself to actually be Shakespeare for a portion of that time. A self described composer more than poet or playwright, he wrote more than 300 songs in his lifetime. Only a small fraction of his music has been performed or recorded.
Born in the city of Gloucester in 1890, Gurney was fascinated by music. As a boy he studied under the organist, Dr Herbert Brewer at the Gloucester Cathedral. Following his service in WWI, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study composition with Sir Charles Stanford. But life’s challenges intervened and a nervous breakdown interrupted his studies.
However Gurney is an inspiration of resilience. Despite worsening mental and physical health in his early 30’s, the early years of his commitment were productive creatively. Its unclear how much of his mental illness was attributable to PTSD from the war or the physical impact of being gassed in the trenches but his mental health deteriorated over time until he was unable to continue as an artist the final few years of his life. His cause of death was tuberculosis, which was rampant in the locked wards of mental institutions of the time.
I find it interesting to pair modern poets with counterparts from a 100 years ago. Some similar ideas run through these two poems around the impermanence of permanence and how the external world moves on without us, regardless of the machinations of our inner life.
Sonnet – September 1922
by Ivor Gurney
Fierce indignation is best understood by those Who have time or no fear, or a hope in its real good. One loses it with a filed soul or in sentimental mood. Anger is gone with sunset, or flows as flows The water in easy mill-runs; the earth that ploughs Forgets protestation in its turning, the rood Prepares, considers, fulfils; and the poppy’s blood Makes old the old changing of the headland’s brows.
But the toad under the harrow toadiness Is known to forget, and even the butterfly Has doubts of wisdom when that clanking thing goes by And’s not distressed. A twisted thing keeps still – That thing easier twisted than a grocer’s bill – And no history of November keeps the guy.
“Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”
— Michael Joseph Oakeshott
Portrait of a Machine
by Louis Untermeyer
What nudity as beautiful as this Obedient monster purring at its toil; These naked iron muscles dripping oil And the sure-fingered rods that never miss. This long and shining flank of metal is Magic that greasy labour cannot spoil; While this vast engine that could rend the soil Conceals its fury with a gentle hiss. It does not vent its loathing, it does not turn Upon its makers with destroying hate. It bears a deeper malice; lives to earn It’s masters bread and laughs to see this great Lord of the earth, who rules but cannot learn, Become the slave of what his slaves create.
One hundred years ago it took 40 hours of labor from planting to harvest with the best horse drawn equipment at the time to raise 100 bushels of corn. Today it takes around 2 hours. We have 20X increased productivity and with it 20X increased the cost of production and reduced 20X the workforce needed to produce it. The reason we’ll never go back is no one would want to work that hard ever again for so little wages. We have grown comfortable in the marvels that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels have created and there is no bridge back to a pastoral rural economy. But as these poems both remind us, there is a cost to our efficiency that goes beyond finances. There is a human cost in our souls being tethered to the very machines that have transformed lives.
Agricultural Implements and Machinery
by James Mcyintre (1828- 1906)
Poor laborers, they did sad bewail, When the machine displaced the flail ; There’s little work, now, with the hoes, Since cultivators weed the rows.
Labor it became more fickle When the scythe took place of sickle ; Labor still it did sink lower By introduction of mower ;
And the work was done much cheaper When they added on the reaper. Another machine to it they join, Mower, reaper, binder, they combine.
Machines now load and stow away Both the barley and the hay, And the farmers do get richer With the loader and the pitcher.
There’s little work now for the hoes, Since cultivators weed the rows ; They sow and rake by the machine- Hand labor’s ‘mong the things have been.
Armed with scythes, the old war chariot Cut down men in the fierce war riot ; Round farmer’s chariot falls the slain, But ’tis the sheaves of golden grain.
This harvest, now, of eighty-four, Will great wealth on farmers pour, For there is abundant yield Of fruitful crops in every field.
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?
So there are no more words and all is ended; The timbrel is stilled, the clarion laid away; And Love with streaming hair goes unattended, Back to the loneliness of yesterday.
I Know It Will Be Quiet When You Come
by Joseph Auslander (1897-1965)
I know it will be quiet when you come: No wind; the water breathing steadily; A light like ghost of silver on the sea; And the surf dreamily fingering his drum. Twilight will drift in large and leave me numb With nearness to the last tranquility; And then the slow and languorous tyranny Of orange moon, pale night, and cricket hum.
And suddenly there will be twist of tide, A rustling as of thin silk on the sand, The tremor of a presence at my side, The tremble of a hand upon my hand: And pulses sharp with pain, and fires fanned, And words that stumble into stars and hide.
In Envy of Cows
by Joseph Auslander (1897-1965)
The cow swings her head in a deep drowsy half-circle to and over Flank and shoulder, lunging At flies; then fragrantly plunging Down at the web-washed grass and the golden clover, Wrenching sideways to get the full tingle; with one warm nudge, One somnolent wide smudge Sacred to kine, Crushing a murmurous of late lush August to wine!
The sky is even water-tone behind suave poplar trees— Color of glass; the cows Occasionally arouse That color, disturb the pellucid cool poplar frieze With beauty of motion slow and succinct like some grave privilege Fulfilled. They taste the edge Of August, they need No more: they have rose vapors, flushed silence, pulpy milkweed
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
In the period of years from 1930 to 1967, England had one poet laureate, John Masefield, while the United States had 18 different poet laureates, nearly every one of them showcased on this blog. Their names are Joseph Auslander (1937 – 1941) , Allen Tate (1943 – 1944), Robert Penn Warren (1945 – 1945), Louise Bogan (1945 – 1946), Karl Shapiro (1946- 1947), Robert Lowell (1947-1948) Leonie Adams (1948-1949), Elizabeth Bishop (1949-1950), Conrad Aiken (1950-1952), William Carlos Williams (1953 to 1956), Randall Jarrell (1957 – 1958), Robert Frost (1958-1959), Richard Eberhart (1959-1961), Louis Untermeyer (1961 – 1963), Howard Nemerov (1963-1964), Reed Whitemore (1964 – 1965), Stephen Spender (1965 – 1966), James Dickey (1966 – 1968).
In scanning this list, it is remarkable how diverse a group of writers and styles are encapsulated in this group, a bit heavy from a white male perspective, but it reflects the times. None the less, it illustrates the evolution of poetry in the United States. Its why I was shocked that I had never heard of John Masefield until stumbling across some of his sonnets. His sonnets are a bit pedestrian and so I am a bit baffled what so captured the English imagination as to have him serve in the capacity of poet laureate for such a long time? Being named poet laureate is largely a popularity contest and serves little purpose other than in some cases a small stipend and a way of both recognizing a writer and maybe linking the soul of a nation or a state to a poetic voice. Over time, in retrospect, there are questionable appointments, no different than Cooperstown for baseball and there are those that are highly deserving. But there are also a surprising number of names that my reaction is who; never heard of them, names that show how fast writers can fade from the public consciousness.
Many of John Masefield’s sonnets deal with concepts of beauty. It would be interesting to know more about what inspired him? Was it the ugliness of the wars during his prime and the devastation they had on England and Europe that made the epitome of beauty his muse? I enjoyed both these poems, the linking of cosmic dust with nature’s beauty is a surprisingly modern way of thinking how in part our planet was formed. It’s estimated 5,200 tons of space dust falls to earth every year. Not much in the big scheme of things, but multiply it by several billion years and it adds up. The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. The earth weighs roughly 13,170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 lbs. Even over its long life span, space dust accounts for only 0.00000036% of earth’s mass. As small as that it is, the mass of all the people on earth is less than a trillionth of the earth’s weight and less than amount of stardust that has fallen, so its very possible that as Joni Mitchell sings, we are stardust…..
If All Be Governed By The Moving Stars
by John Masefield
If all be governed by the moving stars, If passing planets bring events to be, Searing the face of Time with bloody scars, Drawing men’s souls even as the moon the sea; If as they pass they make a current pass Across man’s life and heap it to a tide, We are but pawns, ignobler than the grass Cropped by the beast and crunched and tossed aside. Is all this beauty that does inhabit heaven Trail of a planet’s fire? Is all this lust A chymic means by warring stars contriven To bring the violets out of Cæsar’s dust? Better be grass, or in some hedge unknown The spilling rose whose beauty is its own.
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.
Long Island Sound
by Emma Lazarus – 1849-1887
I see it as it looked one afternoon In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown. The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon, A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon. The shining waters with pale currents strewn, The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove, The semi-circle of its dark, green grove. The luminous grasses, and the merry sun In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide, Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide, Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon. All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.
“As for the common men apart, Who sweat to keep their common breath, And have no hour for books or art– What dreams have these to hide from death!”
Sonnet to Beauty
by Lola Ridge
Show me thy way. Though I have held thy name, that tremulously now my lips let fall, as word too dear for traffic of the tongue, yet I have loved thee, Beauty, beyond all. Be with me in this hour: dread shapes of thee apparelled in the lustre not their own – as buzzard, gracened by the wizardry of light, looks all but lovely as the swan, shall not appal. In thy high company – whereof all things are free and each wild theme weaves in a relentless rise and fall to resolution. I shall brokenly – hear through the fury, through the windless dream, heart of the terror, chiming at thy call.
Lola Ridge was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1873. The only surviving child, her and her parents immigrated to New Zealand six years later. Ridge married Peter Webster, a gold mine manager, at the age of 21, but the marriage failed quickly and she moved to Sydney and enrolled at Trinity College, studying painting and writing poetry. Ridge had some success as a writer in Australia and published several poems. Following the death of her mother in 1907, Ridge moved to San Francisco and re-invented herself. She claimed the name Lola, having been born Emily, and shaved 10 years off her age and posed as a just recently graduated fresh faced 23 year old.
Ridge cultivated the life she dreamed of living. She was politically active in socialism and the labor movement on both the east and west coasts. After several years, she moved to New York City and supported herself writing for journals, advertising copy, writing pulp fiction and occasionally posing as an artist’s model. Ridge lived her dream of being an artist, sacrificing financially in cold water flats in New York City, but she navigated a difficult, inspiring life and published her art successfully.
In 1918 her poem “The Ghetto” was published in the New Republic and it instantly opened doors for Ridge as a poet. Ridge was recognized alongside William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Waldo Frank as poets pushing the boundaries of modern poetry. Ridge published multiple books of poetry in the 1920’s with a definite socialist leaning. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 and received numerous awards during her career. Ridge died of heart failure from complications from TB in May of 1941, in her home in Brooklyn, at the age of 67, though her close friends believed she was 57 at the time, maintaining her youthful ruse successfully, right up until the very end.
by Lola Ridge
That day in the slipping of torsos and straining flanks, On the bloodied ooze of fields, plowed by iron, (And the smoke, bluish near earth and gold in the sunshine, Floating like cotton down) Do you remember how we heard All the Red Cross bands on Fifth Avenue, And bugles in little home towns, And children’s harmonicas bleating AMERICA! – And the harsh and terrible screaming, And that strange vibration at the roots of us – Desire, fierce like a song?
And after . . . Do you remember the drollery of the wind on our faces, and horizons reeling, And the terror of the plain, heaving like a gaunt pelvis to . . the sun Over us – threshing and twanging Torn-up roots of the song?
You say, Columbus with his argosies
Who rash and greedy took the screaming main
And vanished out before the hurricane
Into the sunset after merchandise,
Then under western palms with simple eyes
Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again:
You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?
I then do answering say to you: The line
Of wizards and of saviors, keeping trust
In that which made them pensive and divine,
Passes before us like a cloud of dust.
What were they? Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.
Trumbull Stickney died of a brain tumor at age 30. Born into an accomplished family of academics in Switzerland, he failed to thrive as either student or lecturer, unhappy and unfulfilled in both applications. However, he pursued his artistic aspirations more passionately, writing as zealously as he pursued several affairs of the heart, though neither prospering quite as he had hoped. Following his untimely death, his family destroyed all his correspondence to his lover(s), likely wiping out some of his best work along with it.
I find Stickney’s poetry strangely inconsistent, filled with literary references and his own philosophical musings, that make it feel a bit too academic, mixed with some remarkably modern turn of phrases that are stellar. He was obviously self aware of his mortality. The Soul of Time is an interesting poem with a jolting, unexpected ending. It paints the stark reality of self awareness, the idea that communication with our inner selves with complete honesty is difficult to impossible, let alone those closest to us.
The first poem above is easier to contemplate if you know the definition of argosies, which mean merchant ships. It is a beautiful erasure of the typical myth building of Columbus as hero of the America’s. Instead it casts him in the rather modern light of invading pestilent conqueror whose only real goals were personal wealth and recognition at the terrible consequence of the native people’s already present. I think you could replace Columbus with name Bezos in this poem and raise the same timely issues on whether progress is truly progress or simply an ever increasing defiling of our planet under the ruse of capitalism and industry.
The Soul Of Time
by Trumbull Stickney
TIME’S a circumference
Whereof the segment of our station seems
A long straight line from nothing into naught.
Therefore we say ” progress, ” ” infinity ” —
Dull words whose object
Hangs in the air of error and delights
Our boyish minds ahunt for butterflies.
For aspiration studies not the sky
But looks for stars; the victories of faith
Are soldiered none the less with certainties,
And all the multitudinous armies decked
With banners blown ahead and flute before
March not to the desert or th’ Elysian fields,
But in the track of some discovery,
The grip and cognizance of something true,
Which won resolves a better distribution
Between the dreaming mind and real truth.
I cannot understand you.
‘T is because
You lean over my meaning’s edge and feel
A dizziness of the things I have not said.