Reclaiming the sacred in our lives naturally brings us once more to the wellspring of poetry.
Women We Never See Again
by Robert Bly
There are women we love whom we never see again.
They are chestnuts shining in the rain.
Moths hatched in winter disappear behind books.
Sometimes when you put your hand into a hollow tree
you touch the dark places between the stars.
Human war has parted messengers from another planet,
who cross back to each other at night,
going through slippery valleys, farmyards where the rain
has washed out all the tracks,
and when we walk there, with no guide, saddened, in the dark
we see above us glowing the fortress made of ecstatic blue stone.
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Belovèd, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy!–take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.
A sunny afternoon; think of Vermeer. Here is the apple, here the rounding side of the blue pitcher. On the scrubbed wood just here, she puts the pitcher down, so that the slide of drops against its lip catches what light there is for pitchers here this afternoon. She does not really see the drops, or quite attend the blue. A common thing. But soon the tide will turn, and salty smells will rise to circle in the street, and to her ears will come the voices. Then doorways to her eyes, then other days than this—afternoons, years. She will stop to hold this moment near, and drop the pitcher, and betray Vermeer.
A perk of writing this blog is the correspondence of strangers who graciously email me because of something that moved them on Fourteenlines. I sincerely appreciate the feedback, the thoughtful criticism, encouragement and suggestions for poems readers would like to see included in the blog. Recently, Annie Finch, a writer, poet, speaker, entertainer, teacher, translator and self proclaimed poetry witch, sent me several great suggestions, and in particular several of her own sonnets. I highly recommend you check out her website, her work and her learning opportunities at the link below. Finch offers several on-line writing classes that are easy to sign up for and affordable. A good way to fight off the dull times during COVID!
I have been debating whether to hold the first annual Fourteenlines sonnet contest in 2021. I am leaning in the direction of kicking the new contest off in May and having deadlines early September with winners announced in December. Three cash prizes for best rhymed or unrhymed sonnets. My idea is to provide an additional outlet, albeit modest in scope, for writers of sonnets around the world to submit a poem.
I am curious, those of you that are frequent readers of Fourteenlines, what you think of this idea of a sonnet contest? Would you submit an entry? Would you help network to encourage others on your blog to submit an entry? What level of cash incentive do you think will motivate people as prizes? Would any of you be willing to be part of a panel to determine the winners? If any of these questions resonate, please contact me through firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know your feedback?
I really enjoyed Encounter by Finch. I have fond memories of my many years of commuting by bus to the University of Minnesota and then to downtown to my restaurant job and then home late at night, most days 3 separate segments and bus changes per segment. When you commute by city bus, for an extended period of years, you learn the denizens of your route; who has a similar schedule as your own, who are the interlopers who you see infrequently but repeatedly because they are running late or headed in early, who are morning people, who are night people, who will look you in the eye, who won’t, who is suffering emotionally, who is having a blissful day. On a crowded bus where you are packed shoulder to shoulder, with strangers, you know about peoples hygiene, food preferences, all kinds of personal information is exchanged silently. There are days commuting your closest contact of the entire day in terms of physical touch is with a total stranger who brushed up against your leg, or the kindly older person who put their hand on your shoulder to sit down on the cold hard plastic seat and smiled at you. I have witnessed random acts of kindness, generosity, indifference and cruelty, between total strangers on buses, sometimes over the course of only 12 city blocks. I have watched lovers make out, have fights, talk and laugh and sit stoically. A city bus is a living breathing thing.
I think everyone should have the experience of riding the bus for a while, to learn the humbleness of having to explain to your boss why you are 30 minutes late because the bus didn’t show, to learn patience by having to wait in the rain or snow or cold or heat, to learn the art of communication, verbal and non-verbal that happens with strangers on public transportation, realizing we’re all on a journey together in this city, going somewhere at its own pace with someone else in control and you must just accept it.
by Annie Finch
Then, in the bus where strange eyes are believed to burn down into separate depths, ours mingled, lured out of the crowd like wings–and as fast, as blurred. We brushed past the others and rose. We had flight to learn, single as wings, till we saw we could merge with a turn, arching our gazing together. We formed one bird, focused, attentive. Flying in silence, we heard the air past our feathers, the wind through our feet, and the churn of wheels in the dark. Now we have settled. We move calmly, two balanced creatures. Opened child, woman or man, companion with whom I’ve flown through this remembering, lost, incarnate love, turning away, we will land, growing more wild with solitude, more alone, than we could have known.
Both included in Spells: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 2013).
Poetry is innocent, not wise. It does not learn from experience because each poetic experience is unique.
On Being Yanked From A Favorite Anthology
to Bob Wiggins
by Karl Shapiro (1913 – 2000)
Fame gave me a wrench and I cried Ouch! That hurt! who used to use a silky touch,
Called me illustrious, caressed my name,
Made me indispensable. Erato,
Patroness, who you fawned on me,
(Gave me the creeps sometimes) held me so high,
Incised me in the canon. I was fixed,
Part of the permanent collection, brightest star
In my constallation of five. Until
Some text-louse, pilpulistic Joycean cockroach,
Some antisemitic Jew reached for his rag
And zilched me out. Bitch – goddess!
Is this what we deserve
Who put you on the American map, you whore!
I find the process of typing the poems in preparation for a blog post quite helpful in getting my head inside the poem in a way that is different from reading it. I obviously select poems by reading them first, but the process of typing them up often reveals ideas that emerge more clearly as I experience the physical nature of a poem in the act of writing it that are different from reading it. The reason is I desire that intimacy of being with the poet in that brief moment of creating the post, to literally feel what the poet felt in the act of writing, knowing that countless edits probably occurred along the way, but at some point they wrote or typed it out in its current form.
Try it sometime if you have a poem that is bewitching you by being elusive in your understanding yet thought provoking in its murkiness. Try writing it out and see if during that process of feeling what the poet felt in writing the words, do you find a new presence in your mind, whispering some unspoken truth that lies beneath the veneer of the voice in our minds when we read it.
It is said we each have three voices; the voice that we hear when speak out loud, that others hear, but we can not, the voice we speak out loud that we hear, but others can not and the silent voice that we hear when we read, a voice of our own creation, of our narrator who benevolently assists us with our understanding. But maybe there is a fourth voice, the voice of writing that emerges from behind the veil, either from crafting our own story or in transcribing someone else’s. How many voices of your own do you hear? Which one(s) do you answer to?
by Karl Shapiro
Lord, I have seen too much for one who sat
In quiet at his window’s luminous eye
And puzzled over house and street and sky,
Safe only in the narrowest habitat;
Who studies peace as if the world were flat,
The edge of nature linear and dry,
But faltered at each brilliant entity
Drawn like a prize from some magician’s hat.
Too suddenly this lightening is disclosed:
Lord, in a day the vacuum of Hell,
The mouth of blood, the ocean’s ragged jaw,
More than embittered Adam ever saw
When driven from Eden to the East to dwell,
The lust of godhead hideously exposed!
Welcome to the endless high-school Reunion. Welcome to past friends And lovers, however, kind or cruel. Let’s undervalue and unmend
The present. Why can’t we pretend Every stage of life is the same? Let’s exhume, resume, and extend Childhood. Let’s all play the games
That occupy the young. Let fame And shame intertwine. Let one’s search For God become public domain. Let church.com become our church.
Let’s sign up, sign in, and confess Here at the altar of loneliness.
This spring will be my 40th anniversary of graduating from high school. I have only attended one reunion in the intervening years, the 20th. So there would be something symmetrical about attending again if some type of gathering actually occurs this fall. I have several good friends that remain from growing up that I have stayed in frequent touch, but given that I left my home town the day I graduated from high school and never lived there ever again, its not like I have this incredible urge to reconnect.
During COVID and the presidential election I abandoned Facebook. I eliminated 3/4 of the people I was connected to simply because we weren’t really friends. I cut it down to a very small group and I rarely if ever go and read it any more. I don’t post anything and barely read anything. For me Facebook’s real value was a way to know about friends of mine upcoming gigs who play in a band. Since live music temporarily doesn’t exist, I have no real motivation to go on the site.
My mother graduated from the same high school my daughter graduated from 60 years later, the same town I live today. When she was going to her 55th High School reunion she was still teaching Kindergarten full time in a private school. On grandparents day in June, (the vast majority of them younger than her) she told all the kids that she was going to Minneapolis that summer to visit some of her childhood friends at a reunion, two of which she met in Kindergarten. There was an audible gasp by the children and then silence, as they looked wide eyed up at my Mother and then to their grandparents, who must have seemed ancient beyond understanding, and then around the circle of faces of their classmates on the floor. My Mother watched their internal gears turning, deciphering which of their friends today might still be their friend 68 years hence, a sudden determination in their eyes that this business of friendship carries some serious long term obligations.
The First Day of School
by Roger McGough (b. 1937 –
A millionbillionwillion miles from home Waiting for the bell to go. (To go where?) Why are they all so big, other children? So noisy? So much at home they Must have been born in uniform Lived all their lives in playgrounds Spent the years inventing games That don’t let me in. Games That are rough, that swallow you up.
And the railings. All around, the railings. Are they to keep out wolves and monsters? Things that carry off and eat children? Things you don’t take sweets from? Perhaps they’re to stop us getting out Running away from the lessins. Lessin. What does a lessin look like? Sounds small and slimy. They keep them in the glassrooms. Whole rooms made out of glass. Imagine.
I wish I could remember my name Mummy said it would come in useful. Like wellies. When there’s puddles. Yellowwellies. I wish she was here. I think my name is sewn on somewhere Perhaps the teacher will read it for me. Tea-cher. The one who makes the tea.
“If you think a hammer is the only way to hammer / A nail, you ain’t thought of the nail correctly.”
I See A Part And Not The Whole
by Claude McKay
I plucked my soul out of its secret place, And held it to the mirror of my eye, To see it like a star against the sky, A twitching body quivering in space, A spark of passion shining on my face. And I explored it to determine why This awful key to my infinity Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace. And if the sign may not be fully read, If I can comprehend but not control, I need not gloom my days with futile dread, Because I see a part and not the whole. Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“Inside me is a black-eyed animal”]
“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”
El-hajj Malik El-shabazz (Malcolm X)
by Robert Hayden
O masks and metamorphoses of Ahab, Native Son
The icy evil that struck his father down and ravished his mother into madness trapped him in violence of a punished self struggling to break free.
As Home Boy, as Dee-troit Red, he fled his name, became the quarry of his own obsessed pursuit.
He conked his hair and Lindy-hopped, zoot-suited jiver, swinging those chicks in the hot rose and reefer glow.
His injured childhood bullied him. He skirmished in the Upas trees and cannibal flowers of the American Dream–
but could not hurt the enemy powered against him there.
As much as America is divided there is one thing that unites us currently in a troubling way – anger. Anger seems to abound on all sides of the political spectrum in ways not seen since the 1960’s. I think many of us that tread somewhere more centrist in the political realm are growing alarmed at the widening gap of hostility between the right and the left.
I find it disturbing that wrapped within the current GOP rhetoric of absolving Trump of guilt in the impeachment trial for the insurrection at the Capitol is this tit for tat argument on the equivalency around the violence of the Black Lives Movement in cities across America this past summer. It’s like GOP pundits believe one justifies the other. I see no such equivalency, despite my community being directly impacted by the terrible violence last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death. There is a darker side to that violence that is getting very little press; the fact that numerous indictments have been handed down in Minneapolis to white supremacists from outside the local community, some from outside the state, who used the cover of the George Floyd protests in the days following his death to cause anarchy, increase the level of violence and damage, and steal with impunity.
Embedded within the tragedy of what happened in Minneapolis, is the fact that there was a highly coordinated right wing anarchist component that only wanted to enhance the violence for their own purposes; to confuse, to radicalize the right and justify their actions, like the attack on the capitol in January. It feels like there is a coordinated media response within right wing politics to incite their base by playing the fools game of who committed the greater wrong. It’s a game no one wins.
What continues to be so troubling for me around Trumpism, is the inability of the GOP mainstream to stand up to the racist attitudes that are fueling some members of their caucus with conspiracy theories that have no basis in reality. Conspiracy theories that dehumanize their opposition to give credence to their hate. It’s one of the reasons I think poetry can be an important tool in this discussion in America, particularly angry poetry. Poetry that speaks of perspectives that make white Americans uncomfortable may be an easier entry into a broader discussion on things that make all of us uncomfortable. For equity to progress, we must move beyond conversations that dwell on the fringes of both sides, and address the causes of the anger, without losing sight of each other’s humanity or what profoundly limiting lessons our children learn from hate.
by Countee Cullen
Once riding in old Baltimore, . . Heart-filled, head-filled with glee, I saw a Baltimorean . . Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small, . . And he was no whit bigger, And so I smiled, but he poked out . . His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore . . From May until December: Of all the things that happened there . . That’s all that I remember.
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d, And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness; Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d, Sandals more interwoven and complete To fit the naked foot of poesy; Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d By ear industrious, and attention meet: Misers of sound and syllable, no less Than Midas of his coinage, let us be Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown; So, if we may not let the Muse be free, She will be bound with garlands of her own.
Today is the 200th anniversary of John Keats death. Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis. Keats did not die peacefully, he was in agony, denied opium for his pain by his doctors, fearing he would intentionally overdose, they offered him no respite, forcing him to suffer at the end. He had moved to Rome in his final months hoping the climate would help cure him, but his disease was too far progressed to prevent his death.
Keats is a great example its not quantity but quality that is the lasting legacy of a poet. He wrote poetry for only six years. In his life time only about 200 copies of his three volumes of poetry were sold. Yet, Keats has gone on to become immortalized as one of the great English poets because of the sheer beauty of his work.
He himself doubted his poetry’s staying power, in part because of his limited publishing success. In a letter to Fanny Brawne a year before his death he wrote “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty of all things…” Keats’ work became loved by generations of readers, due in part to Shelly and Hunt’s admiration keeping his work in front of the public through their ongoing tributes and support after his death. Keat’s poetry is an example that great lyric poetry never goes out of style. Beauty remains beautiful when it is created for the pure artistic pleasure of the writer.
Shelley penned and published Adonais in the year following Keats death and it brought a wider audience and interest to Keats work that would build and build throughout the remainder of the 19th century. Keats wrote sonnets in a style and at a time when lyric poetry was revered.
I believe that if Keats were alive today, his sonnets would garner attention for their sheer beauty, but he might find his publishing success might not be that dissimilar to what he experienced 200 years ago. So it is ironic that modern tastes have moved wide of his mark, and yet it would be interesting to estimate how much money publishers have made publishing Keats poetry while it has been in the public domain? I’d wager its a very large sum. There’s something that feels like a tear in the cosmic universe about publishers benefiting handsomely from poets long dead.
In a recent trip to my Barnes and Noble I stopped by the poetry section and was disappointed that I could not find a single new book of poetry that interested me, the current tastes of publishers running to one or two lines of free verse confessions with stick figure illustrations that look more like memes to my eyes and ears than poetry. Is that the attention span of readers these days for poetry? Maybe the pendulum will swing so far towards simplicity that it will start swinging back towards the beauty of more complex lyric poetry again. Maybe the beauty of Keats will inspire a new generation of readers to reach further into their imaginations, to expect more of writers, publishers and of ourselves in the poetic vision of our modern world.
Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
““When I kill me, I will Do it the same way most Americans do, I promise you: cigarette smoke Or a piece of meat on which I choke Or so broke I freeze In one of these winters we keep Calling worst. I promise if you hear Of me dead anywhere near A cop, then that cop killed me.”
― Jericho Brown, The Tradition
By Jericho Brown
I spent what light Saturday sent sweating And learned to cuss cutting grass for women Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned Difference between their mowed lawns And their vacuumed carpets just before Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter Than a joint and asking me in to change A few light bulbs. I called those women old Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair Without my help or walk without a hand At the base of their backs. I called them Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead Now, dead and in the earth I once tended. The loneliest people have the earth to love And not one friend their own age—only Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss Them around, women they want to please And pray for the chance to say please to. I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job Is to look at the childhood I hated and say I once had something to do with my hands.
by Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1917)
Life! Ay, what is it? E’en a moment spun From cycles of eternity. And yet, What wrestling ’mid the fever and the fret Of tangled purposes and hopes undone! What affluence of love! What vict’ries won In agonies of silence, ere trust met A manifold fulfillment, and the wet, Beseeching eyes saw splendors past the sun! What struggle in the web of circumstance, And yearning in the wingèd music! All, One restless strife from fetters to be free; Till, gathered to eternity’s expanse, Is that brief moment at the Father’s call. Life! Ay, at best, ’tis but a mystery!
“The poetry of people comes from the deep recesses of our unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.”
The Struggle Staggers Us
by Margaret Walker
Our birth and death are easy hours like sleep and food and drink. The struggle staggers us for bread, for pride, for simple dignity. And this is more than fighting to exist, more than revolt and war and human odds. There is a journey from Me to You. There is a journey from You to Me. A union of the two strange worlds must be.
Ours is a struggle from a too warm bed, too cluttered with a patience full of sleep. Out of this blackness we must struggle forth: from want of bread, of pride, of dignity. Struggle between the morning and the night, this marks our years, this settle too, our plight.
Frida Kahlo Self Portrait.
Sonnet in Primary Colors
by Rita Dove
This is for the woman with one black wing perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant, who painted herself a present– wildflowers entwining the plaster corset her spine resides in the romance of mirrors.
Each night she lay down in pain and rose to her celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead, Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead. And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego’s love a skull in the circular window of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.