They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Phillip Larkin made English Lit 101 much more interesting for a legion of young people by penning This Be The Verse. It opens with the single most identifiable first line for teenage angst of any poem every written. The holiday season has a way of raising anxiety for many people, it brings out their inner bah-hum-bug. I am the opposite. I pretty much enjoy everything about Christmas and New Years. I enjoy the fellowship with family. I like to bake. I like to cook. I like to have people over to my house. I like making and giving presents. I like the corny Christmas shows on TV. I even like Christmas music. I realize that many find this a character flaw, which is why I am bringing you a little Joni Mitchell -and Phillip Larkin to counter balance the good cheer with classic curmudgeonly poetry. If you have a bit of inner Grinch, may this no, no, no darken your day like winter solstice in Norway.
by Philip Larkin
You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That’s seen, some mornings, running down a lawn.
It is these sunless afternoons, I find
Install you at my elbow like a bore
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. You have been here some time.
My Aunt Nita’s kitchen was immaculate and dark,
and she was always bending to the sink
below the window where the shadows off the bulk
of Laurel Mountain rose up to the brink
of all the sky she saw from there. She clattered
pots on countertops wiped clean of coal dust,
fixed three meals a day, fried meat, mixed batter
for buckwheat cakes, hauled water, in what seemed lust
for labor. One March evening, after cleaning,
she lay down to rest and died. I can see Uncle Ed,
his fingers twined at his plate for the blessing;
my Uncle Craig leaning back, silent in red
galluses. No on said a word to her. All that food
and cleanliness. No one ever told her it was good.
by Walter de la Mare
When thou as little as I am, Mother
And I as old as thou,
I’ll feed thee on wild bee honey-comb,
And milk from my cow.
I’ll make thee a swan’s down bed, Mother;
Watch over thee then will I.
And if in a far-away dream you start
I’ll sing thee lullaby.
It’s many – oh ages and ages, Mother
We shared, we too, Soon now:
Thou shalt be happy, grown again young,
And I as old as thou.
I like a good poem
one with lots of fighting
in it. Blood, and the
clanging of armour. Poems
against Scotland are good,
and poems that defeat
the French with crossbows.
I don’t like poems that
aren’t about anything.
Sonnets are wet and
a waste of time.
Also poems that don’t
know how to rhyme.
If I was a poem
I’d play football and
get picked for England.
by Roger McGough
I vow to honour the commitment made this day
Which, unlike the flowers and the cake,
Will not wither or decay. A promise, not to obey
But to respond joyfully, to forgive and to console,
For once incomplete, we now are whole.
I vow to bear in mind that if, at times
Things seem to go from bad to worse,
They also go from bad to better.
The lost purse is handed in, the letter
Contains wonderful news. Trains run on time,
Hurricanes run out of breath, floods subside,
And toast lands jam-side up.
And with this ring, my final vow:
To recall, whatever the future may bring,
The love I feel for you now.
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.”
To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer-jaws of heaven.
by Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)
You will not always be far away and pure
As a word conceived in a poet’s silver womb
You will not always be a metaphysical signature
To all the poems I write. In my bleak room
This very year by gods will you may be
A woman innocent in her first sin
Having cast off immortality.
Of the never to be born. The violin
Is not more real than the music played upon it.
They told me this – the priests – but I am tired
Of loving through the medium of a sonnet
I want by Man, not God, to be inspired
This year O creature of the dream-vague face
You’ll come and be a thing in time and space.
by Patrick Kavanagh
And sometimes I am sorry when the grass
Is growing over the stones in quiet hollows
And the cocksfoot leans across the rutted cart-pass
That I am not the voice of country fellows
Who now are standing by some headland talking
Of turnips and potatoes or young corn
Of turf banks stripped for victory.
Here Peace is still hawking
His coloured combs and scarves and beads of horn.
Upon a headland by a whinny hedge
A hare sits looking down a leaf-lapped furrow
There’s an old plough upside-down on a weedy ridge
And someone is shouldering home a saddle-harrow.
Out of that childhood country what fools climb
To fight with tyrants Love and Life and Time?
It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows
Of Nature have their image in the mind,
As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close,
Only the empty nests are left behind,
And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.
Vinegar may preserve pickles, but it isn’t effective in extending longevity in humans. A common mindset among the aged is gratitude. A sense that life is special and they are grateful for what it has brought them, both good and bad experiences. People who are sour-pusses spoil in their own juices.
A year ago I shared on Fourteenlines on Thanksgiving my favorite poem of gratitude, aptly titled Gratefulness by George Herbert. I shared a shortened version of the poem that I have used for many years as a prayer of gratitude at Thanksgiving. I like it because it is divinity neutral. Regardless of what you believe, everyone should have someone or something for which you are grateful. “Thou that has given so much to me….” is a wonderful way to bring into focus in our minds who we want to thank and give blessings of gratitude to this day.
What is interesting, is last year’s Thanksgiving day blog was read by only a few people on Thanksgiving day. But it has been one of the most read of all my blog entries ever since. The terms grateful, gratitude and gratefulness are consistently some of the most searched terms on search engines that brings people to Fourteenlines. I think that illustrates one of the things I most appreciate about sharing this blog, it reinforces everything good about my fellow travelers and humanity. It is reassuring to know that people from countries all over the world are looking for ways to express gratitude in their lives and looking to poetry to express it elegantly.
This year’s Thanksgiving poems are a little outdated in their language but the words have such a beautiful flow and they are marvelous poems. I have a feeling that many readers of Wordsworth’s poem may not have ever seen a sheave and might not even know what one is. Prior to the invention of diesel-powered combines, grain was swathed and sheaved by hand prior to the grain being threshed or winnowed. It was an enormous amount of work, and one would have been certainly grateful when it was done for the year.
Today I will be gathering with family and friends around a bountiful table. My family and I are truly blessed in all we have, the place that we live, the opportunities we enjoy, the health and well being of those present and those in our thoughts. I will offer the first and last stanzas of the Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s fine poem Thanksgiving as this year’s prayer of gratitude. If you have a favorite prayer or poem of thanksgiving please share it. And if you are in need of one feel free to follow my lead.
By Ella Wheeler Wilcox
We walk on starry fields of white
And do not see the daisies;
For blessings common in our sight
We rarely offer praises.
We sigh for some supreme delight
To crown our lives with splendor,
And quite ignore our daily store
Of pleasures sweet and tender.
Our cares are bold and push their way
Upon our thought and feeling.
They hand about us all the day,
Our time from pleasure stealing.
So unobtrusive many a joy
We pass by and forget it,
But worry strives to own our lives,
And conquers if we let it.
There’s not a day in all the year
But holds some hidden pleasure,
And looking back, joys oft appear
To brim the past’s wide measure.
But blessings are like friends, I hold,
Who love and labor near us.
We ought to raise our notes of praise
While living hearts can hear us.
Full many a blessing wears the guise
Of worry or of trouble;
Far-seeing is the soul, and wise,
Who knows the mask is double.
But he who has the faith and strength
To thank his God for sorrow
Has found a joy without alloy
To gladden every morrow.
We ought to make the moments notes
Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
A grand Thanksgiving chorus.
I’m sitting in the air, where there once was
nothing; now I’m looking down on people
walking on a plaza which was never
there. I could be sitting on a steeple
(just as likely) but I’m not; I’m walking
through the wind—where it goes, I do not know.
Once I saw clear through these walls; shocking
now to think of it, how the world is so
capricious that it changes air to brick
and cloud to window sill. Everything
gives way to progress—such a rhetoric
of loss, such a way to stop us singing.
If they build it, we will climb into the air
and forget that blue was everywhere.
Maybe I like Joyce Sutphen’s poetry so much, because we have so much in common. Sutphen is Minnesota’s second Poet Laureate, having been appointed by outgoing Governor Mark Dayton in 2011. She is a long time resident of St. Peter, just upstream and down the road a little in the Minnesota River valley from Mankato, where I lived for 13 years.
Sutphen’s work expresses a voice I recognize, a Midwestern, Minnesotan love of place, love of people, love of life. It is a less harried voice and maybe a slightly softer voice, than poets that come from harsher places and crueller times. Sutphen writes in many styles and sonnets make up only a small portion of her work. I enjoy that she uses the structure of sonnets as part of her love affair with life, but truth be told, I have a short attention span for long poems. I like a poet that can get something conveyed in twenty lines or less, and even better if its fourteen.
I particularly relate to her poem At The Moment. At the moment I have stopped thinking about love as well, stopped considering that love is realistic or even possible. New relationships get terribly complicated in your late 50’s and my circumstances make it even more so.
I am contemplating getting a cat. It is about as much intimacy as I am capable at the moment in my one bedroom condo of a life. A cat wise enough to stand gaurd over me and interview any future prospective entanglements. By getting a cat, I’m sending a declaration to any possible future lover; love my dependent, if you’re going to love me. And if you don’t like cats or are allegeric to cats, we aren’t going to get along, so please move along, before one of us starts growling or howling. However, a cat would have warded off all the love I received in the past four years. It’s absence was just what I needed then, and its presence is just what I need now.
At The Moment
by Joyce Sutphen
Suddenly, I stopped thinking about Love,
after so many years of only that,
after thinking that nothing else mattered.
And what was I thinking of when I stopped
thinking about Love? Death, of course—what else
could take Love’s place? What else could hold such force?
I thought about how far away Death once
had seemed, how unexpected that it could
happen to someone I knew quite well,
how impossible that this should be the
normal thing, as natural as frost and
winter. I thought about the way we’d aged,
how skin fell into wrinkles, how eyes grew
dim; then (of course) my love, I thought of you.