Monday, April 30, 2007


We come back to Whitman for the final offering for this year's National Poetry Month with an excerpt from "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryards Bloom'd," his great elegy for Abraham Lincoln and the dead of the Civil War. With 100 American soldiers and countless Iraqis killed just in the last month, we should ponder Whitman's words carefully:

And I saw askant the armies,
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierced with missiles I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke and torn and bloody,
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter'd and broken.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,
The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd,
And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Somehow for the Best

Edwin Arlington Robinson is a supreme poet of alienation and a keen commentator on the necessary delusions by which people give their lives meaning. This poem, however, is uncharacteristically somewhat more hopeful than many of his best.

The Altar

Alone, remote, nor witting where I went,
I found an altar builded in a dream --
A fiery place, whereof there was a gleam
So swift, so searching, and so eloquent
Of upward promise, that love's murmur, blent
With sorrow's warning, gave but a supreme
Unending impulse to that human stream
Whose flood was all for the flame's fury bent.

Alas! I said,—the world is in the wrong.
But the same quenchless fever of unrest
That thrilled the foremost of that martyred throng
Thrilled me, and I awoke . . . and was the same
Bewildered insect plunging for the flame
That burns, and must burn somehow for the best.

For more poems, biography, and critical writings on Robinson visit Edwin Arlington Robinson—American Poet.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

I Am the Wings

Today's poem is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a true American original and an important influence on and encourager of Walt Whitman.


If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Brahma is the creator-god in the Hindu trinity Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Some Blessed Hope

I was intending to restrict these National Poetry Month offerings to American poets, but I can't resist presenting Thomas Hardy, whose poems I love deeply.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Two other Hardy links:
The Thomas Hardy Association (N. America)
The Thomas Hardy Society (UK)

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Plath & Vonnegut

One should read Sylvia Plath, not out of curiosity about her famously troubled private life or the controversies around her marriage to Ted Hughes and his handling of her literary remains or for any other extra-literary concerns, but simply for the great power and beauty of her best work. Here's a favorite of mine, quiet yet intense and lovely:

Sheep in Fog

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells -
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

R.I.P. Kurt Vonnegut. There's an excellent tribute, with songs, at Straight, No Chaser.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Frank O'Hara & Lady Day

Frank O'Hara could be called the Anti-Beat. Though he lived and worked alongside many of the Beat Poets and counted some among his friends, his personal and poetic elegance and carefully crafted poems set him apart. This elegy for Billie Holiday is among my favorites:

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille Day, yes
it is 1959, and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in East Hampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega, and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatere and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Porchlight Coming On

I have written in past postings about my high regard for Weldon Kees, and of course my recently published poem took its inspiration from one of his. Here is the first poem of his that I ever read, many years ago in college. Even then I was entranced by his quiet, lyrical, ominous style.


The porchlight coming on again,
Early November, the dead leaves
Raked in piles, the wicker swing
Creaking. Across the lots
A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.

An orange moon. I see the lives
Of neighbors, mapped and marred
Like all the wars ahead, and R.
Insane, B. with his throat cut,
Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

I did not know them then.
My airedale scratches at the door.
And I am back from seeing Milton Sills
And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.
The porchlight coming on again.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

To Pay Attention

For today's offering, something contemporary. Mary Oliver is one of America's finest contemporary poets, combining a keen set of senses attuned to the natural world with a remarkable gift for language. This poem is from her 1992 Collection, New and Selected Poems.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Happy Easter!

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Miss Dickinson's Turn

After Walt Whitman comes Emily Dickinson in my estimation of great American poets.

Wild nights— Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile—the Winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden—
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight
In Thee!

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Monday, April 02, 2007

National Poetry Month

Since April is National Poetry Month, I've decided to post some old and new favorite poems throughout the month. I don't have time to post a new one every day, but I'll try for at least 1–2 per week. To start things off, our greatest poet, Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d;
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

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