March 08, 2010

Locksley Hall, Part 2


This is a continuation of an earlier article on two poems by Alfred Tennyson, Locksley Hall, and Locksley Hall - Sixty Years After. These are both fairly long poems, so consider my comments here more of a plot summary than an analysis.   Locksley Hall   Sixty Years After

The second poem takes place six decades later for the un-named hero (and about 45 years for Tennyson). Much has changed about the world, and about the narrator himself.

Some things stay the same. The bitter young man has turned into a bitter old man. Very bitter. Nothing in the present-day world brings pleasure to his eye, especially his grandson, who seems to be the object of much derision on the narrator's part. The grandson seems to be about the same age in this poem as the narrator was when he decided to leave home in the last poem. Or did he leave home? Perhaps he did, but something drew him back. 

We learn that his beloved Amy, object of such anger at her betrayal in the first poem died in childbirth within a year of his leaving. He has nothing but fond memories of her now. We also hear that the man she married was not such a rat after all. In fact, in the end he praises the man:

Strove for sixty widow'd years to help his homelier brother men,
Served the poor, and built the cottage, raised the school, and drain'd the fen.

Hears he now the Voice that wrong'd him? who shall swear it cannot be?
Earth would never touch her worst, were one in fifty such as he.

We also learn of someone else, not mentioned in the first poem - Edith - met by chance when they were children - on the same day he met, and behaved rudely towards - the boy who would grow up to be Lord of Locksley Hall and Amy's future husband:

From that casement where the trailer mantles all the mouldering bricks--
I was then in early boyhood, Edith but a child of six--

While I shelter'd in this archway from a day of driving showers--
Peept the winsome face of Edith like a flower among the flowers.

And we learn that Edith, not Amy was his true soul-mate in life,

She with all the charm of woman, she with all the breadth of man,

Strong in will and rich in wisdom, Edith, loyal, lowly, sweet,
Feminine to her inmost heart, and feminine to her tender feet,

Very woman of very woman, nurse of ailing body and mind,
She that link'd again the broken chain that bound me to my kind.

So with his added sixty years of wisdom, many years of married happiness, and making peace with his memories of Amy and the man she married, why is he still so bitter?  He himself admits,

Gone the fires of youth, the follies, furies, curses, passionate tears,
Gone like fires and floods and earthquakes of the planet's dawning years.

Fires that shook me once, but now to silent ashes fall'n away.
Cold upon the dead volcano sleeps the gleam of dying day.

The answer is two-fold. Part one of the answer is almost an Ubi Sunt sentiment (where have they gone, the great ones), except that he knows the answer - he has outlived his comrades, his loves, and his enemies. the word 'Gone' continues as a constant refrain:

Gone the tyrant of my youth, and mute below the chancel stones,
Gone the comrades of my bivouac, some in fight against the foe,
Gone with whom for forty years my life in golden sequence ran,
Gone our sailor son thy father, Leonard early lost at sea;
Gone thy tender-natured mother, wearying to be left alone,
Pining for the stronger heart that once had beat beside her own.

From this we also learn that he outlived his only child, his son Leonard, who died a hero, long ago, a loss that weighs heavily upon him:

Beautiful was death in him who saw the death but kept the deck,
Saving women and their babes, and sinking with the sinking wreck,

In fact he has outlived the world he knew - everything and everyone in it. All that is left to him is his grandson -

Thou alone, my boy, of Amy's kin and mine art left to me.

This is an impossible burden for anyone - to make up for the loss of an entire world -  the bar for his affections has been set too high - he can only disappoint. Even the thing that should bring them together - that the grandson is spurned by the woman he asks to be his wife - becomes the source for more derision:

So--your happy suit was blasted--she the faultless, the divine;
And you liken--boyish babble--this boy-love of yours with mine.

Part two of the answer, the reason for his bitterness, is that one of his repeated refrains from the first poem, 'Forward' now haunts him - change, the march of progress, his visions of the future:

Gone the cry of 'Forward, Forward,' lost within a growing gloom;
Lost, or only heard in silence from the silence of a tomb.

Half the marvels of my morning, triumphs over time and space,
Staled by frequence, shrunk by usage into commonest commonplace!

'Forward' rang the voices then, and of the many mine was one.
Let us hush this cry of 'Forward' till ten thousand years have gone.

The narrator goes into a ranting monologue of over 200 lines, decrying the devolution of everything - religion, politics,  animal cruelty, class equality, foreign policy, the aristocracy's arrogant ignorance, and of course those who prey upon, and nurture that ignorance:

You that woo the Voices--tell them 'old experience is a fool,'
Teach your flatter'd kings that only those who cannot read can rule.
Here and there a cotter's babe is royal-born by right divine;
Here and there my lord is lower than his oxen or his swine.

Rising industrialization, and the changes it has brought about in society are also a source of his bitterness. He that called for progress now observes exploitation and devolution wherever he looks:

Is it well that while we range with Science, glorying in the Time,
City children soak and blacken soul and sense in city slime?

There among the glooming alleys Progress halts on palsied feet,
Crime and hunger cast our maidens by the thousand on the street.

There the Master scrimps his haggard sempstress of her daily bread,
There a single sordid attic holds the living and the dead.

There the smouldering fire of fever creeps across the rotted floor,
And the crowded couch of incest in the warrens of the poor.

Perhaps Bob or Howard could say for certain, but I would wager this is the most scathing piece ever written by a Poet Laureate during his tenure.

There are some lines again, in this poem, that do not play well to modern ears. Some lines of ignorance and prejudice that I don't think have parallels in Tennyson's other works and really do not add anything constructive to the metaphors for time and eternity that eventually segue into his bitter rant. 

The poem is a re-visitation, some might say a revisionist view of the original story, and while it answers many questions it also introduces some contradictions. The meter, which works so well for the first poem seems more  forced here. And ultimately, it is a sad poem.  The bitterness is mixed with loss and regret, and always there is the realization that the narrator's time on earth (and the poet's time as well) is growing short.

This poem does bring the story full-circle. In the end we learn that the occasion for their rendezvous at Locksley hall is the death of Amy's husband, whose funeral they will attend tomorrow, and that the narrator's grandson, the last surviving member of the family, will himself become Lord of the manor - a surprise and very ironic ending to such a long piece:

Forward, let the stormy moment fly and mingle with the Past.
I that loathed, have come to love him. Love will conquer at the last.

Gone at eighty, mine own age, and I and you will bear the pall;
Then I leave thee Lord and Master, latest Lord of Locksley Hall.

March 03, 2010

Locksley Hall, Part 1.

Why do people run off to join the Army? Navy? Read Soldier of Fortune? Become a "security contractor?"

For Love, of course – lost love in particular if we are to believe Alfred Tennyson’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes arrogant, sometimes ranting poem, Locksley Hall. No relation here to Robin of Locksley, by the way, except as a very distant layer of metaphor.

At eighty-three years, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s life spanned most of the 19th century – as did his career as a poet. An amazingly long forty-two of those years were spent as England’s Poet Laureate. By the way - Queen Elizabeth II appointed a new Poet laureate in May of 2009 - Carol Ann Duffy – who just happens to be the first woman to hold the post in its 341-year history.

Many things are notable about Tennyson’s body of work – it has considerable breadth and depth – from simple but striking portraits to epic works, to a memorial poem 17 years in the making. Many of his pieces became very widely known – and many of his catch phrases made their way into common usage in the English Language. He has a wide ranging voice. The same man who wrote the almost shouting lines of The Charge of the Light Brigade could also write the hauntingly simple interludes of The Princess, or these elegant lines of acceptance in Crossing the Bar:

SUNSET and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound or foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell;
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

But the subject for today is not Mariana, or Maud, Idyls of the King or Enoch Arden. It is a pair of complex, admittedly flawed, but powerful (and yes, long) poems: Locksley Hall and Locksley Hall – Sixty Years After. They express the views of a young soldier at around age 20, and again as an old man, six decades later. These two pieces make for a striking interplay on both a very personal, very human scale, and on a grand stage spanning vast stretches of space and time. Both poems are first person narratives – the first one a soliloquy, and the second one ostensibly to the narrator’s grandson, whose life has some parallels to the narrator’s own.

While there are some beautifully crafted lines in both pieces, there are also many raw emotions, blatant prejudices and some rambling political and social discourses. Tennyson's narrator is a very imperfect hero. Whether these detours in the narrative are the protagonist staying in character, or Tennyson's own thoughts is a valid debate. Any character is a vehicle, and if you write the character truthfully, some of you is in them (Lloyd Alexander's view) or some part of of them becomes part of you (Ariadne's view).

The time span for these pieces, like Tennyson’s own life, covers most of the 19th century. The setting for the first poem - which escaped me the first time I read it - is probably near the time it was written - roughly the early 1840's. We’ll take a look at the first poem today, and revisit the second one, appropriately, at a later date.

The narrator is an unnamed soldier, a mercenary for hire, who stops with his fellow soldiers by a seaside castle, and muses over this place where he spent his childhood. We will learn, further on in the poem, that he was born somewhere in Asia and orphaned at a young age when his father dies fighting in Mahratta (India), around 1818 by my guess. Like a Walt Disney story, he becomes the ward of a man he views as a cruel and selfish uncle, the Lord of Locksley Hall.

Yet he is a dreamer, as some of the poem's early lines indicate, and he falls in love with his childhood playmate Amy as he grows to manhood. The 'good times', such as they are, are sweet, but so brief that you might miss them. Before you can blink, his beloved Amy betrays him and weds another man - the future lord of the manner, in a very un-Disney-like turn of events, choosing wealth and security over love.

The spurned lover, in his bitterness he imagines a spitefully unhappy life for his former beloved, and predicts that her husband will treat her “Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.” He belabors his wishes for her unhappiness for almost sixty lines of verse, finally envisioning a future day when:

O, I see thee old and formal, fitted to thy petty part,
With a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter's heart.

When he is done wishing her an unhappy, painfully regretful life, the poem turns to the question of what he should do with his own:

I have but an angry fancy; what is that which I should do?

And he eventually decides that

...the jingling of the guinea helps the hurt that Honour feels

And goes off to become a soldier for hire. Not quite a standard story line: Orphan finds girl; Orphan loses girl; Orphan leaves home; Orphan becomes a mercenary like dear old dimly-remembered dad.

But the love story (or perhaps this one is a hate story) is only part of the content here - one of the most striking things is Tennyson's description of his protagonist's vision of the future. Mind you, this is Tennyson writing in 1835, long before the automobile, imagining that man would have a way of flying around from place to place:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

The narrator understands that anything good is eventually co-opted for other purposes, and here foreshadows events that would come to pass eight decades later during the trench warfare of The Great War - the use of poison gas and aerial dogfights:

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;

And even imagines a resolution – one that would not come about for over a century (and that many would argue is still a long way off):

Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapped in universal law.

From this crystal gazing into the future, he settles down, realizing that unfettered anger and jealousy will scar him for life:

So I triumph'd ere my passion sweeping thro' me left me dry,
Left me with the palsied heart, and left me with the jaundiced eye;

But this is a lie. Tennyson's hero still hasn't exorcised his demons. and goes off on another rant, one jaded and prejudiced by the English view of the world of 175 years ago. He says he will go find some tropical Paradise where "never floats an European flag":

Summer isles of Eden lying in dark-purple spheres of sea.

And there he will finally be free of all that torments him:

There the passions cramp'd no longer shall have scope and breathing space;
I will take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race.
Iron-jointed, supple-sinew'd, they shall dive, and they shall run,
Catch the wild goat by the hair, and hurl their lances in the sun;
Whistle back the parrot's call, and leap the rainbows of the brooks,
Not with blinded eyesight poring over miserable books--
Things run downhill from here, unfortunately. He still views himself as a member of the entitled, landed class, though landless he is at the moment. His short flight of fancy gives way to deeper prejudice and arrogance, and what was paradise only a moment ago now becomes demeaning. The care-free inhabitants of Eden are now barbarians with "narrow foreheads" and his would-be wife now just a "squalid savage" while he sees himself as the peak of learning and human development "the heir of all the ages"

As the poem draws to a close, instead of hiding from the world around him, he becomes impatient for his visions to come true,

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

The poem ends with his farewell, and with approaching storm clouds on the horizon as his metaphor for the future, wishing the winds could sweep Locksley hall together with his unhappiness into the sea:

Comes a vapour from the margin, blackening over heath and holt,
Cramming all the blast before it, in its breast a thunderbolt.
Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow;
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.

This is a long poem and I've skipped over most of the better known lines and most of the underlying metaphors. If you have the time, read it aloud. Tennyson's choice of meter creates a rhythm that reinforces the strength of the narrator's passions. It looks long, but it makes easy reading.

Where this poem focuses on a young man's spurned affections, Locksley Hall – Sixty Years After shifts the focus to an old man's bitter regrets, and the rants against Amy's betrayal become rants against the changes he has seen in the world since his last visit.

More when we make our own return visit to Locksley Hall.

February 05, 2010

Who Will be Number 800?

I suspect no one has noticed, but we are up to 799 poets in the Poets' Corner author index. That's a lot, even after 15 years of collecting and editing works from the past 500 years. My question to you is - who should be number 800?

Remember the criteria: works must be in the public domain, at least in the U.S. - that means published in some form before 1923, abandoned after the initial copyright filing, or explicitly placed in the public domain by the author. For translated works, the same rules apply to the translation.

So who are we missing? Please give us your suggestions.


January 21, 2010

2010 Poetry Event Calendar

(still waiting on dates for the Dodge Festival, Istambul Festival, and information on events in Asia, Canada, and South America)

January 18-23 Palm Beach Poetry Festival (Florida, U.S.)

January 28 Het Huis van de Poëzie (Netherlands)

February 3-5 Kritya (Mysore, India)

March 10-13 Split This Rock Poetry Festival (Washington, D.C., U.S.)

March 17-21 Stanza (St. Andrews, FIfe, Scotland)

March 25-28 DLR Poetry Now (Dún Laoghaire, Ireland)

April 9-11 Wenlock Poetry Festival (Shropshire, England)

April 11 Robert Frost Key West Poetry Festival (Florida, U.S.)

April 15-18
Austin International Poetry Festival (Texas, U.S.)

April 22-25 Seacoast Poetry & Jazz Festival (Portsmouth, New Hampshire, U.S.)

April 23-25 Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival (Multiple locations along the Texas/

April 23-24 Hocking Hills Poetry Festival (
Logan, Ohio U.S.)

April 29-May 2 Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival (Geonoa, Nevada, U.S.)

April 30 - May 2 Strokestown International Poetry Festival (County Roscommon, Ireland)

July 2-11 Ledbury Poetry Festival (Herefordshire, England)

August 6-9 London Poetry Festival

August 27-29 Queensland Poetry Festival (Brisbane, Australia)

September 3-5 Australian Poetry Festival (Sydney, Australia)

September 4-13 Overload Poetry Festival (
Melbourne, Australia)

(October, Dates TBD) Dodge Poetry Festival (Newark, New Jersey, U.S.)

October 4-9 Poetry Africa (Durban, South Africa)

October 8-11 Houston Poetry Festival (Texas, U.S.)

October 17-18 Belfast Poetry Festival (Maine, U.S.)


January 17, 2010

Rennaisance Man

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a man who did so many things that it would take an article as long as a Dostoyevski novel to truely do him justice. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, and initially home schooled by his mother, he went on to become many things - an author, poet, teacher, editor, lawyer, journalist, songwriter, literary critic, politician, university professor, diplomat, civil rights activist and a noted figure in the Harlem rennaisance. Somewhere in there he wrote sixteen volumes of poetry and compiled anthologies of African-American poetry and folklore.

After serving on Teddy Roosevelt's presidential campaign, he was US Consul to Venezuela, and then Nicaragua. He spent ten years as head of the NAACP where he initiated non-violent demonstrations that would be echoed decades lated under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1920 he led a delegation to Haiti, then under U.S. occupation, and emphasized the need for economic and social development, issues that persist tot the present day. During the 1920's he was one of the drivers behind the Harlem Rennaisance, working to get young black witers and musicians visibility and publishing opportunities.

The poems added to Poets Corner, are from his 1917 volume Fifty Years and Other Poems, and cover a wide range of subjects in clear, elegant voice. A sampling:


Sunset in the Tropics


from Down by the Carib Sea

A SILVER flash from the sinking sun,
Then a shot of crimson across the sky
That, bursting, lets a thousand colors fly
And riot among the clouds; they run,
Deepening in purple, flaming in gold,
Changing, and opening fold after fold,
Then fading through all of the tints of the rose into gray,
Till, taking quick fright at the coming night,
They rush out down the west,
In hurried quest
Of the fleeing day.

Now above where the tardiest color flares a moment yet,
One point of light, now two, now three are set
To form the starry stairs,--
And, in her fire-fly crown,
Queen Night, on velvet slippered feet, comes softly down.




From the Spanish of Placido

ENOUGH of love! Let break its every hold!
Ended my youthful folly! for I know
That, like the dazzling, glister-shedding snow,
Celia, thou art beautiful, but cold.
I do not find in thee that warmth which glows,
Which, all these dreary days, my heart has sought,
That warmth without which love is lifeless, naught
More than a painted fruit, a waxen rose.

Such love as thine, scarce can it bear love's name,
Deaf to the pleading notes of his sweet lyre,
A frank, impulsive heart I wish to claim,
A heart that blindly follows its desire.
I wish to embrace a woman full of flame,
I want to kiss a woman made of fire.


Before a Painting


I KNEW not who had wrought with skill so fine
What I beheld; nor by what laws of art
He had created life and love and heart
On canvas, from mere color, curve and line.
Silent I stood and made no move or sign;
Not with the crowd, but reverently apart;
Nor felt the power my rooted limbs to start,
But mutely gazed upon that face divine.

And over me the sense of beauty fell,
As music over a raptured listener to
The deep-voiced organ breathing out a hymn;
Or as on one who kneels, his beads to tell,
There falls the aureate glory filtered through
The windows in some old cathedral dim.


Father, Father Abraham


On the Anniversary of Lincoln's Birth

FATHER, Father Abraham,
To-day look on us from above;
On us, the offspring of thy faith,
The children of thy Christ-like love.

For that which we have humbly wrought,
Give us to-day thy kindly smile;
Wherein we've failed or fallen short,
Bear with us, Father, yet awhile.

Father, Father Abraham,
To-day we lift our hearts to thee,
Filled with the thought of what great price
Was paid, that we might ransomed be.

To-day we consecrate ourselves
Anew in hand and heart and brain,
To send this judgment down the years:
The ransom was not paid in vain.


January 13, 2010

Violet Jacob

I recently ran across another poet recently that was new to me, Violet Jacob (1863-1946), a Scottish novelist, historian and poet. While most of her poems are in Scots and will need some annotation for most readers, her poems in English are very good.

Born Violet Augusta Mary Frederica Kennedy-Erskine, she married Arthur
Jacob, an Irish Major in the British army, and lived with him in India where he was serving. Their son, Harry, also served in the army and was killed in World War I at the battle of the Somme in 1916. When Arthur died in 1936, Violet returned to Scotland.

She wrote five books of poetry, including ‘More Songs of Angus” (Angus is a district on the eastern coast of Scotland), published in 1918, two years after her son’s death. Perhaps this one was for him:


The willows stand by Fringford brook,
From Fringford up to Hethe,
Sun on their cloudy silver heads,
And shadow underneath.

They ripple to the silent airs
That stir the lazy day,
Now whitened by their passing hands,
Now turned again to grey.

The slim marsh-thistle's purple plume
Droops tasselled on the stem,
The golden hawkweeds pierce like flame
The grass that harbours them;

Long drowning tresses of the weeds
Trail where the stream is slow,
The vapoured mauves of water-mint
Melt in the pools below;

Serenely soft September sheds
On earth her slumberous look,
The heartbreak of an anguished world
Throbs not by Fringford brook.

All peace is here. Beyond our range,
Yet 'neath the selfsame sky,
The boys that knew these fields of home
By Flemish willows lie.

They waded in the sun-shot flow,
They loitered in the shade,
Who trod the heavy road of death,
Jesting and unafraid.

Peace! What of peace? This glimpse of peace
Lies at the heart of pain,
For respite, ere the spirit's load
We stoop to lift again.

O load of grief, of faith, of wrath,
Of patient, quenchless will,
Till God shall ease us of your weight
We'll bear you higher still!

O ghosts that walk by Fringford brook,
'Tis more than peace you give,
For you, who knew so well to die,
Shall teach us how to live.

Perhaps she wrote this one is for him as well:


When winter's pulse seems dead beneath the snow,
And has no throb to give,
Warm your cold heart at mine, beloved, and so
Shall your heart live.

For mine is fire--a furnace strong and red;
Look up into my eyes,
There shall you see a flame to make the dead
Take life and rise.

My eyes are brown, and yours are still and grey,
Still as the frostbound lake
Whose depths are sleeping in the icy sway,
And will not wake.

Soundless they are below the leaden sky,
Bound with that silent chain;
Yet chains may fall, and those that fettered lie
May live again.

Yes, turn away, grey eyes, you dare not face
In mine the flame of life;
When frost meets fire, 'tis but a little space
That ends the strife.

Then comes the hour, when, breaking from their bands,
The swirling floods run free,
And you, beloved, shall stretch your drowning hands,
And cling to me.

And even this:


I have brought no store from the field now the day is ended,
The harvest moon is up and I bear no sheaves;
When the toilers carry the fruits hanging gold and splendid,
I have but leaves.

When the saints pass by in the pride of their stainless raiment,
Their brave hearts high with the joy of the gifts they bring,
I have saved no whit from the sum of my daily payment
For offering.

Not there is my place where the workman his toil delivers,
I scarce can see the ground where the hero stands,
I must wait as the one poor fool in that host of givers,
With empty hands.

There was no time lent to me that my skill might fashion
Some work of praise, some glory, some thing of light,
For the swarms of hell came on in their power and passion,
I could but fight.

I am maimed and spent, I am broken and trodden under,
With wheel and horseman the battle has swept me o'er,
And the long, vain warfare has riven my heart asunder,
I can no more.

But my soul is still; though the sundering door has hidden
The mirth and glitter, the sound of the lighted feast,
Though the guests go in and I stand in the night, unbidden,
The worst, the least.

My soul is still. I have gotten nor fame nor treasure,
Let all men spurn me, let devils and angels frown,
But the scars I bear are a guerdon of royal measure,
My stars--my crown.



January 06, 2010

Aline Again


While I was editing Vigils, I found an OCR source text online for Candles That Burn, also by Aline Kilmer. This book, published in 1919, was likely written while Joyce was still alive, though much of it may be from when he was off to war.

This book focuses almost entirely on their children, and on children they lost. Infant and child mortality were especially high in the timeframe of the first world war due to a global influenza pandemic that killed millions.

I don't know the circumstances of the kilmer family, but several of Aline's pieces in this volume are especially poignant:

To a Sick Child

I WOULD make you cookies
But you could not eat them;
I would bring you roses
But you would not care.
In your scornful beauty,
Arrogant and patient,
Though I'd die to please you
You lie silent there.

Your once wanton sister
Creeps about on tiptoe,
And your brother hurries
At your slightest nod:
Watching at your bedside
When you sleep I tremble
Lest before you waken
You go back to God.

And this one:

My Mirror

THERE is a mirror in my room
Less like a mirror than a tomb,
There are so many ghosts that pass
Across the surface of the glass.

When in the morning I arise
With circles round my tired eyes,
Seeking the glass to brush my hair
My mother's mother meets me there.

If in the middle of the day
I happen to go by that way,
I see a smile I used to know--
My mother, twenty years ago.

But when I rise by candlelight
To feed my baby in the night,
Then whitely in the glass I see
My dead child's face look out at me.

But there are lighter notes as well, on her day-to-day life with her children,

Dorothy's Garden

DEAR, in all your garden I have planted yellow lilies,
Dainty yellow lilies everywhere you go:
They are nodding slim and stately down the paths along the hedges,
Delicately stepping they curtsey in a row.

So when you walk among them like a lily in your slim-ness,
With your shining head just bending graciously,
All the little angels that look down upon your garden
Will wonder which is lily and which is Dorothy.


January 03, 2010

The Other Kilmer

I have just finished editing Vigils, a book of 30 poems by Aline Kilmer. This is one of three new books I picked up over the holidays at Haslem's in St. Petersburg.

Aline Murray Kilmer (1888 – 1941) was an American poet , and the wife of another American poet, [Alfred] Joyce Kilmer. You may be familiar with Joyce because of the wide circulation of his poem, Trees, (“I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.”) – A simplistic piece that is in the love it or hate it category. Joyce wrote several books of poems and essays and did some editing as well. He died in World War I, killed by a sniper's bullet in the Second Battle of Marne, 1918.

Aline Kilmer published four volumes of verse, along with essays and some childrens’ books. Her writing style varies, sometimes as succinct as Teasdale, sometimes as wistful as Aiken, sometimes playful, sometimes grim.

Vigils was published in 1921, following the publication of her earlier poems in Candles that Burn in 1919. We can assume most of its content was written after Joyce’s death, which can be seen in the mood of many poems. The first piece, Things, is very much like Aiken’s Bread and Music:


SOMETIMES when I am at tea with you
I catch my breath
At a thought that is old as the world is old
And more bitter than death.

It is that the spoon that you just laid down
And the cup that you hold
May be here shining and insolent
When you are still and cold.

Your careless note that I laid away
May leap to my eyes like flame
When the world has almost forgotten your voice
Or the sound of your name.

The golden Virgin da Vinci drew
May smile on over my head,
And daffodils nod in the silver vase
When you are dead.

So let moth and dust corrupt and thieves
Break through and I shall be glad,
Because of the hatred I bear to things
Instead of the love I had.

For life seems only a shuddering breath,
A smothered, desperate cry,
And things have a terrible permanence
When people die.

And there is a desperate fatalism is apparent in The Night Cometh:

The Night Cometh

MY GARDEN walks were smooth and green
And edged with box trees left and right,
An old grey sun-dial stood between
Two rounded bee hives, low and white.
My hollyhocks grew tall and red,
My larkspur thrust its lances high:
"The Night Cometh," the sun-dial said,
And I hated its wisdom and hurried by.

I watch the sun-dial as I wait
And hope to see its slow hand fly.
The stately poplars at the gate
Are funeral torches flaring high.
The scent of wallflowers breaks my heart,
The box is bitter in the sun,
The poppies burst their sheathes apart
And tell of rest when pain is done.

The hawthorn shakes a ghostly head
And breathes of death at fullest noon.
"The Night Cometh," the sun-dial said--
The night can never come too soon.
O sun-dial, hurry your creeping hand,
Let the shadows fall where the brown bees hum,
1 watch and wait where the low hives stand,
Let the night come, let the night come!

On the other hand, some of the pieces suggest enduring through loss or pain, or accepting sad truths and moving on. These include Daimon, and The Gift:

The Gift

HE HAS taken away the things that I loved best
Love and youth and the harp that knew my hand.
Laughter alone is left of all the rest.
Does He mean that I may fill my days with laughter,
Or will it, too, slip through my fingers like spilt sand?

Why should I beat my wings like a bird in a net,
When I can be still and laugh at my own desire?
The wise may shake their heads at me, but yet
I should be sad without my little laughter.
The crackling of thorns is not so bad a fire.

Will He take away even the thorns from under the pot,
And send rne cold and supperless to bed?
He has been good to me. I know he will not.
He gave me to keep a little foolish laughter.
I shall not lose it even when I am dead.

December 01, 2009

Peleg Doddleding Affianced


On Monday, "Cyber Monday" in the consumer-crazed U.S., I was reading an article on Slate over lunch about hiring conditions in the current economy. It was an interesting article, but it appears to have been removed. Libelous, no doubt. The subject was names - more specifically, the prevalence of prejudicial hiring tendencies by U.S. businesses - in a recession, the job market is a buyers' not a sellers' market.

The author's research of the U.S. companies suggested that the less anglicized or less traditional someone's name is, the less luck they're having at getting an interview, let alone being hired. If true, this is either a sad indication of social regression, or a commentary on how unready many people are at step 1 of parenting - naming that small wiggling creature in your arms. In the U.S., there has been a trend away from names that mean something, to names that are purely phonetic. If Johnny Cash named his son Sue nowadays, I doubt anyone would notice. They might assume his parents were lawyers.

I have a particular personal appreciation for this subject area, having a name that is fairly uncommon on this continent. I wasn't always keen on my name as a child or as a student. Both children and adults abbreviated it or mangled it out of ignorance and malice. I was always still writing my name on my paper and filling in bubbles on computer scan sheets when the rest of the class was already on question number three. It did, however, give me great self confidence to realize how many so-called learn-ed adults could not pronounce a simple dipthong.

In later life my name has proven itself to be a worthy companion. Anyone who knows me can easily find me. I can identify friend or foe over the telephone in a single syllable - nay - in the pause before a syllable is uttered. I even found a Very Patient Spouse exactly two dozen years ago, who made no bones about trading her Chinese name for my Greek one.

And even though she lived by the sea, our situation was NOT that of Peleg and his new acquaintence in one of this week's added poems - a piece of light verse by Don Marquis, featuring an insecure groom and his imperfect bride.

A Seaside Romance

"MY NAME," I said, "is Peleg Doddleding,
  And Doddleding has been my name since birth."
And having told this girl this shameful thing
  I bowed my head and waited for her mirth.

She did not laugh. I looked at her, and she,
  With wistful gladness in her yellow eyes,
Swept with her gradual gaze the mocking sea.
  Then dried her gaze and swept the scornful skies.

I thought perhaps she had not heard aright.
  "My name," I said again, "is Doddleding!"
Thinking she would reply, "Ah, then, goodnight--
  no love of mine round such a name could cling!"

We'd met upon the beach an hour before,
  And our loves lept together, flame and flame.
I loved. She loved. We loved. "She'll love no more,"
  I moaned, "when she learns Doddleding's my name!"

She was not beautiful, nor did she seem
  The sort of person likely to be good;
Her outcast manner 'twas that bade me dream
  If any one could stand my name she could.

She seemed a weakly, sentimental thing,
  Viscious, no doubt, and dull and somewhat wried.
I said once more, "I'm Mister Doddleding!" 
  Feebly she smiled. I saw she had no pride.

The westering sun above the ocean shook
  With ecstasy, the flushed sea shook beneath . . . .
I trembled too . . . She smiled! . . . . and one long look
  Showed something queer had happened to her teeth.

O world of Gladness! World of gold and flame!
  "She loves me then, in spite of all!" I cried.
"Though Peleg Doddleding is still my name,
  Yet Peleg Doddleding has found a bride!"

I stroked her hair . . . . I found it was a wig . . . .
  And as I slipped upon her hand the ring
She said, "My name is Effie Muddlesnig--
  Oh, thank you! Thank you Mister Doddleding!"

In all the world she was the only one
  For me, and I for her . . . . lives touch and pass,
And then, one day beneath a westering sun,
  We find our own! One of her eyes is glass.

November 22, 2009

Max Who?


Max Eastman (1883 - 1969) was an American poet, and political activist whose friendships and associations included some of the most recognizable names of the last century – including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Isadora Duncan, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw. Eastman led a long and busy life - he wrote and published and advocated his opinions regularly and with conviction. So why isn’t he better known?

To put it most simply, because of those opinions. Over the course of his lifetime they swung through every point on the political compass from socialist to conservative as he went from activism, to disillusion, to bitter resentment. Generally speaking, if you hold on to your beliefs, and stay fixed in your opinions, you will have supporters and detractors and become a symbol of the left, or of the right, or more rarely, of moderation. If, like Eastman, you keep evolving in your views, your audience may not evolve with you. They may, in fact, revolt against you, or in Eastman’s case, forget about you altogether.

This is too bad in some respects, because Eastman, as it turns out, was not a bad poet. He wrote essays on poetry as well as several books of poems, and even a book on literary criticism. I have just finished editing Eastman’s 1918 anthology, Colors of Life, for the web. It includes a sampling of his earliest work, some imagist and narrative pieces, and selected songs and sonnets.

Here are a few samples:


Rainy Song


DOWN the dripping pathway dancing through the rain,
Brown eyes of beauty, laugh to me again!

Eyes full of starlight, moist over fire,
Full of young wonder, touch my desire!

O like a brown bird, like a bird's flight,
Run through the rain drops lithely and light.

Body like a gypsy, like a wild queen,
Slim brown dress to slip through the green--

The little leaves hold you as soft as a child,
The little path loves you, the path that runs wild.

Who would not love you, seeing you move,
Warm-eyed and beautiful through the green grove?

Let the rain kiss you, trickle through your hair,
Laugh if my fingers mingle with it there,

Laugh if my cheek too is misty and drips--
Wetness is tender--laugh on my lips

The happy sweet laughter of love without pain,
Young love, the strong love, burning in the rain.


The Net


THE net brings up, how long and languidly,
A million vivid quiverings of life,
Keen-finned and gleaming like a steely knife,
All colors, green and silver of the sea,
All forms of skill and eagerness to be--
They die and wither of the very breath
That sounds your pity of their lavish death
While they are leaping, star-like, to be free.
They die and wither, but the agéd sea,
Insane old salty womb of mystery,
Is pregnant with a million million more,
Whom she will suckle in her oozy floor,
Whom she will vomit on a heedless shore,
While onward her immortal currents pour.

Note - This third one is a little intense; you may wish to skip it. This is an even more graphic anti-war piece than Wilfed Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est."


In a Red Cross Hospital


TODAY I saw a face--it was a beak,
That peered, with pale round yellow vapid eyes,
Above the bloody muck that had been lips
And teeth and chin. A plodding doctor poured
Some water through a rubber down a hole
He made in that black bag of horny blood.
The beak revived, it smiled--as chickens smile.
The doctor hopes he'll find the man a tongue
To tell with, what he used to be.

So just how polarized were Eastman’s politics? In his youth he was a fervent socialist. As an editor of The Masses and publisher of The Liberator, he was an advocate of the ‘workng man’ and criticized US entry into World War I, and was twice arrested under the Sedition Act, being acquitted on both occasions. In 1924 he traveled to Russia to see Marxism first hand. The things he saw there - the political machinations of Trotsky and Stalin at close range - were a very sobering experience. In the end he wrote a calm, objective summary of the new Russian state – a work that was widely quoted but may have made him unpopular with former readers and associates.

Eastman wrote copiously on literature, psychology, philosophy, and social issues. He translated the works of Trotsky, whom he had befriended. He spent the next decade traveling and lecturing on literary, social and psychological topics. However, by the end of the Great Depression he was writing anti-socialist articles for Reader’s Digest and the conservative National Review.

By the 1950s things came full circle. Eastman grew ever more right wing in his opinions and his politics. He was a supporter of Eugene McCarthy and of the witch hunts for communists and communist sympathizers that ruined and blacklisted so many other writers, actors and artists in the 1950’s. Eastman went from being an activist to persecuting anyone who associated with activists, and betrayal is a form of misery that garners no company. Hence you ask, Max Who?



November 13, 2009

And now for a little light verse...

OK, after some solemn storytelling over the past few weeks it is probably time for some light verse. I mentioned Gelett Burgess in passing a while back. He wrote quite a few other works in addition to his infamous Purple Cow. When I get a chance, I’ll parse through his many books and add a few pieces. In the mean time I’ve added a few poems by Arthur Guiterman, and American poet, born in Austria in 1871 (a year that seems to have spawned numerous poets). He too was a prolific poet with a dozen or so books and serialization in The New Yorker magazine.

Guiterman has a similar light touch of humor, whether he’s spoofing Marlowe, as in The Passionate Suburbanite To His Love, or whether he’s needling germophobic parents, as in Strictly Germ-proof (an apt selection in todays’s age of ‘Global Pandemic’ mania) which includes the lines:

They said it was a Microbe and a Hotbed of Disease;
They steamed it in a vapor of a thousand-odd degrees;
They froze it in a freezer that was cold as Banished Hope
And washed it in permanganate with carbolated soap.

The “it” by the way, was a rabbit. Even when Guiterman’s thoughts turn to mortality, it is in a humorous way, sort of a lighter version of Dorothy Parker, as in this poem:

On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

THE tusks which clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf,
And I don't feel so well myself.

Guiterman had a thoughtful side as well, poems such as In the Hospital and Heritage are good examples. Heritage, by the way, would be a good choice for Earth Day.

Also added recently are a poem by John Hall Wheelock, and two by John Gould Fletcher.

November 08, 2009

The Cockroach Poet and the King of Bohemia


Thirty-eight poems have been added. See the What's New Page ( for a detailed listing.

About 2/3 are by Don Marquis, who has been very under-represented in the collection. Most are from Dreams and Dust, but there are two pieces of light verse from Noah an' Jonah an' Cap'n John Smith . Marquis is best known for his later poems -- supposedly written by a cockroach named Archy that used his typewriter after-hours.

The remainder are poems by George Sterling - another California poet, and disciple of Ambrose Bierce. Two things to note about the relationship: First, Sterling wrote a rather mediocre, rambling, overly descriptive and dark poem called The Wine of Wizardry. It reminds me of really bad scenery and special effects from an old Voyages of Sinbad movie. Howver Bierce, loyal to his disciple, praised it as the greatest work of American Poetry, and stuck with his praise despite the incredulity of others. Within the first few lines of the poem there are hints that he was not exactly sober when he wrote it.

Secondly, Sterling wrote poems in praise of his mentor, "The Master". One in particular, To Ambrose Bierce is essentially cursing anyone who dare defame or sully Bierce's name or reputation .

MASTER, when worms have had their will of thee,
And thou art but a voice along the years—
A star in the companionship of spheres
That are Fame's firmament—may God decree
That song and song's hostilities shall be
A sword within my hands, a flame that sears
The liar's mouth that slanders thee, nor fears
The vengeances of Truth's supremacy!

O Fates that on the tomb of greatness dead
Permit the viper and the toad to bask,
Lend me your youngest lightnings, and impel
My spirit as a whirlwind to the task
To char the liar's tongue within his head—
Like ashes on the adamant of Hell!

The irony (if not downright humor) in this is that the vast majority of Bierce's verses essentially call other people just that - liars, cheats, posers and charlatans. Bierces wrote countless scathing pieces about his contemporaries. Of course, THEY may have deserved it.

Sterling was also refered to as the King of Bohemia - he was the organizer of an annual theater sojourn in the local woods - writing some of the plays as well as acting in them.

Sterling is sometimes refered to as the Poet Laureate of San Francisco. He hung around with a literary crowd including Bierce, Jack London, Mary Austin and the recently featured Nora May French.

Sadly, the Bohemian life was not so care free for many of this group. Nora May committed suicide (while in Sterling's house), as did Sterliing's wife at a later date. Sterling himself succumbed to depression, alcohol, and likely drug use. He committed suicide in 1926.

His better stuff, I think, are his shorter pieces, like The Gleaner - a simple but powerful piece. I can almost see his personified Memory, searching for the people he has lost.

The Gleaner

OF ALL WE love or long for, what can last?
The brief arbutus shines where shone the snow;
The panic winds o'er dying flowers blow;
Far in the quiet woodland dies the blast.
Soft on the forehead of the hill are cast
The fleeting splendors of the afterglow;
Where sang the brook the desert lichens grow.
Who runs, shall find the feet of Change are fast.

Yet in the solitude of all that died
A Shadow roams the somber fields, long known,
Where ashen gardens house the pilgrim sands,
And mournful stars behold at eventide
How wanders peaceless Memory alone,
Seeking in dust the vanished lips and hands.

George Sterling
oems/new.html) for a detailed listing.About 2/3 are by Don Marquis, who has been very under-represented in the collection. Most are from , but there are two pieces of light verse from . Marquis is best known for his later poems -- supposedly written by a cockroach named Archy that used his typewriter after-hours. The remainder are poems by George Sterling - another California poet, and disciple of Ambrose Bierce. Two things to note about the relationship: First, Sterling wrote a rather mediocre, rambling, overly descriptive and dark poem called . It reminds me of really bad scenery and special effects from an old movie. Howver Bierce, loyal to his disciple, praised it as the greatest work of American Poetry, and stuck with his praise despite the incredulity of others. Within the first few lines of the poem there are hints that he was not exactly sober when he wrote it. Secondly, Sterling wrote poems in praise of his mentor, "The Master". One in particular, is essentially cursing anyone who dare defame or sully Bierce's name or reputation . MASTER, when worms have had their will of thee, And thou art but a voice along the years— A star in the companionship of spheres That are Fame's firmament—may God decree That song and song's hostilities shall be A sword within my hands, a flame that sears The liar's mouth that slanders thee, nor fears The vengeances of Truth's supremacy! O Fates that on the tomb of greatness dead Permit the viper and the toad to bask, Lend me your youngest lightnings, and impel My spirit as a whirlwind to the task To char the liar's tongue within his head— Like ashes on the adamant of Hell! The irony (if not downright humor) in this is that the vast majority of Bierce's verses essentially call other people just that - liars, cheats, posers and charlatans. Bierces wrote countless scathing pieces about his contemporaries. Of course, THEY may have deserved it.Sterling was also refered to as the King of Bohemia - he was the organizer of an annual theater sojourn in the local woods - writing some of the plays as well as acting in them. Sterling is sometimes refered to as the Poet Laureate of San Francisco. He hung around with a literary crowd including Bierce, Jack London, Mary Austin and the recently featured Nora May French. Sadly, the Bohemian life was not so care free for many of this group. Nora May committed suicide (while in Sterling's house), as did Sterliing's wife at a later date. Sterling himself succumbed to depression, alcohol, and likely drug use. He committed suicide in 1926.His better stuff, I think, are his shorter pieces, like The Gleaner - a simple but powerful piece. I can almost see his personified Memory, searching for the people he has lost.OF ALL WE love or long for, what can last? The brief arbutus shines where shone the snow; The panic winds o'er dying flowers blow; Far in the quiet woodland dies the blast. Soft on the forehead of the hill are cast The fleeting splendors of the afterglow; Where sang the brook the desert lichens grow. Who runs, shall find the feet of Change are fast. Yet in the solitude of all that died A Shadow roams the somber fields, long known, Where ashen gardens house the pilgrim sands, And mournful stars behold at eventide How wanders peaceless Memory alone, Seeking in dust the vanished lips and hands. George Sterling

November 05, 2009

Nora May French

I've recently run across a group of California poets I was previously unfamiliar with. The first of these is Nora May French, who reminds me in some ways of Muriel Stuart. Her life was short, eventful, and unhappy in many respects. Her poetry is concise, sometimes verging on imagist, with unexpected word choices. It is thoughtful, wistful, but not as somber or tragic as her actual life. I use 'tragic' here as it is appropriate in both the classical and modern senses. Several similar versions of her biography are available online. She started writing poems at age 12, and had written about 70 by the time of her death by suicide in 1907 at age 26. her friends published a number of her works in 1910.

A sampling:

Between Two Rains

IT IS a silver space between two rains;
The lulling storm has given to the day
An hour of windless air and riven grey;
The world is drained of color; light remains.
Beyond the curving shore a gull complains;
Unceasing , on the bastions of the bay,
With gleam of shields and veer of vaporing spray
The long seas fall, the grey tide wars and wanes.

It is a silver space between two rains:
A mood too sweet for tears, for joy too pale—
What stress has swept or nears us, thou and I?
This hour a mist of light is on the plains,
And seaward fares again with litten sail
Our laden ship of dreams adown the sky.

Ave Atque Vale

IT GATHERS where the moody sky is bending.
It stirs the air along familiar ways—
A sigh for strange things forever ending.
For beauty shrinking in these alien days.

Now nothing is the same; old visions move me:
I wander silent through the waning land.
And find for youth and little leaves to love me
The old, old lichen crumbling in my hand.

What shifting films of distance fold you, blind you.
The windy eve of dreams, I cannot tell.
I know they grope through some strange mist to find you.
My hands that give you Greeting and Farewell.

San Francisco New Year's, 1907

(Nora moved to san Francisco in the later part of 1906 - the great earthquake and resulting fires leveled much of the city in April of that year)

SAID the Old Year to the New: "They will never welcome you
As they sang me in and rang me in upon my birthday night—
All above the surging crowd, bells and voices calling loud—
A throng attunded to laughter and a city all alight.

"Kind had been the years of old, drowsy-lidded, zoned with gold;
They swept their purples down the bat and sped the homeward keel;
The years of fruits and peace, smiling days and rich increase—
Too indolent with wine and sun to grasp the slaying steel.

"As my brothers so I came, panther-treading, silken, tame;
The sword was light within my hand, I kept it sheathed and still—
The jeweled city prayed me and the laughing voices stayed me—
A little while I pleased them well and gave them all their will.

"As a panther strikes to slay, so I wrenched my shuttering prey.
I lit above the panic throng my torches' crimson flare;
For they made my coming bright and I gave them light for light—
I filled the night with flaming winds and Terror's streaming hair.

"They were stately walls and high—as I felled them so they lie—
Lie like bodies torn and broken, lie like faces seamed with scars;
Here where Beauty dwelt and Pride, ere my torches flamed and died,
The empty arches break the night to frame the tranquil stars.

"Though of all my brothers scorned, I, betrayer, go unmourned,
It is I who tower shoulder-high above the level years;
You who come to build anew, joy will live again with you,
But mightiest I who walked with Death and taught the sting of tears!"

November 03, 2009

Scarrier than Halloween

I have recently updated Stephen Crane's War is Kind and Other Lines to the latest Bookshelf format.  Crane was a Journalist, Author, and Poet, known for his war dispatches, and in his novel, The Red badge of Courage.

Crane also wrote two books of blank verse - he called them 'lines' instead of poems. Most of them reflect his grim, damaged view of the world - immersed in war and its tragedies; Irate at the inequity and injustice he had observed in early industrialized urban life in New York - things Upton Sincliar would write about a few years later in Chicago. Crane also was a very prolific writer but never seemed to make financial ends meet. He was often in ill health, beset by critics both real and perceived, and frequently criticized for his associations.

Little wonder that his poems have such a somber tone - Not simply ironic, but darker - like Ambrose Bierce's short stories. Much of Crane's view of life can be summed up by line number three:


To the maiden
The sea was blue meadow,
Alive with little froth-people

To the sailor, wrecked,
The sea was dead grey walls
Superlative in vacancy,
Upon which nevertheless at fateful time
Was written
The grim hatred of nature.

Or the better known line number twenty-one:


A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Crane's subject matter is the indifference (or hostility) of nature, and the failings of man and all of his institutions - from the prophet to the politician, from the church to the newspaper. Many of his poems revolve around the falibility of the individual - sometimes we are clueless, and sometimes we know better, but make the wrong choice anyway:


When the prophet, a complacent fat man,
Arrived at the mountain-top,
He cried: "Woe to my knowledge!
I intended to see good white lands
And bad black lands,
But the scene is grey."


The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that none has passed here
In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."

But not every one of Cranes lines is a recipe for depression. Take this one for example, reminiscent of Yeats' Cloths of Heaven:


Ay, workman, make me a dream,
A dream for my love.
Cunningly weave sunlight,
Breezes, and flowers.
Let it be of the cloth of meadows.
And -- good workman --
And let there be a man walking thereon.

So judge for yourself which is scarier in the end -- the contrived stories that surround All Hallow's Eve (Halloween), or the dark, mysterious allegories of Stephen Crane? And mind you, beware the snakes.


October 09, 2009

The Poppy Paradox

A verbose political literary editorial. Be forewarned and forearmed with caffeine and an aspirin or two . . .

Time travel stories aside, paradox is counterintuitivity. It is two things that can’t mutually be true, but appear to be, based on our presumptions or our mind’s inability to understand or describe the world around us, or realize the difference between generalization and specificity.

Life is like that. We see things one way, and can’t imagine another viewpoint, until something changes in us - an experience, a relationship, the passage of time – and what could not be true or important or desired suddenly is true, is important, is what you desire. “That can never happen to me” becomes “it already has”. Youth cannot conceive of its own mortality until it has tasted fear and pain and loss in a very personal way. Throughout the ages, governments have taken advantage of the simple fact that youth cannot even imagine its own ignorance, let alone its mortality. This is what makes War possible in the first place – the perception of invincibility, when in fact we are very fragile creatures. A paradox.

Tragedy, by its nature is paradoxical. It is about transformation between opposing situations – life and death, fame and infamy, happiness and grief, having the luck of the Irish and being on the receiving end of a gypsy curse. Sometimes what befalls us is a creature of our own making - and sometimes it is ‘fate’ – in the Greek sense – your thread has reached its end. And, as Mark Twain might have said, sometimes it is just the pure cussed randomness of life.

In literature, tragedies are stories in which the great are humbled – because of their prideful arrogance (hubris) or ignorance, or simply because the Fates decided that it would be so – choose your preferred side of the nature/nurture argument. (By the way, literature dislikes the concept of randomness, despite empirical evidence of the Gaussian nature of life).

Tragedy in modern times has a far more journalistic tinge. Every newscaster thinks they’re Aeschylus. We have a more generalized view of our heroes (small ‘h’) and tragedy has a broader use in the language. Things are tragic because of their suddenness, their irony, or their impact. We collectively mourn the loss of a potential hero - a parent, a spouse, a leader, or simply someone who loved and was loved and depended upon by others. Tragedy makes you look, makes you listen. It’s the hook that will make you stick around and watch the evening news to see the who /what /where /when /why that make the How tragic.

This idea of lost potential, of a life unfinished is one that is emotionally gripping for many people. We abhor an unfinished story, a task left undone – a hope unfulfilled – a wrong un-righted. This emotion is, in fact, a dangerous vulnerability, and throughout history it has been used - with considerable effectiveness - by people in positions of influence as leverage to achieve some very self-serving goals. It is a string (a thread?) to be pulled, a tool to be used, to manipulate people.

Before you begin to write me off as a conspiracy theorist, consider what I refer to as the Poppy Paradox, after a very well-known piece by Canadian army officer, doctor, and War Poet, John McCrae, who wrote this memorial upon the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer in May, 1915, during the early part of the Great War:

In Flanders Fields

IN FLANDERS fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

McCrae wrote this as a personal piece – he did not originally mean for it to be published, yet it became an anthem for those remembering the thousands of soldiers who died in the trench warfare of World War I. Like many military memorials, it was also an effective propaganda and recruiting piece. McCrae says, in the last stanza, that the torch has been passed to you and that you must take up the fight, because if you don’t, you “break faith” with the dead – and they will haunt you (“We shall not sleep”). He also uses the image of poppy flowers (usually a vibrant blood-red) amongst the white crosses – blood on the cross – as a Biblical allusion - to reinforce the sacrifices of the dead and add another layer of meaning to “breaking faith”.

So what is the Poppy Paradox? Simply that the dead are not speaking – they can’t – they’re dead. It’s only a poetic device. People are always putting words into their mouths as a way to manipulate the living. . McCrae’s writing was probably cathartic – a way for him to give his friend’s death some meaning. Historically, however, many who use this technique (the invocation of what the dead would say if they were able to speak) do it to suit their own ends – whether those ends are to get elected, to sell more newspapers, to extract revenge, or simply gain more wealth and power.

If the dead could talk, they would probably be saying that they didn’t expect to end up dead at age 18 or 19; they thought they were immortal until reality came crashing down upon them in the form of a bullet, a bomb, a cloud of poison gas, or an unseen microbe. If they knew before death what they ‘know‘ post-mortem, they wouldn’t be encouraging others to join them in fertilizing the (blood-red) Flanders poppies. McCrae actually threw away the paper this poem was written on – perhaps he realized that he had written something both powerful and dangerous – it was retrieved by a fellow soldier.

McCrae’s poem was published in Punch in 1915. He lived to see about three more years of the war before dying of pneumonia, perhaps one more victim of the flu pandemic that swept through Europe and elsewhere. He was buried in Wimereux, France, not far from Flanders, where he, too, became food for poppies.

If you have a particularly strong stomach, you might consider reading a piece by Wilfred Owen, another War poet from World War I. His Poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, , gives a far more graphic and harrowing view of the war and its dead, and a much different opinion on the message their death should give.

So the lesson here is to honor the dead (soldiers and non-combatants), but don’t let anyone get away with claiming that ‘the dead’ want you to take care of some unfinished business on their behalf – that you dishonor their memory by not becoming another casualty yourself. The dead can not talk anymore than they can vote (thanks to Thurgood Marshall for that one). Remember too that art can be a powerful form of expression, and that any art form (poetry, music, sculpture) can be designed (or co-opted) to influence you. So, to paraphrase a recent anti-drug campaign, endeavor to “live above the influence.”

I have had this editorial post in the works for a while, so it is just coincidental that our American president was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday morning – and like Mikhail Gorbachev – received it more for what he is expected to do than what he has already done. We’ll have to see if he, too, can find a way to “live above the influence”, and to live up to the high standard of accomplishment set by some of the past recipients.

September 15, 2009

The Mysterious Mr. Grimald

I am in the middle of a project to transcribe and ‘translate’ and annotate a selection of works by Nicholas Grimald. The more I learn about him, the more mysterious he becomes. Grimald was one of only three poets credited by name in the first edition of Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557 – the first published anthology of English verse, along with Thomas Wyatt (“the elder”) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Wyatt and Howard were well-known persons of their time period, and history has well established reputations as important and influential poets, but who is this Grimald person?

Grimald was unusually well represented in the Miscellany – with 40 pieces in the first ‘A’ edition. Why so many? One school of thought is that it was actually Grimald who edited the collection for Richard Tottel the printer. At the time the collection was published, he was the only one of the named poets still living – Thomas Wyatt died in 1542 and Henry Howard was beheaded in 1547, one of many casualties of the paranoia of Henry VIII.

Also mysteriously, all but 10 of Grimald’s works were eliminated from the second, ‘B’ edition of the Miscellany. Those that remained were identified only as a group by ‘N.G.’, and in later editions, not identified at all.

Several reasons have been proposed for this – ranging from the fact that Grimald was a commoner and not a member of court, to his association with an out of favor Protestant bishop (Ridley) during a time of resurgence of Catholic power under Queen Mary I. The N.G. might well ahve stood for something more like persona non grata.

He was really better known as a translator than a poet. He is also somewhat of a dark figure – he recanted his faith to save his own head from the chopping block – literally - and at least one source suggests he turned traitor to his friends and ratted them out to the Catholic authorities – with dire consequences. The Tudor penchant for beheadings continued unabated under the reign of ‘Bloody’ Mary with something like 800 more victims.

Another theory is Tottel decided that in such turbulent times it was better to take a more anonymous approach to both the authorship and subject matter (the individuals who were the objects of the poems) in the Miscellany. With all the affairs and intrigue (and machinations, murder and mayhem) at court, perhaps the fewer names named, the better. Even the respected Thomas Wyatt saw his name first altered to “the elder” after his son’s role in a rebellion against Queen Mary, then effaced altogether.

As reading material, Grimald’s works can be tough going at times. There words are often unfamiliar. The spelling archaic and sprinkled with regional quirks. And the poems are, after all, nearly five centuries old – written half a century before Shakespeare’s plays. His unusual word order and frequent classical allusions can sometimes puzzle a modern reader (even one armed with the 1928 “Glossarial Dictionary”).For all that, I was amused to find that one of Grimald’s pieces was actually set to music in the 19th century.

Take a look at, (and if you can, read aloud) some lines sampled from Grimald’s works. I have modified these for the most part to current spelling. Notice the flowing alliterations of many lines in The Garden,

THE issue of great Jove, draw near you, Muses nine:
Help us to praise the blissful plot of garden ground so fine.
The garden gives good food, and aid for leech's* cure: [doctor]
The garden, full of great delight, his master doth allure.
Sweet salad herbs be here, and herbs of every kind;
The ruddy grapes, the seemly fruits be here at hand to find.
Here pleasance* wanteth not, to make a man full fain**: [pleasure… willing]
Here marvelous the mixture is of solace, and of gain.
To water sundry seeds, the furrow by the way
A running river, trilling down with liquor, can convey.
Behold, with lively hue, fair flowers that shine so bright:
With riches, like the orient gems, they paint the mould* in sight. [soil]
Bees, humming with soft sound, (their murmur is so small),
Of blooms and blossoms suck the tops, on dewed leaves they fall
The creeping vine holds down her own bewedded elms:
And, wandering out with branches thick, reeds folded overwhelms.
Trees spread their coverts wide, with shadows fresh and gay:
Full well their branched boughs defend the fervent sun away.
Birds chatter, and some chirp, and some sweet tunes do yield:
All mirthful, with their songs so blithe, they make both air and field.
The garden it allures, it feeds, it glads the sprite*: [spirit]
From heavy hearts all doleful dumps the garden chaseth quite.
Strength it restores to limbs, draws, and fulfills the sight:
with cheer revives the senses all, and maketh labor light.
O, what delights to us the garden ground doth bring?
Seed, leaf, flower, fruit, herb, bee, and tree & more than I may sing.

By the way, here are a few unedited lines from another poem by Grimald:

So foon doo thee conftrayn enuyous fates?
Oh, with that wit, thofe maners, that good hert,
Woorthy to lyue olde Neftors yeres thou wert.
You wanted outward yies : and yet aryght
In ftories, Poets, oratours had fight.
Whatfo you herd, by liuely voyce, expreft,
Was foon repofde within that mindefull breft.

Or, in modern spelling:

So soon do thee constrain envious fates?
Oh, with that wit, those manners, that good heart,
Worthy to live old Nestor’s years thou wert,
You wanted outward eyes: and yet aright
In stories, Poets, orators had sight.
Whatso you heard, by lively voice expressed,
Was soon reposed within that mindful breast.

All for now,


August 23, 2009

Subjective Reality

Durer's engraving of MelancholiaOne of the many projects this summer has been re-writing of parts of the Subject Index, with the goal of eventually revising and expanding all 54 subjects.

Jon Lachelt originally created the index, along the the Title, First Line, and Combined indicies.

I've been adding an introduction and a little more annotation for most of the poems. This can be a suprisingly time consuming process. If I complete one index in a day, I feel I've accomplished something.

By the way, you may notice I have not been udating this blog very often.

I have moved most of the update notices so that I don't have to deal with Movable Type or Wordpress. Look for all future updates on the Facebook page:

By the way, the subjects that have been updated so far are:

Carpe Diem:

All for now. Check out the Facebook opage.


April 22, 2009

Earthy Topics

Happy Earth Day everyone. Earth Day is celebrated in the U.S. on April 22nd and internationally on the Spring Equinox. (in March in the northern hemisphere). If I was doing a good job of keeping up with my schedule (instead of gardening and playing Wii Tennis with Alex), I’d have all of the Nature-related parts of the Subject Index updated.

Sorry, not there yet. But we can at least look at a poet whose works celebrated nature in striking and memorable ways. That would be Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest whose unusual rhymes and sprung rhythms are best appreciated when read aloud. Some, like Inversnaid may take a few practice runs before you can say recite them and stay in rhythm. The overall effect is excellent though, and the last two pleading couplets are especially topical on Earth Day:



THIS darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

How would this be for a English class assignment – write a poem about things with dots. From Hopkins we get a short piece - a prayer and a sonnet that celebrates nature with images and alliterations and a basket full of synonyms titled Pied Beauty: This is a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ by the way – a format condensed by Hopkins to 10 ½ lines.


Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough,
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

The purpose of Earth day was to recognize that our perceived human progress comes at a price, and we should stop and give thought to what we do, and just how much impact it has on the world around us. Here is a poem about deforestation (on a small and personal scale), from a small village where Hopkins like to walk, along the river near Oxford:


Binsey Poplars


MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, all are felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
weed-winding bank.
O if we knew but what we do
When we delve or hew--
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch her, being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even when we mean
to mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Gerard Manley Hopkins



April 05, 2009

April is National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month in the U.S. and Canada (although Great Britain celebrates it in October) so we will continue to emphasize what is going on in the poetry collection.  March 21st is actually the UNESCO World Poetry Day.

The month starts out with significant additions to our collection of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Dunbar is one of those poets whose conciseness and clarity of style often makes poetry seem effortless. As is always the case, it takes great effort to be both succinct and memorable. In his short life (he died from Tuberculosis at age 33) he generated a fairly large body of work covering a wide range of topics. 

Dunbar wrote both short and long works whose language is quite readable today.  You’ll find him far easier to read and appreciate than many poets of his time. Dunbar wrote books and essays as well as poems, including novels with depth and arguments on political, economic, and racial issues. Dunbar could write biting satire – like Theology for instance,

          THERE is a heaven, for ever, day by day,
          The upward longing of my soul doth tell me so.
          There is a hell, I'm quite as sure; for pray
          If there were not, where would my neighbours go?

And he could also write poems that would easily be mistaken for other noted American or European authors – a good example is Sunset, which ends with:

While in the south the first faint star
Lifts to the night its silver face,
And twinkles to the moon afar
Across the heaven's graying space,
    Low murmurs reach me from the town,
    As Day puts on her sombre crown,
    And shakes her mantle darkly down.

He could also write a very smooth song lyric, and many of his songs, both in and out of dialect, are still effective today even without the musical setting. Here is the first stanza from Discovered:

     SEEN you down at chu'ch las' night,
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
     What I mean? oh, dat's all right,
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
     You was sma't ez sma't could be,
          But you could n't hide from me.
     Ain't I got two eyes to see?
          Nevah min', Miss Lucy.

Writing in dialect, by the way, is not easy to do – particularly in English, where our options for annotation are limited. In his many works written in dialect, Dunbar captures regional accents, personalities, and emotions as well as anyone.

About 40 new works by Dunbar have been added, mostly in bookshelf editions of Lyrics of Lowly Life ( and Lyrics of the Hearthside ( Dunbar’s works were initially self published, then after some success, published in several ‘overlapping’ volumes. This makes updating the author index a little messy. The dates cited may not always be the earliest publishing dates, but they are the editions from which the Poets’ Corner text was taken.




March 29, 2009

Changing the Subject (not yet)

After re-formatting the main author index files, I’ve moved on to the Subject Index, created years ago by Jon Lachelt. Unfortunately, while there are 13 author index files, there are 54 subject indexes. I’ve completed two initial examples, on Life ( and People (  Let me know if you like the changes. Recommendations on additional selections are appreciated.


March 22, 2009

Running the Tables

In case any of you are NOT watching the NCAA and NIT basketball tournaments or out enjoying the start of spring in the northern hemisphere, you may have noticed that stage one of the collection's major overhaul is complete - all of the main author index files have been converted to a single, consistent format. I hope everyone likes green.


There are several parallel efforts, including link-backs from Wikipedia and some added Faces of the Poets added to the indexes. I have also added new works from Joseph Addison, Lascelles Abercrombie and William Blake. Blake's index entry has also been re-done. Several new poets (new to the collection, at least) were also added. These include Scottish doctor John Armstrong, and Scottish songwriter John Skinner and English War poet Edmund Blunden. This is a good mix of styles and longer and shorter works.


The added songs by Blake cover a wide range in tones, and Fair Eleanor is a suprisingly graphic horror story. Armstrong's Epistle to a Young Critic is a bit thick with its references to recognized classics as well as to his contemporaries, but has some good quotable lines, and some searing criticisms. Skinner's Reel of Tullochgorum was a favorite of his friend Robert Burns (they corresponded in verse) and is played by musicians to the present day.


Blunden is a little reminiscent of Muriel Stuart in his themes, particularly in his poem Forefathers
These were men of pith and thew,
   Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
   Built the barn, the forge, the mill.

On the green they watched their sons
   Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
   As my father once watched me;

Unrecorded, unrenowned,
   Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
   But I know you not within--
All is mist, and there survives
   Not a moment of your lives.

Like the bee that now is blown
   Honey-heavy on my hand,
From the toppling tansy-throne
   In the green tempestuous land,--
I'm in clover now, nor know
   Who made honey long ago.

and Reunion in Wartime, which ends with:


The church clock with his dead voice whirred
   As if he bade me stay
To trace with madman's fingers all
  The letters on the stones
Where thick beneath the twitch roots crawl
  In dead men's envied bones.


March 11, 2009

A new look, and Ms. Doolittle

The Poets' Corner Home Page ( has had a major make-over. This appearance is consistent with the new format being used in the Author's Index, and in all new additions. I've added two more portraits, those of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of my favorite poets, on of Hila Doolittle, who signed her work simply as 'H.D.'. I've also added eight new works to her index entry, all from "Sea Garden".

H.D. was the first 'imagist' poet, and published many books of poetry, novels, and psychology. She led a complicated life, with personal and professional relationships with many notable figures of her day, both men and women, notably including D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound(who she met in college, was once engaged to, and who gave her the title 'Imagiste'), Sigmund Freud, and others. Born in the steel town of Bethlehem Pennsylvania, She moved to London and became a British Citizen. She spent her later life in Switzerland. I wonder if, in travelling the roads up and down the hills and mountains around Zurich, if she ever thought back to the wave motion she described so well in her early poem The Helmsman.

The Helmsman

O BE swift--
we have always known you wanted us.

We fled inland with our flocks.
we pastured them in hollows,
cut off from the wind
and the salt track of the marsh.

We worshipped inland--
we stepped past wood-flowers,
we forgot your tang,
we brushed wood-grass.

We wandered from pine-hills
through oak and scrub-oak tangles,
we broke hyssop and bramble.
we caught flower and new bramble-fruit
in our hair: we laughed
as each branch whipped back,
we tore our feet in half-buried rocks
and knotted roots and acorn-cups.

We forgot--we worshipped,
we parted green from green.
we sought further thickets,
we dipped our ankles
through leaf-mould and earth.
and wood and wood-bank enchanted us--

and the feel of the clefts in the bark,
and the slope between tree and tree--
and a slender path strung field to field
and wood to wood
and hill to hill
and the forest after it.

We forgot--for a moment
tree-resin, tree-bark,
sweat of a torn branch
were sweet to taste.
We were enchanted with the fields,
the tufts of coarse grass
in the shorter grass--
we loved all this.

But now, our boat climbs--hesitates--drops--
climbs--hesitates--crawls back--
O be swift--
we have always known you wanted us.


February 26, 2009

Rats and The Wall

While browsing through the 1920 edition of the "Granite Monthly", I ran across some poems by Albert Annett, a historian and sometimes poet. One of them, Anarchism ( struck me as dramatic, pointed, and undeniably relevant, nearly 90 years later.

In particular, the last four lines seemed to sum up the current worldwide financial crisis and all of its collateral damage more succinctly than anything I've seen in today's mass media or among all the ranting talking heads of our day:

RATS undermined the wall,
And while men slept
The floods that basined in the hills, smiled at the day,
Crept in by stealth and tore their bounds away:
And onward swept
Where busy towns in tranquil beauty kept
The peace; and with the power of many waters pent
Homes were engulfed and hills in twain were rent.
Steeple and tower
Fell toppling down, and in a breath
When happiness had dwelt, were devastation, woe and death,
And these few words were written of the fall:
While watchman slept
Rats undermined the wall.

Annett's metaphor is a simple and powerful, and could apply to several different worries of our day or of his. Annett wrote in a post-war era where physical acts of anarchism (terrorism in today's lexicon) were widely reported in the papers, and where the rich and powerful of Europe and America looked on the recent Russian Revolution with fear and apprehension. I haven't read enough by Annett to know his 'politics' well enough to infer which 'flood' Annett intended as the primary target for his metaphor. There were waves of immigration, of socialist and communist politics, loosening of moral stigmas as the U.S. moved from the war era into the 'Roaring 20's", and of course the same kinds of corruption and profiteering that come to light in every era.

Who knows? Annett may have simply been a baeball fan upset about the 'Black Sox' scandal.

Regardless of Annett's target, the poem is still highly charged and highly effective in our day. Feel free to forward this to the local bank regulator, sports commissioner, or government watchdog agency of your choice.....


February 24, 2009

Harold Vinal

I didn’t know much about Harold Vinal, though looking through our collection and looking through the Web it seems as if he did quite a bit. He was a publisher, editing and publishing many books of poetry, and edited Voices: A Magazine of Verse for over 40 years. I was surprised to find how many authors I know (and books I own) were published by Harold Vinal.

As a publisher (and a poet), Vinal was somewhat of a traditionalist. Most of the mentions you see of him online comment on an incident with e.e. cummings. After receiving a rejection from Vinal, cummings retaliated by including a poem in his book  No.5,  titled "Poem, or Beauty hurts Mr. Vinal", suggesting Vinal's judgement was fit only for editing the advertising jingles that were becoming omnipresent on the radio at the time.
Vinal does not seem to have embraced many ‘Modern’ trends in poetry that were becoming common in the time period. His own poems tended towards conventional subjects and simple forms and rhyme schemes.  I’ve found Vinal’s poems appearing in regional journals around 1920 and noted that he published his first book of poetry, White April, ( in 1922.  
 In short, Vinal was no cummings. However, like many poetry magazine editors of his period, Vindal did help give voice to many aspiring writers - including Langston Hughes, who Vinal also tapped to edit an anthology of African-American verse. He served as secretary and later president of the Poetry Society of America, and was anthologized inseveral collections.

Vinal’s poems are readable enough, but generally not outstanding. I added them to Poet’s Corner mainly to recognize how difficult it is sometimes for an editor to be himself good at creating the art form he helps shape. Hopefully that’s not too esoteric a point.  This adds 43 works that are new to the collection. Among them are quite a few sonnets and shorter works, including Persephone, for which I chose Rossetti's exquisite painting for the book cover.  



February 19, 2009

Vivaldi's Seasonal Poetry

One of the comments my friend and co-editor Bob Blair often used to make in his editorials years ago was that certain poets who were widely published and read, and veritable celebities in their day, often faded into obscurity. Being stylish, someone also once said, simply means that you are more likely to go out of style. This has been true among authors and artists, musicians and playwrights, political (and economic) theorists, and, of course, poets. I was listening to Alex Trebek quizzing his daily panel of Jeopardy contestants the other day, when he gave a clue about a baroque composer whose 'seasonal' music was published with a set of accompanying poems written by the composer. Vivaldi was an easy guess (The Four Seasons - Le Quattro Stagioni) for the musician, but I didn't know about the poems - so of course I had to look them up.

A Venetian, Antonio Vivaldi was a priest, composer, and a virtuoso on violin. He seems to have been an exceptionally prolific composer, with 46 operas, over 500 concertos, 73 sonatas and a variety of sacred music. In the early part of the 18th century his works were very well known, and much anticipated. The Four Seasons, written around 1723 and published as the first four violin sonatas from "The Contest Between Harmony and Invention" (1925). His career included performances before the Pope and for the royalty of continental europe, who also commissioned him to compose a variety of special compositions.

With all of those operas under his belt, Vivaldi must have written more lyrics than you can shake a stick at (feel free to insert your own favorite equivalent euphemism here), but I can only find reference to one set of poems - the sonatas that describe, movement by movement, what scenes his violins are immitating in The Four Seasons. The suprising thing to me, is that, for as well known as Vivaldi has been for the last half century, and as well known and influential as he was in his own day, he was largely unknown for much of the intervening two centuries. Despite the fact that he was prolific, a favorite of Charles IV, and a major influence on J.S. Bach and other Baroque composers, his music was forgotten and lost until several fortunate discoveries in the 20th century.

Sorry, the English tramnslations are litteral, and a little stilted. I'll ask Nick to work on them if he gets tired of Chinese and wants to go back to Italian for a while.


February 14, 2009

Poems for the Season (St. Valentine's Day)

While I rarely manage to be timely or topical (or relelvant, for that matter), I noticed it is still Valentines Day (at least in the Americas), so , since our collection has a seemingly endless supply of love poems, here is a sampling. Note that most of these selections are quite old - the tradition of St. Valentine's day appears to date at least from the time of Chaucer, in the 14th century, and Shakespeare mentions it in Hamlet, around 1600. --Steve

To His Fairest Valentine, Mrs. A.L.

"Come, pretty birds, present your lays,
And learn to chaunt a goddess praise;
Ye wood-nymphs, let your voices be
Employ'd to serve her deity:
And warble forth, ye virgins nine,
Some music to my Valentine.

"Her bosom is love's paradise,
There is no heav'n but in her eyes;
She's chaster than the turtle-dove,
And fairer than the queen of love:
Yet all perfections do combine
To beautifie my Valentine.

"She's Nature's choicest cabinet,
Where honour, beauty, worth and wit
Are all united in her breast.
The graces claim an interest:
All virtues that are most divine
Shine clearest in my Valentine."

--Richard Lovelace, from Lucasta, 1649

To My Dear and Loving Husband

IF ever two were one then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife were happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor aught but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so perservere
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

--Anne Bradstreet, mid-17th century


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!--and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

--Elizabeth Barret Browning, from Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1850


Thou sovereign beauty which I do admire,
Witness the world how worthy to be praised:
The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fire,
In my frail spirit by her from baseness raised.
That being now with her huge brightness dazed,
Base things I can no more endure to view;
But looking still on her I stand amazed,
At wondrous sight of so celestial hew.
So when my tongue would speak her praises due,
It stopped is with thought's astonishment:
And when my pen would write her titles true,
It ravished is with fancy's wonderment:
Yet in my heart I then both speak and write
The wonder that my wit cannot endite.

--Edmund Spenser, from Amoretti, 1595

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

COME live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of th purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love,

Christopher Marlowe, 1589

February 11, 2009

Poems of the Bronte Sisters

Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë wrote novels and poetry in the middle of the 19th century. In 1846, while still unknown, they published a combined volume of poems, "Poems, by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell " - using pseudonyms because they thought women as poets would not be taken seriously at the time. The publication cost most of Anne's annual salary as a governess, but was a financial faiure. Not long afterwards, however, all three sisters had success in getting novels published. Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre were all well recieved, Anne, additionally began to have success getting her poems publishde in magazines and journals.

There was little time to enjoy success, however. Their older brother Branwell died of tuberculosis in September of 1848 after bouts of drug and alcohol addiction following a series of unsuccessful careers and an affair with his employer's wife (the original "Mrs. Robinson"). Within eight months Anne and Emily would also succumb to respiratory illnesses, leaving Charlotte as the only survivor of the original six children.

In 1850 Charlotte re-published the 1846 book of poems, adding her personal comments and additional poems by sisters. While she refers to Emily and Charlotte by name in her comments, their pseudonyms were still used in the title pages. The book can be read in its entirety at

Ann was the most successful in her brief career as a published poet, though I have a preference for some of Emily's works. Choose for yourself. This edition is based on galley from PG, re-structured into Poets' Corner's Bookshelf II format. The actual poets' names are used in place of the pseudonyms to minimize confusion for modern readers. Italicization should be correct - it is missing from the Wikipedia edition. This version also facilitates browsing, I think, moreso than the other avaialble formats. Nearly 80 of these poems are new to the PC collection.


A sampling:

A Little While, A Little While

A LITTLE while, a little while,
The weary task is put away,
And I can sing and I can smile,
Alike, while I have holiday.

Where wilt thou go, my harassed heart--
What thought, what scene invites thee now
What spot, or near or far apart,
Has rest for thee, my weary brow?

There is a spot, 'mid barren hills,
Where winter howls, and driving rain;
But, if the dreary tempest chills,
There is a light that warms again.

The house is old, the trees are bare,
Moonless above bends twilight's dome;
But what on earth is half so dear--
So longed for--as the hearth of home?

The mute bird sitting on the stone,
The dank moss dripping from the wall,
The thorn-trees gaunt, the walks o'ergrown,
I love them--how I love them all!

Still, as I mused, the naked room,
The alien firelight died away;
And from the midst of cheerless gloom,
I passed to bright, unclouded day.

A little and a lone green lane
That opened on a common wide;
A distant, dreamy, dim blue chain
Of mountains circling every side.

A heaven so clear, an earth so calm,
So sweet, so soft, so hushed an air;
And, deepening still the dream-like charm,
Wild moor-sheep feeding everywhere.

That was the scene, I knew it well;
I knew the turfy pathway's sweep,
That, winding o'er each billowy swell,
Marked out the tracks of wandering sheep.

Could I have lingered but an hour,
It well had paid a week of toil;
But Truth has banished Fancy's power:
Restraint and heavy task recoil.

Even as I stood with raptured eye,
Absorbed in bliss so deep and dear,
My hour of rest had fleeted by,
And back came labour, bondage, care.

Emily Bronte

Evening Solace

THE human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;--
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
And days may pass in gay confusion,
And nights in rosy riot fly,
While, lost in Fame's or Wealth's illusion,
The memory of the Past may die.

But there are hours of lonely musing,
Such as in evening silence come,
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,
The heart's best feelings gather home.
Then in our souls there seems to languish
A tender grief that is not woe;
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish
Now cause but some mild tears to flow.

And feelings, once as strong as passions,
Float softly back--a faded dream;
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,
The tale of others' sufferings seem.
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,
How longs it for that time to be,
When, through the mist of years receding,
Its woes but live in reverie!

And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,
On evening shade and loneliness;
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,
Feel no untold and strange distress--
Only a deeper impulse given
By lonely hour and darkened room,
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven
Seeking a life and world to come.

Charlotte Bronte

In Memory of a Happy Day in February

BLESSED be Thou for all the joy
My soul has felt to-day!
Oh, let its memory stay with me,
And never pass away!

I was alone, for those I loved
Were far away from me;
The sun shone on the withered grass,
The wind blew fresh and free.

Was it the smile of early spring
That made my bosom glow?
'Twas sweet; but neither sun nor wind
Could cheer my spirit so.

Was it some feeling of delight
All vague and undefined?
No; 'twas a rapture deep and strong,
Expanding in the mind.

Was it a sanguine view of life,
And all its transient bliss,
A hope of bright prosperity?
Oh, no! it was not this.

It was a glimpse of truth divine
Unto my spirit given,
Illumined by a ray of light
That shone direct from heaven.

I felt there was a God on high,
By whom all things were made;
I saw His wisdom and His power
In all his works displayed.

But most throughout the moral world,
I saw his glory shine;
I saw His wisdom infinite,
His mercy all divine.

Deep secrets of His providence,
In darkness long concealed,
Unto the vision of my soul
Were graciously revealed.

But while I wondered and adored
His Majesty divine,
I did not tremble at His power:
I felt that God was mine;

I knew that my Redeemer lived;
I did not fear to die;
Full sure that I should rise again
To immortality.

I longed to view that bliss divine,
Which eye hath never seen;
Like Moses, I would see His face
Without the veil between.

Anne Bronte

December 16, 2008

Bierce, Technology, Satire and Sarcasm

Ambrose Bierce had a difficult life in many respects, which may have been what gave his written works such a darkly satirical outlook. Best known for his highly sardonic 'The Devil's Dictionary", he was also known for his writings about the U.S. Civil war - both fiction and non-fiction based on his experiences and observations. Thes stories and accounts are singularly graphic in describing the human carnage, desctruction, and senselessness of war.

Bierce also wrote a fair number of horror stories - not much of a stretch considering his war stories. What fewer people know is that he was a persistent poet, writing short verses and epigrams regularly to capture his opinions - and frequently skewering his contemporary poets, authors, politicians, and other public figures.

I've just added 30 selections from one of Bierce's collections, Shapes of Clay,   which contains a wide range of works, All written with his distictive outlook and "wait for punchline" style. Technology,  whose title refers to the terminology used in a particular profession, is a good example.

Whle they were written over a century ago while Bierce was living mainly in San Francisco, much of the pieces are highly relevant today amidst our widely opposing political opinions, financial shnanigans, and societal issues. I think Bierce would hold his own against any smug talking head of the present day. The short epigrams in particular are very potent in their critique. The Builder is typical:

A Builder

I SAW the devil--he was working free:
A customs-house he builded by the sea.
"Why do you this?" The devil raised his head;
"Churches and courts I've built enough," he said.

One of Bierce's most characteristic works is Freedom from The Cynic's Work Book, published three years later in 1906 which was one of the earliest poems included in our collection:


FREEDOM, as every schoolboy knows,
Once shrieked as Kosciusko fell;
On every wind, indeed, that blows
I hear her yell.

She screams whenever monarchs meet,
And parliaments as well,
To bind the chains about her feet
And toll her knell.

And when the sovereign people cast
The votes they cannot spell,
Upon the lung-impested blast
Her clamors swell.

For all to whom the power's given
To sway or to compel,
Among themselves apportion heaven
And give her hell.

Kosciusko (Tadeusz Kościuszko), by the way, a Polish military strategist and general who was instrumental in the American Revolutionary War, 'fell' while battling for Polish independence two decades later. What I did not know unitl recently, was that he survived and battled on through diplomatic means for Polish identity and soverignty. He died in 1817 in Switzerland.


I SAW the devil--he was working free:A customs-house he builded by the sea. "Why do you this?" The devil raised his head; "Churches and courts I've built enough," he said. One of Bierce's most characteristic works is Freedom from , published three years later in 1906 which was one of the earliest poems included in our collection:FREEDOM, as every schoolboy knows, Once shrieked as Kosciusko fell; On every wind, indeed, that blows I hear her yell.She screams whenever monarchs meet, And parliaments as well, To bind the chains about her feet And toll her knell.And when the sovereign people cast The votes they cannot spell, Upon the lung-impested blast Her clamors swell.For all to whom the power's given To sway or to compel, Among themselves apportion heaven And give her hell. Kosciusko (Tadeusz Kościuszko), by the way, a Polish military strategist and general who was instrumental in the American Revolutionary War, 'fell' while battling for Polish independence two decades later. What I did not know unitl recently, was that he survived and battled on through diplomatic means for Polish identity and soverignty. He died in 1817 in Switzerland.--Steve



December 04, 2008

Muriel Stuart, Centaurs, and Heliodore

I’ve just updated the index entry for Muriel Stuart, and added her book Cockpit of Idols. Fourteen of the poems are new to the collection. Stuart writes in a variety of forms, on subjects starting with the Great War, then moving on to "sexual politics", and religious and other themes before ending up with a sort of ubi sunt poem for Heliodore. The title poem has several parallels to Christ at Carnival, though the roles are reversed and the main character battles through fatalistic arrogance rather than reveling wanderlust. (The Centaur is a bit more rollicking than our usual content, by the way) This is a heavily edited text based on a very buggy source file from UCLA. Thanks to Ariadne for finding it.


November 19, 2008

The Princess Returns

Alfred Tennyson's 'The Princess' has been re-done in Bookshelf II format, and most of the illustrations from the 1884 edition have been added in. The illustrations are clickable, to view larger format versions.

The full text is accessible at:

Tennyson sub-titled this 'A Medley' - the story is told spontaneously in seven parts by seven different speakers, mostly college friends returned home and picnicking together on a weekend. Most of the poem is in blank verse, with well known songs at the ends of several of the sections.


From The Princess:

         The splendour falls on castle walls
               And snowy summits old in story:
          The long light shakes across the lakes,
               And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

          O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
               And thinner, clearer, farther going!
          O sweet and far from cliff and scar
               The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
     Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
     Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

          O love, they die in yon rich sky,
               They faint on hill or field or river:
          Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
               And grow for ever and for ever.
     Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
     And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying

                            *     *     *     *    

     Home they brought her warrior dead:
          She nor swooned, nor uttered cry:
     All her maidens, watching, said,
          'She must weep or she will die.'

     Then they praised him, soft and low,
          Called him worthy to be loved,
     Truest friend and noblest foe;
          Yet she neither spoke nor moved.

     Stole a maiden from her place,
          Lightly to the warrior stept,
     Took the face-cloth from the face;
          Yet she neither moved nor wept.

     Rose a nurse of ninety years,
          Set his child upon her knee--
     Like summer tempest came her tears--
          'Sweet my child, I live for thee.'

November 16, 2008

More Morley

The online version of Christopher Morley's CHIMNEYSMOKE has been expanded, updated, and converted to the new Bookshelf II format. I have also added back in some of the illustrations by Thomas Fogarty that somehow were lost. Click on any illustration to see a larger image.

This is the first book to be converted to Bookshelf II. Let me know if you like it.


October 02, 2008

Poems for the Season

Whenever this time of year rolls around, I begin to miss the seasons I grew up with. The same thing happens in April, when spring starts breaking out in earnest. Down here in the sub-tropics, the only thing we notice is a change in the light. The sun is lazy getting out of bed and seems to knock off early. As a child I noted that the sky always seemed bluer in the crisp morning air of October and early November, though maybe it was only the sharp contrast of Gold and yellow leaves against the sky.

Two poems that always come to mind this time of year are <b>October’s Bright Blue Weather</b> by Helen Hunt Jackson, and <b>October</b> by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Both praise the month as a feast for the senses and both are largely observational, though Dunbar personifies the month very effectively. They are relatively short – read both and decide which you like best. They both are effective at mixing the brash and the bittersweet – the sensory splashes that make you feel alive and the reminders of mortality that winter will bring.

PC is currently in the middle of several projects surrounding Dunbar, by the way. One is a sampling of his works recited by modern-day poets and performers.  A couple of the first-pass attempts at videos are on The Other Pages Facebook page. Take a look and a listen. Special thanks to Geoff Cipes for his generous help and limitless patience.


October's Bright Blue Weather

O SUNS and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather;

When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And goldenrod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;

When gentians roll their fingers tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;

When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;

When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;

When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;

When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October's bright blue weather.

O sun and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October's bright blue weather.

    --Helen Hunt Jackson


OCTOBER is the treasurer of the year,
    And all the months pay bounty to her store:
The fields and orchards still their tribute bear,
    And fill her brimming coffers more and more.
But she, with youthful lavishness,
Spends all her wealth in gaudy dress,
    And decks herself in garments bold
    Of scarlet, purple, red, and gold.

She heedeth not how swift the hours fly,
    But smiles and sings her happy life along;
She only sees above a shining sky;
    She only hears the breezes' voice in song.
Her garments trail the woodland through,
And gather pearls of early dew
    That sparkle till the roguish Sun
    Creeps up and steals them every one.

But what cares she that jewels should be lost,
    When all of Nature's bounteous wealth is hers?
Though princely fortunes may have been their cost,
    Not one regret her calm demeanor stirs.
Whole-hearted, happy, careless, free,
She lives her life out joyously,
    Nor cares when Frost stalks o'er her way
    And turns her auburn locks to gray.

    --Paul Laurence Dunbar

July 15, 2008

Poetry break for July 15th, 2008

Rain, Soup, and Time Standing (Briefly) Still

When I glanced back through Bob’s poetry break archives from this week in July, several things drew me to this poem by Thackeray. Today happens to be a rainy, dark, and dreary day here in the subtropics, so light verse seemed like a good idea. And with the rain, I decided to stay in for lunch, and had soup. Not Thackeray’s entertaining Bouillabaisse, but a ‘vegetarian chili’ concoction that merits no further description here. This also happens to be my oldest son’s last summer at home before going off to University, and he is spending his non-working hours dashing off to be with one friend or another, before they all go their separate ways in the annual educational diaspora. My wife and I would like to see more of him, but we can’t begrudge him his time with friends, knowing, as we do, that life accelerates from here, and we, and the places we know, and the people we remember, change – sometimes unrecognizably with time. While Thomas Wolfe may have said that “You Can’t Go Home Again”, Thackeray’s ballad takes a different tack, and suggests that, perhaps at least you might be able to find the same restaurant.

--Steve ( - ;


A lot of William Makepeace Thackeray's light verse is entertaining. A few pieces, like today's poem, The Ballad of Bouillabaisse, are also modern-sounding and affecting. I'm not sure why, but this account of a nostalgic return to long-remembered café makes me share the nostalgia. That result may have to be added to the list of characteristics of successful light verse.

July 18 is the day Thackeray was born in 1811. I have submitted several Thackeray poems to The Poets' Corner, so visit his alphabetic entry if you want to read more to celebrate.

--Bob Blair

The Ballad of Bouillabaisse
A STREET there is in Paris famous,
For which no rhyme our language yields,
Rue Neuve de petits Champs its name is --
The New Street of the Little Fields;
And there's an inn, not rich and splendid,
But still in comfortable case;
The which in youth I oft attended,
To eat a bowl of Bouillabaisse.

This Bouillabaisse a noble dish is --
A sort of soup, or broth, or brew,
Or hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes,
That Greenwich never could outdo;
Green herbs, red peppers, muscles, saffern,
Soles, onions, garlic, roach, and dace;
All these you eat at Terré's tavern,
In that one dish of Bouillabaisse.

Indeed, a rich and savory stew 'tis;
And true philosophers, methinks,
Who love all sorts of natural beauties,
Should love good victuals and good drinks.
And Cordelier or Benedictine
Might gladly, sure, his lot embrace,
Nor find a fast-day too afflicting,
Which served him up a Bouillabaisse.

I wonder if the house still there is?
Yes, here the lamp is as before;
The smiling, red-cheek'd écaillère is
Still opening oysters at the door.
Is Terré still alive and able?
I recollect his droll grimace;
He'd come and smile before your table,
And hoped you like your Bouillabaisse.

We enter; nothing's changed or older.
"How's Monsieur Terré, waiter, pray?"
The waiter stares and shrugs his shoulder --
"Monsieur is dead this many a day."
"It is the lot of saint and sinner.
So honest Terré's run his race!"
"What will Monsieur require for dinner?"
"Say, do you still cook Bouillabaisse?"

"Oh, oui, Monsieur," 's the waiter's answer;
"Quel vin Monsieur désire-t-il ?"
"Tell me a good one." "That I can, sir;
The Chambertin with yellow seal."
"So Terré's gone," I say, and sink in
My old accustom'd corner-place;
"He's done with feasting and with drinking,
With Burgundy and Bouillabaisse."

My old accustom'd corner here is--
The table still is in the nook;
Ah! vanished many a busy year is,
This well-known chair since last I took.
When first I saw ye, cari luoghi,
I'd scarce a beard upon my face,
And now a grizzled, grim old fogy,
I sit and wait for Bouillabaisse.

Where are you, old companions trusty
Of early days, here met to dine?
Come, waiter! quick, a flagon crusty --
I'll pledge them in the good old wine.
The kind old voices and old faces
My memory can quick retrace;
Around the board they take their places,
And share the wine and Bouillabaisse.

There's Jack has made a wondrous marriage;
There's laughing Tom is laughing yet;
There's brave Augustus drives his carriage;
There's poor old Fred in the Gazette;
On James's head the grass is growing:
Good Lord! the world has wagged apace
Since here we sat the Claret flowing,
And drank, and ate the Bouillabaisse.

Ah me! how quick the days are flitting!
I mind me of a time that's gone,
When here I'd sit, as now I'm sitting,
In this same place--but not alone.
A fair young form was nestled near me,
A dear, dear face looked fondly up,
And sweetly spoke and smiled to cheer me.
-- There's no one now to share my cup.

. . . . . . . .

I drink it as the Fates ordain it.
Come, fill it, and have done with rhymes;
Fill up the lonely glass, and drain it
In memory of dear old times.
Welcome the wine, whate'er the seal is;
And sit you down and say your grace
With thankful heart, whate'er the meal is.
Here comes the smoking Bouillabaisse !

--William Makepeace Thackeray

July 08, 2008

Poetry Break for July 8th, 2008

We go back five years to this date in 2003 for Bob Blair’s comments on Cameron’s I Am Young. The viewpoint is a little unusual in that a youth is having a Carpe Diem moment. This is a device you see more often when the voice is one of old age, wistful with advice and regret. Here are Bob’s comments:

It was wise of George Frederick Cameron, a Nova Scotian born in 1854, to understand what he wrote in today's poem, I Am Young as if he were young when he wrote it. It is cynical if he were old. It's all of one piece to us today, because Cameron is long dead. What a lot to learn from 42 stressed syllables.
-- Bob Blair

I Am Young
I am young, and men
Who long ago have passed their prime
Would fain have what I have again, —
Youth, and it may be — time.

To gain these, and make
Life's end what it may not be now,
Monarchs of thought and song would shake
The laurels from their brow.

And each king of earth,
Whose life we deem a holiday,
For this would give his kingship's worth
Most joyously away!

-- George Frederick Cameron

June 23, 2008

Commentary for the Rainy Season

Poetry Break for the week of June 23rd, 2008

As I am sitting here listening to the thunder outside (our Florida rainy season is in full swing) I ran across this entry from Bob Blair's Poetry Break, this day in 2000 - though he was writing from Texas at the time (and Longfellow was way up north).

Poets are supposed to be good at words, so it's not surprising that the words and phrases they invent often become part of our ordinary language. But it's important, because what we say reflects how we think.

Take the tag line of today's poem, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Rainy Day. If you've never said "Into each life some rain must fall", I'll bet you've at least thought it. That you were quoting Longfellow is not the important point, though: those words reflect an attitude and a set of beliefs that go back before you or Longfellow were born. The idea is strong enough that, when Longfellow captured it in iambic pentameter, it became part of the language.

--Bob Blair 

The Rainy Day

Written at the old home in Portland

THE day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains,and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains,and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

February 26, 2008

Doomsday and Muriel Stuart

Doomsday and Muriel Stuart
The BBC and National Public Radio both ran articles today on the opening ceremonies for the ‘Doomsday Vault’ – also known as the Svalbard International Seed Vault – a frozen repository buried deep within a Norwegian mountain, on the remote island of Svalbard, well north of the Arctic Circle.
The stated purpose of the project is to ensure plant diversity – and ensure against natural disasters, diseases, or climactic change that could potentially cause the extinction of plant species vital to our survival on the planet. This caught my ear, perhaps because I have noticed too many end-of-the-world movie re-runs on TV recently.
Seeds, several billion of them, will be collected from over 100 countries and stored at sub-zero temperatures behind a series of air-lock doors. The storage conditions are designed to keep even the least hardy seeds (lettuce, for example) viable for up to 50 years. More robust seeds, such as African sorghum varieties, might conceivably last thousands of years. The vegetable equivalent of immortality.

This news item reminded me of an excellent poem, written and published over eighty years ago by Muriel Stuart. Stuart, the daughter of a Scottish barrister, wrote several books of poetry, and lived most of her life in London, absorbed during her later years not with verse, but with gardening.  Her book, “Gardner’s Nightcap” was actually something of a bestseller back in 1938.
The Seed Shop, and Muriel Stuart for that matter, were ‘finds’ -  a poem and a poet that we editors did not know of previously, but were all delighted to find in the process of constructing the Poets’ Corner online collection. Typical of her style, the poem says a great deal over the course of its sixteen lines. The words explore themes of life, death, resurrection and immortality, and do if fluidly and beautifully. As Bob Blair said in an early Daily Poetry break back in October of 1998, “This is one of the poems that profitably leave almost everything unsaid, in order to concentrate on the things that will make you remember it. The diction is loose and easy; the images are exceptionally sharp and memorable; and the poem ends with an image that is at once startling and beautiful.”
This is also a good ‘reading aloud’ poem, whether it is to an audience or to yourself over lunch-hour. If your office mates stare at you oddly make sure you have an earnest expression on your face…


Here, in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shriveled, scentless, dry-
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the call of Spring,
Sleepers to stir beneath June's magic kiss,
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee suck here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century's streams,
These lilies shall maker summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells a million trees leap;
Here I can grow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

February 02, 2008

Archy the Cockroach

Archy the Cockroach

Archy Who?  Archie was a famous cockroach-poet, the invention of Don Marquis. Don was mentioned in passing in one of last year’s columns – as a friend of Christopher Morley.

Archy, who inhabited Marquis’ office, along with his cohort Mehitabel the cat, amused himself by composing humorous free verse. Archy typed by hopping on the keys -  he couldn’t hit the shift key so everything he composed was written lower case without punctuation. Perhaps Archy’s poetic stylings – which began in 1916 and became widely syndicated  thereafter – were an influence on another lower-case writer of novel free verse – e.e. cummings. Archy claimed to be the reincarnation of a human poet, and, as his first published work explains, so was Freddy the Rat – who kept criticizing (and eating) his poems:

The Coming of Archy (1916)

expression is the need of my soul

i was once a vers libre bard

but i died and my soul went

into the body of a cockroach

it has given me a new outlook on life


i see things from the under side now

thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket

but your paste is getting so stale i can't eat it

there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have

removed she nearly ate me the other night why don't she

catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for

there is a rat here she should get without delay


most of these rats here are just rats

but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him

he used to be a poet himself

night after night i have written poetry for you

on your typewriter

and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet

comes out of his hole when it is done

and reads it and sniffs at it

he is jealous of my poetry

he used to make fun of it when we were both human

he was a punk poet himself

and after he has read it he sneers

and then he eats it


i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat

or get a cat that is onto her job

and i will write you a series of poems

showing how things look

to a cockroach

that rats name is freddy

the next time freddy dies i hope he won't be a rat

but something smaller i hope i will be a rat

in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach

i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then


don't you ever eat any sandwiches in your office

i havent had a crumb of bread

for i dont know how long

or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings

and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine

every night you can call me archy

Don Marquis, born in Walnut, Illinois in 1878, was a newspaper columnist, poet, playwright and humorist, whose editorials, poems, and cartoons appeared in the Evening Sun, the New York Herald Tribune, the New Yorker, and the Saturday Evening post from 1912 into the 1930’s. Marquis was good at inventing characters, including several animal friends for Archy and Mehitabel, and a character called The Old Soak, known for his satires against prohibition.

While known for his humor, Marquis had a difficult life in many respects. Both his first wife, Reina and his second wife, Marjorie died suddenly, and his son and daughter both died in childhood. Marquis himself suffered a series of strokes, dying from the third one in 1937 at 59. With this in mind, there is an extra poignancy to his poem, A Plan, in which he walks us through his take on the ‘ages of man’, and what he planned to do when he reached 80. More at

A Plan

YOUTH is the season of revolt; at twenty-five
We curse the reigning politicians,
Wondering that any man alive
Stands for such damnable conditions.
Whatever is, to us, is wrong,
In economics, life, religion, art;
The crowned old laureates of song
Are pikers, and accepted sages
Appear devoid of intellect and heart;
Continually, the ego in us rages;
Our sense of universal, rank injustice
Swells till it's like to bust us;
We love to see ourselves as outcast goats
Browsing at basement tobbledotes,
The while we forge the mordant bolt
That is to give society its jolt;
And any man who wears two eyes upon his face
Contentedly and unashamed,
And glories in the pose
And makes a virtue of his having just one nose,
We curse as dull, conventional, and tamed
And commonplace.
Thirty finds us a trifle sobered, with a doubt
Whether we'll turn the cosmos inside-out,
Reform the earth, re-gild the moon
And make the Pleiades sing a modern tune;
Some of the classics are not bores, we think,
And barbers have their uses;
We grow more choice in what we eat and drink,
Less angry at abuses;
We work a little harder, want more pay,
Grab on to better jobs,
And learn to make excuses
For certain individuals erstwhile condemned as snobs;
We do not worry nine hours every day
Because the world in its traditional, crool way     [sic]
Continues to roll calmly on and crush
The worthier myriads into bloody mush;
And yet, at thirty, on the whole,
If analyzed we still would show a trace of soul.
At forty--well, you know:
Chins, bank accounts, and stomachs start to grow;
The world's still wrong in spite of all we've tried
To do for it, and we're no longer broken hearted--
We sit on it and ride,
We're willing, now, to let the darned thing slide
Along in just about the way it stated.
Of course, we're anxious for reforms,
And all that sort of stuff,
Unless they cause too many economic storms--
But really, on the whole it's well enough:
We hold by standards, rules and norms.
But when I'm eighty I intend
To turn a fool again for twenty years or so;
Go back to being twenty-five,
Drop cautions and conventions, join some little group
Fantastically rebel and alive,
And resolute, from soup
To nuts; I'll reimburse myself
For all the freak stuff that I've had to keep upon the shelf;
Indulge my crochets, be the friend of man,
And pull the thoughts I've always had to can--
I'm looking forward to a rough, rebellious, unrespectable old age,
Kicking the world uphill
With laughter shrill
And squeals of high-pitched, throaty rage.

     Don Marquis

November 27, 2007

Keeping the Universe Up-to-date

Yes, blink an eye and another month dissappears without a trace, aside from some left over turkey soup in the back corner of the fridge.

 One of the most-neglected collections, Universe has been updated, with a few added works, an author-based index, and cleaner scripting. I've maintained the same color scheme and for some odd reason migrated to even more visually obnoxious graphics. Sorry.

The idea behind this particular collection was that, once upon a time, a LOT of readers began sending in their own poems, wanting them to be listed in the Poets' Corner collection somewhere between Byron and Browning. While there is a great deal of good poetry out there - and much of it very readable, it is also very thrue that the vast majority of poems hold a very uniquely personal value that does not translate well for a wider audience. It is also true that the mechanics of poetry are not widely taught nowadays, and mechanical flaws can detract from even the best of works.

But there is some good stuff, and it was a shame not to have a home for it.  The title, while grand-sounding, is actually a poor play on words (either verse in Unicode or single-minded poetry, if you prefer).

Congratulations, by the way to contributor Robin Berard, whose first book not only made both Sunshine State reading lists, but also came out this summer in a mass-market paperback edition.

 Here's one for our current election campaign season:

Campaign Promise

I promise to eliminate poverty
raise the peasant to rich peasant
so that he may suffer with us
the burden our happiness
and the pain of our understanding
God willing, we shall have the hill
without the valley and the river
will become an ocean and contrast
will be a thing of the past-

   Anthony Casoroso, © 1996

September 25, 2007

A Quotations Update

The updating process continues, with about half of the Quotations collection now converted to the new format. Among the newly updated areas are Quotations from Poetry, (#12), Malapropisms (#8) and Quotations by Women (#9).

Here’s a smattering.


Sit at the western window. Take the sun
Between your hands like a ball of flaming crystal,
Poise it to let it fall, but hold it still,
And meditate on the beauty of your existence;
The beauty of this, that you exist at all.
   Conrad Aiken, Chiarascuro: Rose

Water, water, everywhere,
   Nor any drop to drink.
   Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Ancient Mariner, II, Verse 9

The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
   T. S. Eliot, Preludes, IV, 15-16

For we have thought the longer thoughts
And gone the shorter way.
And we have danced to devil's tunes
Shivering home to pray;
To serve one master in the night,
Another in the day.
   Ernest Hemingway, [Chapter Heading, 1923]

Patience is a plant
That grows not in all gardens.
   Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Michael Angelo, Part ii

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.
   Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road

Learn to live, and live to learn,
Ignorance like a fire doth burn,
Little tasks make large return.
   Bayard Taylor, To My Daughter

 I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams...
   William Butler Yeats, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

American is a very difficult language mixed with English.
  -- Anonymous

An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last chapter missing.
  --Quentin Crisp

As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists.
  --Joan Gussow, 1986

None of us can boast about the morality of our ancestors. The records do not show that Adam and Eve were married.
  -- Ed Howe

Moral indignation is, in most cases, 2% moral, 48% indignation, and 50% envy.
  --Vittorio de Sica

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.
  --Mark Twain

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

One reason I don't drink is that I want to know when I'm having a good time.
  Lady Nancy Astor

Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody.
  Agatha Christie

It is a mark of many famous people that they cannot part with their finest hour.
  Lillian Hellman

It is a mark of many famous people that they cannot part with their finest hour.   Oh, to be only half as wonderful as my child thought I was when he was small, and only half as stupid as my teenager now thinks I am.
  Rebecca Richards

August 30, 2007

Morley's Domestic Poetry

Recently I mentioned Christopher Morley. His name may remind you a little of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Jacob Marley) or of a Conan Doyle adventure (Holmes’ nemesis James Moriarty). On that second count, you might not be too far off. Morley was a BIG Sherlock Holmes fan.

Morley was many things, chief among them, like Adams, he was a columnist, writing The Bowling Green for many years with humor, insight, and everyman-ish viewpoint that makes pleasant reading 80 years later. Though I doubt many employers, then or now, would appreciate his version of the Algonquin round table, the self-titled “Three Hours for Lunch Club”.

He was a prolific writer, putting out over 50 books of humor, fiction, essays and poetry. Several of his books, including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Library are available on Project Guttenburg. 

Another of his projects was editing not one, but two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Morley himself, like his very good friend Don Marquis (another humorist, columnist, and frequent poet), is himself quite quotable for his wit and opinions on a wide variety of issues. Here's a sampling from The Quotations Home Page and other sources:

“Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs.”

 “A man who has never made a woman angry is a failure in life.”

“When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life.”  -- from Parnassus on Wheels, (1917)

 “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity. “ 

“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversations as a dog does. “ 

“People like to imagine that because all our mechanical equipment moves so much faster, that we are thinking faster, too.”

"It's a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way."   --from The Haunted Bookshop (1919)

“Only the sinner has a right to preach”

“My theology, briefly, is that the universe was dictated, but not signed. “ 

“Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it.”

“No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention.” 

“We call a child's mind "small" simply by habit; perhaps it is larger than ours is, for it can take in almost anything without effort”

“We've had bad luck with children; they've all grown up”

“From now until the end of time no one else will ever see life with my eyes, and I mean to make the best of my chance.”

 Cherish all your happy moments; they make a fine cushion for your old age.

While Morley was a Rhodes Scholar who studied History at Oxford, he was also an everyday pedestrian, working in New York and commuting by train to his suburban home on Long Island. He was happily married, and like Adams, could write easily about everything from the milkman to the high price of coal, from washing the dishes to making the last payment on his mortgage.

These pieces on early marriage, parenthood, and domestic life were collected in thee volumes, then anthologized in a volume called Chimneysmoke, published in 1921.  When one of those volumes was published, a critic complained the content "was very domestic" (i.e. too much about 'household' rather than 'important' things). Had the critic been married a few years, he may have made the same comment, but meant something else entirely. Here are some excerpts of Chimneysmoke from Poets’ Corner.


Dedication for a Fireplace

THIS hearth was built for thy delight,

For thee the logs were sawn,

For thee the largest chair, at night,

Is to the chimney drawn.

For thee, dear lass, the match was lit

To yield the ruddy blaze--

May Jack Frost give us joy of it

For many, many days.

Christopher Morley


To A Child

THE greatest poem ever known

Is one all poets have outgrown:

The poetry, innate, untold,

Of being only four years old.

Still young enough to be a part

Of Nature's great impulsive heart,

Born comrade of bird, beast, and tree

And unselfconscious as the bee--

And yet with lovely reason skilled

Each day new paradise to build;

Elate explorer of each sense,

Without dismay, without pretense!

In your unstained transparent eyes

There is no conscience, no surprise:

Life's queer conundrums you accept,

Your strange divinity still kept.

Being, that now absorbs you, all

Harmonious, unit, integral,

Will shred into perplexing bits,--

Oh, contradictions of the wits!

And Life, that sets all things in rhyme,

may make you poet, too, in time--

But there were days, O tender elf,

When you were Poetry itself!

Christopher Morley


Burning Leaves, November

THESE are the folios of April,

All the library of spring,

Missals gilt and rubricated

With the frost's illumining.

Ruthless, we destroy these treasures,

Set the torch with hand profane--

Gone, like Alexandrian vellums,

Like the books of burnt Louvain!

Yet these classics are immortal:

O collectors, have no fear,

For the publisher will issue

New editions every year.

Christopher Morley


The Music Box

AT six--long ere the wintry dawn--

There sounded through the silent hall

To where I lay, with blankets drawn

Above my ears, a plaintive call.

The Urchin, in the eagerness

Of three years old, could not refrain;

Awake, he straightway yearned to dress

And frolic with his clockwork train.

I heard him with a sullen shock.

His sister, by her usual plan,

Had piped us aft at 3 o'clock--

I vowed to quench the little man.

I leaned above him, somewhat stern,

And spoke, I fear, with emphasis--

Ah, how much better, parents learn,

To seal one's sensure with a kiss!

Again the house was dark and still,

Again I lay in slumber's snare,

When down the hall I heard a trill,

A tiny, tinkling, tuneful air--

His music-box! His best-loved toy,

His crib companion every night;

And now he turned to it for joy

While waiting for the lagging light.

How clear, and how absurdly sad

Those tingling pricks of sound unrolled;

They chirped and quavered, as the lad

His lonely little heart consoled.

Columbia, the Ocean's Gem--

(Its only tune) shrilled sweet and faint.

He cranked the chimes, admiring them,

In vigil gay, without complaint.

            The treble music piped and stirred,

The leaping air that was his bliss;

And, as I most contritely heard,

I thanked the all-unconscious Swiss!

The needled jets of melody

Rang slowlier and died away--

The Urchin slept; and it was I

Who lay and waited for the day.

Christopher Morley


All for now,




August 28, 2007

Puzzling News

OK, since there was such an overwhelming reponse to the last puzzles (well, not really) I decided to attempt another. Here is a brief crossword puzzle based on reasonably familiar poets and their significant works. If you don't know an answer, a little searching at Poets' Corner should find everything - a little digging may be required. Ona scale of 1(easy) to 10(tough), this one should be about a 3.

 Click HERE to download the puzzle as a GIF image. This should print OK in portrait mode.

 Send me an e-mail if you like it, or if you are indesperate need of the solution key.

 I'll work on some tougher ones when I get a chance.



August 27, 2007

Tobogganing in August

Last time, we remembered John Kieran. One of John Kieran's contemporaries was Franklin P(Pierce) Adams -  Columnist, Satirist, and Poet -  who served along with Kieran on a popular radio quiz show called Information Please! I've never heard recordings of the show, but always assumed that Peter Sagal's NPR News show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me was at least partly modeled after it, with a combination of regulars and guest panelists, and sharply barbed humor.

Adams was a columnist for several New York newspapers, most notably the World and the Tribune. His column "The Conning Tower" ran for nearly 30 years. He was a member of the Algonquin Round Table - a circle of playwrights, actors, critics and humorists that met and traded quips over lunch daily for ten years at the Algonquin Hotel.

Today he is perhaps best remembered for two things - helping start the careers of Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Edna St. Vincent Millay (among others), and for a concise little poem about baseball, written after the NY Giants loss in the baseball World Series to the Chicago Cubs, titled Baseball's Sad Lexicon ("Tinker to Evers to Chance") about a double-play that ended the Giants hopes of winning.

Baseball's Sad Lexicon

THESE are the saddest of possible words:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of Bear-cubs, fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double --
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.

-- Franklin P. Adams

Poems and other satirical pieces from Adams' columns were put together and published in several collections. One of them, Something Else Again appears here in The Poets' Corner collection in its entirety, including several pseudo newspaper articles that are parodies of well-known poems.

Adams enjoyed writing everthing from parodies of Latin poets Horace and Catullus to poems about his barber, waiter, landlord and grocery delivery boy. He even wrote an ode to his thesaurus. In Tobogganing on Parnassus he included this poem - which just may have been inspired by his friend Kieran, the naturalist.

The Amateur Botanist

A primrose by a river's brim
Primula vulgaris was to him,
  And it was nothing more;
A pansy, delicately reared,
Viola tricolor appeared
  In true botanic lore.

That which a pink the layman deems
Dianthus caryophyllus seems
  To any flower-fan; or
A sunflower, in that talk of his,
Annuus helianthus is,
  And it is nothing more.

By the way, while it is meant metaphorically (Tobogganing on Parnassus = a rough treatment of Classical Literature) you actually can go skiing on Mout Parnassus, so I suppose you could toboggan. I have only been there once, to visit Delphi, during a very hot August. As you might guess, there was no snow in sight.

Christopher Morley also used Parnassus as a physical metaphor in his short novel, Parnassus on Wheels (the text is readily available on the Web now). More about Morley, and his 'Domestic Poetry' later.


August 08, 2007

Poetry for Waiting in Line

OK, so it's been a long hot summer. Blame it on global warming, the Butterfly Effect, an abundance of political hot air from the multitude of presidential candidates, or as my father often said, "the drift of the earth through the ether".

Maybe you're waiting in line at the airport trying to get home, or having some other "are we there yet" moment. Maybe you just cant wait for school to start again. In any case, you may have some snippets of time on your hands. Unfortunately, being as summer is viewed more as a reading than a writing season, I've not been getting much writing done.

However, I have been puzzling. Here are links for three Word Search puzzles, created with a little help from a nicely done program available at All are on the subject of Poetry. The first one is a collection of poetic terms, categories and descriptions. Numbers two and three are collections of Poets and either Titles or First Lines. All are fairly hard, and should keep you busy for a while. Yes, I solved them myself and they are all complete. Words, names, and phrases can start in any location and head in any compass direction. Some letters may be part of two or even three words. Some are just taking up space.

All files are Acrobat .PDF documents, easily downloaded and printed. have fun.   --Steve

April 07, 2007

Campus Sonnets

Campus Visits  / Campus Sonnets

April 7th, 2007

It is interesting to travel, but it is always good to be back home again.  I spent the last week visiting college campuses in the Midwestern U.S. with my oldest son, trying to help him gain some insight on where he might be spending the next stage of his life.

It was also a chance for me to see universities I had known in the past, and see how they have changed, as well as how I have changed in the twenty-odd years since I was a student. Certainly I felt (and must have looked) much older than the students we saw. The locations still felt familiar but the context seemed to have changed. 

This juxtaposition of strong memories of the college environment combined with a sudden feeling of detachment reminded me of the Campus Sonnets by Stephen Vincent Benét, published in Young Adventure in 1918.

It is a quartet of scenes, written in the first person. The first three scenes serve to connect you with the narrator, and with student life – studying late at night, arguing happily with friends, dozing off while studying in a sun-washed window seat. In scene four, the Great War intervenes, disconnecting him suddenly and violently, and he imagines himself back in daily campus life as he lays dying.  His real world experience with war was much different from the ‘clashing of silver helms’ he read about in school.

In the world and times of this century, we find little poetic about war. The conflicts that exist around the globe are not part of a Great War or a Great Cause, unless it is a war against chaos and entropy. We find ourselves almost in a war of definitions - of what constitutes terrorism, or civil war, or genocide, or what exactly it means to ‘win’ a war of attrition. There is always, however, great poetry in the struggles and suffering of the individuals –the soldiers and the survivors who can be equally described as heroes and victims.

We can only hope that some of this conflict is captured, as the War Poets of the early 20th century captured it, in words that break our detachment from what goes on in war a way that slickly edited pictures and prose on the evening news can not. While it may not be trench warfare, the constant news and casualty lists have had the same numbing effect.

As my son and I strolled through university campuses spread across three states, we saw no signs that a war was in-progress elsewhere – neither protests nor recruiting posters. Students went to class, argued, lounged on the lawn in the warming April sun, seemingly stuck in scene three of Benét's poem - oblivious to the past and to the moment. Then one day the wind and snow suddenly returned, and students changed from flip-flops back to to snow boots, from sleeveless shirts to parkas, struggling to make headway against the freezing wind.



Continue reading "Campus Sonnets" »

October 19, 2006

Any Poems on Magic?

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

When Bob Blair used to author the precursor to this column, he found many good patterns upon which to base his selection of material. The richness of poetry itself is partly its wealth of patterns - in rhythm, rhyme, structure  and allusion. Among his favorites were looking at events or life milestones of well known poets, or telling us how some recent event initiated a train of thought that led him to think of the poem he had chosen.

 Lets try the second tack, with a twist. My train of thought leads to what I can't remember. 

 My wife and I recently went to see The Illusionist, an excellent movie about an Austrian magician  "Eisenheim the Illusionist" starring Ed Norton as the title character. My reason for wanting to see it was an interview and a review on NPR, that noted how much effort was made to use optical, rather than computer generated effects wherever possible to show the magic performances in the movie. (I am a little tired of movies that contain more fancy cartoon footage than acting). The result was a movie that is beautiful to watch, engaging, and memorable.

This led to my poking around in my memory, our online collection, and in my bookshelves for an appropriate piece to echo the mood or mystical nature of the movie. No luck. Not a big surprise though. Good poems on the professions are generally hard to find. If you dissagree with me, name me five (not including Longfellow's Blacksmith). So if anyone out there has seen the film, and has a suggestion - please send me a comment to post. Certainly the gulf between poetical and magical shouldn't be so large?


October 11, 2006

Indian Summer

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Indian Summer

Another American poet with a good  October poem is Emily Dickinson. This poem I always remember because I saw it first a quarter century ago preparing for the AP English test. When published in 1864 it actually was labeled ‘October’. While there are words and even metaphors in common with the later poem on October by Helen Hunt Jackson, Dickinson takes a much different tack – focusing  not on the change of seasons – but a pause in the transition (what we Midwesterners used to call ‘Indian Summer’).

There is this idea that the warm spell of weather implies that summer, and perhaps life, can go on forever – or at least return again and again forever – as the ‘ranks of seeds their witness bear.’ This idea of immortality deftly becomes a religious metaphor on the seasons(sacraments) of life and death, and what awaits us in the transition and rebirth. Dickinson’s skill lies in showing us this universal metaphor – framing it in so few words – and imparting  such a sense of awe. --Steve

These are the days when Birds come back

THESE are the days when Birds come back--

A very few--a Bird or two--

To take a backward look.


These are the days when skies resume

The old--old sophistries of June--

A blue and gold mistake.


Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee--

Almost thy plausibility

Induces my belief.


Till ranks of seeds their witness bear--

And softly thro' the altered air

Hurries a timid leaf.


Oh Sacrament of summer days,

Oh Last Communion in the Haze--

Permit a child to join.


Thy sacred emblems to partake--

Thy consecrated bread to take

And thine immortal wine!

Emily Dickinson

October 05, 2006

October Again

Thurs, October 5th, 2006

 Another favorite October poem is by Paul Laurence Dunbar, published 110 years ago in Lyrics of Lowly Life. Dunbar was the first widely recognized African-American poet, and had an elegant as well as versatile writing style. There is a brief biography on him at Wikipedia ( and an extensive collection of materials at Wright State University ( in Dayton, Ohio, where he was born and is buried (though he went to university at Howard). Dunbar could write poignant or entertaining verse in both formal english and in dialect. Much of the verse written in dialect is tough going for modern readers, though it contains some of his best insights. This poem is allegorical, where Helen Hunt Jackson's October is observational, but both catch the transitional month beautifully. Dunbar's poem also shares elements of voice with Muriel Stuart, another of my favorites, whom we will talk about in the not too distant future...  --Steve 


OCTOBER is the treasurer of the year,
     And all the months pay bounty to her store:
The fields and orchards still their tribute bear,
     And fill her brimming coffers more and more.
But she, with youthful lavishness,
     Spends all her wealth in gaudy dress,
And decks herself in garments bold
     Of scarlet, purple, red, and gold.

She heedeth not how swift the hours fly,
     But smiles and sings her happy life along;
She only sees above a shining sky;
     She only hears the breezes' voice in song.
Her garments trail the woodland through,
     And gather pearls of early dew
That sparkle till the roguish Sun
     Creeps up and steals them every one.

But what cares she that jewels should be lost,
     When all of Nature's bounteous wealth is hers?
Though princely fortunes may have been their cost,
     Not one regret her calm demeanor stirs.
Whole-hearted, happy, careless, free,
     She lives her life out joyously,
Nor cares when Frost stalks o'er her way
     And turns her auburn locks to gray.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

October 03, 2006

Welcome to October

 October 3rd, 2006

Well here we are in October again. Living in Florida, I sometimes have to think back to when I did live in a temperate climate to rememeber how weather SHOULD track with the calendar.  There are a lot of 'calendar' poems - an obvious theme for any poet who writes a lot - and an even more obvious theme back in the days when lives were much more at the mercy of the weather. There are several excellent calendar poems for October. One of these was written 120 years ago by Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson was a prolific writer, a friend of poet Emily Dickinson, and was quite a good poet in her own right. Jackson spent much of her life as an ardent advocate for Native American rights.  Have a read and enjoy her seasonal barrage on the senses. --Steve

October's Bright Blue Weather

O SUNS and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather; 
When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And goldenrod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant; 
When gentians roll their fingers tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning; 
When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining; 
When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing; 
When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting; 
When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October's bright blue weather. 
O sun and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October's bright blue weather.  

Helen Hunt Jackson