Saturday, April 30, 2011

NPM: Skunk cabbage and thistles

Wait. April has thirty days? Really? I thought it had thirty-one. So much for the grand finale, then. Guess we'll just have to close out the festivities with some cute little poems about springtime and plants.

Perhaps you remember me promising a skunk cabbage post some time ago. Since then, I've read a brilliant web article by one Dr. Craig Holdrege that explains pretty much everything you need to know about spring's unsung first flower and gives you an idea of why perennial woods-ramblers get so excited to see them sprouting from the frozen mud in mid-March. Go ahead and take a look; he knows much more about the plants than me and writes much better about them than I would have. Quick bit of interest:

A couple of times I've been lucky enough to see spathes growing up through a thin layer of ice, the ice melted around the spathe in a circular form. This is an indication of skunk cabbage's remarkable capacity to produce heat when flowering. If you catch the right time, you can put your finger into the cavity formed by the spathe and when you touch the flower head, your finger tip warms up noticeably. Biologist Roger Knutson found that skunk cabbage flowers produce warmth over a period of 12-14 days, remaining on average 20° C (36° F) above the outside air temperature, whether during the day or night. During this time they regulate their warmth, as a warm-blooded animal might!

This is precisely what you're seeing in the photograph at the top. (How fortunate that I had my camera with me that day.) Do please read the whole article if you get the chance; skunk cabbage is really a fascinating organism. It is also the subject of tonight's first poem!

Skunk Cabbage
by Mary Oliver (1935 - )

And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunched leaves up
through the chilly mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below,
stubborn and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again——a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.

(Free verse is very hard to do well. It is absolutely crucial to learn and acquaint yourself with the rules before you go ahead and start bending them. I imagine a similar rule applies to painting: probably best learn how to properly render shape and form before leaping into the abstract.)

Next, we move on to a poem about a plant that has just begun making its yearly comeback, and whose poor reputation is entirely deserved:

by Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998)

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
thistles spike the summer air
Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow gray, like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Everything about this poem is absolutely true.

Hmm. It's been too long since I've been able to link to a new comic instead of an old one -- so I guess we have our next update.

I guess this concludes our National Poetry Month celebration. Hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, and perhaps also that you'll enjoy a break as much as I will.

Friday, April 29, 2011

NPM: Scotland's favorite son

Shoot. I have to leave for Philadelphia in five minutes, and I have no National Poetry Month post prepared in advance! Hmmm....

Okay. I got it. First, watch this a few times. (You should really only go up to 1:25 or so. From there on it's just Zombie Simpsons.)

Watched it? Good. Now watch this five or six times.

Now that you're attuned to the music of the Scottish dialect, it's time for some Robert Burns. Either read this out loud to yourself in a funny Scottish accent or try to imagine the words being spoken by Groundskeeper Willie or the Scotsman.


EDIT: A few days after this was posted, a few questions popped up in ye olde Formspring:

You do realize that Scottish people sound almost nothing like Willie, right?

My point about the Scottish accent [is] that reading Scottish work with a Willie accent is like stopping every few minutes while reading Machiavelli and going 'It's-a me! Machiavelli-o!'. Scottish work sounds far better the more you know of the language.

Though I was really only joking about Willie, I can't deny our friend has a point. To make amends, here is the following selection being read properly (though somewhat abridged):

Tam o' Shanter
by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An' folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter,
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses
For honest men and bonie lasses.)

O Tam! had'st thou but been sae wise,
As ta'en thy ain wife Kate's advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober;
That ilka melder, wi' the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That every naig was ca'd a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on;
That at the Lord's house, even on Sunday,
Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown'd in Doon;
Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld haunted kirk.

Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen'd, sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!

But to our tale:-- Ae market-night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo'ed him like a vera brither--
They had been fou for weeks thegither!
The night drave on wi' sangs and clatter
And ay the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
wi' favours secret,sweet and precious
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord's laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E'en drown'd himsel' amang the nappy!
As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure:
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious.
O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You sieze the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white--then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.--
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in;
And sic a night he taks the road in
As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.

The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow'd
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow'd:
That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.

Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg--
A better never lifted leg--
Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire;
Despisin' wind and rain and fire.
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi' prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.

By this time he was cross the ford,
Whare, in the snaw, the chapman smoor'd;
And past the birks and meikle stane,
Whare drunken Chairlie brak 's neck-bane;
And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
Whare hunters fand the murder'd bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mungo's mither hang'd hersel'.--
Before him Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm roars thro' the woods;
The lightnings flash from pole to pole;
Near and more near the thunders roll:
When, glimmering thro' the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem'd in a bleeze;
Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tippeny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!--
The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle,
Fair play, he car'd na deils a boddle.
But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight

Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He scre'd the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl.--
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
And by some develish cantraip slight,
Each in its cauld hand held a light.--
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murders's banes in gibbet-airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen'd bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi blude red-rusted;
Five scymitars, wi' murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o' life bereft,
The gray hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi' mair o' horrible and awfu',
Which even to name was be unlawfu'.
Three lawyers' tongues, turn'd inside out,
Wi' lies seam'd like a beggar's clout;
Three priests' hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile in every neuk.

As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark!

Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A' plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o' gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi'en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonie burdies!

But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Louping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder did na turn thy stomach!

But Tam kend what was what fu' brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and waulie,
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after ken'd on Carrick shore;
(For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish'd mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her cutty-sark, o' Paisley harn
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie,-
Ah! little ken'd thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for he wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots, ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!

But here my Muse her wing maun cour;
Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch'd,
And thought his very een enrich'd;
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason ' thegither,
And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!"
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

As bees bizz out wi' angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
As open pussie's mortal foes,
When, pop! she starts before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When "Catch the thief!" resounds aloud;
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi' mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.

Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin'!
In hell they'll roast thee like a herrin'!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy commin'!
Kate soon will be a woefu' woman!
Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o' the brig;
There at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie's mettle -
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

No, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son take heed;
Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o'er dear -
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

NPM: The Hardester Poem

So my inbox is still empty. If you want to collect your special haiku prizes, please email me and let me know where I can send them to. Or don't, of course -- no skin off my neck, really. Stamps are getting expensive.

National Poetry Month is only three more days away from ending. It's been fun, but I could use a rest. Perhaps I could also invest the time I've been putting towards compiling, transcribing, formatting, and introducing other people's poetry towards writing some verse of my own. But after a solid month of poems, I sorta just want to draw comics. We'll see.

By the way, I lied to you yesterday: the villanelle isn't Maniac Mode for poets. That honor belongs to its close cousin, the sestina. That image at the top there? That's a visualization of the sestina form.

Once again, your tired host turns to Jay Parini for an explanation:

The form consists of thirty-nine lines: six 6-line stanzas and a 3-line conclusion called an envoy or envoi. In English, these lines are often (but not always) in some form of pentameter. There are no specific rhymes in a sestina; rather, the six final words of each stanza are repeated according to a specific pattern, and so repetition takes the place of rhyme. The crucial six words must also appear in the final three lines, with two of them occurring in each line.

I have written one sestina. It is terrible, I don't know what happened to it, I'm not going to go searching for it, and I'm probably not going to try writing another in the foreseeable future. I don't think I'm ready for it yet.

Mr. Parini again:

Every poetic form is a kind of instrument, representing a discreet range of tones and intellectual possibilities. The sestina, being a kind of poetic spiral, has a lovely shape, and the repeating words create their own insistent music. Key to the sestina's magic is that a poet must choose six words that work together to create an argument, even a story. The repetitious nature of the form is less significant. One hears the poet-speaker sounding these words over and over, enlarging the context for these word. But to what effect? The answer will be different in each case.

Given its complex shape, the sestina attracts poets who want to structure the reality of their poem in intricate ways. Ideally, the complicated form of the poem enhances the theme; with subject and form working together, a splendidly rich and nuanced music may be produced.

Bravo and let's go! (Please read these! I slaved all evening over a hot laptop copying and formatting them! We're almost at the end!)

Sestina of the Tramp-Royal
By Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Speakin' in general, I 'ave tried 'em all,
The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin' in general, I 'ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get 'ence, the same as I 'ave done,
An' go observin' matters till they die.

What do it matter where or 'ow we die,
So long as we've our 'ealth to watch it all —
The different ways that different things are done,
An' men an' women lovin' in this world —
Takin' our chances as they come along,
An' when they ain't, pretendin' they are good?

In cash or credit — no, it aren't no good;
You 'ave to 'ave the 'abit or you'd die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn't prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some'ow from the world,
An' never bothered what you might ha' done.

But, Gawd, what things are they I 'aven't done?
I've turned my 'and to most, an' turned it good,
In various situations round the world —
For 'im that doth not work must surely die;
But that's no reason man should labour all
'Is life on one same shift; life's none so long.

Therefore, from job to job I've moved along.
Pay couldn't 'old me when my time was done,
For something in my 'ead upset me all,
Till I 'ad dropped whatever 'twas for good,
An', out at sea, be'eld the dock-lights die,
An' met my mate — the wind that tramps the world!

It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readin' done,
An' turn another — likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn 'em all.

Gawd bless this world! Whatever she 'ath done —
Excep' when awful long — I've found it good.
So write, before I die, "'E liked it all!"

by Elizabeth Bishop (1911 - 1979)

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Sestina: Bob
By Jonah Winter (1962 - )

According to her housemate, she is out with Bob
tonight, and when she’s out with Bob
you never know when she’ll get in. Bob
is an English professor. Bob
used to be in a motorcycle gang, or something, or maybe Bob
rides a motorcycle now. How radical of you, Bob —

I wish I could ride a motorcycle, Bob,
and also talk about Chaucer intelligently. Bob
is very tall, bearded, reserved. I saw Bob
at a poetry reading last week — he had such a Bob —
like poise — so quintessentially Bob!
The leather jacket, the granny glasses, the beard — Bob!

and you were with my ex-girlfriend, Bob!
And you’re a professor, and I’m nobody, Bob,
nobody, just a flower-deliverer, Bob,
and a skinny one at that, Bob —
and you are a large person, and I am small, Bob,
and I hate my legs, Bob,

but why am I talking to you as if you were here, Bob?
I’ll try to be more objective. Bob
is probably a nice guy. Or that’s what one hears. Bob
is not, however, the most passionate person named Bob
you’ll ever meet. Quiet, polite, succinct, Bob
opens doors for people, is reticent in grocery stores. Bob

does not talk about himself excessively to girlfriends. Bob
does not have a drinking problem. Bob
does not worry about his body, even though he’s a little heavy. Bob
has never been in therapy. Bob,
also, though, does not have tenure — ha ha ha — and Bob
cannot cook as well as I can. Bob

never even heard of paella, and if he had, Bob
would not have changed his facial expression at all. Bob
is just so boring, and what I can’t understand, Bob—
yes I’m talking to you again, is why you, Bob,
could be more desirable than me. Granted, Bob,
you’re more stable, you’re older, more mature maybe but Bob . . .

(Months later, on the Bob-front: My former girlfriend finally married Bob.
Of Bob, she says, “No one has taken me higher or lower than Bob.”
Me? On a dark and stormy sea of Bob-thoughts, desperately, I bob.)

by Caleb Emmons (b. ?)

Definition 1:  To achieve the poetry form
               Celebrated for its symmetries
               And known far and wide as the sestina
               The concluding words of the first six
               Lines must comprise a distinguished group,
               Ending subsequent lines in prescribed

Definition 2:  What precisely is meant by permutations?
               The set of rearrangements of n objects form
               Sn, the so-called symmetric group
               Which captures all finite symmetries.
               (Previously we chose n = 6
               When we defined the sestina.)

Question:      If we distill from a sestina
               The sestets' corresponding permutations
               (Of which there are six)
               And out of these form
               A subgroup of symmetries
               Have we recovered the whole group?

Theorem:       Working in the symmetric group
               If we reduce a sestina
               To its bare symmetries
               And gather those permutations
               The subgroup they form
               Is cyclic of order six.

Proof:         Let τ be the cycle (1 2 4 5 3 6).
               By mapping integer k to group
               Element τk-1 it’s easy to check that we
               A bijection from the sestets of the sestina
               To their corresponding permutations.
               (The work can be reduced by noticing

Corollary:     Because of these symmetries
               If you've written only two sestets of six,
               With their rigidly fixed permutations,
               Nonetheless, you may shift this group
               To elsewhere in your sestina
               And retain their form.

Erratum:       In all our discussion of permutations and
               poetic symmetries
               We neglected to mention that the form has,
               in addition to the six
               Sestets, another group of lines: a final
               tercet to complete the sestina.

Confessional Sestina
by Dana Gioia (1950 - )

Let me confess. I'm sick of these sestinas
written by youngsters in poetry workshops
for the delectation of their fellow students,
and then published in little magazines
that no one reads, not even the contributors
who at least in this omission show some taste.

Is this a matter of personal taste?
I don't think so. Most sestinas
are such dull affairs. Just ask the contributors
the last time they finished one outside a workshop,
even the poignant one on herpes in that new little magazine
edited by their most brilliant fellow student.

Let's be honest. It has become a form for students,
an exercise to build technique rather than taste
and the official entry blank into the little magazines—
because despite its reputation, a passable sestina
isn't very hard to write, even for kids in workshops
who care less about being poets than contributors.

Granted nowadays everyone is a contributor.
My barber is currently a student
in a rigorous correspondence school workshop.
At lesson six he can already taste
success having just placed his how sestina
in a national tonsorial magazine.

Who really cares most about little magazines?
Eventually not even their on contributors
who having published a few preliminary sestinas
send their work East to prove they're no longer students.
They need to be recognized as the new arbiters of taste
so they can teach their own graduate school workshops.

Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
churning out poems for little magazines
no one honestly finds to their taste?
This ever-lengthening column of contributors
scavenging the land for more students
teaching them to write their boot-camp sestinas?

Perhaps there is an afterlife where all contributors
have to workshops, a tasteful little magazine, and sexy students
who worshipfully memorize their every sestina.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

NPM: The Hardest Poem

As we approach National Poetry Month's home stretch, we take a look at the most dreaded of all poetic forms: the villanelle.

This is the poet's triple axel. If he can pull it off, he earns his readers' respect and the jealous admiration of his peers. If he does it wrong, he looks like an amateur. The only reason anybody ever writes a villanelle is to impress other people (especially poets), since the form is so unnatural and difficult. I myself have written two (2) villanelles during my lifetime. Neither is very good, and I have not yet been able to muster the courage for a third try.

What is a villanelle, then? Well, it's nineteen lines (preferably in iambic pentameter) adhering to very particular structure and rhyme scheme: five stanzas of three lines followed by a stanza of four lines. The kick is that the first and third line of the first stanza are each repeated three more times throughout the poem in set locations.

Here's what the skeleton looks like:

A (refrain 1)
A (refrain 2)

A (refrain 1)

A (refrain 2)

A (refrain 1)

A (refrain 2)

A (refrain 1)
A (refrain 2)

The limitations such a form imposes should be obvious. Aside from being restricted to only two different vowel sounds for the end rhymes, you have to build a coherent message in which the same two thoughts can naturally repeat themselves with a minimum of awkwardness and monotony. You must even more economical with language than usual -- every other third line is a refrain, giving you only two lines (twenty syllables, usually) to provide new information and segue into the next refrain.

But the villanelle's challenges are commensurate with its potential rewards: if done well, the villanelle form can be used to powerful effect. It somewhat reminds me of those "3D" animated .gifs you sometimes see floating around the Internet. Examples:

As best I can tell, the villanelle does something similar. It takes small, related kernels of and repeats them, repainting them from different angles with each refrain. The piece's thought or theme becomes endowed with a curiously extradimensional vividness.

Don't take my word for it, though. If I knew how the hell these things worked, I'd be better at writing them.

My beat-up copy of The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry tells us that the villanelle first appeared in France during the 16th century, but didn't really start appearing in English verse until the late 19th century. Just to give us an idea of its origin, let's begin with a translated version of one of the earliest extant instances of the form.

By Jean Passerat (1534 - 1602)
(translated from the French by Jay Parini)

I've lost her now, my turtle-dove.
How can that be her song I hear?
I'll follow after my dear love.

You miss someone you really love?
Ah, how I do. She's gone, I fear.
I've lost her, my own turtle-dove.

If your love's as true as God's above,
then so was mine. Is that now clear?
I'll follow after her, my love.

I've heard you sighing for your love.
My own sighs mingle with my tears.
I've lost my only turtle-dove.

So lovely was my darling dove,
none other gives me any cheer.
I'll follow after her, my love.

O death, if you must now reprove me,
Take me: I have lost all fear,
as I have lost my turtle dove.
I must fly after her, my love.

If I Could Tell You
By W.H. Auden (1907 - 1973)

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose all the lions get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The Rapist's Villanelle
By Tom Disch (1940 - 2008)

She spent her money with such perfect style
The clerks would gasp at each new thing she'd choose.
I couldn't help myself: I had to smile

Or bust. Her slender purse was crocodile,
Her blouse was from Bendel's as were her shoes.
She spent her money with such perfect style!

I loved her so! She shopped — and all the while
My soul that bustling image would perfuse.
I couldn't help myself: I had to smile

At her hand-knitted sweater from the Isle
Of Skye, an après-skis of bold chartreuse.
She spent her money with such perfect style.

Enchanted by her, mile on weary mile
I tracked my darling down the avenues.
I couldn't help myself. I had to smile

At how she never once surmised my guile.
My heart was hers — I'd nothing else to lose.
She spent her money with such perfect style
I couldn't help myself. I had to smile.

Divide and Conquer
by Alan Sullivan (1948 - 2010)

The cells divide. The cells that will not die
divide too well and so they multiply.
They kill the host to keep themselves alive.

The blood goes bad. In vain physicians try
to purge the veins with drugs the cells defy.
The cells divide. The cells that will not die

mutate anew. The hardy few survive.
The few recruit the many teeming by.
They kill the host to keep themselves alive.

They colonize the nodes from neck to thigh.
The tumors grow, and scanners never lie.
The cells divide. The cells that will not die

stifle the very organs where they thrive.
Blind, stupid things — their purpose gone awry——
they kill the host to keep themselves alive.

Exploding through the flesh, they multiply,
but immortality eludes them. Why?
The cells divide, the cells that will not die
kill the host to keep themselves alive.

And now! It's time I took a look at these Western Haiku y'all left me and chose a winner. Stare at this until you go insane. I should have one picked out by the time you're finished.

Okay! We're back.

It came down to about four choices out of the fourteen or so you guys posted, but I think I'm gonna have to go with spriteless's:

the creek flooded
 square concrete stones make
soft shapes under it

I also particularly enjoyed Adam and Matt's pieces, and Mr. Sanders's piece about his appetite, but I think spriteless's performs best at what a haiku is supposed to do: capture a wisp of the present moment without any poetic artifice. (On these same grounds, I'd have to put his over the one that I just wrote and posted -- mine indirectly refers to a moment beyond the present, which a haiku isn't supposed to do. Whoops!)

(For the record, I've written dozens of haiku, and only about four are actually any good. Just because it's short don't mean it's easy.)

So spriteless wins a (slightly-used) copy of Final Fantasy III DS and my prized Scaled Wurm Magic: the Gathering card. (Send me an email with your mailing address, if you would please.) But since I am so thrilled that you all participated, hell -- EVERYONE GETS SOMETHING! I still have to figure out exactly what that something is; but if you want it (something), drop me a line telling me which piece was yours and where I can send an envelope.

EDIT: Derp. Mailto links were busted. Fixed now.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

NPM: Poets in Dialogue

(John Constable)

National Poetry Month fatigue is setting in pretty heavy (on this end, anyway), but we persevere!

You still have another day to compose a Western Haiku for a chance to win a cheap old out of print and ultra-rare Magic: the Gathering Card and/or a slightly-used copy of Final Fantasy III DS. If neither of those float your fancy, either can be exchanged for one (1) Moon Pie and one (1) bottle of Oronamin C.

Tonight we will be looking at a few different pieces by a few different people. I should stress that I did not pick these out myself. All of them come from the chapter of the Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry titled "Poets in Dialogue," and were compiled by Jay Parini. Read them in order, keeping the dates and authors in mind. The thread shouldn't be too hard to spot.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
By Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593)

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 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 poises,
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 the 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. (1589)

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
By Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 - 1618)

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold;
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complain of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy bed of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies,
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten,
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love. (1600)

Raleigh Was Right
By William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963)

We cannot go to the country
for the country will bring us no peace
What can the small violets tell us
that grow on furry stems in
the long grass among lance shaped leaves?

Though you praise us
and call to mind the poets
who sung of our loveliness
it was long ago!
long ago! when country people
would plow and sow with
flowering minds and pockets at ease——
if ever this were true.

Not now. Love itself is a flower
with roots in a parched ground.
Empty pockets make empty heads.
Cure it if you can but
do not believe that we can live
today in the country
for the country will bring us no peace. (1944)

Williams Was Wrong
By Greg Delanty (1958 - )

Now I find peace in everything around me;
in the modest campion and the shoals of light
leaping across the swaying sea
and the gulls gliding out of sight.
The tops of wave-confettied rocks
slide into water and turn into seals.
They move to the lively reel
of the cove's clapping dance hall,
rising blithe yelps above the sea's music.
The ocean draws in and out like an accordion
and unseen lithe fingers play the strings
of joy on what the moment brings.
The seals close and part and close again.
Their awkward fins have turned to wings. (2004)

Time for a National Poetry Month extra credit assignment!

I was at a diner with a friend last night and enjoying a delicious bowl of oatmeal when our friend Carol and her fiancee John suddenly appeared. It was my first time meeting John, and I was pleased to find out that he was into poetry and especially partial to William Carlos Williams. We did get into a small disagreement regarding his poem about the plums, however. I have always been of the opinion that it was an honest note by a loving husband with poor control of his impulses and appetites. John said that this reading is incorrect: that the note is a passive-aggressive "fuck you" from one half of a discontented married couple to the other. ("Why would he bother leaving her a note? Wouldn't she just notice they were missing and draw her own conclusion? And why would he tell her how delicious they were if not to rub it in her face?")

Read, decide its meaning for yourself, and comment!

This Is Just To Say
By William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

(Hmm. Funny how John and I both read into it as a husband's note to his wife, even though the text itself explicitly suggests nothing. WCW was a family man, so the assumption probably isn't groundless, but...)

Monday, April 25, 2011

NPM: Brahma

Taking a bit of a break tonight. Been a rough day.

There aren't many poems I have memorized, but this is one of them. I am not certain whether I memorized it because I was particularly fond of it, or if I am particularly fond of it because I memorized it.

By Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

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

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

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

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

1.) As you can see, it isn't for nothing that we remember Emerson for his essays instead of his poems. But I still like this one.

2.) I suspect Emerson wrote Brahma when he actually meant Brahman.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

NPM: Sunday of the Sonnet

I did a Google image search for "sonnet," and this was the first result. We're just gonna run with it.

I've got a thousand other things I need to take care of before conking out tonight, so there's not much time for exposition, unfortunately. Tonight's National Poetry Month gift basket is full of sonnets -- short, sweet, endlessly versatile.

You still have a couple days to leave me a haiku on this post to win incredible prizes and impress the literate world with your bold eloquence. A few people posted their own haiku as comments on a couple of different posts; I would humbly ask them to copy and paste it on this page instead, just so everything's all in one place. I am sorry if I didn't make it clear enough, and have already pushed five thumbtacks into my palm as an act of contrition. (With the two stray haiku added to the eight that have already been posted, we got ten altogether -- which means the composer of the one I like best wins him or herself a slightly-used copy of Final Fantasy III DS. If you want to try and win it for yourself, show us what you got.)

And now, sonnets!

Upone Tabacco
By Sir Robert Aytoun (1570-1638)

Forsaken of all comforts but these two,
My faggott and my Pipe, I sitt and Muse
On all my crosses, and almost accuse
The heavens for dealing with me as they do.
Then hope steps in and with a smyling brow
Such chearfull expectations doth infuse
As makes me think ere long I cannot chuse
But be some Grandie, whatsoever I'm now.
But having spent my pipe, I then perceive
That hopes and dreams are Couzens, both deceive.
Then I make this conclusion in my mind,
Its all one thing, both tends unto one Scope
To live upon Tabacco and on hope,
The one's but smoake, the other is but wind.

Scorn Not the Sonnet
By William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850)

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frown'd,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlock'd his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens sooth'd an exile's grief;
The Sonnet glitter'd a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crown'd
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheer'd mild Spenser, call'd from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains — alas, too few!

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
by John Keats (1795 - 1821)

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
 And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
 Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
 That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
 Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
 He stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
 Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(You know what? Fuck you, John Keats. It's hard not to feel envious of a twenty-one-year-old kid who spends his evening reading the Iliad, then goes home the next morning and writes a quick little poem about it that gets reprinted and taught in school for the next two-hundred years.)

Sonnet To Science
By Edgar Allen Poe (1809 - 1849)

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
 Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
 Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
 Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
 Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
 And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
 Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

(Hmph. I take exception to that, Mr. Poe. Perhaps I shall write my own pro-science sonnet in response. Say -- this gives me an idea for Tuesday's NPM post.)

Love Is Not All
By Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950)

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

The View From an Airplane at Night, Over California
By Bruce Bawer (1956 - )

This is a sight that Wordsworth never knew,
whether looking down from mountain, bridge, or hill:
An endless field of lights, white, orange, and blue,
as small and bright as stars, and nearly still,
but moving slowly, many miles below,
in blackness, as stars crawl across the skies,
and ranked in rows that stars will never know,
like beads strung out on a thousand latticed ties.
Would even Wordsworth, seeing what I see,
know that these lights are not well-ordered stars
that have been here a near-eternity,
but houses, streetlamps, factories, and cars?
Or has this slim craft made too high a leap
above it all, and is the dark too deep?

Post-Coitum Tristesse: A Sonnet
By Brad Leithauser (1953 - )


Saturday, April 23, 2011

NPM: The Earth Is a Satellite of the Moon

I wish I could say I was pleased that five of you have risen to the occasion (the National Poetry Month occasion) and posted Western Haiku for all the world to admire, but I won't really be satisfied until the headcount enters the double digits. Read to understand what it's all about, then post a haiku of your own composition in the comments section. Don't worry about creating a masterpiece; I don't care if it's not good as Basho. I just care that you try.

Tonight we'll read a piece by Nicaraguan soldier and poet Leonel Rugama (1949 - 1970), another person about whom I know next to nothing. I'm only familiar with this one piece of his, which was shown to me by Daisy Zamora, one of the most remarkable human souls I've had the pleasure of meeting.

Reading this again makes me think back to a brief argument I once had with a friend of mine named Nickie. She's heavily into the humanitarian scene; she spent time studying abroad in Senegal, served in Benin with the Peace Corps. for two years, and recently visited Afghanistan. The argument was a simple one: Nickie said she saw no purpose to the space program, and that all the money we were about to spend fixing the Hubble Space Telescope would be better put to use on Earth. I disagreed, saying that any endeavor that expands mankind's knowledge of reality is well-worth the cost, even if it doesn't necessarily lead to any immediate practical results. (People during the 18th century probably called Luigi Galvani frivolous for dedicating so much of his time to playing around with the muscles and nervous systems of live frogs. It's largely because of him that we understand how electricity works, and why it is possible for you to be reading about him on your electric-powered computer.)

While it has gone out of fashion over the last half-century, poetry can be used to make a trenchant political point -- to put forth an argument or perspective without resorting to preaching, name-calling, or heavy-handed persuasion. Reading Rugama's piece makes me think back to my conversation with Nickie and wonder if I could answer her with the same conviction as before.

The Earth is a Satellite of the Moon

By Leonel Rugama
(Translated by Sara Miles, Richard Schaaf & Nancy Weisberg)

Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2
Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 4 cost more than Apollo 3
Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2
Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 8 cost a fortune, but no one minded
because the astronauts were Protestant
they read the Bible from the moon
astounding and delighting every Christian
and on their return Pope Paul VI gave them his blessing.

Apollo 9 cost more than all these put together
including Apollo 1 which cost plenty.

The great-grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less
hungry than the grandparents.
The great-grandparents died of hunger.
The grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less
hungry than the parents.
The grandparents died of hunger.
The parents of the people of Acahualinca were less
hungry than the children of the people there.
The parents died of hunger.
The people of Acahualinca are less hungry then the children
of the people there.
The children of the people of Acahaulinca, because of hunger,
are not born
they hunger to be born, only to die of hunger.
Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.

NPM: Countee Cullen

Since we've been looking exclusively at poems by dead white people, we're way overdue for a National Poetry Month visit from a dead black person. Tonight we'll look at few pieces by Countee Cullen (1903-1946), a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance and a New Romantic in the most literary of respects.

(But first I would ask that you scroll down to the comments section on this post and leave me a haiku. Come on! Ordinarily I ask so little of you. National Poetry Month is a participatory sport, people. Show me your grooves!)

Cullen is an unusual specimen. Whenever people talk about the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, what's most often discussed is the Langston Hughes style -- short stanzas written in everyday language with a heavy blues influence. Countee Cullen occupied the opposite (perhaps antagonistic) end of the poetic spectrum, taking the bulk of his inspiration from John Keats rather than jazz. As a result -- and also possibly for political reasons within the black cultural movement -- Hughes's mainstream popularity has endured much longer than Cullen's, who doesn't get a lot of play outside formal poetry and African American Lit classes. THAT CHANGES TODAY. Drop us some natural philosophy, Mistah C!

To John Keats, Poet, At Spring Time
By Countee Cullen

There never was a spring like this;
It is an echo, that repeats
My last year's song and next year's bliss.
I know, in spite of all men say
Of Beauty, you have felt her most.
Yea, even in your grave her way
Is laid. Poor, troubled, lyric ghost,
Spring never was so fair and dear
As Beauty makes her seem this year.

    I cannot hold my peace, John Keats,
I am as helpless in the toil
Of Spring as any lamb that bleats
To feel the solid earth recoil
Beneath his puny legs. Spring beats
her tocsin call to those who love her,
And lo! the dogwood petals cover
Her breast with drifts of snow, and sleek
White gulls fly screaming to her, and hover
About her shoulders, and kiss her cheek,
While white and purple lilacs muster
A strength that bears them to a cluster
Of color and odor; for her sake
All things that slept are now awake.

And you and I, shall we lie still,
John Keats, while Beauty summons us?
Somehow I feel your sensitive will
Is pulsing up some tremulous
Sap road of a maple tree, whose leaves
Grow music as they grow, since your
Wild voice is in them, a harp that grieves
For life that opens death's dark door.
    Though dust, your fingers still can push
The Vision Splendid to a birth,
Though now they work as grass in the hush
Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth.

"John Keats is dead," they say, but I
Who hear your full insistent cry
In bud and blossom, leaf and tree,
Know John Keats still writes poetry.
And while my head is earthward bowed
To read new life sprung from your shroud,
Folks seeing me must think it strange
That merely spring should so derange
My mind. They do not know that you,
John Keats, keep revel with me, too.

Uncle Jim
By Countee Cullen

“White folks is white,” says uncle Jim;
“A platitude,” I sneer;
And then I tell him so is milk,
And the froth upon his beer.

His heart walled up with bitterness,
He smokes his pungent pipe,
And nods at me as if to say,
“Young fool, you’ll soon be ripe!”

I have a friend who eats his heart
Always with grief of mine,
Who drinks my joy as tipplers drain
Deep goblets filled with wine.

I wonder why here at his side,
Face-in-the-grass with him,
My mind should stray the
Grecian urn
To muse on uncle Jim.

By Countee Cullen

(I really, really like this one. Contextual note: Cullen's father was a Methodist preacher. His upbringing was, shall we say, conservative. -P)

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song
Sung by wild barbaric birds
Goading massive jungle herds,
Juggernauts of flesh that pass
Trampling tall defiant grass
Where young forest lovers lie,
Plighting troth beneath the sky.
So I lie, who always hear,
Though I cram against my ear
Both my thumbs, and keep them there,
Great drums throbbing through the air.
So I lie, whose fount of pride,
Dear distress, and joy allied,
Is my somber flesh and skin,
With the dark blood dammed within
Like great pulsing tides of wine
That, I fear, must burst the fine
Channels of the chafing net
Where they surge and foam and fret.

Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats
Circling through the night, her cats
Crouching in the river reeds,
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds
By the river brink; no more
Does the bugle-throated roar
Cry that monarch claws have leapt
From the scabbards where they slept.
Silver snakes that once a year
Doff the lovely coats you wear,
Seek no covert in your fear
Lest a mortal eye should see;
What's your nakedness to me?
Here no leprous flowers rear
Fierce corollas in the air;
Here no bodies sleek and wet,
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,
Tread the savage measures of
Jungle boys and girls in love.
What is last year's snow to me,
Last year's anything? The tree
Budding yearly must forget
How its past arose or set —
Bough and blossom, flower, fruit,
Even what shy bird with mute
Wonder at her travail there,
Meekly labored in its hair.
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

So I lie, who find no peace
Night or day, no slight release
From the unremittent beat
Made by cruel padded feet
Walking through my body's street.
Up and down they go, and back,
Treading out a jungle track.
So I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night —
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall;
Like a soul gone mad with pain
I must match its weird refrain;
Ever must I twist and squirm,
Writhing like a baited worm,
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, "Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover's Dance!"
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day.

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,
Lamb of God, although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart
Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,
Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know
Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where,
Crowned with dark rebellious hair,
Patience wavers just so much as
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.

All day long and all night through,
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

NPM: Muriel Rukeyser

Since the ladies have been underrepresented during our National Poetry Month meetings (except for Miss Dickinson, of course), tonight we'll take a look at a few pieces by Muriel Rukeyser (1913 - 1980).

Rukeyser is another poet I know very, very little about. I've only seen her in one (1) college text (The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry), very few of her complete poems are floating around on the Internet, and she doesn't seem to get much attention beyond fans of feminist/GBL verse. But Gail Simone (author of Secret Six, my favorite comic book as of late) is a fan, and that's all the recommendation anyone should need.

Effort at Speech Between Two People
by Muriel Rukeyser

:    Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now?
     I will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.
     When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit
     who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :
     a pink rabbit : it was my birthday and a candle
     burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

:     Oh, grow to know me. I am not happy. I will be open:
     Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,
     like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.
     There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

:    Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now?
     When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,
     fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,
     and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.
     I want now to be close to you. I would
     link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

:    I am not happy. I will be open.
     I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.
     There has been fear in my life. Sometimes I speculate
     On what a tragedy his life was, really.

:    Take my hand. Fist my mind in your hand. What are you now?
     When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,
     and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :
     if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,
     if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.
     I am unhappy. I am lonely. Speak to me.

:    I will be open. I think he never loved me:
     he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam
     that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls:
     he said with a gay mouth: I love you. Grow to know me.

:    What are you now? If we could touch one another,
     if these our separate entities could come to grips,
     clenched like a Chinese puzzle...yesterday
     I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,
     and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.
     Everyone silent, moving....Take my hand.
               Speak to me.

By Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I could call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less made for similar reasons,
Slowly I would get pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signlas across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Excerpt from
Käthe Kollwitz
(by Muriel Rukeyser)

(Regrettably, I don't have access to the full version of this one. I only know about it because Scandal quotes part of it in Six Degrees of Devastation. There's nothing online except for excerpts, and it's a little late for me to get in the car and search the bookstores for a collection. Käthe Kollwitz was an artist of the early 20th century with whom Rukeyser felt an affinity. The image at the top is her "Self Portrait.")


Women as gates, saying:
"The process is after all, like music:
like the development of a piece of music.
The fugues come back and
again and again
A theme may seem to have been put aside,
but it keeps returning—
the same thing modulated,
somewhat changed in form.
Usually richer.
And it is very good that this is so."

A woman pouring her opposites,
"After all there are happy things in life too.
Why do you show only the dark side?"
"I could not answer this. But I know—
in the beginning my impulse to know
the working life
had little to do with
pity or sympathy.
I simply felt
that the life of the workers was beautiful."

She said, "I am groping in the dark."

She said, "When the door opens, of sensuality,
then you will understand it too. The struggle begins.
Never again to be free of it,
often you will feel it to be your enemy.
you will almost suffocate,
such joy it brings."

Saying of her husband: "My wish
is to die after Karl.
I know no person who can love as he can,
with his whole soul.
Often this love has oppressed me;
I wanted to be free.
But often too it has made me
so terribly happy."

She said : "We rowed over to Carrara at dawn,
climbed up to the marble quarries
and rowed back at night. The drops of water
fell like glittering stars
from our oars."

She said: "As a matter of fact,
I believe
that bisexuality
is almost a necessary factor
in artistic production; at any rate,
the tinge of masculinity within me
helped me
in my work."

She said : "The only technique I can still manage.
It's hardly a technique at all, lithography.
In it
only the essentials count."

A tight-lipped man in a restaurant last night saying to me:
"Kollwitz? She's too black-and-white."


Held among wars, watching
all of them
all these people

Looking at
all of them
death, the children
patients in waiting-rooms
the street
the corpse with the baby
floating, on the dark river

A woman seeing
the violent, inexorable
movement of nakedness
and the confession of No
the confession of great weakness, war,
all streaming to one son killed, Peter;
even the son left living; repeated,
the father, the mother; the grandson
another Peter killed in another war; firestorm;
dark, light, as two hands,
this pole and that pole as the gates.

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open ....

That should do it for tonight. Don't forget to post a Western Haiku on the comments section of this post for a chance to win an exciting prize!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

NPM: Western Haiku

Well, I got a new computer AND salvaged all my old files. (Related: if anyone knows how I can quickly make $800, please let me know immediately.)

And so, we return to our National Poetry Month festivities, and it appears as though I'm going to have to update every day this week to make up for lost time. Let's get right to it, then. Since our last update concerned Mr. Ginsberg, tonight we'll be spending some time with one of his closest literary associates.

My feelings toward Jack Kerouac (1922 - 1969) are decidedly mixed. I've had such a hard time penetrating his fiction; I only managed to get through the first chapter or two of The Subterraneans, during which my feelings were polarized between "well done, fine phrasing sir" and "JESUS CHRIST WOULD YOU GET OVER YOURSELF PLEASE." However, I very much enjoy what poetry of his I've read, especially his Western Haiku. Let's let Jack explain it himself...

A few
By Jack Kerouac

The "Haiku" was invented and developed over hundreds of years in Japan to be a complete poem in seventeen syllables and to pack a whole vision of life in three short lines. A "Western Haiku" need not concern itself with seventeen syllables since western languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that the "Western Haiku" simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language.

Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.

[Alternate introduction]

American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don't think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again...bursting to pop.

The rain has filled
 the birdbath
Again, almost

Elephants munching
 on grass — loving
Heads side by side.

Shall I say no?
 — fly rubbing
its back legs

Thunder in the mountains —
 the iron
Of my mother's love

The summer chair
 rocking by itself
In the blizzard

Useless, useless,
 the heavy rain
Driving into the sea.

Early morning yellow flowers,
 thinking about
the drunkards of Mexico.

Perfect moonlit night
By family squabbles.

The taste
 of rain
— Why kneel?

Neons, Chinese restaurants
 coming on —
Girls come by shades

November — how nasal
 the drunken
Conductor's call

Now that you know how it's done, click on "comments" and compose your own Western Haiku! The one I like best wins a Magic: the Gathering card -- the mighty SCALED WURM. It's a 7/6 (that's really good) and it's a really old card, so it's probably worth at least five hundred dollars. And maybe I'll even throw in my copy of Final Fantasy III DS if I get enough people participating (let's say ten) to necessitate raising the stakes a bit.


Friday, April 15, 2011

NPM: Don't Grow Old

Well, I just spilled coffee on my keyboard. And since I use a laptop, all of my computer's important organs sit directly beneath the keyboard. Either the hard drive can be salvaged or I take up binge drinking.

Since this is being posted from somebody else's computer, I'm going to keep it brief. A couple days ago we looked at a brief Whitman poem in which Walt waxes transcendental about old age. Allen Ginsberg (1926 - 1997) -- who I, if I believed in such things, would say is the same soul that was Whitman, born into a new body -- shares a few observations on aging and death throughout a series of poems written throughout 1976, the year his father took ill and died. "Don't Grow Old" consists of eight pieces written between January and October of that year. Their tone and quality varies -- at this point in his career, after becoming a world-renowned genius iconoclast with Howl, Ginsberg clearly wasn't approaching his work with the same focus and hunger he demonstrated during the 1950s. But when they're good, they're good.

Excerpts from
By Allen Ginsberg


Wasted arms, feeble knees
    80 years old, hair thin and white
         cheek bonier than I remembered —
head bowed on his neck, eyes opened
    now and then, he listened —
  I read my father Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality
"...trailing clouds of glory do we come
      from God, who is our home..."

         "That's beautiful," he said, "but it's not true."

"When I was a boy, we had a house
    on Boyd Street, Newark — the backyard
        was a big empty lot full of bushes and tall grass,
    I always wondered what was behind those trees,
When I grew older, I walked around the block,
    and found out what it was back there —
         it was a glue factory."

May 18, 1976



July 8, 1976 (over Lake Michigan)