Tuesday, April 30, 2013

NPM: Everybody Makes Poets

Martin Earl &
Pontus Carl,
from Studenglas
And so National Poetry Month draws to a close! What a party! What a spectacle! Without a doubt the greatest NPM celebration since this blog's inception!

Well. I don't know about you, but I had fun.

Shall we take our denouement from the patron saint of light verse, Ogden Nash? Yes, excellent idea.

Everybody Makes Poets
Ogden Nash (1902 - 1971)

Poets aren't very useful,
Because they aren't very consumeful or very
Even poets of great promise
Don't contribute much to trade and commerce,
To which, indeed, even poets of great achievement
Are a positive bereavement,
Because they aren't very sensible,
Because they think buying and selling are cheap and lousy and   
And this is a topic about which poets are people to whom you
     cannot tell anything,
Because they are people who cannot afford to buy anything and
     are seldom glib enough to sell anything.
Some poets are bitter,
But they are preferable to the poets who are all of a twitter,
But even the poets who are all of a twitter are as dependable
     as Rotary
Compared to what each of them has around him which is a rapturous 
Because every poet is constantly threatened by one disaster,
Which is that a lot of otherwise thwarted male and female ladies
     will go around calling him Master,
And then there is nothing to do but surrender,
And then it is good-by old poetry, hello old theosophy and       
And yet on the other hand if a poet isn't fed by a lot of male
     and female ladies who are affected,
Why, until long after he is dead or gets the Pulitzer Prize, why
     he is neglected.
So my advice to mothers is if you are the mother of a poet don't
     gamble on the chance that future generations may crown him.
Follow your original impulse and drown him.

Y'all come back now.

Oh, right. You still have another day to give me frog stuff. I've really been digging what you've produced so far, but still haven't settled on the granola winner. If there are any that you've enjoyed in particular, say so by commenting or emailing me at beechleavesold(at)gmail.com. You will be helping me narrow the precision of my judgement by virtue of triangulation.

Monday, April 29, 2013

NPM: The beech leaves old

National Poetry Month's final day is tomorrow. And there's still so much I had hoped to get to. This is a minor frustration, but a great relief : it means I already have plenty of queued material I can conjure for next year's smorgasbord (Allah willing and the creek don't rise). Tomorrow is the second-to-last day I will accept entries for our frog contest/game. Read the rules, submit your dish as a comment. Or you can serve it via my email address, which is beechleavesold(at)gmail.com

Perhaps you are wondering about the origins of my Gmail handle? WELL. I AM GLAD YOU ASKED. As it happens, it comes from a poem! And that poem is...

John Butler Yeats, King Goll(?)
The Madness of King Goll
William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)
I sat on cushioned otter-skin:
My word was law from Ith to Emain,
And shook at Inver Amergin
The hearts of the world-troubling seamen,
And drove tumult and war away
From girl and boy and man and beast;
The fields grew fatter day by day,
The wild fowl of the air increased;
And every ancient Ollave said,
While he bent down his fading head,
'He drives away the Northern cold.'
They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,
  the beech leaves old.

I sat and mused and drank sweet wine;
A herdsman came from inland valleys,
Crying, the pirates drove his swine
To fill their dark-beaked hollow galleys.
I called my battle-breaking men
And my loud brazen battle-cars
From rolling vale and rivery glen;
And under the blinking of the stars
Fell on the pirates by the deep,
And hurled them in the gulph of sleep:
These hands won many a torque of gold.
They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,
    the beech leaves old.

But slowly, as I shouting slew
And trampled in the bubbling mire,
In my most secret spirit grew
A whirling and a wandering fire:
I stood:  keen stars above me shone,
Around me shone keen eyes of men:
I laughed aloud and hurried on
By rocky shore and rushy fen;
I laughed because birds fluttered by,
And starlight gleamed, and clouds flew high,
And rushes waved and waters rolled.
They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,
    the beech leaves old.

And now I wander in the woods
When summer gluts the golden bees,
Or in autumnal solitudes
Arise the leopard-coloured trees;
Or when along the wintry strands
The cormorants shiver on their rocks;
I wander on, and wave my hands,
And sing, and shake my heavy locks.
The grey wolf knows me; by one ear
I lead along the woodland deer;
The hares run by me growing bold.
They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,
    the beech leaves old.

I came upon a little town
That slumbered in the harvest moon,
And passed a-tiptoe up and down,
Murmuring, to a fitful tune,
How I have followed, night and day,
A tramping of tremendous feet,
And saw where this old tympan lay
Deserted on a doorway seat,
And bore it to the woods with me;
Of some inhuman misery
Our married voices wildly trolled.
They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,
    the beech leaves old.

I sang how, when day's toil is done,
Orchil shakes out her long dark hair
That hides away the dying sun
And sheds faint odours through the air:
When my hand passed from wire to wire
It quenched, with sound like falling dew
The whirling and the wandering fire;
But lift a mournful ulalu,
For the kind wires are torn and still,
And I must wander wood and hill
Through summer's heat and winter's cold.
They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me,
    the beech leaves old.

(An annotated version explaining the archaic Irish names/terms can be found here.)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

NPM: Wisława Szymborska doublet

Warsaw, 1969

Friends, readers, and crawlerbots: I am going to eat my shoes if you don't give me more frog poems. Actually -- would you feel more encouraged to give me frogs if I did eat my shoes? Fine, then: GIVE ME FROG POEMS AND I WILL EAT MY SHOES. And perhaps give you granola if I really like yours.

(They don't have to be poems, of course. Just read the rules to our game and give me a frog and give me a splash already.)


One good thing that came from my high school reunion was meeting for the first time in my adult life a former classmate named Angela. If memory serves, we regarded each other with a benign indifference throughout middle and high school, and I was thrilled to discover she had transformed into a literature geek since then. Not only was she familiar with Czesław Miłosz, she could pronounce his name! And even though she hadn't read anything by Bolesław Prus, she had heard of him -- the first American I've met who could say so. (Lest I sound snooty: I'd never heard of him either, not until my father sent me a copy of Lalka for Christmas.)

I've kept in occasional touch with her since then. Some weeks ago I dropped her a line soliciting recommendations for this year's (ongoing) National Poetry Month extravaganza. You see, I have a tendency to read (and, ergo, to write about) poetry written by dead white males, as I am myself a dead white male. I do not wish to overlook the ladies' contribution to the art, nor would I like for them to be underrepresented during our annual NPM festivities. Earlier today Angela got back to me with a short list; included was the name of Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska, surely added because she recalled me laboring to slur out "Miłosz" through a cloud of cheap bourbon.

So: two poems by Wisława Szymborska, of whose existence I was unaware until today. I hope you will be as glad to have learned about her as I am. (I will not attempt her last name, but her first name is probably pronounced something like "vis-wah-vah.")

A Film from the Sixties
Wisława Szymborska (1923 - 2012)
(trans. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)

This adult male. This person on earth.
Ten billion nerve cells. Ten pints of blood
pumped by ten ounces of heart.
This object took three billion years to emerge.

He first took the shape of a small boy.
The boy would lean his head on his aunt's knees.
Where is that boy. Where are those knees.
The little boy got big. Those were the days.
These mirrors are cruel and smooth as asphalt.
Yesterday he ran over a cat. Yes, not a bad idea.
The cat was saved from this age's hell.
A girl in a car checked him out.
No, her knees weren't what he's looking for.
Anyway he just wants to lie in the sand and breathe.
He has nothing in common with the world.
He feels like a handle broken off a jug,
but the jug doesn't know it's broken and keeps going to the well.
It's amazing. Someone's still willing to work.
The house gets built. The doorknob has been carved.
The tree is grafted. The circus will go on.
The whole won't go to pieces, although it's made of them.
Thick and heavy as glue sunt lacrimae rerum.
But all that's only background, incidental.
Within him, there's awful darkness, in the darkness a small boy.

God of humor, do something about him, okay?
God of humor, do something about him today.

Hitler's First Photograph

And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers' little boy!
Will he grow up to be an LL.D.?
Or a tenor in Vienna's Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don't know:
printer's, doctor's, merchant's, priest's?
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To garden, to school, to an office, to a bride,
maybe to the Burgermeister's daughter?

Precious little angel, mommy's sunshine, honeybun,
while he was being born a year ago,
there was no dearth of signs on the earth and in the sky:
spring sun, geraniums in windows,
the organ-grinder's music in the yard,
a lucky fortune wrapped in rosy paper,
then just before the labor his mother's fateful dream:
a dove seen in dream means joyful news,
if it is caught, a long-awaited guest will come.
Knock knock, who's there, it's Adolf's heartchen knocking.

A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,
like the tots in every other family album.
Shush, let's not start crying, sugar,
the camera will click from under that black hood.

The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunau,
and Braunau is small but worthy town,
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

NPM: Ezra Pound

Image stol'n from Shanghai Daily Photo.

Order of business #1: I AM STILL HUNGRY FOR  FROGS. Give me your frogs. Post them or email them (beechleavesold(at)gmail.com). You give me frogs. I give you granola. And love.

Order of business #2: NATIONAL POETRY  MONTH YEAH YEAH YEAH. We're on the last stretch. We've mentioned and quoted poet Ezra Pound here and there in the past, but I don't think we've ever glanced at his verse.

Say what you may about his arrogance or his odious political associations. I read his poetry as an assertion that the written word, standing alone, must yet have some unvitiated strength remaining and is still worth the the headaches of fidelity.

In a Station of the Metro
Ezra Pound  (1885 - 1972)

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

A Pact

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root
Let there be commerce between us.


As cool as the pale wet leaves
                of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.

The Tea Shop

The girl in the tea shop
     Is not so beautiful as she was,
The August has worn against her.
She does not get up the stairs so eagerly;
Yes, she will also turn middle-aged,
And the glow of youth that she spread about us
     As she brought us our muffins
Will be spread about us no longer.
     She also will turn middle-aged.

Erat Hora

"Thank you, whatever comes." And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.

The Lake Isle

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes
          piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragrant cavendish
          and the shag,
And the bright Virginia
          loose under he bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy,
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
          or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing,
          where one needs one's brains all the time.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

NPM: Mushrooms!!


I don't like mushrooms. I don't trust mushrooms. Perhaps this poem by Sylvia Plath will elucidate some of my misgivings about our mycoloid brothers and sisters. (I really dig the piece's rhythm, and I never noticed it until today.)

Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963)

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door. 

By Mike Puncekar

ALSO! I feel I should remind y'all about the FROG GAME. In short: write your own version of Basho's frog haiku, have fun, take a chance at winning a one-pound bag of genuine organic Quaker granola. (I will clarify that I am not talking about Quaker brand granola, but granola made by Quakers.)

An amendment to the rules: instead of leaving your piece as a comment, you can also email it to me at beechleavesold(at)gmail.com.

We had mushrooms for dinner tonight at the Quaker center, so I am famished. The only thing that will sate my appetite is WORDS ABOUT FROGS.

NPM: Because We're Men

Photo by Jason Clarke

A few months ago, my friend James texted me a quote from John Steinbeck's East of Eden:

Tom wrote secret poetry, and in those days it was only sensible to keep it secret. The poets were pale emasculates, and Western men held them in contempt. Poetry was a symptom of weakness, of degeneracy and decay. To read it was to court catcalls. To write it was to suspected and ostracized. Poetry was a secret vice, and properly so.

We had a short discussion about it, and one of the things that came up was a confession that when I do write poetry, I only ever show it to my female friends. I know it's silly, but I'm a product of my culture, and my culture implicitly says (1) that poetry is an unmanly thing, and (2) men don't express tenderness or vulnerability to other men (not without the ridiculous "no homo" qualifier) -- and a poem, if it's sincere, must necessarily put the poet on naked display, all defenses lowered and all pretense abandoned, and masculinity itself is often a defense and a pretense. I remember getting shoved around the middle school locker room for this sort of thing -- feelings are for faggots, after all.

I hope to get over it someday.

Anyway: today's poem, lovingly transcribed from the anthology Rebel Angels, is partially about the difficulties such values impose upon their subjects.

("Because We're Men" is also a goofy song from The Amazing World of Gumball, but perhaps you shouldn't think about it as you read the piece.)

For J.W.
Rafael Campo (1964 - )

I know exactly what I want to say,
Except we're men. Except it's poetry,
And poetry is too precise. You know
That when we met on Robert's porch, I knew.
My paper plate seemed suddenly too small;

I stepped on a potato chip. I watched
The ordinary spectacle of birds
Become magnificent until the sky,
Which was an ordinary sky, was blue
And comforting across my face. At least

I thought I knew. I thought I'd seen your face
In poetry, in shapeless clouds, in ice
Like staring deeply into frozen lakes.
I thought I'd heard your voice inside my chest,
And it was comforting, magnificent,

Like poetry but more precise. I knew,
Or thought I knew, exactly how I felt.
About the insects fizzing in the lawn.
About the stupid, ordinary birds,
About the poetry of Robert Frost,

Fragility and paper plates. I look at you.
Because we're men, and frozen hard as ice
So hard from muscles spreading out our chests
I want to comfort you, and say it all.
Except my poetry is imprecise.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Today, to evoke the participatory spirit of National Poetry Month (and to investigate my suspicion that this blog's only readers are web-cruising robots), I am announcing an exciting contest. Can't you hear the excitement in my voice?

Last night we looked at Basho's "frog" haiku and read seventeen translations, interpretations, and riffs in English. The game is simple: write an "translation" of your own and share it with (a thin sliver of) the world using the "post a comment" form below.

The text, again, translated directly:

furu (old) ike (pond) ya ([!] [,] [:])
kawazu (frog) tobi komu (jumping into)
mizu (water) no ([possesive particle]) oto (sound)

These are your raw materials. Refine them into something of your own expression.

You can approach this however you're inclined. If you want to take the traditionalist route and rephrase/reframe it with an inclination towards parsimonious grace, do it. If you'd rather write a 5-7-5 haiku with a gag ending, go for it. If you want to write a piece of microfiction, a dialogue, or some metafictional review of The Old Pond for the iOS, make it so.

reread the haiku
consider its resonance
type and click submit

The prize for the winning "frog" will be a one-pound bag of authentic Quaker granola, shipped to a mailing address of your choice (I recommend choosing the address where your mailbox is located), totally free of charge.

(I just know I'm going to regret this. Somebody from Europe or Central Africa is going to appear out of nowhere and post something brilliant.)

I'm not expecting a deluge of submissions, so consider this: if you're the only person who posts something, the prize is yours. If only two people post frogs of their own, you've still got a 50% chance of earning the granola and the glory.

But whatever. Do please just write something for the pleasure and challenge of writing.

The deadline is May 1st (a week from today). Get splashing!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

NPM: Seventeen frogs from One Hundred Frogs

Tonight we're going to revisit Basho's famous haiku about the frog.

And there you have it! See you tomorrow, everybody!

Okay, okay.

Transliterated, it goes: 

furu ike ya
kawazu tobi komu
mizu no oto

And now, twenty translations (and/or interpretations), tenderly and lovingly transcribed from from Hiroaki Sato's 100 Frogs! I've done what I can to find the birthdates (and deathdates, where applicable) of each author, but many of them are too obscure to have spurred any digital age readers to write their Wikipedia entries.

Fumiko Saisho
(b. ?)

Fu-ru (old) i-ke (pond) ya, ka-wa-zu (frog) to-bi-ko-mu
(jumping into) mi-zu (water) no o-to (sound)

Gertrude Emerson
(1893 - 1982)

Old pond, aye! and the sound of a frog jumping in.

Asataro Miyamori
(1869 - 1952)

The old pond!
 A frog has plunged
  The splash!

Into the calm old pond
A frog plungedthen the splash.

Donald Keene
(1922- )

The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.

The ancient pond, a frog jumps in, the sound of the water.

Kenneth Rexroth

And old pond
The sound
Of a diving frog.

Scott Alexander

By an ancient pond
a bullfrog sits on a rock
waiting for Basho? 

Edward Bond
(1934- )

Silent old pool
Frog jumps

G.S. Frasier

The old pond, yes, and
A frog is jumping into
The water, and splash.

Old pond, yes, and
Frog jumping into
The water's noise.

Old pond, yes,
Frog there jumping,
Water's noise.

Dorothy Britton

Listen! a frog
 Jumping into the stillness
   Of an ancient pond!

R. Clarence Matsuo-Allard
(1949?- )

ancient pond
 a frog jumping into its splash.

Robert Aitken

The old pond;
A frog jumps in
The sound of the water

  (word for word)

Old pond!
frog jumps in
water of sound

The old pond has no walls;
A frog just jumps in;
Do you say there is an echo?

Harold Stewart

The old green pond is silent; here the hop
Of a frog plumbs the evening stillness: plop!

Alfred H. Marks

There once was a curious frog
Who sat by a pond on a log
And, to see what resulted,
In the pond catapulted
With a water-noise heard round the bog.

Ron Padgett
(1942- )

   "Advertising translation"

old pond
frog jumps in
plop plop fizz fizz

Clare Nikt
(b. ?)

Hear the lively song
of the frog in

Michael O'Brien
(1948- )

My Noble Lord:
The cat just pissed on the Basho translations.
O ancient lake!

William Matheson
(1929? - 1997)

  "And what, after all," she paused, as if taking advantage——which he knew (oh, yes! he knew) she was, by heaven!, doing——of the last October light so parsimoniously, and yet with such prodigality, such largesse, being filtered in the room through the window giving on to the Park (but such squalid little panes! he could not help himselfand considering everything, considering particularly this thing, why should he help himself——from thinking), "did, as you seemingly want to tell me about it, 'happen,'——as I believe you expressed it?"
  "Well," he began, with every intention of holding it up, confound it!; it was now, or, to coin a phrase, never.
  "'Well'?" she held fire and there it was, in all its shabby, its commercial, glory, glittering and luminous, between them. "Only 'well?'"
  "Well," taking a perverse delight in the slowness of his enunciation, as how often, God only knows, these last months, she had and over matters infinitely less, to her but unfortunately not to him, important, "there was a noise, a sound, an echo one might say."
  "One 'might,' but should one, should particularly you, say so?"
  "Oh, well I, for all that. . . ." She sailed beyond his modest disclaimer, as she always managed, somehow, and in spite of what were to her, at least, genuine feelings of respect——if that was what he wanted——for him, to do. "And," she continued, she so invincibly continued, contriving in some fashion, out of some font of charity, some well-spring of tendresse, to give him, if not breathing-space, at least time to take a turn around the, he thought, wretched little chambre de bonne which she had the pretension to call——and the miracle of it was, had had the force, or merely the cleverness, of character to cause others to call——a "salon," "this 'noise,' this 'sound,' what exactly, if you'll allow me the indiscretion, was it? What, if I may be so bold to ask, made it?"
  "Ah, as to the making of it, and I think it charming, en dernière analyse, for you to use the word, when all is said and done," knowing, as he full well did know, that nothing, indeed, had been said or done, the nearly nothing had even begun being "said," and that, there being worlds still to be said, surely nothing could even be considered as being "done," "that's a relatively simple matter: it jumped, or leapt, or threw itself, or was propelled——le choix est à vouz——into it, and consequently, as such is often the case, it made a noise."
  "I hope you don't, after all these years, find me——it would be shocking, my love, if you did, but these things happen——benighted or unenlightened, or simply deficient, but," her fine (as fine in Florence) eyes searched vaguely for his, as though this were the last of her beacons, the last of all harbors in which to anchor her craft, "if you'll permit me, what 'jumped' into what and what made what 'noise'?"
  "Ah, there, my dear, you have it, all of it. Or, rather, wouldn't you say?, we both have it, all of it, in all its little quivering, tremulous, so preciously ephemeral, being?"
  "I cannot say, precisely, that I have it, but I am comforted, if that is the word, by your having it, having it so utterly yours, as you have always had," her face in the nearly posthumous effulgence of twilight turning slowly, and as if for the last, the desperately last, time, from his, "everything."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

NPM: A Physics

Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon

Tonight's poem has been pulled from Good Poems for Hard Times (sequel to Good Poems), an anthology compiled by Garrison Keillor. Yes, that Garrison Keillor. The Prairie Home Companion guy. It's an excellent collection, consisting mostly of more recent and as of yet uncanonized poets, and might be worth the price tag just for Keillor's introduction. An excerpt:

People complain about the obscurity of poetry, especially if they're assigned to write about it, but actually poetry is fairly straightforward compared to ordinary conversation with people you don't know well which tends to be jumpy repartee, crooked, coded, allusive to no effect, firmly repressed, locked up in irony, steadfastly refusing to share genuine experience -- think of conversation at office parties or conversation between teenage children and parents, or between teenagers themselves, or between men, or between bitter spouses: rarely in ordinary conversation do people speak from the heart and mean what they say. How often in the past week did anyone offer you something from the heart? It's there in poetry. It's there in poetry. Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn't matter -- poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart. All that I wrote about it as a grad student I hereby recant and abjure -- all that matters about poetry to me now is directness and clarity and truthfulness. All that is twittery and lit'ry: no thanks, pal. A person could perish of entertainment, especially comedy, so much of it casually nihilistic, hateful, glittering, cold, and in the end clueless. People in nursing homes die watching late-night television and if I were one of them, I'd be grateful when the darkness descends. Thank God if the pastor comes and offers a psalm and a prayer, and they can attain a glimmer of clarity in the end.

I finished typing this and realized there were maybe five or six better paragraphs I could have transcribed instead. It's very rich.

Note #1: Regarding the last sentence about the psalm and prayer: some pertinent words from a book I've been reading lately, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White:

Out of the ancient world had come a mass of beliefs regarding comets, meteors, and eclipses; all these were held to be signs displayed from heaven for the warning of mankind. Stars and meteors were generally thought to presage happy events, especially the births of gods, heroes, and great men. So firmly rooted was this idea that we constantly find among the ancient nations traditions of lights in the heavens preceding the birth of persons of note. The sacred books of India show that the births of Crishna and of Buddha were announced by such heavenly lights. The sacred books of China tell of similar appearances at the births of Yu, the founder of the first dynasty, and of the inspired sage, Lao-tse. According to the Jewish legends, a star appeared at the birth of Moses, and was seen by the Magi of Egpyt, who informed the king; and when Abraham was born an unusual star appeared in the east. The Greeks and Romans cherished similar traditions. A heavenly light accompanied the birth of Æsculapius, and the births of various Caesars were heralded in like manner.

The same conception entered into our Christian sacred books. Of all the legends which grew in such luxuriance and beauty about the cradle of Jesus of Nazareth, none appeals more directly to the highest poetic feeling than that given by one of the evangelists, in which a star, rising in the east, conducted the wise men to the manger where the Galilean peasant-child
the Hope of Mankind, the Light of the Worldwas lying in poverty and helplessness.

The <bold><italic> treatment was mine. White attributes the power of the "star over Bethlehem" myth to its appeal to poetic feeling. And up above, Keillor isn't necessarily making a statement about religion. He is implicitly stating the shared provinces of poetic thought and spirituality, poetry and religious text. It is no coincidence that the most influential religious texts tend to be poetical.

Note #2: Keillor's sentiments do seem to align with W.C. Williams's assertion that poetry should not be restricted to "the classroom." They're right: placing poetry exclusively in the academy's hands is like dousing an orchid in formaldehyde. People can still admire and study it, but it sure as hell won't be alive.

Obliquely germane: nevertheless, poetry should condescend to an audience only to the extent that readers will be compelled to rise up and meet it.

ANYWAY. Would that I were as good at pertinent and unobtrusive introductions as Mr. Keillor. Tonight we have a poem by 2009 Genius Grant recipient Heather McHugh!

A Physics
Heather McHugh (1948- )

When you get down to it, Earth
has our own great ranges
of feelingRocky, Smoky, Blue
and a heart that can melt stones.

The still pools fill with sky,
as if aloof, and we have eyes
for all of thisand more, for Earth's
reminding moon. We too are ruled

by such attractionsspun and swaddled,
rocked and lent a light. We run
our clocks on wheels, our trains
on time. But all the while we want

to love each other endlesslynot only for
a hundred years, not only six feet up and down.
We want the suns and moons of silver
in ourselves, not only counted coins in a cup. The whole

idea of love was not to fall. And neither was
the whole idea of God. We put him well
above ourselves, because we meant,
in time, to measure up.

Friday, April 19, 2013

NPM: Homo Bulla

Karel van Sichem, Homo Bulla

Today we've got a shortie attributed to Henry King and transcribed from a Penguin Classics collection called The Metaphysical Poets (which seems to have been updated and republished in recent years as Metaphysical Poetry).

Obviously I've got a penchant for memento mori stuff.

Sic Vita
Henry King(?) (1592-1669)

Like to the falling of a Starre;
Or as the flights of Eagles are;
Or like the fresh springs gawdy hew;
Or silver drops of morning dew;
Or like a wind that chafes the flood;
Or bubbles which on water stood;
Even such is man, whose borrowed light
Is streight call'd in and paid to night.

   The Wind blowes out; the Bubble dies;
   The Spring entomb'd in Autumn lies;
   The Dew dries up; the Starre is shot;
   The flight is past; and Man forgot.

NPM: billions of breathing comets

Sometimes we experience a work of art and it flips a switch. Sometimes the bulb doesn't flash on right away -- like an old fluorescent tube, it tiks, sputters, and flickers at length from dimness to light. Such was my experience with some poems by Jack Collom, an old man I met in Boulder, Colorado (see last post).

All of the visiting adjuncts and mainstays at the university regarded him with conspicuous reverence. You could tell why immediately: the man was a genius. IS a genius, rather: he's very much alive.

His reverence was (is) for Nature. Birds in particular: one of his poetry collections, Exchanges of Earth and Sky, focuses exclusively on birds (using them as an inductive springboard into Nature). The poem we'll be looking at today, "Passage," is from another collection -- Arguing with Something Plato Said -- but it is about a bird. That bird is the passenger pigeon (extinct).

I caught Jack a few times -- chatted with him at lunchtime, sat in on a lecture and attended a reading (he read "Passage" and received a standing ovation). Coming away from these experiences, I wondered it if mightn't be worth my while to start paying closer attention to Nature than I had in the past.

On the way home to Jersey from Boulder, I sat at a park in Kansas for an hour and watched (and LISTENED to) the birds.

Five years later, I can now go outside, and -- provided I'm familiar with the area -- can listen for a few seconds and usually identify all the flying noisemakers singing out within earshot, even if I can't see them. This isn't a boast -- I'm still too inexperienced a birdwatcher even to call myself a birdwatcher -- but what I know about birds I've indeliberately learned out of love for them, and I do believe it's the result of a circuit that first became active when an old poet from Colorado charged me with a small spark of his own wonder for the feathered contingent of earthly things.

So: "Passage." It's a long poem. I had to type it from the book (point out typos if you notice them!) and it took a few minutes, so do please read it. Don't be daunted by its length: Jack switches styles too regularly (note the eight stanzas in limerick!) to give the piece the opportunity to start dragging.

(You can listen to a recording of him reading the poem here.)

Jack Collom (1931- )

   "When one is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer,
it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again the eye searches in
vain; the bird is gone."


"An infinite number,"
said Champlain, on the islands,
in 1605 &

took a great
quantity. "Fully as abundant
as fish," said the

Jesuit Fathers in
Acadia, 1610. "Incredible," added Stork
from Florida, 1766.

"Broke down trees,
took all food," Lawson, History
of Carolina, 1701.

They robbed "a
very great quantity of English
grain," complained Winthrop,

Plymouth Colony, 1643,
then (1648), blessed their presence,
"it being incredible

what multitudes of
them were killed daily." Alexander
Wilson spoke of

a flight to
Green River, Kentucky, 240 miles
of packed sky,

estimated 2,230, 272,000 individuals,
who devoured 17,424 bushels of
nuts every day.

Their nests—over
100 per tree—projected broken
limbs, ejecta like

deep snow. Below,
herds of fattening hogs gobbled
eggs, dead squabs.

"Light of noonday
sun was obscured as by
an eclipse," quoth

Audubon, soon after,
1813, about a flight which
darkened the sky

for three days.
As flocks alighted, branches gave
way, killing hundreds

of birds below.
Trees two feet in diameter
were broken off

near the ground.
Their winter roost noise was
"like a gale

passing through the
rigging of a close-reefed vessel."
No one dared

go into the
woods at night. GATHERINGS OF
by far the

most abundant bird
in the world.  Columbia migratorius,
Passenger Pigeon (extinct).

                         * * * * * * *

comes to the mouth
via Latin pipio, piper

    (When Pope Gregory was dictating his homilies in Ezekiel, a veil
    was drawn between his secretary and himself. The servant peeked through
    and beheld a dove seated on Gregory's head, with its beak between his
    lips. When the dove withdrew its beak the Holy Pontiff spoke.)

arises from the Gothic dubo
meaning diver,
as Columba, from Greek,
means also diver
(resemblance to gulls?).

In & out, roundabout, each passage pipio measured
long as a fine bottle of champagne,
perfect profile dove. Bright
skyblue back, breast of clay red,
head like an aerial chesspiece: The Flier,
to come down anywhere & checkmate the field.

Each pipio of passage had a
shiny, moving eye.
                                    When the lady
saw him dance,
eggs began to roll.
                                    When the gentleman
saw her settle down to brood,
"pigeon's milk" wetted his crop.
Each pipio billed & cooed
Bloody fights.
Monogamous, but not fanatic.
Voice like love.

Each pipio stuck its black beak in drink, sucked
up continuous drafts of water
(bird-unique; all others
gargle at the moon).

On the other hand,
legs & feet were "lake-red."

Each pipio of passage
pumped blood into plump chest to push
pointed wings 80 mph, high
like a whistling arrow.
"Plumage peculiarly dense, but easily detached."
Loved salt mud.

Twelve feathers (each
narrowed & obtusely sharp) made up
the graduated tail.

Rich beauties of each bird (gone forever): glosses of the neck,




& the outer web edgings of the primaries

Hollow bones, & the
Black Spot (concealed) in each wing.

1 or 2 pure white
eggs laid in a
frail flat of twigs.

Hoo woo!-oo—hoo, hoo, hoo cries the scattered little sister.

                         * * * * * * *

    There once was a passenger dove
    Who divided to billions by love.
    The infinite flights
    Intercepted the lights
    That normally flowed from above.

    & the clef of that feathered eclipse
    Led alignments of notes to the lips
    Of the faces thereunder
    Effusions of wonder:
    ". . .the flotillas of lavender ships!"

    When the pigeons alighted, the land
    Was bedecked, as by miles of sand.
    Each grain was a world
    That eons had whirled
    & would flutter & sing on your hand.

    Each feather was made of a million
    Thin barbules that wove a pavillion
    Of aerial moves
    Beating nitrogen grooves:
    Light plough to sheer shine along sillion.

    Nobody knows what the brain
    Of the dove did create or contain:
    Its particular way
    Of perceiving each day,
    Plus intricate pleasure & pain.

    But its mind was an avian elf
    That spun, for the sake of itself,
    Blue volumes of knowledge,
    Columbian college,
    Atmosphere's continent shelf.

    Just like a lost city of wells
    Cupping dark informational swells,
    Circling mesmeric streams
    Of numbers & dreams
    Single cell in the bellum of cells.

    . . .

    The paths of penultimate glory
    Could be loud & colossally gory
    Of delicate riots
    Of intimate quiets.
    Chief Pokagon tells us this story:

                         * * * * * * *

"One morning
On leaving my wigwam I was startled
By hearing a gurgling,
Rumbling sound,
As though
An army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing
Through the deep forests.
I concluded that
Instead of tramping horses
It was distant thunder; and yet the
Morning was clear, calm and beautiful.
Nearer and nearer came
The strange commingling sounds of
Sleigh bells, mixed
With rumblings of an approaching storm. I beheld
Moving toward me in an unbroken front
Millions of pigeons.
They passed like a cloud
Through the branches of the high trees,
Through the underbrush and over
The ground, overturning
Every leaf. They fluttered all
about me; gently
I caught
Two in my hands
And concealed them
Under my blanket.
. . . They were mating.
I sat down and carefully watched
Their movements. I tried to
Their strange language and why
They all chatted in
Concert. The
Great omnivoring mass passed by me,
But the trees were still
Filled with them uttering
To their mates
Those strange wooing notes I
Had mistaken for
The ringing of bells."
(lines broken)
 * * * * * * *
   Ahh, those "pigeon mornings!" You'd "shoot enough before breakfast to load a hay wagon, with the sides on, full to the brim." When the flocks came in, the whole town'd be out with their flintlocks, queen's arms, string-tied gun locks. It's been known that a fouler gets 71 birds with two flintlock shots. And there'd be clubs, stones, smudge-pots, raking poles. And especially nets, great, grain-baited nets. And pigeon-baited. Just take a pigeon and sew his eyes shut so he'll flutter, pin his legs to a chunk of wood (the "stool") and watch 'em come pouring in like all the stars in the sky but a lot better eating. Those pigeons were unsuspicious. Walk into the woods and they'd be cooing all around you, raising kids left and right. The squabs were prime, and cheap 'cause Nature did the dirty work.
    And of course we're talking Market. Market, market huge and nationwide. Just one New York merchant sold 18,000 pigeons a day, and there were many more like him. Cities and towns all over just gobbled pigeons up. A delicacy! Trainloads of 'em were chugging all over America. Not just the meat—the feathers and down went into pillows and quilts. Gizzards, guts, blood and excrement sold as medical cures for damn near everything—gallstones, stomachache, dysentery, colic, infected eyes, fever and epilepsy.
    And the live birds for trapshooting took about a million a year. One club would use up 50,000 for a week's shooting. Naturally piles of 'em would die in capture, or during transport, or break their necks or wings hurled from the catapult. Still, one sporting gentleman might kill 500 in a day.
    Nobody thought the wild pigeons were anything but infinite bounty. Till about 1850, some diminishment was noted. 28 little years later, the last great nesting took place, near Petoseky, Michigan, 100,000 acres of leftover beech. Telegraph spread the news, and railways focused the thousand pro netters, plus locals from all over, like glassed rays on a bug. Every possible pigeon was slaughtered, a million or more.
    Then where were they all? The netters' story was that vast numbers had drowned in Lake Michigan, and in the ocean, caught in storms. Other folk were scratching their heads about it, decades later. A great mystery, suck rich abundance, to lose its coherence, to go out like a light. Something cockeyed somewhere.
    Northern Indians loved pigeon meat too, but never killed till the squabs were ready to fly. Advantages of Indian time. They cajoled, then threatened, whites to exercise a like moderation, to no avail. A last quarter million descended from the North in 1896 (for the Passenger Pigeon migrated any direction) and nested near Mammoth Cave. They might as well have nested at the bottom of the sea. All but 5,000 were slaughtered. Then the entire kill, in boxcars, was derailed, some kind of railroad accident, and every bird rotted by the tracks.
    The last known wild pigeon was shot four years later, 1900, by a small boy in Ohio (a future President, rumor has it).

    * * * * * * *

Too much was not enough.
The party got too rough.
The big old woods
Delivered the goods
& the pigeons' flight
Was massive purple light
Until death
Mechanized its dire breath,
Till bony chance
Turned from a dance
To a march
Over the arch
Made of slaughter,
Over the air-without-water
& out.

When royal purple commonality miles wide
& fifty feet thick pipes its own breath,
& pigeon's milk flows sweetly
Through the convulsions of the crowd—so the
Crash of broken homes is just a tinkle in a
Roaring red-blue song—so the parental bill
Is a fluttering pipe organ forest, vast enough to chart
So the rich blood, wing to wing, caresses the chance orphan
Then the violent thinning of that
Explodes an atmosphere, blows holes
Through a general, moon-colored, feathery flesh,
Tatters population that it
Pisses its peculiar oxygen into No-bird's-land.

Already, in the very center of the rich, chaotic, pigeon
Country they carried anywhere,
Through the breathtaking thin air,
Was a white eye—the single egg, absolute
Number & color certainty,
Central circle in a whirlwind of rainbows
A hole to stick a finger in, curl tight & jerk.

Ain't no maybes, boss, there's safety in
numbers but not nearly enough of it.
Somebody's pushing pins into my giant singing poem, my
Everything syndrome!
("Why not take all of me?") 

It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions of
        breathing comets.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions of
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions of.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I.
It is possible to lose my coherence though.
It is possible to lose my coherence.
It is possible to lose my.
It is possible to lose.
It is possible to.
It is possible.
It is.

Hoo woo!-oo—hoo, hoo, hoo.

They seemed to be all things, exchanges
of earth & sky 
feathers, words pressed dry, from flash-
in-concert to an isolate float, lit up, letting fly,
settling to rest, infesting forest with violet
violence, leaving reeking plaster over
bronze landscape, squatting
iridescent figures of strong streamline,
atmospheric opals,
but the very diamond is but buttonbright against the wonderdumb
luster of the last crumb of terra-firma crust:
coming up—sky
being sucked out, leaving a blot, oceans
going up in smoke,
molecules re
forming. & is there an end too all things? Tectonic plates
wiped clean? & we are
birds of passage
birds of passage
birds of passage.
We are
pipers in Avernus,
getting along,
concentrating & leveling.
The beating of infinite wings
PLUNGES through the body,
passes the breath, & down through
space barely shaped to perfection, bird of passage,
everything pointing at light
ness, to that most
complex occurrence, double curls of genetic
acid, & down
to nothing
one more time. 

                         * * * * * * * 

Wake up & okay!
In the shapes of leaves-&-sky I see
Snarling little demons.

                         * * * * * * *

Vast, breathing, pearly presence
Extinguished by wonderful
Intelligent cancer.