Poetry Kiosk

There’s a house in my neighborhood with a homemade kiosk in the front yard where they tack up pages of poetry. Every few days a new poem appears, and over the course of the year words from Alfred Noyes to William Stafford to Seamus Heaney have looked out from behind the glass offering little bits of verse to the world around them.

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Walking the dog, I make a point of passing that house every week, and the little bit of joy it provides —poetry in a prosaic world— is the same kind of magic I hoped to replicate in the series of posts that made up my “Year of Poetry” and ran from a sunny day in August through the end of the school year in June.

A couple of folks have asked about seeing a list of those poets and posts, and I include it here for anyone curious about the diverse group of writers I’ve spent time with over the year. They’re a fantastic bunch, spanning decades and continents, and my life is richer because of them.

Poet: Book Post
Introduction Bee Loud Glade
Margaret Atwood: Two-Headed Poems Unshelled Turtle
Julia Randall: The Puritan Carpenter August Eyes
Octavio Paz: A Draft of Shadows Edén Subvertido
Seamus Heaney: Seeing Things Itinerant School Conjuror 
Maya Angelou: Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit… Darning Worn-out Dreams
Ted Hughes: Crow King of Carrion
William Stafford: Even in Quiet Places Wanderings
Alice Walker: Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful A Whistling Woman
Anne Sexton: 45 Mercy Street My Oily Life
Good Poems for Hard Times Not Single Spies
Tracy K. Smith: Life on Mars One Notch Below Bedlam
Jorge Luis Borges: In Praise of Darkness No será menos un enigma
Margaret Avison: Winter Sun Warming and Bewildering
Victorians “Tumultuous Life and Great Repose” 
Rita Dove: Grace Notes Penciled in as a Hawk
Kim Stafford: Places & Stories Writing on an Envelope
Pablo Neruda: Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 Dios de los perros perdidos
Doug Moench: Hit It Crowning Madness
Mary Oliver:  Dog Songs  A Sweet Arrangement
“Finna” by Nate Marshall Finna
Floyd Skloot: Wild Light Time to Dream
Gwendolyn Brooks: Selected Poems Like Narrow Banners for Some Gathering War
Jane Hirshfield: The Beauty Noun and Story
Fatimah Asghar: If they Come for Us Making Eye Contact with Pain
Gary Snyder: Turtle Island Swirl in the Flow
Jack Kerouac: San Francisco Blues Breboac! Karrak!
Sharon Olds: The Wellspring Without Belief, Praying
Leonard Nimoy: We Are All Children Searching For Love A Being Little Known
Billy Collins: Picnic Lightning Wind like the hair of dryads
Dante: La Vita Nuova “Nature, disposed to love…”
Kim Whysall-Hammond The Cheeseseller’s Wife
Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems A Many-Sided Mind
Yrsa Daley-Ward: Bone Writing the Truth
Sidney: A Defense of Poetry In the Company of the Paperblurrers
C.P. Cavafy: The Complete Poems Indignant Immortal Nature
A Treasury of Great Poems A Treasury of Memory
Yeats redux (and end) “Take down this book…”

Poetry can be healing, challenging, kind, harsh, honest, and transformational. The poets on this list are just a random sampling, a selection of folks who fill my own bookshelf, but hardly comprehensive in the world of poetry. For anyone still reading this post about poetry, and that takes a pretty special person in my opinion, I’d love to know who would be on your list if you were to read a poet a week over the course of a school year.

George Sand said that “He who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.” To all my friends, poets or poetic souls, I wish you happy reading.

“Take down this book…” William Butler Yeats

I had it memorized when I was an undergraduate, a little poem by Yeats that spoke of love and books and old age. Why I chose to commit this to memory, or why it chose me, I can’t remember. Perhaps I didn’t know even then. 

As a bookend to this Year of Poetry, I knew I wanted to come back to Yeats, the fellow whose bee loud glade had inspired this whole silly enterprise. To do that, the poem that returned from the land of far away was “When You Are Old.”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

Taken out of context, these thirty-odd posts about poetry are a little like that book on Yeats’ shelf, a poetic mirror to a year of life that in my corner of the universe was filled with more stress than some and benefitted to no end from the words of poets from across the decades and around the world. Whether it was Billy Collins’ wit or Maya Angelou’s soul, Alice Walker’s fire or Ted Hughes ice, the poems and poets that filled this year helped me slow down, reflect, and see my world (at least in a few stanzas) through different eyes.

I found comfort and challenge in these poets, “moments of glad grace” as Yeats describes it, and sometimes “Love fled.” And though I am not yet willing to class myself as “old and grey and full of sleep” as I look back at these posts, taking down this book of reflection on a cavalcade of poets, I am moved to read on. 

Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, George Herbert, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, so many didn’t make it off the shelf over the past few months, some because their collected works demand more than a week of perusal, some because they suggest summer days and reading beneath a blue sky. I’ll get to them in the next few weeks, even if I don’t scribble out reflections on them all.

And I end this year of poetry with a heartfelt thank you to anyone who has read along with my free-ranging thoughts on these good poets. Poetry is magical, and meaningful, and can make a difference. It has, and does, for me, and I hope to have captured some of that appreciation over the past few months.

COVID-19 inspired social distancing keeps me from going back to that hike at the coast where Yeats planted the seeds for this endeavor, but as I was taking the dog out to walk last week I was stopped short by a pair of bees buzzing around some flowers near my front door.

“Bee loud” I thought to myself. Full circle. There’s something poetic in that.

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A Treasury of Memory

My 1942 edition of A Treasury of Great Poems has been kicking along on my bookshelf since I stole the volume from my dad on my way to college. I have memories of him reading the book in bed, though I never spent too much time thinking about it at the time. Later, much later, when I became an English major, I lifted the battered blue collection and have kept it close ever since.

IMG_4911A Treasury of Great Poems went with my wife and me to the coast on some of our early dates. I have a framed photo of us with ridiculous 1980s hair and equally silly sunglasses laughing on the beach, the book open in front of us. 

The volume traveled with me to Michigan State, where I went to graduate school, and then back to Oregon, where I got married. It saw a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area, and shifted to a bookshelf in Southern California before my wife and I came to our senses and returned to the rainy home we’d known most of our lives. 

Now it occupies a place on a bookshelf in my office, between a two volume set of Sherlock Holmes stories and a book of Borges’ collected non-fiction. I knew it would be one of the last books I picked up for this Year of Poetry, and one of the few anthologies; I also knew that I wouldn’t let this silly project end without returning to its pages, at least for a little while.

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With more than 1200 pages of verse, A Treasury of Great Poems is broad river and this modest post a teacup, so I’ll limit myself to three poems, and allow the reminiscences that this week has brought me to infuse what it can with a sense of nostalgia.

Starting nostalgically, earlyish in the collection are selections from Shakespeare, including one of Oberon’s monologues from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.”

It’s always a little weird to excerpt from a play, but spending time with A Treasury of Great Poems made me realize that some bits of Shakespeare I encountered first in this way, even before I read or saw the play as a whole. “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” is, in this book, its own entity, and as such invites a closer reading and encourages us to pause there in the forest and really listen. Rereading that poem now took me back to a time before I had as much poetry on my bookshelf, when my area of lit’ry expertise extended about as far as Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, and Moon Knight comic books. I’ve come to appreciate language much more since then, and I think A Treasury of Great Poems contributed to my being able to slow down and appreciate words more. Shakespeare’s rich language, lulling us “with dances and delights” shows the power of poetry to capture, in just a few words, the spirit of something grand. 

Nothing could be grander than love, and some 500 pages later A Treasury of Great Poems finds “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The book opened to this poem, an envelope tucked inside with my name on it in the handwriting of a college coed who would become my wife.

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”

Was this one of the poems I read aloud with my wife to be on the beach? I’m a gentleman, so I’ll leave our courting for more private revery, but more than thirty years later she’s just in the next room, so I think I really ought to pause in typing this and go read her a poem.

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Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a nice end to the earthier subject matter from the other two poems. An old standard, this poem speaks to life and loneliness, class and culture, death (of course) and what it means to live.

Gray’s opening stanza, a powerhouse of literary devices (that any reader who has stuck with this post this long knows without me enumerating them) sets the tone and gives us four of the most memorable lines in poetry.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Gray goes on to describe the landscape, a landscape that a century later writers like Hardy will make real for readers of novels, including a “moping owl” complaining to the moon and swallows “twitt’ring from the straw-built shed.” Within that landscape he places the rustic inhabitants of his poetic vision, and introduces the death that prompts the elegy in the title.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.”

It is a noble death, or noble life as it were, and Gray warns “the boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r” not to discount that hand-wrought honor.

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.”

Death is death, and like Hamlet chiding his uncle with the king going progress through the guts of a beggar, Gray puts rich and poor alike in the same reality of death, asking:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?”

Gray spends some time reflecting on poverty and the injustices it brings to the potential of the poor.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.”

Then Gray’s elegy takes us into that country churchyard of the title and invites us to walk the grounds with the poet, far, as he tells us, from the madding crowd.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.”

We walk in “lonely contemplation” with Gray as he takes us to “the foot of yonder nodding beech / That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high” where the subject of our elegy was wont to sit, past the “brook that babbles by” and “the heath and near his fav’rite tree,” all vacant now that our rustic has been borne to the churchyard of the title, where we are invited to: “Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay, / Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

IMG_1047I thought a lot about my dad when I read this poem. His memory (except for a few people and places) has been brushed away by dementia. His poetry reading days are gone.

I can still see him with a book in his hand, his favorite Don Quixote, a little poetry, or one of the more philosophical books he read when last he read. That younger man is gone, replaced by a fellow who takes delight in the dog and watching ducks at the pond, rustic pastimes if there ever were any.

The poetic epitaph inscribed (by a poet within Gray’s poem) on the gravestone in that country churchyard reinforces the ideas from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and reminds us to keep perspective, even as the world around us slips continually away. 

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.”

I could spend a year reading only poetry from A Treasury of Great Poems and not run out of subject matter. Instead, I’ll keep this volume close to my heart and bring this post to a close.

I don’t know if either of my kids will steal A Treasury of Great Poems from me. Right now neither show any signs of such imminent thievery, though at their ages neither did I. Until one does it will stay with me, pulled from the shelf when I need a spot of verse, treasured as much as anything I own. It is my first memory of poetry, my introduction (even before poems in school) and a fitting (almost) end to a year of living more poetically.

 

Finishing this year of poetry next week with one final post that takes us back to William Butler Yeats.

Indignant Immortal Nature: C.P. Cavafy

I saved C.P. Cavafy for the end of this Year of Poetry. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long, long time, the poet I turned to when I had my first chance to teach a pack of students at ACMA, the poet I went to for my first commencement as a principal back in Oregon (when rather than give a speech I simply read Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to the graduates), the poet who provides the final book by single poet this spring until I wrap up, full circle, with Yeats in a couple of weeks.

A number of years back, a surprising number as I do the math in my head right now, when a new translation of Cavafy’s poems came out I bought a copy for my dad. I’d learned to love poetry from him and thought the volume, a hardcover with a rich Greek mosaic on the dust cover, would be a good gift. It was, but that’s not the book this post is about.

IMG_4734My copy of The Complete Poems of Cavafy (translated by Rae Dalven) is a well worn paperback with a yellowed photograph of the author looking out at anyone there to see him. His tight lipped expression is that of a banker, maybe, or petty bureaucrat, which Cavafy was, working in Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria for decades. It’s an old soul that looks out through his round eyeglasses. His dark suit and thick striped tie tell a conventional story, only the handkerchief escaping from his breast pocket provides a hint at the poetic soul beneath that suit.

Cavafy was not a banker, but he would have slept with one, if the fellow was young and pretty.

A result of Cavafy’s sexuality, still taboo in the early twentieth century when he was writing, was that many of his poems, particularly the unapolgetically erotic ones,  were not published until after his death. Poems like “He Came to Read” show Cavafy’s longingly loving voice as he describes love, youth, and best laid plans oft gone awry.

He came so he could read. Lying open
are two or three books: historians and poets.
But he’d barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. On the sofa
he’s half asleep. He’s completely devoted to books—
but he’s twenty-three years old, and very handsome;
and this afternoon desire has come
to his flawless flesh, and to his lips.
To his flesh, which is beauty entire,
the fever of desire has come;
without foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment. . . .”

Less shocking today that it would have been in the 1920s poems like this, and more ribald appreciations of male beauty and longing, are a facet of Cavafy’s work, sharing a very human spirit with even the more epic verses.

But Cavafy’s subject matter is not only love. Some of my favorites, and the ones I pulled from when I got to teach a class who were reading Homer’s Iliad, look back at the classics through more modern eyes.

“The Horses of Achilles” is a good example of Cavafy’s reimagining of ancient Greece. 

When they saw that Patroclus was slain,
who had been so stalwart, and strong, and young,
the horses of Achilles started to weep,
their immortal nature was indignant
at the sight of this work of death.

They would shake their heads and toss their manes,
stamp the ground with their feet, and mourn
Patroclus who they realized was lifeless— undone —
worthless flesh now— his spirit lost-
defenseless— without breath —
returned from life to the great Nothing.

Zeus saw the tears of the immortal horses
and grew sad. “At the wedding of Peleus,”
he said, “I should not have acted so thoughtlessly,
it would have been better my hapless horses
if we had not given you! What are you doing down there,
among woebegone humanity, the plaything of fate?

You for whom neither death nor old age he in wait,
you are harassed by transitory calamities.

Men have implicated you m their troubles.”- Yet the two
noble animals went on shedding their tears
for the never-ending calamity of death.”

This poem led to some of the richest discussions when I was working with the students. Fresh off their study of The Iliad, they talked about the humanity Cavafy brings to this epic story, and how differently he approaches this familiar and grand story. Whether talking about Patroclus or the patron at the cafe, Cavafy’s approach to humans is so very human.

There are other less heroic poems in The Complete Poems of Cavafy, poems that give modern readers a glimpse of taverns and old books, colored glass and broken hearts, flowers, inkwells and “Melancholy Hours.” 

The fortunate ones profane nature.
Earth is a sanctuary of sorrow.
Dawn drops a tear of unknown pain;
the wan orphan evenings mourn
and the select soul intones sadly.

I hear sighs in zephyr breezes.
I see sadness on the violets
I feel the painful life of the rose,
the meadows alive with mysterious sorrow;
and within the dense forest echoes a sob.

People honor the fortunate ones
and poetasters sing hymns to them.
But Nature’s portals are closed
to all those who indifferently, callously deride,
aliens who deride in an unfortunate land.”

He brings a poet’s eye to the city around him, and the result is small snapshots of life in a world now extinct.

But my copy of Cavafy falls open to the poem “Ithaca.”

It is, like the poem that started this series of posts (Yeats’ “Isle of Innisfree”), one of the poems that continues to inform my world view, always near the surface of my consciousness ready for the opportunity to be said aloud.

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty,
if a fine emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind,
to arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”

Ye gads, what a poem. 

Always more of a fan of The Odyssey than The Iliad, not only does the story of Odysseus resonate with me, but Cavafy’s perspective on what that journey means reminds me to slow down and “pray that the road is long.”

In many ways that’s what this Year of Poetry has been about. Borges, Stafford, Brooks, and all the others, these are the “ports seen for the first time / with such pleasure, with such joy!” Angelou, Asghar, and Dove, these are the “beautiful voyage.”

Cavafy’s poems, familiar, beautiful, and human, are worth finding out and reading, or rereading, particularly in these uncertain times. And when I feel frustrated or overwhelmed, which is too often sometimes, I’m wise to turn to him to be reminded that if I “find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded” me, and hear him whisper to me: “With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience, / you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with A Treasury of Great Poems.

In the Company of the Paperblurrers: Philip Sidney

“Year of what?”
“Poetry.”
“Why?”
“Well…”

For anyone just tuning in to this blog, once a week (or so) since the start of the school year I’ve turned my attention to writing about poetry. It started with a hike along the Oregon Coast and a bunch of buzzing bees, and has since then led across continents and centuries through a roll call of amazing poets, alphabetically from Angelou to Walker. The merit of an enterprise like this? Well…

I think it’s helped me slow down, look more philosophically at the world around me, no, not philosophically, but poetically. There’s a line by Mary Wollstonecraft that reads: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically, they want fancy, and therefore fly from solitude in search of sensible objects; but when an author lends them his eyes, they can see as he saw, and be amused by images they could not select, though lying before them.” Poetry has done that for me this year.

sidneyAnd as I enter the final stretch of this Year of Poetry, with just a handful of books between me and the end of the series in June, I wanted to spend a week with a book that is not written in verse: Sir Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry.

It’s a slim volume that has been on my bookshelf since I was an undergraduate, and the marginalia I re-read when I picked it up this week (scrawled in the cursive of a nineteen year old) reminded me of a time, a lifetime ago, when people like Philip Sidney were a bigger part of my life.

I’ve come a long way since I first picked up my copy of A Defence of Poetry at the Pacific University bookstore. It cost me $8.95 back then, a steep price for 112 pages, but if my jottings in the margins are any indication, I dug it back then. 

I certainly enjoyed it now.

A Defence of Poetry was written in the late 1570s, and at the time was Sidney’s attempt to define and explain poetry, its place, its power, and its purpose. With the thoroughness of a classic scholar, Sidney takes readers through a history of poetry, explicating the value of verse across cultures, and emphasizing the power of a poet “freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.”

Poetry, Sidney explains, can sometimes tell truths unavailable in prose, and its influence reaches beyond rhyming verse. “It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet—no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who though he pleaded in armour should be an advocate and no soldier. But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.” It is a concept echoed centuries later in that line from Wollstonecraft, and articulated in some of the prose poems I’ve seen in the volumes I’ve read since September, from Snyder and Borges this winter to Daley-Ward last week.

Spending the year with a cavalcade of poets, I’ve come to appreciate Sidney’s perspective that a poet is not tied to describing nature, but “lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.”

Sidney’s “Defence” does much to categorize and rationalize the making of verse, but the middle aged reader I have now become focused less on his argument and more on the flashes of wit dotting the plain of his rhetorical battlefield. “Since the excellencies of [poetry] may be so easily and so justly confirmed,” he tells his readers midway through the text, “and the low-creeping objections so soon trodden down: it not being an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage, not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit.” He goes on, summarizing his careful arguments in bursts of sixteenth century insight.

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He does this not only as a critic, but as a poet as well. Sidney wrote the Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence and other short verse, and comes to his work in A Defence of Poetry in “the company of the paperblurrers” adhering to the “old proverb” orator fit, poeta nascitur (an orator is made, a poet born).

And while across town a scruffy playwright/actor was having his character respond an aging courtier who asked him what he was reading with the line “words, words, words,” Sidney spends a detailed section looking at the “diction” of poetry, or as he says from “the outside of it, which is words.” Critical of imitators whom he wishes would “not so much keep Nizolian paper-books of their figures and phrases, as by attentive translation (as it were) devour them whole, and make them wholly theirs.” Poetry is about sincerity and truth; imitating without owning an idea is, to Sidney, like casting “sugar and spice upon every dish that is served” regardless of taste.

That ownership of poetry is particularly praised with regard to the “lyrical kind of songs and sonnets, which, Lord, if He gave us so good minds, how well it might be employed.” He calls out Dante (though Shakespeare’s sonnets were too close for a contemporary nod) and those ideas Sidney lays out in the 1590s ring as true with poetry written today.

Reading A Defence of Poetry during this 2020 COVID-19 quarantine was a nice reminder that my own little appreciation for verse over the course of this year is something that an old courtier like Sidney would think is okay. 

And since this is a “Year of Poetry,” not a year of essays about poetry, as I near the end of this post I’ll include Sidney’s own Sonnet 21, from Astrophil and Stella. It says in verse some of what Sidney suggested in A Defence of Poetry, particularly the value of the heart as captured in a poem.

Your words my friend (right healthful caustics) blame
My young mind marred, whom Love doth windlass so,
That mine own writings like bad servants show
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame,
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres, that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, least else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well, your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade, now tell me this,
Hath this world ought so fair as Stella is?”

Sidney’s self deprecation continues in his closing paragraphs of A Defence of Poetry, when he writes: I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverent title of a rhymer; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity.” Why a year of poetry? Just maybe because poetry matters, poetry tells the truth, and poetry can make a difference.

 

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy.

Writing the Truth: Yrsa Daley-Ward

Yrsa Daley-Ward’s smooth, strong, poetic voice tells stories. Sometimes only a few lines long, like the quintet of lines in “Heat” they capture a mood perfectly:

I miss you in tiny earthquakes
in little underground explosions
my soil is a hot disaster
Home is burning.
You’re a lost thing.”

Sometimes those stories stretch over the course of pages. Like the best poets, Daley-Ward’s verse feels honest and transformative. It is polished in the way a professional poet’s words should be, even while the words create the illusion of spontaneity, the feeling of truth whispered to a friend.

bonebone (the lack of capitalization the poet’s), Daley-Ward’s first collection, was a book new to me when I started this Year of Poetry, and Daley-Ward is a poet I’ll now return to long after this series of posts comes to an end. A young woman born in England of West Indian and West African descent, Yrsa Daley-Ward is not the kind of poet I read in my undergraduate British Literature class, but she will be one read in Brit Lit a hundred years from now.

Even as a young poet (she wrote bone before she was thirty), Daley-Ward’s battle-won perspective feels wise: “You may have learned from your / mother or any other hunted woman” she writes in “a fine art.” Or the stanza in “artichokes” that reads:

Remember on the right night and
under the right light
any idea can seem like a good one
and love
love is mostly ill-advised but always
brave.”

But she is not defined by her hardships; Daley-Ward’s strength and sense of self rises from the page in poem after poem. And she tells stories.

Stories of love, like “she puts cinnamon on tomatoes.”

You knew you liked her when
she was talking about her life one day
and in the street the drunk women
were fighting
and the young men were playing
house music
and there were Muslims praying
amidst all this
and the taxis were honking their
horns all around her in a circle of
chaos

so she went back inside in all her
calm

and where the two of you are now, in
a different town
and different time, there are dogs
barking outside
and you love the way
her name feels behind your mouth.

She puts cinnamon on tomatoes
white pepper on carrots
mustard seeds on unlikely things
and takes wine and ice with breakfast.

She sits awake at night
and dreams with open eyes
so you are not afraid to tell her
every time you want to run.

There was a time when fingers on
white walls made you nervous
a time when you didn’t pray so much
a time when you worried about what
the men in the street had to say

a time when you weren’t yourself
they tell you you’re an abomination to
God
how so? You speak to God more
often now
than ever before.

She sketches jellyfish
and planets
smokes a broken white pipe
and you feel like an instrument
that she’s had for years.

You pool pennies together
for dinner, most nights
but you’re happy.
You are. You’re happy.”

Daley-Ward tells stories of hope, stories of triumph, and stories of broken hearts.

Some are Daley-Ward’s stories, some the stories of others, and all stories that have the power to resonate beyond geography, gender, or social status. Yrsa Daley-Ward tells human stories, with verse so beautiful that it feels more than human.

Her awareness of what it is to be a person in the world, and her understanding of her own complex self, bring a wisdom even to her wittiest of poems, like “I’ll admit it. I’m drawn to the wolves” which reads:

I’ll admit it, I’m drawn to the wolves

I like the lines you use on me
they crackle a little, like magic.

I cannot pull my mind off you
even though
I do not trust your hands.”

I happened upon an audio of Daley-Ward reading the title poem and “I’ll admit it…” and was delighted to hear her voice sharing those words. There is a truth in what she says, raw honesty that is refreshing, challenging, and real. 

As she says in an untitled poem late in the collection: “I suppose you know you’re writing the / truth when you’re terrified.” It’s hard to read terror in Daley-Ward’s voice; she is a poet of poise and power, but it’s easy to understand what she means. Poetry transforms our world, telling a truth we too often avoid.

bone is filled with truth, long stories and short ones, flashes of emotion and slow burns of reality. It’s a collection I’ll reread and share with a friend, filled with bits of verse already echoing in my head.

Yrsa Daley-Ward is a powerful poetic voice that I look forward to hearing for years to come. Her story, her stories, are our human stories, and to hear them through the cipher of her verse gives me hope, understanding, and inspiration.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry.

A Many-Sided Mind: Robinson Jeffers

In the early part of the 20th century Robinson Jeffers built a forty foot tall tower out of stone. Alone. He and his wife lived in Carmel, on the central coast of California, raised their family there, and it was in the house he crafted himself that he wrote decades worth of poetry, first elevating him to critical and popular status (he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1932), then descending to the status of a poet to be feared, or at least not totally trusted in patriotic post war America (one collection carried with it a publisher’s warning that some of the poems could be considered unpatriotic), and finally lifting him back to some sort of respectability again as his poems (which had been constant in their praise of nature) were seen as prophetic and poignant examples of a new movement in poetry that valued the land and natural environment. Lots there.

As the world changed around him, as his reputation ebbed and flowed, Jeffers wrote in his tower overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Reading his poems now, particularly as so many of us are isolated at home because os COVID-19, is a walk on the more natural side of the mountain, a ramble through the landscape of a very particular mind to a place as rough hewn as the tower he built with the same hands that composed the wide range of verse in my battered copy of Selected Poems.

RJI picked up my copy of Selected Poems at a little bookshop in Pacific Grove, just a few miles from Jeffers’ Tor House and Hawk Tower. Over the years it has traveled in my back pocket on more than a few walks, and revisiting it for this Year of Poetry was a nice reminder of what I loved about Jeffers’ verse, an evocative and textured trail of words that seem to pace around the property on the bluff in Carmel and offer a glimpse of something greater than simple humans like us.

In “Their Beauty Has More Meaning” Jeffers allows himself to appreciate the world he sees independent of its connection to the human world. He finds nature transcendent, and us less so.

Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean,
Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn;
The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings. Today
Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,
And white seas leap. I honestly do not know which day is more beautiful.
I know that tomorrow or next year or in twenty years
I shall not see these things—and it does not matter, it does not hurt;
They will be here. And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here: storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and the birds. And I say this: their beauty has more meaning
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.”

Some poems are timeless not because of a generality, but because of the habit history has of repeating itself. Written in the jazzy gluttonous nineteen twenties, “Shine, Perishing Republic” feels as apt in 2020 as when it was written nearly a hundred years ago.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops
and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make
fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances,
ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life
is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than
mountains; shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their
distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, and when the cities lie at the
monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man,
a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught
—they say—God, when he walked on earth.”

This, and others like it, was the kind of verse that earned Jeffers a place in the pantheon of antihumanism, and to many critics anti-Americanism. But there is optimism in this poem, rising like fruit from Jeffers’ fading flower. In a time in the United States with some of the same challenges as the first two decades of the twentieth century (from pandemic to wealth inequality) Jeffers’ reassurance that “corruption / Never has been compulsory” is a reminder that we can do better. Maybe.

But not all Jeffers poems read like a Cormac McCarthy novel. Many do, but not all of them.

“The House Dog’s Grave” has a sweetness to it; Jeffers turning his pen to the feelings of a deceased pet. Maybe it’s because we just lost one of our own furry family members at my household (Chester, a loving nineteen year old tabby), but reading the poem felt comforting in a way that not many of Jeffers’ poems do.

I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read–and I fear often grieving for me–
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope than when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dear, that’s too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. . . .
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,

I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.”

Mary Oliver would be proud

Men have less warmth in Jeffers’ poetic universe than the house dog of that poem. In “Leave them Alone” he shouts from his tower to the world around:

If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead;
no prizes, no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up
around him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies, but not his friends.
That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have
killed Keats; that is what makes
Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art.”

Jeffers was on the cover of Time magazine in 1932, thirty years before this poem was published, but enough of that. 

Selected Poems covers half a century of verse, and does a nice job capturing the stormy nature of a poet who lived on a bluff overlooking the sea. Reading a lot of poetry this year has reminded me of the importance poetry can play in the world we live in, as a Cassandra shouting out against the craziness of the world, a chronicler of the spirit of the times, and as a perspective that spans eras, drawing us closer together as people. Even if Jeffers might think us less significant than birds.

This year of poetry has also reinforced how right Jeffers is when he tells us that a poet is one who listens / To nature and his own heart.” Now, I think it’s time to go build a stone tower…

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward.

The Cheeseseller’s Wife: Kim Whysall-Hammond

I started this Year of Poetry with a line from Yeats, rumbled through Atwood and Walker, Hughes and Borges, Angelou, Avison, and Rita Dove. I spent some time with the familiar volumes on my bookshelf: William Stafford, Seamus Heaney, and Pablo Neruda, then picked up some new favorites: Fatimah Asghar, Nate Marshall, and Tracy K. Smith. With each book, from the slim volume of Kerouac to the doorstop collection of Victorian poetry, I watched verse poke and prod at the world around us, seep into the cracks, and bring forth blossoms like the lilacs clinging to Whitman’s dooryard.

The thing all of those posts so far have had in common is that they come from books. They live, as any good book lives, in neat rows on the shelf or less neat stacks atop shelves, end tables, and the floor near my desk. Kim Whysall-Hammond’s verse lives in my in-box and on my computer.

I don’t follow very many blogs, but one that I look forward to notifications from every week is “The Cheeseseller’s Wife” a collection of “Anything and Everything, but mostly Poetry.” It is a delight.

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Kim Whyhall-Hammond describes herself and her blog with the cheery welcome: 

Hello, I’m Kim.

My mother was a poet, and I have always written poetry, long before I found books of the wonderful stuff  (Mum had none in the house). I have never shared any of it before I set up this blog in 2015.

Here you will find my poems and others I feel the need to share with you (but mostly my poems). There will also be the occasional post about other things, but as the tag line says it’s “mostly poetry”.

And, yes, my husband sells cheese. Sometimes I help.”

And those poems she shares are wonderful.

Since you’re reading this online, I suppose I’d be wise just to direct you to her page: The Cheeseseller’s Wife. Even if you chose to stick around for the rest of this post, I hope you’ll circle back and spend some time in Berkshire, a corner of the UK that I know mostly from The Cheeseseller’s Wife.

Because you do get a wonderful window into this part of the world, both present and past, from Whysall-Hammond, in poems like “Green” with the evocative description: “Green rumbles rambles rolls and ripples / in all its shades and hues / rustles murmurs sways and drifts / floats on and under the waters of both / chill chalk stream and ocean.”

Cheeseseller's WifeBut her poetry is not limited to landscapes; The Cheeseseller’s Wife is as comfortable dashing through love, in poems like “Bleeding my Words” and “The Things You Have Said”; history, asking (of our distant ancestors in the poem “Neanderthal”) “Was it the red hair / that so entranced us?”; and art, as in the poem “Art for My Sake” and accompanying watercolor, of which she tells us:

Brush in hand
I decide on the first stroke
Relieved to have got this far”

Her poetry also reminds us that we need each other, whether in recent poems like “Sunshine in Darkness” written in this time of COVID-19, or an older poem I love about Guy Fawkes, “Fireworks over England (Penny for the Guy)” that ends with the stanza:

We need to take back the small anarchies,
set off Fireworks in our own gardens in November,
burn the Guy as effigy of all we are told to be frightened of,
embrace the neighbours, we are all in this together.
Whatever colour or creed.”

How we need to “take back the small anarchies” and poetry reminds us to do that in a way that prose cannot.

How fortunate I count myself to have access to living poetry, not just in books, but in the world. The Cheeseseller’s Wife is a poet I appreciate (as I do Yeats, who started this year of posts on poetry, or Skloot, or Snyder) and (unlike Dickinson, or Brooks, or Milton, whose best days are behind them) one I look forward to. And when there’s something I need to hear, some bit of verse that just might make my day, transport me to the green fields of a part of the world I have never visited (outside of poetry and a novel or two), her notifications even has the kindness to send me an email.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers.

“Nature, disposed to love”: Dante Alighieri

Nearly 800 years ago love looked like love. 

danteLa Vita Nuova is an unusual book, part collection of poems, part (allegedly) historical diary of a young lover, and part treatise by a master poet for other poets. It feels fragmented at best because of this, with the temptation (depending on audience) to hurry past the historical set up that prefaces most of the poems, or the semi-critical poetic reflections that follow, and get to the verse. Even more than seven centuries later, poetry is the language of love, and the prose that surrounds it an earthly casement for more heavenly words.

Dante traces his affection for Beatrice back to a chance meeting when they were preteens and follows it through years of longing that set the gold standard for unrequited love.

The poetry is marvelous, classical sonnets and such written by a master.

To every captive soul and gentle lover
Into whose sight this present rhyme may chance
That, writing back, each may expound its sense,
Greetings in Love, who is their Lord, I offer.
Already of those hours a third was over
Wherein all stars display their radiance,
When lo! Love stood before me in a trance:
Recalling what he was fills me with horror.
Joyful Love seemed to me and in his keeping
He held my heart; and in his arms there lay
My lady in a mantle wrapped, and sleeping.
Then he awoke her and, her fear not heeding,
My burning heart fed to her reverently.
Then he departed from my vision, weeping.”

This invitation for readers to offer the poet their interpretations of his vision of Love holding his heart in his hands and then feeding it to Beatrice is Dante being both bold and more meta than a 13th century composition date might initially suggest. The poem alone is both interesting and compelling, filled with the almost gothic images that might appeal to an emotional, or over emotional, “captive soul and gentle lover.” Like the other poems in La Vita Nuova, it doesn’t need the explication the poet provides immediately after the text of the verse.

Reading La Vita Nuova, I was reminded of reading Shakespeare’s sonnets this fall in preparation for teaching a theater class. The mystery, or at least historical ambiguity that surrounds those poems add a delicious openness to interpretation that makes the sonnets richer. Dante, in his expressed desire to speak directly to poets reading his work, robs the poems of that power.

A poem like “Death villainous and cruel, pity’s foe” is rich on its own. It neither needs a paragraph following hard upon that begins: “This sonnet is divided into four parts. In the first…” Just no. At least not for me.

But the poems…

Love and the noble heart are but one thing,
Even as the wise man tells us in his rhyme,
The one without the other venturing
As well as reason from a reasoning mind.
Nature, disposed to love, creates Love king,
Making the heart a dwelling-place for him
Wherein he lies quiescent, slumbering
Sometimes a little, now a longer time.
The beauty in a virtuous woman’s face
Pleases the eyes, striking the heart so deep
A yearning for the pleasing thing may rise.
Sometimes so long it lingers in that place
Love’s spirit is awakened from his sleep.
By a worthy man a woman’s moved likewise.”

La Vita Nuova is filled with verse that (at least in Barbara Reynolds’ fine translation) feels fresh today, even as the subject matter places it firmly in historical past.

O pilgrims, meditating as you go,
On matters it may be, not near at hand,
Have you then journeyed from so far a land,
As from your aspect one may plainly know,
That in the sorrowing city’s midst you show
No sign of grief, but onward tearless wend,
Like people who, it seems, can understand
No part of all its grievous weight of woe?
If you will stay to hear the tale unfold
My sighing heart does truly promise this:
That you will go forth weeping when I’ve done.
This city’s lost her source of blessedness,
And even words which may of her be told
Have power to move tears in everyone.”

Dante’s pining, his passion from afar, his loyalty to this idea of Beatrice is both antiquated and somehow real. For those of us who love books, read poetry, and are willing in daily life to suspend disbelief, La Vita Nuova is filled with riches worth digging for. We are all part of that “Nature, disposed to love,” that Dante writes about, longing to create “Love king.”

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with “The Cheeseseller’s Wife.”

Wind like the hair of dryads: Billy Collins

Billy Collins is sly. He is witty and often wise. The voice I hear in my head as I read his poems is his from a marvelous video of a poem not in the volume I chose for this post, but of the poem “To My Favorite Seventeen Year Old High School Girl.” It captures the whimsy and a hint of the critical eye that inform so many of his poems, and make him a favorite of mine.

I was introduced to Collins poetry by a fellow English teacher whose last class of the day I offered to cover when she got tickets to hear the poet speak in San Francisco. She brought me back a signed copy of Nine Horses by way of a thank you. She loved Collins and I’ve loved his poetry since she gave me that book.

collinsFor this Year of Poetry I knew I wanted to include one of the volumes from my shelf, and when COVID-19 pushed us all indoors I decided that Picnic, Lightning would get the call. It’s a collection from 1998 and is filled with poems that take me from the kitchen table to the world outside. 

Collins has the ability to invite readers to share quiet moments, as he does in “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’” (which should send all of us looking for Blakey’s rendition of the song right now). “I start wondering how they came to be blind,” Collins tells us, “If it’s congenital, they could be brothers and sisters” and “Or was it a common accident, all three caught /  in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?” The poem then slips into something more musing than bemused, as the poet hears the song and entertains the “rising softness” he feels imagining these blind, tailless rodents.

It’s in those inner and reflective poems that Collins shows us that the life of the mind is rich when observation and reflection are allowed to play together like drummer Blakey and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. But Collins’ rich music isn’t limited to the interior of the poet’s mind.

“Serpentine” takes us to the spotting of “the moving question mark of a snake.” “Looking West” sees us standing aside the poet on his back lawn, and “After the Storm” invites us to sidle up with Collins at the bedroom window and look outside to see:

The world calm again, routine with traffic,
After its night of convulsions,
When storm drains closed at the throat,
And trees shook in the wind like the hair of dryads.”

Reading that poem today, and looking up at a world neither calm again nor routine with traffic, I’m comforted by the poet’s ability to bring some sense of peace that eludes our more prosaic world.

Collins also captures a world of jazz in his verse that had me cuing up a list of masters (Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis) as I sat down to type this post. It’s difficult to marry jazz and verse, or at least to do it well, but in lines like “The drums are drops of water / on my forehead, / one for every inhabitant of China” Collins does just that.

Then, on page 74, he takes off Emily Dickinson’s clothes.

“Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” is a poem worth reading complete, so I’ll simply quote the line: “…but, of course, I cannot tell you everything” and move on with discretion.

Reading Billy Collins is a treat, and in these days of staying at home it is a joy I wish on everyone I know. So I raise a glass to Patricia O’Brien, my colleague and friend, and the person who introduced me to a poet who has become part of the landscape of my bookshelf, rider of Nine Horses, inquisitor of Questions About Angels, and poetic guest at that deliciously dangerous Picnic, Lighting.

 

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Dante’s La Vita Nuova.