Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Moonless Darkness Stands Between"

"Nativity," by Carl Bloch

"Moonless Darkness Stands Between"
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, O Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: "Sail On, O Ship of State!"

"Ship Starlight" by Fitz Hugh Lane

Sail On, O Ship of State!
             (from The Building of the Ship)
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all its hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
‘Tis of the wave and not the rock;
‘Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by a gale!
In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith, triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, —are all with thee!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Robert Frost: "My November Guest"

"My November Guest"

by Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Wild Swans" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

What is it about the calling of migratory birds that stirs us?

In my part of the world, it is the sandhill cranes – their peculiar, triumphant croaking that marks winter’s approach, and a few months later, the return of spring.

I grew up reading and re-reading Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales: the stories that lived within me most were all tales pivoting around the winged migration: the gallant robin who returns to Thumbelina and at last bears her away to the warm and flowery land; the storks who clatter their beaks together in sunny Egypt telling the story of the northern Swamp King’s daughter; and the Wild Swans – the seven brothers who return to carry their sister out of danger, the faithful sister weaving capes of nettles with blistered hands and mute in her own defense to save her brothers from their step-mother’s curse.

Something mysterious is happening in the skies. Is it any wonder we paint angels with wings, rushing down out of the sky with a message from on high?

The mark of the birds’ flight across the sky – an ideogram in moving ink. Their cry – a message we barely know how to understand.

I know I will stand still when the cranes go over, watching and listening as long as I can keep them in range. As if there were some warning or news – something more surprising than just, Winter is coming.

The poem “Wild Swans” – like most of Millay’s – is sleek, straightforward, measured in meter and rhyme. Her style is too simple sometimes for our post-Eliot age that loves complexity and ambiguity, but in this poem the way the words skim over our minds is like the flight of those migrating swans – orderly, expected and beyond us. Millay tosses the rhyming up in the air – abbc cbac – enough order to set up expectation, enough surprise to unbalance. And while the entire poem is written in pentameter (five emphasized beats per line), the lines are of varying syllabic length: both stanzas begin with a longer line (like the ribbon of flight trailing above us) and each subsequent line falls short of that first flight. The penultimate line (“Wild swans, come over the town, come over”) is the shortest in syllables – it is the line that cries out our lack, our falling short, our yearning for the flight of the wild swans.

Wild Swans
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.

Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock the door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Denise Levertov: "Stepping Westward"

"Self Portrait" by Mabel Alvarez 

Stepping Westward
by Denise Levertov

What is green in me
darkens, muscadine.

If woman is inconstant,
good, I am faithful to

ebb and flow, I fall
in season and now

is a time of ripening.
If her part

is to be true,
a north star,

good, I hold steady
in the black sky

and vanish by day,
yet burn there

in blue or above
quilts of cloud.

There is not savor
more sweet, more salt

than to be glad to be
what, woman,

and who, myself,
I am, a shadow

that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out

on a thread of wonder.
If I bear burdens

they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket

of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me

in fragrance. I can
eat as I go.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"The Day is Done" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ah, Longfellow. Not only is his style eaily lampooned but even his name sets itself up for witticism:
You're a poet
And don't know it,
But your feet show it -
They're long fellows!
We no longer live in an age of public poetry. And our great public poets of the past are hard to hear now, when we hear them only murmured beneath our breath, into our own inner ears only. So much of poetry now is for private meditation, individual epiphany – a silent interchange between a reader and a written page from a writer with a written page. Even at poetry readings, I feel myself drawn inward, listening to the poet read their words from where they stand far away within their innermost self.

So it was strange recently to recite a public poem by Longfellow at my grandfather’s funeral and to feel the audience following – filling up the words, as if I were a voice for more than myself, their accompaniment filling the hall as much as my voice did.

I must confess I had never, even as a child, really considered “The Day is Done” true poetry. I’d memorized it at my schoolteacher grandpa’s prompting – to please him. But “Paul Revere’s Ride” (also by Longfellow, which we memorized together afterward) was much more dramatic: “Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere . . .”; and even had occasional chanted passages that gave me that shudder of weirdness that was for me the marker of a true poem:

A phantom ship with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar
And a huge black hulk that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide
But even with such passages I was sure within myself – despite older people’s opinion to the contrary – that Longfellow just was not a poet in the same way that Emily Dickinson was – whose poem after poem shook me and made me feel strange, as if suddenly awoken.

And it’s true Longfellow is not a poet in the same way. But I wonder now if I haven’t (if we haven’t) been too hasty in writing Longfellow off . Or is it just that I feel such affection for his poem now – it having kept me company through the death of my grandfather and what comes after. The words and rhythms I had thought manufactured and dry seemed in my sorrow to be reassuringly restrained and orderly. The rhyming lines rolling everlastingly on comforted me – that the rhythms around me – sun and wind and rain – would roll on as irresistibly. “The day is done” became for me not a clich├ęd phrase, but a measured acknowledgement of death. The lights of the village, the rain and the mist and the quiet, non-dramatizing sadness (“that is not akin to pain,/ And resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles rain”) matched exactly with my inner landscape – and apparently with the landscape within many of the congregants who attended the funeral. I saw them nodding, tears welling up in their eyes. Because these old-fashioned words were familiar from childhood? Because we all were a little weary of “life’s endless toil and endeavor/ And tonight I long for rest”? What have we lost by laying aside a culture where public recitation of good words, capable of holding the burden of many hearts, happens only at old schoolteachers' funerals? Where we cannot (do not) ask those who live alongside us to

. . . read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

Where we no longer know the chants of healing - those songs with “the power to quiet/ The restless pulse of care,” remembered words that “come like the benediction / That follows after prayer.”

The Day is Done
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is done and the darkness
Falls from the wings of night
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sorrow comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist.

A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple, heartfelt lay
That will soothe this restless feeling
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime
Whose distant footsteps echo
Along the corridors of time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor
And tonight I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet
Whose song gushed from his heart
Like rain from the clouds of summer
Or tears from the eyelids start,

Who, through long days of labor
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have the power to quiet
The restless pulse of care
And come like a benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night will be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Will fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

"daughters" by Lucille Clifton

woman who shines at the head
of my grandmother's bed,
brilliant woman, i like to think
you whispered into her ear
instructions. i like to think
you are the oddness in us,
you are the arrow
that pierced our plain skin
and made us fancy women;
my wild witch gran, my magic mama,
and even these gaudy girls.
i like to think you gave us
extraordinary power and to
protect us, you became the name
we were cautioned to forget.
it is enough,
you must have murmured,
to remember that i was
and that you are. woman, i am
lucille, which stands for light,
daughter of thelma, daughter
of georgia, daughter of
dazzling you.

I like this last poem because of its short, energetic lines - she doesn't waste time. And I like how she reclaims a forgotten unnamed foremother - renames her and reclaims her by imagining her. Like the poem at the first of the week, this poem bears witness to the lastingness of family connection.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Wedding Cake" by Naomi Shihab Nye

Once on a plane
a woman asked me to hold her baby
and disappeared.
I figured it was safe,
our being on a plane and all.
How far could she go?

She returned one hour later,
having changed her clothes
and washed her hair.
I didn't recognize her.

By this time the baby
and I had examined
each other's necks.
We had cried a little.
I had a silver bracelet
and a watch.
Gold studs glittered
in the baby's ears.
She wore a tiny white dress
leafed with layers
like a wedding cake.

I did not want
to give her back.

The baby's curls coiled tightly
against her scalp,
another alphabet.
I read new new new.
My mother gets tired.
I'll chew your hand.
The baby left my skirt crumpled,
my lap aching.
Now I'm her secret guardian,
the little nub of dream
that rises slightly
but won't come clear.
As she grows,
as she feels ill at ease,
I'll bob my knee.

What will she forget?
Whom will she marry?
He'd better check with me.
I'll say once she flew
dressed like a cake
between two doilies of cloud.
She could slip the card into a pocket,
pull it out.
Already she knew the small finger
was funnier than the whole arm.

Can't you just see that baby? And the tired mother? I always laugh at "we had cried a little" - they both had. For me the poem actually ends at "I'll chew your hand," the lines after that just aren't as interesting to me. Maybe she should have stopped it right there. What do you think?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Childhood" by Maura Stanton

I used to lie on my back, imagining
A reverse house on the ceiling of my house
Where I could walk around in empty rooms
all by myself. There was no furniture
Up there, only a glass globe in the floor,
And knee-high barriers at every door.
The low silled windows opened on blue air.
Nothing hung in the closet; even the kitchen
Seemed immaculate, a place for thought.
I like to walk across the swirling plaster
Into the parts of the house I couldn't see.
The hum from the other house, now my ceiling,
Reached me only faintly. I'd look up
to find my brothers watching old cartoons,
Or my mother vacuuming the ugly carpet.
I'd stare amazed at unmade beds, the clutter,
Shoes, half-dressed dolls, the telephone,
Then return dizzily to my perfect floorplan
Where I never spoke or listened to anyone.

I must have turned down the wrong hall,
Or opened a door that locked shut behind me,
for I live on the ceiling now, not the floor.
This is my house, room after empty room.
How do I ever get back to the real house
Where my sisters spill milk, my father calls,
And I am at the table, eating cereal?
I fill my white rooms with furniture,
Hang curtains over the piercing blue outside.
I lie on my back. I strive to look down.
This ceiling is higher than it used to be,
The floor so far away I can't determine
Which room I'm in, which year, which life.

Here's a poem I first came upon in college. The remembered image of the celing was so exactly what I remembered from my childhood, and the emotional significance of that spare ceiling world also rang true. Of course, I've found my way back down to the floor now. Now when I read this poem I remember the ache I felt, when alone ,for the messiness of living in a family again - and I yearn now again for some of the spareness and clarity of that ceiling life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"First Lesson" by Philip Booth

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's-float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

This poem speaks maybe more directly than any others I know to that panicky fear that shakes me sometimes. I love the image (reminiscent of baptism) of the father cupping the daughter's head, teaching her to float on the water. The very definite rhyme - though completely unobtrusive and occasionaly slant - buoys up the lines invisibly, just like the water will hold up the daughter (head, Spread, dead-; dive, believe, survive; held you, told you, hold you, alternating with fear and light-year.) Right at the center of the poem is an interesting internal rhyme: Daughter with water - as if in some way the water and the daughter are really one substance - and thus no reason not to trust herself to it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Hope" by Philip Booth

Old spirit, in and beyond me,
keep and extend me. Amid strangers,
friends, great trees and big seas breaking,
let love move me. Let me hear the whole music,
see clear, reach deep. Open me to find due words,
that I may shape them to ploughshares of my own making.
After such luck, however late, give me to give to
the oldest dance. . . . Then to good sleep,
and - if it happens - glad waking.

This poem is a prayer. I love the vigor of the lines (all those quick, strong words, many of them ending or beginning with energetic-sounding plosives t, d, p, k) and there's kind of a rocking rhythm like a boat or a lullaby that comforts me.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Half a Dozen More, beginning with "Easter Sunday, 1955" by Elizabeth Spires

Over the next week, six more poems, these from Word of Mouth: poems featured on NPR's All Things Considered edited by Catherine Bowman.

Easter Sunday 1955

Why should anything go wrong in our bodies?
Why should we not be all beautiful?
Why should there be decay? - why death?
- and, oh, why, damnation?
- Anthony Trollope, in a letter

What were we? What have we become?
Light fills the picture, the rising sun,
the three of us advancing, dreamlike,
up the steps of my grandparents' house on Oak Street.
Still young, my mother and father swing me
lightly up the steps, as if I weighed nothing.
From the shadows, my brother and sister watch,
wanting their turn, years away from being born.
Now my aunts and uncles and cousins
gather on the shaded porch of generation,
big enough for everyone. No one has died yet.
No vows have been broken. No words spoken
that can never be taken back, never forgotten.
I have a basket of eggs my mother and I dyed yesterday.
I ask my grandmother to choose one, just one,
and she takes me up--O hold me close!--
her cancer not yet diagnosed. I bury my face
in soft flesh, the soft folds of her Easter dress,
breathing her in, wanting to stay forever where I am.
Her death will be long and slow, she will beg
to be let go, and I will find myself, too quickly,
in the here-and-now moment of my fortieth year.
It's spring again. Easter. Now my daughter steps
into the light, her basket of eggs bright, so bright.
One, choose one, I hear her say, her face upturned
to mine, innocent of outcome. Beautiful child,
how thoughtlessly we enter the world!
How free we are, how bound, put here in love's name
- death's, too - to be happy if we can.

I choke up at "O hold me close," where the adult voice suddenly breaks into the thoughts of the child - like there's no real difference between then and now. And I love the thin-veil feeling of those first lines - her brother and sister are there, eager for their turn - to be swung you think at first, then to be born you realize. Throughout the poem there is a sense of eternal time, partly through repetitions and examples like those above, and partly because the rhythms and sound-patterns are very smooth and dreamlike. And it comforts me, the picture this poem gives of the continuity of love - I think our family, too, is that "shaded porch of generation, big enough for everyone." And that repetition of choosing - the egg we choose - the child coming after us. Free to choose and bound by our choices - it feels very true to me.
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