armistice_day: (winter's tale . it is a gallant child)
I spent a lot of time alone as a child. Most of that time, when I wasn't riding my bike, I was reading. Or performing interpretive dance to ABBA records, but I won't be covering those flights of fancy in this post.

I read a lot. An awful lot. The Great American Novels of the time, courtesy of the Book Club return cards my mother never returned in time, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Fantasy and Science Fiction received as gifts from Uncles and Aunts, my mother's mysteries, historical fiction and classics, and my own slowly growing collection of odds and ends. One feature of which were my books of poetry. Anthologies, collections, and the like. Big, thick books, crammed with poems. Some of the poems were sad, some were strange, some were boring, some were sappy, some were dirty, and some were beautiful. These are still my main categories for sorting poems, and I find they work quite well. Though I am much easier on the sappy poems now than I was then.

I had a lot of odd hobbies. Lots of only children do. We're inventive about finding ways to use time. One of my hobbies consisted in banging out the poems I really loved on my mother's old portable typewriter. Once typed, I kept them in a folder in my Trapper-Keeper, for easy access. Who could say when I might like to read that poem again? It could happen at any time.

Once, I left a poem, only partly typed, in the typewriter. The paper was onionskin. The verse was one from a poem called "The World" by Henry Vaughn, the very first verse. I didn't much care for the other verses. Though full of incredible images, they were of a moralizing tone that I disliked. But the first-- I didn't have to type it out, I already knew it by heart, I just wanted to. I wanted to not only see the words, say the words, but feel them, too.

When my mother came to collect the typewriter from my room (she typed my father's seminary papers on the same machine), she found the poem and showed it to my father. I hated to disappoint them, but when they asked me if I had written it, I had to say I hadn't. I also probably went on enthusiastically about the verse itself for a bit.

For a long time, I wanted to be a poet. Sometimes I am one, in the usual way. But more usually I am one in my own way. The images I read and the images I see are one and the same in my mind. They become each other forever, a great loop. A great ring.

When I look up to the tangible stars or when I feel the intangible rush and roar of time, I hear Vaughn's words. They are always with me, an image in my mind. Slanted sunlight on translucent paper, the book open at my elbow, the heavy clack of the keys, itchy carpet under my belly, a waving curtain, the sound of a train in the distance.


I saw Eternity the other night,
like a great ring of pure and endless light,
all calm, as it was bright;
and round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
driven by the spheres
like a vast shadow moved; in which the World
and all her train were hurled.

--The World, Henry Vaughn
armistice_day: (cockaigne . in aspect)

And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass

--Ezra Pound
armistice_day: (o fortuna . velut luna)
The Carmina Burana, is a collection of medieval poetry featuring themes that range from the religious to the political, the moral to the erotic, and the Bacchic to the Satirical. Found collected in a monastery, the Songs of Beuren were the work of "goliards", defrocked monks, vagrant students, minor clerics and minstrels. Today, the most famous (read: most abused and and overworked) of these songs is the O Fortuna (Imperatrix Mundi)-- a rail against Lady Luck Herself, set to music by Carl Orff.

Reading the lyric, it's plain that there really is nothing new under the sun. After all, who is there who hasn't felt utterly forsaken from time to time?


like the moon you are changeable,
ever waxing and waning;

life first oppresses and then soothes
as fancy takes it;

Poverty and power, it melts them like ice.

monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, you are malevolent,
well-being is in vain and always fades to nothing
shadowed and veiled, you plague me too;

Now, through the game, I bring my bare back to your villainy.

Fate is against me,
in health and virtue driven on and weighed down,
always enslaved.

So at this hour, without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate strikes down the strong man
all weep with me!


Since this poem was meant to be heard as a song, I feel it's fitting to include a performance in this post. This is a fine one, by the LSO under Richard Hickox.
As hard as it is to divorce this music from its familiar, modern context, try to put the million movie trailers, explosions, and nervous breakdowns aside and take it in. It's well worth the effort.

[It's also a hell of a lot of fun to sing.]

armistice_day: (Default)
Ms. Sexton went out looking for the gods.
She began looking in the sky
--expecting a large white angel with a blue crotch.

No one.

She looked next in all the learned books
and the print spat back at her.

No one.

She made a pilgrimage to the great poet
and he belched in her face.

No one.

She prayed in all the churches of the world
and learned a great deal about culture.

No one.

She went to the Atlantic, the Pacific, for surely God...

No one.

She went to the Buddha, the Brahma, the Pyramids
and found immense postcards.

No one.

Then she journeyed back to her own house
and the gods of the world were shut in the lavatory.

At last!
she cried out,
and locked the door.

- Gods, Anne Sexton
armistice_day: (gold . put the inside on the outside)
Verse is everywhere, and so is meaning. Even in words that have become so well known that it's an effort to experience them afresh.
Shakespeare can feel at first so monumental, so unapproachable, or even so done, but really his plays are stories of universal human feeling that resonate with any people in any time or place. There we are in all of our best and worst moments.

Slings & Arrows is a great show if you love Shakespeare-- it's even a great show if you aren't all that familiar with Shakespeare and just want to see some fine acting, some superb writing, and some fine tragicomic drama.
The poem I've chosen for today is an often quoted selection from Macbeth. If you'd like to hear wonderful reading of this poem, you can find one here, as part of an episode of Slings & Arrows [>>2:56-5:16], complete with context.


She should have died hereafter;
there would have been a time for such a word.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time,
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more: it is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

-- Macbeth, s.V, William Shakespeare
armistice_day: (modern vintage . the vile village)
He didn't look a thing like a poet, did Theodore Roehtke.
Assigned reading: The Lost Son, one of his first longer works.

from "The Lost Son"

Snail, snail, glister me forward,
bird, soft-sigh me home,
worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Fished in an old wound,
the soft pond of repose;
nothing nibbled my line,
not even the minnows came.

Sat in an empty house
watching shadows crawl,
There was one fly.

Voice, come out of the silence.
Say something.

Appear in the form of a spider
or a moth beating the curtain.

Tell me:
which is the way I take;
out of what door do I go,
where and to whom?

It was beginning winter,
an in-between time,
the landscape still partly brown:
the bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,
above the blue snow.

It was beginning winter,
the light moved slowly over the frozen field,
over the dry seed-crowns,
the beautiful surviving bones
swinging in the wind.

Light traveled over the wide field;
The weeds stopped swinging.
The mind moved, not alone,
through the clear air, in the silence.

Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
yet still?
A lively understandable spirit
once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.

-- Theodore Roethke
armistice_day: ((dCd) spleen and ideal . avatar)
I've been posting a poem a day in my journal during April for a few years now. This year will be the first in this journal, though I will be cross-posting. This year there's a bit of a bittersweet feeling about the whole enterprise, what with the very recent passing of Adrienne Rich. So much has been said about her, and her poetry. I can only say that she shaped not only my idea of what poetry was, but of how I experienced poetry-- how I wrote it thought it and spoke it and lived it.

The moment of change is the only poem.- Adrienne Rich


W.H. Auden is always a feature of this month for me, something I always post. He's one of my very favorite poets. Someone, along with Adrienne Rich, I consider to be one of "my" poets. I think they'd both find that idea pretty amusing, for various reasons.

They are very different (couldn't be more-so, really) Rich and Yeats. Different poets, different people. Still, when I think of Rich's passing, it's Auden's tribute to Yeats that comes to mind.



He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

- In Memory of W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden


Follow, poet.