In this pandemic year where it is not safe to travel, books and television have become even more important to me. I’m a fan of Scandinavian noir–mysteries set in Sweden, Finland, Iceland, or Norway. Henning Mankell and his Wallander series of books are one of my favorites. I very much enjoyed two Scandinavian TV series: “The Bridge” and “The Restaurant.” Be sure to watch the Swedish version of “The Bridge”, which is the best. It’s dark but absolutely compelling. “The Restaurant” is a three season series set in Stockholm on the Roku Channel and Sundance Now, very popular in Europe, which I think is as good as “Downton Abbey”– terrific production values, acting and costumes. Thank goodness for ebooks from the library, Netflix and Prime. Now if we can just get to the end of this very difficult year. I think better times are ahead and hope that you feel that way, too.
Here is an unusual poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. One of its themes compares the waning of the year to aging. From Selected Poems, copyright 1963. (Please forgive the slashes between stanzas. I haven’t yet figured out the much more complicated new version of WordPress. I will!)
A Sunset of the City
Already I am no longer looked at with lechery or love.
My daughters and sons have put me away with marbles and dolls,
Are gone from the house.
My husband and lovers are pleasant or somewhat polite
And night is night.
It is a real chill out,
The genuine thing.
I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer
Because sun stays and birds continue to sing.
It is summer-gone that I see, it is summer-gone.
The sweet flowers indrying and dying down,
The grasses forgetting their blaze and consenting to brown.
It is a real chill out. The fall crisp comes.
I am aware there is winter to heed.
There is no warm house
That is fitted with my need.
I am cold in this cold house this house
Whose washed echoes are tremulous down lost halls.
I am a woman, and dusty, standing among new affairs.
I am a woman who hurries through her prayers.
Tin intimations of a quiet core to be my
Desert and my dear relief
Come: there shall be such islanding from grief,
And small communion with the master shore.
Twang they. And I incline this ear to tin,
Consult a dual dilemma. Whether to dry
In humming pallor or to leap and die.
Somebody muffed it? Somebody wanted to joke.
Here is a poem by T.E. Hulme (1883-1917), an influential English critic and poet who has been called the father of imagism. He was killed in action in Flanders at age 34.
A touch of cold in the Autumn night–
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
When I was a child, we had a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A CHILD’s GARDEN OF VERSES in the house, and I was fond of reading it over and over. The book first appeared in 1885 and has been reprinted many times with different illustrators. This is a poem from that book that I think has stood the test of time. It captures the longing a child has to prolong a summer day.
BED IN SUMMER
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me on the street.
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?
Here is a summer poem set in the city, by William Matthews (1942-1997).
The details in this poem pile up to evoke an uneasy, rather sad feeling.
MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, JULY
Haze. Three student violinists boarding
a bus. A clatter of jackhammers.
Granular light. A film of sweat for primer
and the heat for a coat of paint.
A man and a woman on a bench:
she tells him he must be psychic,
for how else could he sense, even before she knew,
that she’d need to call it off? A bicyclist
fumes by with a coach’s whistle clamped
hard between his teeth, shrilling like a teakettle
on the boil. I never meant, she says.
But I thought, he replies. Two cabs almost
collide; someone yells fuck in Farsi.
I’m sorry, she says. The comforts
of loneliness fall in like a bad platoon.
The sky blurs–there’s a storm coming
up or down. A lank cat slinks liquidly
around a corner. How familiar
it feels to feel strange, hollower
than a bassoon. A rill of chill air
in the leaves. A car alarm. Hail.
The moon, of course, is the subject of thousands of poems. I was thinking about this looking at a sharp moon in a very clear sky in Maine last night. Here is a poem by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), a somewhat out-of-fashion but marvelous poet. He won three Pulitizers, two for his poetry and one for his biography of Lincoln.
Shine on, o moon of summer.
Shine to the leaves of grass, catalpa and oak,
All silver under your rain to-night.
An Italian boy is sending songs to you to-night from an accordion.
A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month;
to-night they are throwing you kisses.
An old man next door is dreaming over a sheen that sits in a
cherry tree in his back yard.
The clocks say I must go–I stay here sitting on the back porch drinking
white thoughts you rain down.
Shine on, o moon,
Shake out more and more silver changes.
Today is poet Gary Snyder’s 90th birthday, as Garrison Keillor reminded us on The Writer’s Almanac. I first read and loved his poetry when I was a college student in California in 1969. Here is a poem of Snyder’s from his book AXE HANDLES, copyright 1983 by Gary Snyder.
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with–”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay On Literature”–in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
This is the loneliest National Poetry Month in my memory, with no live readings. It’s heartening that creative people are figuring out new ways to share poetry on Zoom, YouTube and other platforms. As clever as these virtual events are, nothing can take the place of a live audience in the same room as a reader. The strange “new normal” we’re living in seems like the right time to post this simple, powerful poem about not taking being healthy, or one’s comforting routines, for granted. It’s a favorite of mine by the late New Hampshire poet Jane Kenyon. (from Collected Poems, copyright 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.)
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day,
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Photos of iconic places like the Piazza San Marco and Times Square empty – the way we’ve never seen them – are haunting. What a difference a month makes. It’s hard to grasp how strange this spring is and will be: no Easter celebrations, baseball, Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon. One comforting and positive side of this plague is a flowering of online music, poetry, museum tours and art offered to everyone for free. April, National Poetry Month, will be very different, but poets will always keep writing and sharing their work in new ways. Here’s a poem that speaks to the uncertainty of life and how quickly things can change. To anyone out there reading this blog, stay home, stay safe and let your creative voice be heard.
NOTICE by Steve Kowit
This evening, the sturdy Levi’s
I wore every day for over a year
& which seemed to the end
in perfect condition,
How or why I don’t know,
but there it was: a big rip at the crotch.
A month ago my friend Nick
walked off a racquetball court,
got into his street clothes,
& halfway home collapsed & died.
Take heed, you who read this,
& drop to your knees now & again
like the poet Christopher Smart,
& kiss the earth & be joyful,
& make much of your time,
& be kindly to everyone,
even to those who do not deserve it.
For although you may not believe
it will happen,
you too will one day be gone.
I, whose Levi’s ripped at the crotch
for no reason,
assure you that such is the case.
Pass it on.
We’re in that time of year between true winter and real spring – classic Maine “mud season”, when the temperatures veer wildly and a lot of us are greedily perusing garden and seed catalogs. We know we can’t plant outside until May, but we can dream. Here is a wonderfully rhymed poem by Robert Frost, published in 1927.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
Jane Kenyon was a passionate gardener. Like another New England poet to whom she is often compared, Robert Frost, she paid close attention to the seasons and their effects, and uses simple language to convey deep feeling.
February: Thinking of Flowers
Now wind torments the field,
turning the white surface back
on itself, back and back on itself,
like an animal licking a wound.
Nothing but white–the air, the light;
only one brown milkweed pod
bobbing in the gully, smallest
brown boat on the immense tide.
A single green sprouting thing
would restore me. . . .
Then think of the tall delphinium,
swaying, or the bee when it comes
to the tongue of the burgundy lily.
Jane Kenyon (1947-1995)
I’ve attended a lot of poetry readings, both as a reader and an audience member. Over the years, I’ve evolved some pretty strong opinions about what makes a good reading. So for what it’s worth, here’s my list.
- Don’t take more than your allotted time. Practice your reading at home so you know how long it will take. Otherwise you are shorting other readers’ time and probably boring your audience. Some readers set their phone to time them, or have a friend in the audience signal when time is getting near. But if you practice, you should know exactly how many poems to read.
- Always leave them wanting more. If in doubt, read less. If the reading is engaging, people will find your books or online work later.
- I think it’s good to start by reading at least one poem by another poet. This makes the reading more interesting and makes your own reading seem like a bit less of an ego trip.
- Decide what you’re going to read ahead of time and MARK THE BOOKS or papers you are reading from. Don’t wing it and shuffle pages making your audience wait. To me this is charmless, amateurish and dissing the people listening.
- Vary the tone of what you read. Don’t read all sad or serious poems. Throw in some funny ones or alternate forms.
- Do minimal explaining or introduction to your poems. The poems should stand on their own. Rambling stories are rarely as entertaining as you might think.
- Speak clearly and loudly enough. Bring your glasses. Print out poems in large font if you have trouble reading. Don’t assume the lighting will be good.
- Wear something you are comfortable in. Make some eye contact with your audience.
- Gauge your audience and have backup poems. Some venues or audiences are not appropriate for poems with curse words.
- If you are a poor reader of your work, tend to mumble, not speak up, rush through your poems, or are just really nervous reading, the experience will be stressful for you and your audience. Consider getting some coaching or take a speech or acting class. Performing your poetry in public is a very different skill from writing it. It’s all right not to be a great reader, but every poet can be a good reader.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017) was a charismatic, internationally known Russian poet, actor, director and political activist. This is a translation by Boris Dralyuk of one of Yevtushenko’s poems. It came to mind because as the year winds down, many people, including me, struggle with the bittersweet, emotionally loaded nature of the holidays. We may love the lights and decorations, the get-togethers and presents, but we also miss the loved ones we will never see again. I miss my parents, who both loved Christmas, intensely. I honor them by baking Mom’s holiday cookies, putting old family ornaments on my tree, and looking at photos of Christmases past. But none of that negates their absence.
This poem is about how each person is irreplaceable, no matter how quiet or anonymous a life they may have led.
There are no boring people in the world
There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct – you simply can’t compare it.
If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity –
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.
Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of those worlds must have its finest moment
and each must have its hour of bitter torment –
and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.
When people die, they do not die alone.
They die along with their first kiss, first combat.
They take away their first day in the snow…
All gone, all gone – there’s just no way to stop it.
There may be much that’s fated to remain,
but something – something leaves us all the same.
The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish –
it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.
In southern Maine we are getting our first significant snowfall. Here is a lovely, clever poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) which never names its subject.
It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –
It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain –
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again –
It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It deals Celestial Vail
To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
A Summer’s empty Room –
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them –
It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen –
Then stills its Artisans – like Ghosts –
Denying they have been –
Despite wild storms recently, we still have some colorful foliage here in Maine. For me the time changeover is hard; I don’t like the dark closing in so early.
Here is an elegant fall poem by the wonderful Rita Dove, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995. Copyright 1981 by Rita Dove.
NOVEMBER FOR BEGINNERS
Snow would be the easy
way out–that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.
So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!