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Poem for July

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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.

 

summer quote

By the Light of the Moon

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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.

Back Yard

 

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.

 

moon night sky

Honoring an American poet

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Gary Snyder

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.

AXE HANDLES

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.

 

Poem of gratitude in this scary time

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.)

OTHERWISE

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise.  I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, flawless

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.

forsythia close up

 

 

Poem for Trying Times

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,

suddenly tore.

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,

showered,

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.

 

empty piazza san marco

Spring Marches slowly

 

seed catalog flowers

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.

SPRING POOLS

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.

 

 

 

 

Dreaming of color in a white/gray month

Delphinium New Millennium Dwarf Stars SKU 64015

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)

How to be a better reader (out loud)

cat with book, glasses

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.

  1. 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.
  2.  Always leave them wanting more.  If in doubt, read less.  If the reading is engaging, people will find your books or online work later.
  3.  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.
  4.  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.
  5.  Vary the tone of what you read.  Don’t read all sad or serious poems.  Throw in some funny ones or alternate forms.
  6.  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.
  7.  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.
  8.  Wear something you are comfortable in.  Make some eye contact with your audience.
  9.  Gauge your audience and have backup poems.  Some venues or audiences are not appropriate for poems with curse words.
  10.   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.

 

A poem to end the year

Yevtushenko older1932-2017 Yevtushenko

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.

A poem that doesn’t name its subject

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.

snow landscape

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 –