Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Lame Beggar - John Donne

I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand, or move; if he say true, he lies.

English is a great punning language, as John Donne skillfully shows here.  This is the type of poem where you laugh despite yourself.  You don't really expect to laugh in a poem about a lame (invalid) beggar.  Who laughs at a beggar?  Still, if the beggar is telling the truth, he lies.  Lies on the ground, that is.  It's the sort of pun that takes you by surprise and which must be rather disorienting for non-native speakers.

Monday, June 29, 2015

To Cupid - Joanna Baillie

Child, with many a childish wile,
Timid look, and blushing smile,
Downy wings to steal thy way,
Gilded bow, and quiver gay,
Who in thy simple mien would trace
The tyrant of the human race?

Who is he whose flinty heart
Hath not felt the flying dart?
Who is he that from the wound
Hath not pain and pleasure found?
Who is he that hath not shed
Curse and blessing on thy head?

"The tyrant of the human race."  What a fitting title for Cupid.  Cupid, the most obvious stand in for love, is the subject of this poem.  Described as an innocent child int eh first stanza, he is, in reality, cruel, inflicting wonderful, terrible hurt upon the whole human race.  As the poet asks, "Who is he that from the wound / Hath not pain and pleasure found?"  Just about everyone has experienced love, and knows well both its pain and pleasure.  There's really not much more to explain, but the poem is a sentiment that I'm sure most have felt, put simply and elegantly.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Dipper - Kathleen Jamie

It was winter, near freezing,
I'd walked through a forest of firs
when I saw issue out of the waterfall
a solitary bird.

It lit on a damp rock,
and, as water swept stupidly on,
wrung from its own throat
supple, undammable song.

It isn't mine to give.
I can't coax this birth to my hand
that knows the depth of the river
yet sings of it on land.

Beauty often strikes us unexpectedly, and sometimes oddly.  The titular dipper is a bird which is odd in its ability to swim and dive underwater.  It must be a strange sight to see a bird burst forth from a cold waterfall and sing, but it clearly caught the poet, Kathleen Jamie, off guard.  She cannot give you this beauty, but she can tell you about it.  "It isn't mine to give" she says.  That bird's song is its own, and even if we imagine it when we read, it's just a shadow of the real item.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Watercoloring - Billy Collins

The sky began to tilt,
a shift of light toward the higher clouds,
so I seized my brush
and dipped my little cup in the stream,

but once I streaked the paper gray
with a hint of green,
water began to slide down the page,
rivulets looking for a river.

And again, I was too late -
then the sky made another turn,
this time as if to face a mirror
held in the outstretched arm of a god.

Billy Collins is likely my favorite contemporary poet, and this poem is a good example of why that is.  In it, a painted tries to capture a moment in time with his painting.  The paint streaks, and he looks up to discover that he is no longer painting the same sky.  It's a beautiful image, and where he couldn't capture the sunset in painting, Collins gives it to us on the page, and now in your mind's eye you envision that one moment of the sky you wish you could save forever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Storm Ending - Jean Toomer

Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears...
Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey -
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.

My hometown just had an absolutely incredible thunderstorm, with another seemingly starting now.  It was quite devastating from what I have seen thus far (downed trees, damaged houses, fallen power lines) but despite that, in the moments leading up to it, captivating in its bizarre stillness.  It is thrilling seeing the world illuminated by a lightning bolt against an otherwise dark sky, something I think captured magnificently in this Jean Toomer poem.  Stay safe, any of you readers who live with stormy weather routinely.

Monday, June 22, 2015

I Find No Peace - Sir Thomas Wyatt

I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not - yet I can scape no wise -
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was an ambassador to Italy from England under King Henry VIII, and today is widely believed to have been the lover of Anne Boleyn.  Wyatt's ride travels meant he was widely read, and he was one of the first to adapt the sonnet to English from Italian.  While the English he uses is somewhat archaic here, it's still largely understandable to our modern "eyen" and its sense of self-imprisonment and conflict due to love are as relevant as ever.

Wyatt expresses his great frustration at love through paradox, which I imagine is how many of us experience love.  He sees without eyes, he speaks without tongues, he burns and freezes.  He soars high without rising with the wind and is held captive by all and no chains and fetters all at once.  All of this because "my delight is causer of this strife."  That which brings him joy, his love, also causes him this pain, and so paradox is the only vehicle through which he can express it.

"I love another and thus I hate myself" might be among the most perfect descriptions I've yet heard for being in love.  Loving another is the knowledge that you are not whole.  It is allowing yourself to be hurt as deeply as you can imagine, and knowing that another is entrusting you with that same power.  If it is a frustrated love, as it seems to be in this poem, it would indeed rob you of all peace.  That line cuts through the rest of the poem like a knife, and I think it will stick with me a long time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

There Was A Young Lady Whose Chin - Edward Lear

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she made it sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

What a silly image!  Limericks are just plain fun, and while they're often ribald or bawdy, they can be good, clean, ridiculous fun.  This is from Lear's "Book of Nonsense."  We don't always have to think hard, or at all, to enjoy poetry.  There's no point here; apart from the point of the Young Lady's chin, that is.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Blood and Lead - James Fenton

Listen to what they did.
Don't listen to what they said.
What was written in blood
Has been set up in lead.

Lead tears the heart.
Lead tears the brain.
What was written in blood
Has been set up again.

The heart is a drum.
The drum has a snare.
The snare is in the blood.
The blood is in the air.

Listen to what they did.
Listen to what's to come.
Listen to the blood.
Listen to the drum.

Actions speak louder than words.  Maybe we ought to listen.  But as we never seem to, wars continue, and lead continues to tear our hearts and brains apart.  What happened once will happen again, and it is always what's to come, it seems.  The lead.  The war drums.  The way our blood quickens in conflict and flows, and then we eulogize it with words and promise to be better but never are.  What a magnificent poem.  Hopefully one day we learn to listen.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Lullaby - W. H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

Certainly, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Hardly a traditional lullaby, but comforting in its own way nonetheless.  Reading this, I picture a new mother or father holding their baby, and that this is their internal monologue, rather than a spoken or sung lullaby.  They hold their baby, the "entirely beautiful" in their life.  The whole poem is about savoring every moment of love because every moment, "on the stroke of the midnight pass" death inches closer, and "every farthing of the cost / all the dreaded cards foretell."  Of course we all know that we will someday die.

Where the poem pivots, where the comfort always re-enters, is in the endless almost stream of consciousness flow of love.  "But from this night, not a whisper, not a thought, not a kiss nor look be lost."  Every single second together with this baby is remembered, savored, sacred.  The third stanza wishes all good fortunes upon this child.  "Noons of dryness find you fed" and "nights of insult let you pass."  At all times, the narrator wishes their child to be "watched by every human love."  The constant outpouring of love more than offsets the grim fate that awaits us all, and of which Auden does remind us.

As a new uncle, I cannot help but wish that my new niece is "watched by every human love" as she grows, and I can't imagine how wondrous and special each and every noise and movement are to my brother and his wife, the new parents.  I do know that my niece will hear many a lullaby in the years to come, and that she is surrounded on every side by love.  Perhaps though, for her, this lullaby from Auden can wait.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Complaint - William Wordsworth

There is a change - and I am poor;
Your love hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond heart's door,
Whose only business was to flow;
And flow it did; not taking heed
Of its own bounty, or my need.

What happy moments did I count!
Blest was I then all bliss above!
Now, for that consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,
What have I? shall I dare to tell?
A comfortless and hidden well.

A well of love - it may be deep -
I trust it is, - and never dry:
What matter? if the waters sleep
In silence and obscurity.
- Such change, and at the very door
Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.

The moment when someone no longer loves you is confusing and disorienting, and that's at the heart of the Wordsworth poem.  While it may be easy to read this poem as whiny, given its title, I think it's best to consider it from the angle of a hurt lover, who now finds no love where once a flood of it flowed.  Only in absence does Wordsworth realize the love he once had.

I do have a gripe with this poem though, and that is that it's inconsiderate of the feelings of the one whose love has stopped flowing.  While that certainly doesn't negate the pain Wordsworth's narrator feels, I can't help but feel it's somehow unfair to complain in such a self-focused manner.  In matters of the heart, fairness seldom applies, however.  Whether there is a good reason for the cessation of that flow of love or not hardly seems to help ease the pain.  Even when your mind can rationalize, the heart often cannot cope.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Aliens - Amy Lowell

The chatter of little people
Breaks on my purpose
Like the water-drops which slowly wear the rocks to powder.
And while I laugh
My spirit crumbles at their teasing touch.

This poem, to me, perfectly encapsulates how emotionally draining it can be to deal with others, sometimes.  To be surrounded by the foreign, no matter how much you smile and laugh, does wear on you, crumbling your spirit slowly "like the water drops which...wear the rocks to powder."  Even if we don't take the title, "Aliens" to mean foreign peoples in terms of culture, it can simply be strangers.  I think we've all had a day where every interaction takes something out of you.  We are all alien to one another on some level, and our selves are our sanctum and shield.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Ancient Song - Chris Hart

Clear eyes
Clear voice
His song twinkles
As he sings the sunburst
On the crest of the wave

Wandering five-fold steps
As she climbs the mountain path
Melody and trail
Go where they will
In uneven leaps
But natural

He has never spoken
She knows he loves her
Voices joined
In accord
In a chord

She looks up at the stars
Wind, song, they are the same
When they blow through the trees

Nothing ever spoken
Nothing left unsaid

This is one I've been working on for a while, readers.  I remember reading a while ago that researchers think that before speech ever developed, primitive human ancestors communicated by something more resembling song.  Like how we babble to infants, or hum absent-mindedly.  I've taken that idea and perhaps too strongly romanticized it.  I imagine a couple falling in love with one another's voices, expressing everything they see musically.  I allude to the pentatonic scale because it's probably the most intrinsic musical scale researchers have yet identified, and common to most world cultures.

I do wonder about the last two lines, as I think they come on too strong, and are perhaps even a bit preachy or heavy-handed.  I included them because I'd like feedback.  I like the idea of this poem, but I'm unsure of its execution.