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Sometimes, a poem

poem is to right of trail, in weeds

poem is to right of trail, in weeds

 

Sometimes, the Field

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

Sometimes I bring my hunger to the field.

I sidestep the soft mounds,

the ants at their labor,

their back and forth with grains of sand.

 

I wait in the milkweed and withering thistle,

all of it turning and rustling in the wind.

I mean to come clean of everything—

no reason to want what isn’t.

 

Birds announce the coming storm—

they fly among the branches

not crashing into anything.

Dark with the next thought,

the ground is a wet reek

of old leaves and battered grasses.

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

Now I am on my knees remembering

the summer we drove west

through humid hill country,

Chicago blues on the radio like it was 1940.

Fields flooded and the river

swelled near the trestles

and freight trains passed us all night

and then it was morning.

Image 1

apologies to Ms. Spaulding for the misspelling of her name in the photo

 

My poem-elf fantasy—and one of the reasons I write this blog—is that a poem I leave behind falls into the right hands at just the right time, and a life is enriched, a perspective altered, an experience understood. When I place a poem in a tree or on a sidewalk or store shelf, I always imagine the person who finds it. Let’s call that fantasy, named after today’s poem, “Sometimes, a poem.” As in, sometimes a poem can change everything. But also, sometimes a poem changes just a little thing. Even a little thing is a lot work for a few words to do.

 

Unfortunately, the only time I’ve been aware of Sometimes, a poem happening, it’s been happening to me. And once again, Poem Elf has elf-ed herself. “Sometimes, the Field” caught me unawares even after I had chosen it, printed it, and thought about where to put it. Over several readings, the poem illuminated an experience I had had. There was no lightening bolt of understanding—just a burrowing into my conscious life and a permanent residency there.

 

I came across this poem because poet Holly Wren Spaulding made a comment on Poem Elf. Her beautiful name intrigued me. Turns out she’s a poet who spends summers in northern Michigan, as I do. I decided to put one of her poems up north, in its native habitat, so to speak. When I looked through her work, my choice was instinctive: “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

I have my own field, you see, but I’ll get to that later. First, Spaulding’s field.

 

The field in the poem is dark and moody, full of movement and the drama of a coming storm. The poem’s speaker has come here with a restlessness of her own, a soulful hunger. She wants something. What she wants is not to have the hunger she came with.

 

I mean to come clean of everything—

No reason to want what isn’t.

 

As she steps into the field, she observes her environs with a quiet respect that draws me in. Somehow the way she knows her place in the field makes me feel tender to her. She sidesteps the ants’ work. She waits quietly in the weeds and wet earth. She admires the skill of the birds not crashing into the wildly flying branches.

 

As she waits in the milkweed and withering thistle, she becomes absorbed into the landscape, and the external and internal storms come together:

 

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

The heavy humid air has connected her to the memory of a long ago road trip, a lost romance. Overwhelmed with grief, she falls to her knees.

 

We don’t know if the storm will wash away her pain. She may well leave the field with the same hunger she came in with, the wanting what isn’t. But at least she’s been able to mourn it openly, dramatically. Cathartically, I hope.

 

My tenderness for this speaker grows as I picture her on her knees in the open field, weeping, giving over her body to grief. The field allows her to express emotion un-self-consciously, a great gift. You can’t cry this way in a cubicle or mall unless you enjoy being stared at or whispered about. If you fall on your knees anywhere but church, someone will call an ambulance.

 

This is where my field comes in.

 

Image 6

the trail to my field

My field is on the grounds of Michigania, a family camp for alumni of University of Michigan. I am something of a trespasser. To get to there, I walk through woods along a sandy horse trail, up hills and down hills, the track narrowing then widening. Around the final bend, the path opens to a meadow. When I see the sky uncovered, the hills in full sun, the tall grasses leaning in light wind, the crickets jumping at my every footfall, something breaks open in me. Usually it’s a joyful expansiveness, a Julie-Andrews-twirl-in-the-mountains feeling. But lately something darker breaks out. A sob. Then weeping. Weeping like I haven’t wept since I was fourteen and watched West Side Story for the first time.

 

 

Regular readers of this blog know that I lost my mother a few months ago. I’ve been grieving in a typically Western way—-trying to keep busy and not giving in to moping and tears. So the first time I started crying in the Michigania field, I was surprised. It started with just a stray thought of my mom. Then an intense longing for her, which I had pushed down, down, down, took over me completely.

 

Jane in the field

Jane in the field

The crying happened on my hikes a few more times, but I wasn’t surprised anymore. I figured tears came because I was alone and there was no one near I had to explain myself to.

 

leaving

leaving

But I’m also alone in my room, in my car, on walks through my subdivision, and I don’t cry in those places. Spaulding’s poem clarified the situation. In the field, I’m able to feel. Some connection with nature or my own wild self opens things up. I leave it to someone else to analyze why nature provides this outlet and man-made spaces don’t. I just know I’m grateful to the field and to “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

There’s a passage from the beautiful novel A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr that I’ve quoted on this blog before, but Spaulding’s field poem and my experience in the field call for me to post it again:

 

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 3.25.53 PM

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She now lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts where she runs Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about it here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

One last picture . . . a stray ant on her poem

a stray ant on her poem

A daughter’s sun

IMG_2198

 

Waiting At The Window

by A. A. Milne

 

These are my two drops of rain

Waiting on the window-pane.

 

I am waiting here to see

Which the winning one will be.

 

Both of them have different names.

One is John and one is James.

 

All the best and all the worst

Comes from which of them is first.

 

James has just begun to ooze.

He’s the one I want to lose.

 

John is waiting to begin.

He’s the one I want to win.

 

James is going slowly on.

Something sort of sticks to John.

 

John is moving off at last.

James is going pretty fast.

 

John is rushing down the pane.

James is going slow again.

 

James has met a sort of smear.

John is getting very near.

 

Is he going fast enough?

(James has found a piece of fluff.)

 

John has quickly hurried by.

(James was talking to a fly.)

 

John is there, and John has won!

Look! I told you! Here’s the sun!

 

IMG_2197

 

It’s a compulsion for the grieving to speak of the dead. It’s a kindness to listen.

 

So thanks in advance for kindnesses given.

 

IMG_4229My mother died May 7, the day before Mother’s Day. She was ninety. As a reader of obituaries, I know that ninety is a long life. I know that a death at ninety is no tragedy. So many people get but a fraction of her years. So many live in misery for the years they have, struggling in poverty, physical debilitation, mental suffering, violence, refugee camps, open seas. I have no reason for bitterness over the length of her life or the circumstances of her death.

 

But still. It hurts. It feels sudden. She seemed so much younger than she was. Anyone who spent five minutes with her would come away from the visit hoping she’d get at least twenty more years to continue enjoying life on Planet Earth.

 

Until a few weeks before her death, she still drove herself, oxygen tank and all, to Sunday Mass and weekly hair appointments. She played bridge. She played jokes. She took interest. It’s hard for old people to do that, I know. Suffering in the hospital in her last week, she garnered the energy to weigh in on bridal shower invitations, ask questions about the college decision of one of her 38 grandchildren, delight in the announcement of a new great-grandchild scheduled to arrive in a month she must have known she wouldn’t be around for.

 

She had fluffy white hair that sproinged back when you touched it, a ready laugh, bright blue eyes that shined in the Irish way. She was mother to eleven, mother-in-law to ten, beloved by all. A Denver gal, a Navy wife. Redskin fan. A list-maker, a listener. A giggler. Penuche maker. Fan of British detective shows. Knitter for the Christ Child Society, her last project unfinished, a mint-green baby sweater.

IMG_1945  IMG_1946

She was always game for silly posing

She was always game for silly posing

 

I could go on, and I would–I do, in my head all day–but I’ve made my point, I guess. I miss her. Often I ache for her. What I want to do is honor her. She was a faithful reader of this blog and sometimes featured in it, so here is where my tribute to her will go.

 

My two-month delay in posting about her has been over poem selection. A few tributary poems came to mind, but nothing seemed adequate. I thought about these lines from Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” (from stanza 3, usually excerpted as a stand-alone):

 

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

This particular stanza is about a young Heaney skipping Sunday Mass with his mother to peel potatoes in the kitchen. I peeled many potatoes for my mother when I was young, lots of potatoes, potatoes for thirteen people, always flipping the peels on to waxed paper as she directed, but that image doesn’t carry her spirit for me. Still, the comforting sense of shared activity that Heaney describes is one I hold in my heart. One of my favorite memories of visiting my mother in Maryland over the last few years is sitting side-by-side with her on the couch, nearly touching shoulders, each of us reading our own books silently together.

 

Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned From My Mother” was also under consideration. A poem I’ve read dozens of times. But what Kasdorf learned from her mother–

 

have plenty of vases on hand

in case you have to rush to the hospital

with peonies cut from the lawn

 

is more in line with what I learned from my oldest sister Ceci. I learned lots of other things from my mother, not the least of which is that life is plenty hard but also plenty fun if you use your imagination.

 

Which brings me to the poem I did choose, “Waiting at the Window” by A.A. Milne, better known for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Here a little boy, stuck inside because of rain, makes a game out of watching raindrops roll down the glass. Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.29.44 PMThis is exactly the sort of thing my mother often did–create characters, make a race, not complain about situations you can’t change. (My two younger sisters remember fondly the many times she entertained them on boring errand runs. She’d have them duck down in the back seat of the brown Nova, hidden from view, while she called on her pretend CB radio, “Calling all cars, calling all cars. We have two missing girls, ages six and seven, both brunette, short hair. If found—” and so on, over and over because they found it side-splittingly funny.)

 

The poem is from one of two volumes she read to us: When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. All eleven of us can still recite from memory one poem or another from these collections, but the memory of her voice is what is most precious about these poems. Her reading voice was low and tuned to rhythm, and her wry delivery made every funny line even funnier and brought out humor not obvious to lesser readers. The musicality of Milne’s poems, the whimsy, and the sometimes subversive messages made these books perfectly suited to her.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 11.26.21 AM Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 11.30.09 AM Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 11.26.31 AM

 

Over time, the poems and the characters in them have become old family friends—Binker, Mary Jane, King John who was not a good man, Nanny who let the beetle out. Now We Are Six and When We Were Young are ingrained in our imaginations and shaped us in ways we probably don’t realize, ways big or small, who knows. I don’t want to make too much of a point about this, but it strikes me as funny that these poems and the accompanying illustrations (simple, beautiful line drawings by E. H. Shephard), which we associate with our mother more than any other material she read out loud, paint a world opposite the one we grew up in. My mother, who could not unjustly be accused of reverse snobbism, didn’t know any patrician families with nannies and cooks and big houses in London and distracted mothers dressed to the nines, absent fathers, only children. And she probably wouldn’t have liked them much if she did. Milne’s world is not quite Downton Abbey, but as far as can be from our suburban split-level house held together with duct tape and credit.

 

That home is where I left the poem, in the front bay window where I spent many hours looking out into the street. I had come back to Maryland to help clear out the house for a sale. (Which we did sell one morning that week, after Sunday Mass, my sisters and me, out of the blue, without a realtor, to a lovely young couple who will surely re-fill the empty house with life and fun. I hope the house cleaners leave the poem for them. I left a few others too, but will include those in another post.)

 

IMG_1057The only other connection I want to make about “Waiting at the Window” and my mother is the last line:

 

Look! I told you! There’s the sun!

 

She was not a rose-colored glasses lady, never a Pollyanna or even a cheerleader. But she had grit, she had perspective, a sense of humor and a strong faith, and that’s how she carried on. It was her example more than her words that taught us that the sun always does come out, eventually.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.33.09 PMAlan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) was born in London to a Scottish father and English mother. The family lived at the small private school his father ran, which Milne and his two older brothers attended, and where science-fiction writer H.G. Wells taught. Milne went to Trinity and Cambridge on scholarship. He studied math. At Cambridge he worked on the student magazine Granta and later worked for Punch, the famous British humor magazine.

 

He married in 1913, and served in World War I, although he was a pacifist. In 1920, after the war, he and his wife had a son, Christopher Robin, the inspiration for the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh and several of his poems. In 1934 he published an anti-war book, Peace With Honor, but later he served in World War II.

 

Milne played on a cricket team with J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, and Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock. It’s hard to imagine three such different writers playing a sport together. (A challenge to readers: come up with your own unlikely writerly sports team.)

 

He wrote thirty-four plays, seven novels, including detective fiction, five books of nonfiction and the books of verse already mentioned. His most famous creation, Winnie the Pooh, has been translated into over fifty languages (in Russia he’s Vinne the Poohk) including Latin.

 

There’s an upcoming biopic of Milne, starring Domhall Gleeson (Bill Weasley in Harry Potter films, among other roles) and Margot Robbie as his wife. The film will examine the affect of international fame on the Milne family. Can’t say it sounds particularly gripping or interesting.

 

Milne had a stroke in 1952 and never recovered well. Brain surgery left him partially paralyzed, and being an invalid took a toll on his personality and his family relations. His lingered three more years and died in early 1956.

 

I dreaded writing this post and cried many times writing it. But I feel better having finished. If you’ve stuck with me through all these long paragraphs, many thanks again.

Image 2

 

 

IMG_1946

IMG_1945

elevator was moving really fast, so picture is blurry

 

Saturday night I put this tiny excerpt from Matthew Arnold’s famous “Dover Beach” in a Toronto elevator. I was going to post it to my Twitter feed on Sunday.

 

But then Sunday happened, and I just couldn’t post anything that had the word “sweet” in it. Although I imagine the air in Orlando was sweet too, before Manteen came to Pulse.

 

In the past few days, other lines from the poem have been playing in my head, these from the last stanza:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

[I’ll reprint the entire text at the bottom of this post, but just to fill in for anyone who didn’t study this poem in high school: the speaker stands at the window, calls his love to join him (Matthew Arnold was on his honeymoon when he wrote this), and stares at the sea far below, the Straits of Dover. He gives an absolutely beautiful picture of a calm sea at night, the waves, the pebbles on the shore, the moonlight. Then his thoughts turn dark. He thinks of all the human tragedy through history, and so we arrive at this final stanza, bleak and mournful.]

 

In the wake of the Orlando horror, I keep coming back to

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another

 

and pushing back against

 

for the world . . .

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

 

I couldn’t go on if I thought that were true.

 

Maybe Matthew Arnold didn’t fully buy into that line of thinking either. Because there he was, at the window, with the beauty of the world before him and the love of his life beside.

 

If two can love, and be true, why not more?

 

Is the world that offers this beauty–

 

the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay

 

the same world as the one that has no joy, no light and no peace?

 

In spite of the Manteens of this world, in spite of the haters, the baiters, the lowest-common-demoninators, won’t there always be a window to look out, and someone—if we just call for them—to stand beside us and gaze into the night?

 

That’s not enough, I know, that’s not enough to cover the loss of all those beautiful young people, the loss of their dreams, their loves, their lives. It’s just a response. It’s just me rooting for love over hate, for hope over despair, for us-and-us over us-and-them.

 

R.I.P. to the Orlando victims. Comfort to their families.

 

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

 

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

poem in grass, off path

poem in grass, off path

 

Face to Face

by Tomas Tranströmer

translated by Patty Crane

 

In February existence stood still.

The birds didn’t fly willingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.

 

The trees stood with their backs to us.

Snow-depth was measured by dead straw.

Footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarp, language withered.

 

One day something appeared at the window.

Work came to a halt, I looked up.

The colors burned. Everything turned around.

The land and I sprang toward each other.

Image 2

 

May is a little late to be posting a poem celebrating spring, but this is Michigan. Spring is ever tardy. And gloomy, especially this past week. Then yesterday the sun came out, the air warmed up, and all the sudden it seemed like every tree and bush was in bloom. Even dandelions were a welcome sight.

 

So you can see why I was drawn to this poem. “Face to Face” poet Tomas Tranströmer lived in Sweden but his description of winter could easily have been of a Michigan one. Winters here are long and dreary, and round about March they feel just like this:

 

the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.

 

The poem tells a little story, familiar to all living things, a story of death and renewal as old as the hills, but there’s something fresh here. The speaker’s relationship with nature is almost romantic. The title of the poem announces an intimacy to be explored. The intimacy unfolds in human terms: the poem begins with a chill between two beings, a fight, silent treatment—and then—what I see as make-up sex:

 

The land and I sprang toward each other.

 

I just love that line.

 

This version of the poem is a translation, so I’m reluctant to pick at the words and phrasing much. What we read is an approximation of the original. Here’s a different version, so you can see what I mean.

 

This one by Robin Robertson:

 

In February life stood still.

The birds refused to fly and the soul

grated against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.

 

The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth

measured by the stubble poking through.

The footprints grew old out on the ice-crust.

Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.

 

Suddenly, something approaches the window.

I stop working and look up.

The colours blaze. Everything turns around.

The earth and I spring at each other.

 

I like the use of present tense in the last stanza better than the past tense in the Crane version, but overall, I like Crane’s better.

 

Here’s another one, this by Robin Fulton (do you have to have a bird’s name to translate Transtromer?):

 

In February living stood still.

The birds flew unwillingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the pier it lies moored to.

 

The trees stood with their backs turned to me.

The deep snow was measured with dead straws.

The footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarpaulin language pined.

 

One day something came to the window.

Work was dropped, I looked up.

The colors flared. Everything turned around.

The earth and I sprang toward each other.

 

For me, the best part of this version is the use of “flared” over “burned” in the penultimate line. But let me know your thoughts and preferences.

 

I had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer until I came upon a newly released collection of his at the library, but he’s hugely popular in Sweden. He’s been called Sweden’s Robert Frost.

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 2.35.12 PMTranströmer (1931-2015) was born in Stockholm, the only child of a journalist and teacher. His parents divorced when he was young. At Stockholm University he studied poetry, psychology, religion, and history, eventually earning his PhD in psychology. Throughout his life he worked with juvenile offenders, the disabled, and drug addicts.

 

He published poetry all the while and became close friends with poet Robert Bly who translated his poems to English and help popularize him in the States. When Tranströmer was 59, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Six years after his stroke he was able to publish another collection of poems. He also re-learned how to play the piano, a lifelong hobby, using only his left hand. Link here for a beautiful video of him playing the piano weeks before his death.

 

Tranströmer’s poems are read the world over, from China to the Middle East. His work has been translated into sixty languages. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011.

 

He won many other awards in his lifetime, but the tributes that interest me most are personal ones, tributes that show just how revered he was/is in his native country. A scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it after Tranströmer, who was an amateur entomologist and whose childhood collection of bugs was once shown at a museum. And after his stroke, several composers wrote pieces for just the left hand so he could play them.

 

One of his two daughters is a concert singer, and many of his poems have been set to music. Link here for one example.

 

 

poem is on second shelf from the bottom, on top of "Sales Order" pad

poem is on second shelf from the bottom, on top of “Sales Order” pad

 

The Business Life

by David Ignatow

When someone hangs up, having said

to you, “Don’t come around again,”

and you have never heard the phone

bang down with such violence

nor the voice vibrate with such venom,

pick up your receiver gently and dial

again, get the same reply; and dial

again, until he threatens. You will

then get used to it, and be sick only

instead of shocked. You will live

then instead of die, have a pattern

to go by, familiar to your ear,

your senses and your dignity.

Image 1

 

This one is from my Twitter feed, so I’m not going to comment too much, except to explain the very sorry state of the paper this poem is printed on, the tears and crumples. I’ve carried “The Business Life” around in my purse for the better part of a year. Bad things happen to papers in my purse. And I can’t bear to throw out a poem, no matter how worn.

 

I left the poem in a lonely aisle of Office Depot, but it really belongs in a sales training program. Or a life training program, if I’m going to be gloomy about it.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 3.18.00 PMA brief bio: David Ignatow (1914-1997) was the child of Russian immigrants. (Of course! That Russian fatalism is all over this poem.) He was born in Brooklyn, and after graduating from high school, worked as a bookbinder and newspaper reporter. Work being the subject of this poem and of many of his poems, it’s interesting to note how many different places Ignatow worked in his life to support his family: at a vegetable market, hospital, telegram office, paper company (hello, Michael Scott), and several universities.

 

I’ve liked this guy for a long time, and reading about his life, I like him even more. Think I’ll have to track down more poems of his to poem-elf.

 

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

 

Barter

by Sara Teasdale

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

All beautiful and splendid things,

Blue waves whitened on a cliff,

Soaring fire that sways and sings,

And children’s faces looking up

Holding wonder like a cup.

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

Music like a curve of gold,

Scent of pine trees in the rain,

Eyes that love you, arms that hold,

And for your spirit’s still delight,

Holy thoughts that star the night.

 

Spend all you have for loveliness,

Buy it and never count the cost;

For one white singing hour of peace

Count many a year of strife well lost,

And for a breath of ecstasy

Give all you have been, or could be.

 

Image 1

 

I may have mentioned once or twice that I love the cherry blossoms. Not cherry blossoms, mind you, but the cherry blossoms, the ones that ring the Tidal Basin and the ones that form a pink tunnel on the streets of Kenwood, a neighborhood in suburban Maryland. It’s a once-a-year treat, and if you don’t live in Washington, D.C., catching them at peak is a matter of luck. Walking under cherry blossoms is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had and the probably most ephemeral. The Japanese even have a name for it, hanami.

 

This is what the Kenwood cherry blossoms look like at peak:

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 3.17.44 PM

This is what they look like when you come too late:

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Which is what seems to happen to me year after year. Even the carpet of petals underfoot was gone. Sixty mile an hour winds two days before my visit scattered their beauty.

 

So I just had memories to go on, calling up the “breath of ecstasy” from past visits. Breath of ecstasy is what poet Sarah Teasdale names our experience of the sublime: the sight of crashing waves (what a great line—blue waves whitened on a cliff), and fire, and a child’s innocent face (another great line—holding wonder like a cup), the sound of music, the smell of pine trees in the rain.

 

These experiences, which we’ve always considered ours for the taking, as in, the best things in life are free, aren’t free at all in Teasdale’s vision. Life has loveliness to sell, she writes, and the cost is high, a year of strife, perhaps, or even all you have been, or could be.

 

I’m having trouble understanding how that barter works out in real life, how it might cost me, in real terms, to seek beauty. I’m not going to sell my house so I can live in Iceland for a year to see the northern lights. But I can see how easy it is to stay in bed instead of getting up to see a sunrise, or how much less it costs me to stay warm in front of the television instead of putting on a coat to look at a winter moon. Easier still to Google a photograph of the northern lights and tick it off my list of beautiful sights to experience. Teasdale’s poem reminds me that effort, not just attention, is required to experience such beauty, and in this post-Romantic, technology-mad world, effort is the price of loveliness.

 

It’s an old-fashioned poem, not perfect, a little clunky in parts, a little inflated in others, but there’s much to enjoy. The passion, the high-minded feeling, the Romantic yearning for the sublime—they don’t make such poems anymore. Outside of a spiritual context or yoga class, no poet today would write like this, unless the poet was being ironic. But how else to capture that most essential human feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty? We need these old poems, we need these old poets to express our awe, our wonder and straightforward joy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.57.17 PMSara Teasdale (1884-1933) was born in St. Louis, the youngest of four children. A sickly child, she was home-schooled till age nine. She started publishing her poems in her early twenties. Her work was well-received, and in 1917 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

 

In 1914 she married Ernst Filsinger, an admirer of her poetry, after rejecting several other proposals. They moved to New York City in 1916 and lived on the Upper East Side.

 

He travelled often, and during one of his trips, she moved away without telling him so she’d be eligible for divorce, much to his shock. They divorced in 1929. She re-kindled a friendship with an old boyfriend, poet Vladmir Lindsay. Lindsay was married by this time. He committed suicide and two years later she did at age 48.

 

A few years ago I left a poem of hers in the cosmetic aisle of Target. You can read that here.

Also worth noting:  her lyric poems seem to be popular with choral groups. Link here for one very lovely example.

Elves Among Us

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There comes a time in a woman’s life where she has to let go of long-held goals and finally to admit she’s never going get into grooming or have a wardrobe that’s pulled together.

 

The same goes for an elf.

 

For a long time I’ve wanted to make this blog more polished. Someday when I have extra money, I’ve been telling myself, I’ll pay someone to re-design the website. I’ll categorize poems by occasion. Someday I’ll print out poems on vellum, tie them with ribbon, maybe laminate them. Alas, nearly six years after I launched Poem Elf, it looks no different than when I started. My blog roll is shaggy, my presentation is not user-friendly or fun. The poems I put up around town are often crumpled or crooked, reflective of my scissor skills. I still print poems on plain white paper, and tape is always visible,.

 

No surprise that this blog is lacking in visual appeal. I wasn’t the girl with the eye-catching poster at the science fair–I was the girl who got “Unsatisfactory” in Penmanship.

 

This failing was brought home recently when I became aware of two other Poem Elves. One has style, the other better graphics.

 

Annie, one of my Washington, D.C. nieces, sent me pictures of a Poem Elf she discovered on her way to work. How wonderful! I love the cherry blossom colors and graphics and the fact that these haikus will be read by hundreds of people. None of them will blow away.

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This was Annie’s favorite, and mine too

Here’s a few more she passed by:

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Turns out this is not one Poem Elf but many. These are entries to the Golden Triangle Golden Haiku Contest. Link here to see the winners and other entries. (The winner is actually one of the haikus Annie sent me.)

 

The other Poem Elf is a continent away. For Christmas this year my niece Sophia made me a calendar with pictures of her and her sister Georgie poem-elfing around Quito and her home town of Guayllabamba, Ecuador. Their mother, my sister Josie, tried to translate the Spanish poems, which is a little helpful, as I could not find any translations of these poems on line.

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Notice the fancy hat Sophia wears in every picture. It’s like a scrunched-up chef’s hat. I like her style, her sly appearance in every picture.

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See Sophia peeking out behind the wall

 

April is National Poetry Month, and I suspect we will see other Poem Elves coming out of the woodwork. Should you come across one, send me their droppings.

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