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Posts Tagged ‘New Year’

For the last pairing of January men poems, I’m featuring poems so opposite in tone it’s giving me an idea for a buddy comedy.

 

First up is John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” “Dream Song 14” is one of 385 dream songs told through Berryman’s alter-ego character of Henry. Henry sometimes speaks in the first person (as in this poem) and sometimes is referred to in the third (see second stanza).

 

I left it nestled in a display of graveyard blankets. (I had never heard of such a morbid thing till I moved to Michigan. Wonder if other Midwest states market greenery in this way.)

 

Dream Song 14

by John Berryman

 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

 

 

Confession:  I don’t like this poem. Never have. Snark irritates me. I love the real, and snark is its opposite; or more precisely, snark hides the real and must be wiped off like clown make-up to see the truer facial expression.

 

At the risk of sounding like the awkward girl whispering what she doesn’t like about the popular girl (not denying I have been in this position before), let me run down a list of what bothers me about this famous poem, beginning with that killer first line:

  • Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

This strikes me as dishonest. An avoidance of pain. Which may be the point. Boredom hides depression and despair.

  • Tranquil hills & gin

Sounds try-hard to my ears, but maybe when the poem was published in 1969, this juxtaposition had a fresher, more original sound.

  • Peoples bore me.

Peoples? I get that Berryman needs to differentiate groups of people, however you classify them—ethnicity, nationality, religion—from love of people (in the third stanza, referring to Henry’s more open-hearted nature), but peoples will never not make my skin crawl.

 

So I ask you:  is this heavily-anthologized poem over-rated? Or is my reaction just a matter of personal taste?

 

Berryman’s biography is exhausting. Suffice it to say he was born in 1914, had a complicated childhood (suicide of his father), extra-marital affairs, three marriages, a late-life religious conversion, a history of alcohol abuse and depression. He jumped off a bridge in Minnesota in 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now let us move on to a more emotive man, at least on the page. The speaker in Edward Field’s “A Journey” is feeling all the feels on his train ride. I taped the poem to a pole at an Amtrak station.

 

A Journey

by Edward Field

 

When he got up that morning everything was different:

He enjoyed the bright spring day

But he did not realize it exactly, he just enjoyed it.

 

And walking down the street to the railroad station

Past magnolia trees with dying flowers like old socks

It was a long time since he had breathed so simply.

 

Tears filled his eyes and it felt good

But he held them back

Because men didn’t walk around crying in that town.

 

Waiting on the platform at the station

The fear came over him of something terrible about to happen:

The train was late and he recited the alphabet to keep hold.

 

And in its time it came screeching in

And as it went on making its usual stops,

People coming and going, telephone poles passing,

 

He hid his head behind a newspaper

No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes

To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric.

 

He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.

He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down

A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,

 

And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train:

And through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on

He walked, himself at last, a man among men,

With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.

 

 

“You just need a good cry,” I used to tell my kids, “then you’ll fell better.” Talk about a good cry—the poem’s speaker has a cry so good that

A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open

 

His transformation to a man among men is especially affecting because it was brought about by behavior not considered, even today, manly.

 

This is not a perfect poem. The claim that men didn’t walk around crying in that town seems a little silly (in what town do women walk around crying), but considering the rigid gender rules of the 50’s, the time in which the journey takes place (see link at end of post for more details), the phrase sets the context for the man’s newfound freedom.

 

Not perfect, but more importantly, real, and honest, and universal.

 

Since I’ve given short-shrift to Berryman’s biography, in fairness I can’t give too much space to Field.

Born 1924, he played cello in the family trio with his sisters on the radio, served in the Air Force as a navigator in WWII, worked as an actor and a typist, had a short affair with poet Frank O’Hara, taught poetry and published fiction with his long-time partner Neil Derrick.

 

I assume he’s still alive and if so he’s 94.

 

I love this anecdote he tells in an interview in Westbeth:

 

I gave a reading in Youngstown, Ohio—I guess at Youngstown State—and after I read, a woman who was a psychology teacher jumped up on the stage and said, “Yes, we must be free!” And then they carted her off. I guess I was a little too far out for Youngstown.

To learn more about the occasion for “A Journey” from the poet himself, link here.

 

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I’m trying to get my old men/sad men poems posted before the end of January—I got waylaid by a broken laptop and a too-long repair job (truly the techno-dog ate my homework)—so to keep things moving along I’ll post two short poems today and the longer ones by Friday. Then I can say fare-thee-well to the old and move on into February, which is, I know, not the obvious month for a fresh start, but for us procrastinators, a veritable mulligan for new year’s resolutions.

 

(Is there anyone who doesn’t want this January to be over?)

 

 

A strange old man

Stops me

Looking out of my deep mirror.

            —Hitomaro

 

 

I left (er uh, last December) a short poem by the seventh-century Japanese poet Hitomaro in a mirror in the men’s section of Nordstroms Rack. I had to slip it into a Michael Kors tie because I didn’t have tape. Notice how creased this poem is. It was one of the first poems I collected when I started Poem Elf nearly ten years ago. My plan was to have one of the men in my life leave it in a public restroom but I never found a volunteer.

 

Maybe I’ve kept it so long because I feel tender towards it. And respectful, the way one would feel about a pocket watch handed down from a great-grandfather long dead. The poem is a deep mirror itself and one I’ve never tired of looking at.

 

Little is known about Hitomaro’s life. He wrote for emperors and died around age fifty. So let’s assume he was in his forties when he wrote about the strange old man in the mirror. You’re still so young! I want to tell him, but I suppose the forties are the decade when bodily decline first surprises and shocks.

 

I’m pairing Hitomaro’s tanka with an excerpt from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.”

poem is on light post

 

An aged man is but a paltry thing

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing

            —W.B. Yeats

 

Excerpts are unfair to poems—it’s like showing a single buttock from a Rodin sculpture and saying, Look at this man think! But here it is, another piece of paper I’ve been carrying around for years and want to discharge.

 

Take a minute to read the whole poem, a rumination on aging and a celebration of creativity as an antidote. That’s how I read it anyway. Here’s what Yeats wrote about it (courtesy of Wikipedia):

I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.[1]

 

I left the excerpt in a parking lot at dusk in early December. I’m enjoying how the light and the poem transform a prosaic suburban strip mall into a jeweled and transcendent space.

 

Yeats is ever my favorite. Link here to an earlier post with his biography.

 

 

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Here at the beginning of the 20thyear of the 21stcentury; in the spirit of “out with the old, in with the new”; bearing in mind the cartoon personification of the passing year as a weary white-haired fellow; in special consideration of those readers of age to shudder at Father Time; with a sympathetic nod to the male of the species who may in the present age feel unmoored and undervalued; in regards to certain 2019 Poem Elf pictures never posted; and finally, in celebration of using a year’s allotment of semi-colons in a single sentence—I offer you a few poems on men and aging.

 

(It’s true, I’m not the most desirable guest at a New Year’s Eve party.)

 

Anyway . . . as anyone who’s ever had to take keys away from an elderly male driver will tell you, this men and aging thing is fraught with loss. Loss of masculinity, status and potency. It ain’t pretty.

 

Full-steam ahead then.

 

I have six poems total and I’ll feature two paired poems per post. Today we have Thomas Lynch’s “How to Stay Alive” and Rick Cannon’s “Point of Arrival.”  Lynch is a mortician and writer here in southeast Michigan. The Undertaking, his 2009 collection of essays, is one of my favorites, and he has a new one out this year, The Depositions. Rick Cannon is a poet and teacher at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. (featured in an early Poem Elf post, link here) and not coincidentally my nephew’s favorite teacher.

 

I left Lynch’s poem on a bench in the New York City subway.

 

How to Stay Alive

by Thomas Lynch

 

He found he had nothing of consequence

to say about the weather so he went

noiselessly about his sorry business—

a version of himself in which he kept

pace with his neighbors but at arm’s length

because his arms were too short and he ached

in ways he thought they’d hardly understand.

So he kept his distance, and assumed the stance

of someone he’d seen one time in a movie.

The sad sack in the poem is familiar as Prufrock and Walter Mitty, those characters who ache for emotional richness and settle for nothing of value. Lynch’s version—keeping pace with his neighbors but at a distance— seems to be in a race that he doesn’t want to win. It’s enough to be in the pack, to exist, to survive. He mistakenly believes—how many of us do too?— that in order to stay alive his true self has to die.

 

Cannon’s “Point of Arrival” is marginally less bleak. I stuck it on a twig by a random mailbox. Apologies to the owner if he took it personally.

 

POINT OF ARRIVAL

by Rick Cannon

He stands barefoot on the gray concrete,
the iron season cooling the blood
dull red through his flat slow soles.
He’s forgotten why he came to the garage
and stands in his shaggy robe before hammer,
awl and ratchet, dumb, blank,
as if stunned by a piece of news.

Out the window he sees the tight copse,
stripped spar and mast shrouded in pale
yards of light.

Still he stands, lost,
but beginning perhaps to sense, as dawn
will seep beneath a blind, that from far away
and through much trial he’s come
exactly here. And as he stands issuing

breath, that slow rhythm leaf by leaf,
he feels the earth shift slightly
under tonnage of wind
toward white winter.

For several minutes he stays his feet flat
on the stinging stone, a robed man
in a cold garage accepting his extremity,
seeing it had always been so:
even from the beginning he’d been,
by far, out too far to survive
more than just this little while.

 

A man in his bathrobe standing stock-still in his garage in the early morning is always going to worry me. Something is dying here, and it’s not just the late-autumn leaves. Will it end in suicide? Are we looking at the onset of dementia? The tools of the man’s former industriousness, the hammer, awl and ratchet, sit before him like a language he doesn’t understand anymore. He’s come smack up against his mortality. Perhaps his failures too.

 

I say Cannon’s poem is marginally less bleak than Lynch’s because at least this man feels connected to the beauty of nature. And he seems to be a work in progress. His acceptance of his loss, whatever it may be, happens as we watch, whereas Lynch’s man is stagnant from the moment we meet him.

 

Gee, welcome to Debbie Downer’s New Year’s celebration. More to come.

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Sorry for the blurry photo—it was taken in a moving car at 5 in the morning—but if you squint it looks like an abstract painting, rather pretty.)

 

Alaska With Jess

by Jacqueline Zeisloft

 

Whipping past black spruces and white ones, too

we weave; fast enough for falling thistles

not to land in our hair.

I am not cold

 

But you are.

Little complainer, I love you.

A scarf in August, shielding your soft face,

blinding you to the mountains

where I imagine we are going.

 

Everyone else is inside

Reading fantasy or eating soup.

The back carriage is open

To three blunt sides, as I grip

the railing and your small hand.

 

They say it’s twice the size of Texas.

I say we sleep in the dining car

and grow up on the rails.

Together.

 

Hello 2019, and in with the new, as they say. In this case, a new poet, a young woman I met at a book launch whose friend “outed” her to me as a poet. I told her I’d post one of her poems if she sent me a few, so here’s a big hearty welcome to “Alaska With Jess,” the first Poem Elf post of the year.

 

“Alaska With Jess” eluded me the first few times I read it. Some poems are like shy people, they need patience and time. You can’t just keep lobbing questions—What does this mean? Why this?—you have to allow the poem to unfold on its own terms.

 

Which it did, serendipitously. Christmas Eve on the way to the airport, poem in hand, trying to place it before the year was out, in the early cold morning in the back seat of an Uber, just my son and me beginning an adventure, our near and dear left behind and asleep, I was suddenly struck that I was living out a smaller version of the poem.

 

Experiencing a poem on a visceral level is a wondrous thing. Reading over the poem in the dark by light of my cell phone as we sped down the highway, I felt the excitement of the poem’s speaker as she imagines the huge mountains ahead. I looked over at my sleepy son and flushed with the tenderness she feels towards the young child in her charge who she has taken to the back of the train to showcase the view.

 

The speaker has made the choice of adventure over coziness. Those inside the train are settled with their soup and books. Those outside see what’s moving past, and in their mind’s eye they see the scenery ahead. Isn’t this just the thing for a new year, this gift of the young? Over and over they bring us to the world. Over and over we beg them to make life new again. There they are, perched on the back of the train, seeing what we don’t and bubbling over with excitement. How we need that.

 

Born in LaGrange, Illinois in 1995, poet Jacqueline Zeisloft dreamed of becoming a country music star until she decided to get her degree in English Lit at Belmont University in Nashville. Her most important influence is 20th century Scottish poet WS Graham (I’m going to look him up). She’s also inspired by Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, Naomi Shihab Nye, Frank O’Hara, Seamus Heaney, Sappho, e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She’s especially taken with the Beat poets.

 

So young, so full of creative energy and talent. Keep travelling, Jacqueline. Keep seeing the world with such excitement, and keep reporting back.

 

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

********

 

[From the Department of Shameless Plugging and also the Department of Anti-Out-With-the Old:  The book launch I mentioned above was for a book my daughter Rosemary co-edited with the dare-I-say venerable Tom McGrath, frequent commentator on this blog. Sharing the Wisdom of Time is an inspiring collection of interviews with elderly people across the world, from all walks of life, from Martin Scorsese to a blind basket weaver in Kenya. The accompanying photographs are gorgeous—each face tells its own story. The interviews cover subjects like love, work, struggle, faith, and death, and they’re all short, so you can dip in now and then and read a few whenever the need for wisdom, perspective and kindness hits. It’s a book for everyone, a beautiful reminder that what we humans have in common far outweighs what divides us. You can purchase from Loyola Press here or, for Amazon shoppers, here.]

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Invictus

by William Earnest Henley

 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

 

 

“Invictus” is one of those poems that’s familiar even if you’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard of the title (which inspired, among other things, a movie about Nelson Mandela, a men’s fragrance, a CrossFit workout, and Prince Harry’s sporting competition for wounded veterans). Certain phrases from the poem have wide circulation—master of my fate, captain of my soul, bloody but unbowed, clutch of circumstance—and whole lines have shown up everywhere from a Winston Churchill speech to a scene from Casablanca to a Lana Del Ray song. You probably even know the poet without knowing the poet (more on that later). So it’s good to see the whole of “Invictus” and understand why it’s had such broad appeal over centuries and continents.

 

As for me, the appeal is limited. I don’t love this poem, but I can’t help but feel roused after reading it. It’s a veritable shot of adrenaline to those on their last legs. Which is actually where the poem came from. From someone on his last leg.

 

At age twelve poet William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) had a leg amputated because of tuberculosis of the bone. In his early twenties doctors wanted to amputate his other leg. But Henley sought out the famous surgeon Joseph Lister (pioneer in preventative medicine, eponym of Listerine) who used antiseptic techniques to save Henley’s remaining limb. While recovering in the hospital for three years, Henley wrote “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered.”

 

Henley was a magazine editor, critic, playwright and poet. He’s often called the Samuel Johnson of the Victorian era, so striking his influence. The circle of writers he published and befriended included Robert Louise Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and W.B. Yeats.

 

A tall, muscular man with a red bushy beard and big personality, Henley was surprisingly agile on his wooden leg and cane. And here’s how you might know him: he was the inspiration for the most famous pirate of all time, Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Henley, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.” …

 

His only child, Margaret Emma, lives on in literature as well. She used to call J.M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy,” and so the character of Wendy in Peter Pan was born. Margaret Emma died of meningitis at age five.

 

Henley died of complications of tuberculosis at age fifty-three.

 

I left “Invictus” in a co-working site in Detroit. No one took it down for a few days and as far as I know it’s still there. Maybe the poem will inspire confidence in a beleaguered entrepreneur wandering the halls.

 

And for you readers, I hope as much.

 

Be it personal, political, or meteorological, whatever place of wrath and tears you’ve lived through this past year, whatever bludgeoning of chance you’ve faced, here you are, in 2018, unconquered, invictus.

 

Happy New Year.

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My old friend Trish (frequent commentator, a great reader of poems, an even better writer and artist) sent her annual Christmas fantasy card. I pass it along with her permission:

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 1.19.50 PM

 

And in case you’ve got loads of spare time for reading, I’ll also share a link for a piece from the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “What’s Your Favorite Poem?”  Writers, actors, and producers were asked to share a favorite. The responses have given me some homework to do–I haven’t read many of these poems, haven’t even heard of half of them.

 

If you have a favorite poem (note to Mo Williams, whoever that is–Dr. Seuss does not count), please post a comment here.

 

I’ll be back in the New Year!

 

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It was a season of near disasters.   Two weeks before Christmas I lost my aunt’s pearls, a graduated strand of Mikimoto beauties which her husband had brought back from Japan after WWII.  Just as I was getting ready to confess, that same aunt had a fall and landed in the hospital.  She recovered, the pearls were found, and thus did the overcooked tenderloin on Christmas Eve and the overnighted presents which didn’t arrive by Christmas take their proper place in the ranks of what is not important.  (My advice to Hamlet:  readiness is not all.  Perspective is.)

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls

 

It was also a season of unexpected gifts.  Here’s one, from my daughter Lizzie:

IMG_0681

Out of the overturned nest fall four eggs, and out of the eggs fly nine origami birds.  I didn’t get the symbolism at first, but with a little help I understood. An empty nest.  Re-birth.  Possibility.  Next fall, when the last of my four leaves for college, I’ll have my mobile to remind me to look at the situation with hopefulness.

 

The second unexpected gift was from my youngest little bird. On Christmas Eve after everyone had gone to bed, she stayed up for hours cleaning out my laundry room/office.  It was a big job.  Piles of laundry, stacks of books, framed prints, unframed prints, office supplies, loose papers, notebooks, textbooks, photo albums, boxes of pictures, and probably plain old trash had covered the floor, desk and bookcases.  When she presented the tidied room on Christmas day, I nearly fell over with joy on the empty floor.

my cleaning gal

my cleaning gal

 

The third gift I’ll mention is related to that room, before it was cleaned.  Truly I had despaired of ever organizing the mess there.  My husband, who usually delights in throwing out things I hoard, had refused to help me because I had un-done his past work.  So a week before Christmas I was ironing (unusual in itself) and looked at a pile of books stacked on a chair (not unusual at all) and decided that while I was waiting for the iron to heat up, I could at least put away a few books (highly unusual).  I picked up a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems belonging to my father that my mother had recently sent.

IMG_0697

While I was thumbing through the book, I found a letter.  It was from my sister-in-law’s father, now deceased, to my father, also deceased.  Des was writing to thank Don for loaning a book, and ended with this:

“I think one could meditate forever on Francis Thompson’s lines in his final stanza:

‘Is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?’

 

I re-read the letter a few times.  I forgot about the iron, forgot about shelving the book.  I was overwhelmed by the humanity of it, there in my hand, this intimate record of two old men trying to understand themselves, their lives, their emotions. Des’ handwriting as elegant as his expressions.

 

Here’s the gift part of the story:  I emailed my sister-in-law to ask if she wanted the letter.  She wrote back immediately.  Turns out she had just been thinking of it.  Long ago, shortly after her father died, my father had read her the letter.  She didn’t ask for the letter, although she wanted it, and had wondered over the years what had happened to it.  By chance, it re-appeared in her life, just a day after the anniversary of her father’s death.

 

Make of that what you will.

 

I also found this in the book:

IMG_0692

look closely for the golden crumb

A crumb of food.  It’s a little disgusting, but also touches me somehow, this image of my father reading a poem-play and, maybe bored or maybe just sloppy, eating a cookie and dropping his crumbs in the pages.  Hardened now and preserved in a closed book, evidence of his constant reading, his yearning for things beautiful, his love of sweets.

 

Happy New Year!  Thanks to all you wonderful readers!

 

 

 

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After stuffing Christmas decorations in rubber bins and garbage bags, after consuming the last Christmas cookie crumb, after shelving the Christmas cards I know I won’t be sending, after putting away the thoughtful gifts I received,  I am left with one gift that will never be used.  Not for the usual reasons of fit or taste or intentional uselessness.  The postcards my daughter for me are too dear to deposit in any mailbox.  She paired lines from Shakespeare with pictures she took of our dog Jane.

Here is Jane in a witch’s cape:

IMG_0047

The lines are Falstaff’s from Henry IV:  “You starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish! O, for breath to utter what is like thee! “

 

Here we have Jane in a Halloween mask:

IMG_0050

 

Jane looks very like one of the Weird Sisters Macbeth addresses:

you should be women, 
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret 
That you are so.

 

Next a Frenchified Jane in a trench coat, beret and silk scarf. She’s brought a box of Panko to coat the birds in front of her.

IMG_0052

 

 

The lines are from Measure for Measure.  Isabella pleads for her brother’s life:

Go to your bosom

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.

 

And finally, Jane sick in bed:

IMG_0053

 

Paired with an excerpt from Sonnet 147:

My love is as a fever, longing still

For that which longer nurseth the disease.

 

Happy New Year, everyone.

 

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