Posts Tagged ‘poem elf’

poem is taped to bike rack

poem is taped to bike rack



by Jack Gilbert


Imagine if suffering were real.

Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.

What if the midget or the girl with one arm

really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be

to live if some people were

alone and afraid all their lives.





I heard someone say on the radio the other day that today’s college students have significantly less empathy than they used to.  The speaker was referring to a 2010 University of Michigan study that tracked college students’ empathy from the 80s and 90s to now.  Lots of factors have whittled away empathy:  rampant consumerism that turns our gaze to products instead of people; Facebook and other internet follies that reduce human beings to images; violent movies and games that de-sensitize us to others’ suffering; less face-to-face interaction and outdoor play; and poor parenting that focuses too heavily on achievement and not enough on contribution.


Poet Jack Gilbert’s “Games” is a pithy invitation to empathy.  Which is why, after hearing that disturbing statistic on our national empathy levels, I left the poem outside the student center at Michigan State University.  Also because the poem is short and therefore more likely to be read by busy students, and because I hoped its title might pull in young readers the way shiny objects attract magpies.


Certainly the title drew me in.  I was confused how “Games” related to the rest of the poem.  A game is a distraction, a playful activity we indulge in from time to time.  A reader in 2013 can’t help but associate “games” with “video games,” particularly when the subject is suffering.  Video games turn pain, blood, fear and death into pleasure.  But I don’t think Gilbert’s poem refers to video games.  It was written some time before 1982 in an age when kids played innocent games like Donkey Kong and Pac Man.  Violent video games like Mortal Combat didn’t come around until 1993.


Still, a couple images in the poem are strangely relevant today.  There’s actually a real “game” called Midget Tossing.  Even in the virtual world (there’s a live version too, unfortunately) such a competition can only be accomplished with a nuclear-level meltdown of empathy.


More striking, this season of “The Bachelor, ” a game show for prostitutes as far as I’m concerned, features a contestant with one arm.  I haven’t watched the show, but any suffering the one-armed woman has experienced as a result of her disability will no doubt be used to make it difficult for the bachelor to eliminate her.   Underneath the veneer of empathy she may elicit from the television audience is the less attractive appetite for melodrama and entertainment.


Perhaps “games” refers to the game of imagining other people’s suffering.  Perhaps “Games” suggests taking a break from our own lives to pay attention to other people’s.


The repetition of “imagine” in the poem calls up John Lennon’s version of that activity.  Lennon invites the listener to imagine that all things that separate people and cause animosity have disappeared:  religion, nationality, possessions, greed, and hunger.


Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do

No need to kill or die for and no religions too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace.


Merely by imagining a worldwide brotherhood, Lennon says, peace will come. The whole process is a cinch:  It’s easy if you try.


Gilbert makes no such claim. His poem makes Lennon’s song look glib.  He asks us to imagine other people’s pain and then tell us


Imagine how impossible it would be

to live if some people were

alone and afraid all their lives


If we look full-on at the face of suffering, it’s hard to go back to our nice little lives.  But even as he tells us that paying such close attention makes life impossible, Gilbert quietly asks that we try.


Thinking about attention and suffering reminded me of French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.  And then I realized Weil not only shares with Lennon a too-early death, she shares his glasses and a passing resemblance.  See for yourself:

John Lennon by pmtape          sw009 by Faversham Stoa


Weil wrote, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’  It is a recognition that the sufferer exists not only as a unit . . . or a specimen from the social category ‘unfortunate,’ but as a man exactly like us. ”


Simone Weil (1909-1943) died from an overload of empathy, along with a healthy dose of tuberculosis.  She was 34 years old when she refused to eat more than people living in occupied France ate.  She starved herself to death. Talk about it being impossible to live when we imagine other people’s suffering.


“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle,” she wrote. In her own cuckoo-cuckoo crazy way, she worked hard at giving others that kind of miraculous attention.


She was born to a wealthy secular Jewish family in Paris.  Well-educated and brilliant, she took a job operating heavy machinery at a Renault factory.  She wanted to align herself with the workers, with the poor.  She fought (not well—her weak eyesight made her an unreliable sniper) in the Spanish Civil War and worked for the French resistance.  She worked and wrote on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  She was a socialist who spoke out against the suffering caused by the powerful Soviet bureaucracy on the weak and incurred a written attack by Trotsky.


Weil had mystical Christian experiences and was drawn to the Catholic faith, but she never converted.  She was suspicious of organized religion and the suffering it caused through the ages.  She believed her vocation was to remain outside the church.


Poet Jack Gilbert lived outside the mainstream as well.  He was born in Pittsburgh in 1925.  He failed out of high school, and worked as an exterminator until he was mistakenly accepted to the University of Pittsburgh because of a clerical error. He spent the 1960s in San Francisco but didn’t drink or do drugs.  All his life he was a traveler.  He spent many years in Europe, living simply and touring as a lecturer on literature for the State Department.


Gilbert didn’t publish much and didn’t give many public readings.  He published his first book in 1962 and his second twenty years later in 1982.  He died last November at age 87.


Gilbert seems to have had a big appetite for life, but little for fame.  In a Paris Review interview when he was 80, Gilbert speaks about what was important to him:


Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security—all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward—the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives—until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice.



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December 2012, a friend turning fifty hosted a celebratory tea at an elegant hotel, and I misbehaved.  I had no reason to be disagreeable—every element of the afternoon was to my liking.  My friend is British (I’m a sucker for Brits), a woman with the effortless good manners I associate with her country and the girlish élan I associate with Mary Tyler Moore flinging her hat up in the air.  She’s lovely.  The hotel was also lovely, tastefully decorated in jewel tones with fresh garland everywhere.  I drank hot tea out of a china teacup (my version of shaken not stirred) and ate two scones and three crustless sandwiches.  All things considered, I should have been filled with the same generous spirit that moved Scrooge to throw open his windows on Christmas morning and hire a boy to deliver a fat turkey to the Cratchit family.


Scrooge talking to Ghost Marley by Magic DestyInstead I acted more like one of Scrooge’s gruesome ghosts.


That afternoon I double poem-elfed the esteemed Lucille Clifton.  Like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead, I was very, very good with the first one and nearly horrid with the second.


The first poem, Lucille Clifton’s “i am not done yet,” I included with my friend’s birthday present.



As I was leaving the hotel, I slipped Clifton’s “it was a dream” in the pocket of a stranger’s coat.


this poem . . .

this poem . . .


. . . in one of these coats

. . . in one of these coats


One poem speaks of the possibilities of life at any age.  The other of regret.


I feel bad for the stranger who, coming home from a fancy lunch, discovered the second poem in her pocket.  She wonders what kind of omen it is, why she was singled out for her private failures, who marked her with such spite.  On the off chance that she will ever read this post, let me tell her that I’m sorry.  The poem was not meant for her, or rather, the poem is meant for everyone.  Both poems are.  Turning fifty, or turning any milestone age, we look forward and back.  To the world we announce that we’re excited by life’s possibilities.  To ourselves we say, you could have done so much better.


Print it out:  “i am not done yet” is a useful poem to include in birthday cards or to tape to the kitchen window.  Anyone fretting about age could tattoo on a wrinkled shoulder blade

(i am) as possible as yeast.

Or recite the whole of it in the shower.  Better yet, shout it.  It’s a shouting kind of poem.


What I love about this poem is how honest Clifton is about her shortcomings.  She recognizes that she plays it too safe, worries too much, wobbles in her beliefs.  But she’s forgiving and ever hopeful of improving.  It’s a cliché to announce that we are all works in progress, but the second we forget that modern proverb is the second we step towards despair or arrogance.


scrooged by megrymoIn the second poem, “it was a dream,” the speaker is attacked by a harpy. (I picture the shrieking Carol Kane from Bill Murray’s Scrooged.)  Clifton calls this harpy her “greater self,” which is amusing because this “greater self,” with her unkempt hair and crazy eyes, seems more like a homeless woman who screams at passersby.  The extra finger and outsized rage suggest a witch, hardly a being typically considered a greater self.   Greater Self uses the extra finger to point out the person Clifton could have been had she lived her life better.


The poem changed slightly for me when I found out that Clifton actually did have an extra finger on each hand.  She was born, as was her mother and one of her daughters, with a hereditary condition called polydactylism.  Her extra fingers, connections to the women in her family past and present, were amputated when she was a little girl.  Would she be a different person—This, as the greater self announces in a rare moment of capitalization—if her given body in all its uniqueness had been accepted?


Despite feeling unkind for foisting the second poem on a complete stranger, I’m pleased with how the poems fit together.  Most of us  recognize ourselves in both poems.  In the same moment we look forward with hope and say, “where I have been/ most of my lives is/ where I’m going,” we can look back with regret and moan, “oh what could I have done?”  We live between the promise and the product, between the yeast and the bread. And so our contradictions are never entirely resolved.


Here’s Clifton on the balance of hope and realism (from an interview in Poets and Writers):


I say sometimes at readings something I heard an old preacher say a long time ago. “I come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Of course, I would be nuts if I didn’t see the negativity and despair in the world, if I didn’t sometimes feel it myself. I am always hopeful, because that’s the kind of personality I have. But it does not mean that I do not see what there is to be seen and do not feel what any other human being would feel.


I revere Clifton, as I do Ruth Stone, and consider her the grand dame of American poetry.  Like Billy Collins, she straddles the line between popular and literary poetry.  Her work has been compared to Emily Dickinson in its compression.



CliftoLucille Clifton by shawnnaconan was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education.  At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major.  She finished her studies in New York.


She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo.  She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled.  She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize.  She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion.  She died in 2010 at age 73.


Clifton suffered many setbacks in her life:  sexual abuse, the early loss of her mother, cancer, the death of her husband and two of her children.  Yet from all accounts she remained joyful and full of life.  A Greater Self indeed.



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poem is on right-hand base of statue


Variation on a Theme by Rilke


by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.



Did anyone else finish “Variation on a Theme” with an urge to sing Ding dong ding dong ding? In my head the lovely Jean Simmons, her short locks loosened on her forehead and her Salvation Army uniform dangerously unbuttoned, has flung her arms around this poem, as unlikely an attachment as hers to Marlon Brando.


But wait, another artist has boarded this train of associations–illustrator N.C. Wyeth.  The particular Wyeth painting the poem reminds me of is The Giant.  Wyeth’s towering figure, seemingly grown out of the clouds, could be a visual version of the shape-shifting in Levertov’s poem.

Enchanted by Kiel Bryant

Along with an atmospheric freshness of sky, air light, the poem and the painting share a Romantic delight in dramatic events, the sublime and mythology.


“Variation,” like ancient mythologies, hinges on personification.  But Levertov brings to life a certain day, rather than a bigger and more general Day deity, and she allows her reader to witness the creation of this being as it grows into form.   Later she disassembles her creation when she wonders if the awakening blow came not from a certain day, but from herself:

or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self 


The personified day that Levertov creates is clearly a superior being, one that resides in the sky and knights her with a sword,

granting me

honor and a task.


The Little Engine That Could by RoadsidepicturesThis ordaining gives her power.  The poem ends with her unshakeable confidence that the task that has been set before her can be accomplished.  Compare her mantra of I can with that of The Little Engine That Could.  He barely gets himself up the hill with I think I can.  Her bold and strong I can countenances no doubt.  Does her assuredness come from beyond herself, or has it been there all along, needing only to be awakened?


Regardless, there’s a clear sense that the task for which she is commissioned is something difficult, something she previously didn’t think she could do.  What separates this speaker from an athlete in a Nike commercial or anyone visualizing success in order to increase sales, run faster, plank longer, lose weight, parkour, stop smoking or swallow slugs is that the speakers’ unnamed task carries moral weight.  She’s granted more than fearlessness and strength.  She’s been given or has found courage.


This train of thought left me counting the number of times I’ve been called on to show courage.  And whether I’ve responded I can or I can’t or Not now or Please don’t make me do that.


Which is a lot of boxcars to get me to the junction of this poem and the Underground Railroad.


Recently I took a walking tour of Detroit.  Our group stopped at Hart Plaza on the Detroit River to look at “Gateway to Freedom,” a statue commemorating Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad.  The figures in the sculpture look across the river to Canada, where a sister statue, “Tower of Freedom,” has been erected.

Before the Civil War, six or seven different routes of the railroad funneled through Detroit, transporting somewhere between 40,000 to 100,000 slaves to Canada.  Arriving in Detroit, fugitives (refugees might be a better word) hid in church cellars and barns.  At night they took canoes to cross the river to Windsor.


Looking up at the statue, I thought about the moment a man or woman who had known only a life of slavery decided to walk thousands of miles on foot, traveling in the dark, knocking at strangers’ doors, crossing rivers, hiding from slave catchers, and risking hunger, drowning, capture and death.  I’m in awe of the courage such a journey demanded of the travelers and those who assisted.  Of all the poems in my backpack, “Variation on a Theme” called out the loudest for a place in the city that was the last stop to freedom.


Denise_Levertov by TahdooDenise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents.  Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family.  Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early.  From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems.  He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.


During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse.  She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen.  She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.


Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.


Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.


One last thing:  can anyone help me with the title of this poem?  What theme of Rilke’s is this a variation of?


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As a rule, Poem Elf works in secret, but today I made an exception.  In broad daylight I handed the Walt Whitman election poem to campaigners outside my local precinct. I was nervous, but there was no need to be.


I had expected more crowds and more last-minute campaigning, but outside the high school where I voted, only four people, representing one amendment and one candidate, approached voters.  Just as they started their pitch (Are you voting today?/ Here, have a pen), I asked if I could give them something instead. They seemed pleasantly surprised.  Don’t know if they’ll actually read the poem, but they liked the idea that the poem celebrated our electoral process.


Once inside, I watched a woman rocking a 4-week old baby step out of line to calm her newborn.  When she got her baby to sleep (I wish I had taken a picture of that face, those pink little lips settled, the sweet eyelids relaxed), she resumed her wait to vote. “How do you like getting up at 3 in the morning?” one of the precinct workers asked her.  She smiled but her bleary eyes answered best.


Then in came an old friend, a woman of great grace and fortitude who is facing serious illness. As she waited in line, she leaned against the door at times to rest. Exhausted and in pain, she was nonetheless eager to vote on the issue most important to her.


Two beautiful women, both voting in spite of hardship.  I didn’t need Whitman’s poem to admire their resolve, but his words did make their participation in the democratic process more poignant to me.   


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The week before Halloween seems the right time to share an image that’s haunted me since I first saw it a few years ago.  “Caroline” is a mixed media photograph created by my old friend Trish Rawlings, an artist and writer living in Baltimore. The photograph is taken from a series called Revenant, meaning “one who returns after death or a long absence.”

Besides, a little beauty on Monday morning helps enormously.

From Trish:

“The mixed-media assemblages shown here are from a series called Revenant, which had its genesis when, some months ago, I uncovered a group of portrait photographs and negatives I’d packed at the bottom of a trunk and forgotten about. While I studied and then began to work with the images, I was struck by how different the faces looked from how I remembered them; I felt I’d never seen them before.
Some bore an air of ghostly wistfulness, as though weakened by the years of confinement,while others appeared bewildered, lost, ironically, in the light.  A few flaunted a defiant expression, as though proud to have survived both darkness and abandonment. You do what you must do, these seemed to say, against invisibility.
Impelled by an irrational guilt–feeling I’d committed an existential crime by consigning them to darkness and obscurity–I tried to return these sea-changed faces to how I remembered them. But no amount of darkroom tweaking had any effect; the haunting images had emerged from their exile as new beings.
When it came time to print, straightforward methods felt wanting. The added layers of time, memory, and longing begged a fresh approach. I hit on the idea of using a shallow shadow box and found materials to set off the faces and suggest complementary moods. While I worked, it felt as though someone–or something–were pressing me to bring about yet another incarnation for these faces from the past.”

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The Ticket

by Anne Porter

On the night table

Beside my bed

I keep a small

Blue ticket

One day I found it

In my pocket-book

I don’t know how

It got there

I don’t know

What it’s for

On one side

There’s a number




And on the other side

The only thing it says


I keep it carefully

Because I’m old

Which means

I’ll soon be leaving

For another country

Where possibly

Some blinding-bright

Enormous angel

Will stop me

At the border

And ask

To see my ticket.

Frustrations with WordPress ran high with this post. For reasons sadistic or indifferent, WordPress doesn’t acknowledge line breaks.  I press Carriage Return once—twice—ten times—-I pound it—-I say bad words—I type what I think are HTML codes. Nothing changes.  It’s like trying to talk reason to an ideologue.

Please, WordPress, give the people WHITE SPACE!

It’s an issue today because white space fuels this poem.  I apologize to Anne Porter and all readers who have to squint away the pesky dashes I inserted to simulate the breaks between stanzas.

Porter uses line breaks and white space masterfully in “The Ticket” to create a poem that seems effortless and improvised.  A dotty old woman putters around the page, slightly confused, wondering why she kept a ticket stub and how it landed in her purse.  But dotty old ladies can be remarkably sharp, as any Jane Marple fan can attest.  This one knows exactly what she’s doing and where’s she’s going.  She’s going to die.

Such a morbid subject is balanced by Porter’s humor and trademark simplicity.  I don’t want to rattle the poem around too much to shake out meaning.  Seems an indelicate thing to do to an old lady, and besides, the poem is pretty straightforward.  But I do want to talk a little about the poet herself.

Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry.  Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83.  Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written.   And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered.  Watch this video to get an idea.  (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

I’m not sure if she’s still alive.  I couldn’t find an obituary online, so I assume she still has her blue ticket in hand.  Which means she’s 99 years old by now.

She was born in Boston to a wealthy family, attended Bryn Mawr, and married the most famous American painter and art critic I’ve never heard of, Fairfield Porter.  (A link to his work proved his paintings familiar, if not his name.) Their marriage was not an easy one.  He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine.  Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had an liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

portrait of Anne by Fairfield

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband.  I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right.



*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”


For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.

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Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Download Cover

I’m in love.  I’m reading Parrot & Olivier in America by Australian Peter Carey.  I’m thinking about the book all the time, taking it to bed, and not wanting our relationship to ever end.  Carey’s books have a crazy reckless energy that I associate with Australians in general (oh, my old friend Pippi Woodger!), and this one pops with the same fizz. The book follows the unlikely friendship between a late 18th century Alexis de Tocqueville-like aristocrat and his servant, Parrot, conscripted to follow his master to America to spy on him.

Parrot’s life has not been his own. Terrorized and tricked by those older and more powerful, he’s been shipped around the globe, forced to leave behind family and lovers.  In this passage, Parrot recalls his time in New South Wales, where he was sent as an innocent boy on a convict ship.  Home is England to him, where he left behind no one, his mother having died and his father hung for forgery.

Being a transplant myself, I’m touched by Parrot’s riff on home and thinking a lot about wasted time.  So I send this out to all the other transplants.  And also to those who have had to listen to transplants sing the glories of their home city/state/country.

“I had a wife, a child, a home, but for all that I did not understand it was my home.  She, my wife, would not call it home either.  All around us everyone was the same— soldiers, convicts, even captains with their holds stock-full of rum.  Home did not mean here.  That was elsewhere.  When will we be in our real home at last, we asked each other.  We manured the earth, she and I, and grew cabbage, and toasted the tails of kangaroo, and held each other through the entire night, breathing that perfume that lies on the skin of young boys and girls.  We swam at night, bare as God made us.  We gathered oysters from the rocks and shucked their living juices down our cruel and eager throats.  We laughed and farted. We had fevers and were well.  We were at home, while waiting to go home, while missing home.  We looked up at that cobalt sky, and out at the ultramarine seas, not seeing their beauty but only the cold empty distance between us and home.  And so we made our lives, pining all the while.”

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