Posts Tagged ‘poem elf’

Experienced bloggers advise newbies, “Post early and often.”  Doggone it, I just can’t seem to do that.  Notwithstanding the fact that I don’t think clearly before 10 a.m., I also couldn’t post one of my long poetry responses every single day.  I’d burn out in a month and so would my readers.

But I do want blog more frequently. My solution is to create short posts of what I call “poetry found,” for lack of a better term. “Found poetry” (more here) refers to piecing together words and phrases from texts already in existence to create another text, a poem.  “Poetry found” will refer to moments, textual and non,  that carry an import beyond their context.

Let me translate that gobbleygook into English.   Everyday we have experiences that need to be pulled apart from the others and examined or appreciated. These moments—-overheard conversations, odd juxtapositions, and snippets of books—-can be poem-like if not quite poetry.  Think of poetry found as pulling a photograph from a jumbly pile of hundreds of photographs and placing it on black matting.

So I begin right now.


Today in a checkout line, the woman behind me said to the person on the other end of her cellphone, “You’re the first person I’ve been able to tell my stories to.”

Her past loneliness made me sad.  At the same time I admired her honesty.

There was a pause on her end of the conversation before she replied, “I’m respectful of other people’s time, that’s all.”

My thought:  How many people in this world are waiting for someone else to have time to listen to them?


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I Have News for You
by Tony Hoagland

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies

I was sitting in Costco’s concrete food court with my husband as he ate lunch.

“Look around,” I said, sighing dramatically.  “Here’s the crowning glory of our consumer culture:  obesity, obesity, and more obesity.”

He glared at me.  “Can I please finish my hot dog in peace?”

Clearly I can relate to the over-thinkers poet Tony Hoagland playfully roasts in “ I Have News For You.”  It’s not always a group I want to belong to, especially after reading this poem. We over-thinkers can be such silly creatures—blocking sidewalks as we ponder our existence, scouring life for symbols and irony the way other people look for bargains and good parking spaces. If only we could stop thinking so much and simply feel the breeze at the window, swat the fly in the motel room, and gaze at the lemon-yellow moon.

I really like this poem.  I love how the title rolls right into the first line. The title, which is repeated towards the end, sounds faintly aggressive (just add “buddy” or “pal” to the end and you’ll hear it), but also humorous, a quality lacking in the over-thinkers of the poem. So despite of the fact that the poem’s speaker includes himself in this group of kill-joys (“there are people unlike me and you”), his drollery makes him a member of the other camp as well.*

The person addressed in the poem, and by extension the speaker of the poem, is the type of person who invents symbols, interprets behavior, cannibalizes friends and family for material, yearns for fame, and is tortured by failure. Sure sounds like a writer to me.

In other words, here again Hoagland (or the poem’s speaker) straddles the opposing camps of thinkers and feelers. Hoagland pokes fun at the very condition which allows him to poke fun. To write a poem about people who spend too much time making metaphors and analyzing behavior, he has to create metaphors and examine his own and his friend’s life.  He uses elevated, academic language to sharpen the humor of his judgments, and the humor provides a lightness that keeps him from becoming that which he ridicules.   (And he does have a delightful sense of humor which you can enjoy here.)

In the last section, the humor fades and the poem’s mood turns wistful.  In creating an image that is purely physical, the speaker seems to yearn for release from the burdens of abstract thought:

I have news for you—

there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in

and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies

Notice the lack of end punctuation.  (Hoagland wants you to notice it.)  The phrase drifts off, very like the breeze it describes, unweighted by periods or semi-colons or intense rumination.  Or perhaps the phrase is a visual representation of the speaker’s voice trailing off, as he wanders back in his own head. (Oh dear. Have I fallen into a trap here?  Am I “sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through the noisy straw”?)

Not for any particular reason, on a warm September weekend I taped “I Have News For You” to the deck of a beach house where I was staying for a girls’ weekend. I’d rather have posted a poem celebrating friendship, but I didn’t bring one with me. Nothing else I packed spoke to me. (Unfortunately I felt same way about my wardrobe choices.)  The very urban Grace Paley didn’t belong in the salty air; old Walt Whitman’s free spirit belonged, but no one with me would have enjoyed reading him; and the haiku I brought about gray hairs on a pillow was a downer. Hoagland earned his space by default.

But I have succeeded in fashioning a good reason for this poem-elfing because, like those tortured souls in the poem, I can wrangle connective tissue out of sand.  Some background first: the women at the beach house have been friends since high school, some even longer than that, and for twenty-one years have reunited annually.

Not one of us is quite the same as we were as teenagers—life has tossed some around more than others—and as the years go by, the differences between us are more marked. Some have eight children and others two; some have high-powered careers, others are at home; some are passionately religious and others more secular; some are Democrats, some Republican. These differences and those in marital status, income, and temperament might divide other friends, but they don’t matter to us.  We all treasure our friendship and our time together. We hang.  We sun ourselves.  We talk and advise and gossip and remember wild times.  There’s a lot of beach time, a lot of beer, some good greasy food, music and late-night dancing.  And lots of laughing.  For this weekend we leave behind worry over health issues and home life.  We’re together, we’re in the sun, baby, and it feels warm and wonderful. No over-thinking allowed.

That weekend the girls played a lot of cornhole. For the uninitiated, cornhole is a mindless beanbag tossing game.  Two teams compete to throw the bags into holes on plywood ramps. Hoagland might have observed that there were the people who played cornhole and others (okay, maybe just one person) who found it a communal evocation of scatological activity.

Someone asked me to play.  “No thanks,” I said.  “I don’t like games of accuracy.”

But I had second thoughts and tossed a few beanbags just to get over myself.  And sat back down on a lawnchair with the sun on my back and a cold, cold beer


*The dichotomy Hoagland sets up between people who live in their heads and those who live in their bodies reminds me of the old story about former Redskin John Riggins sitting next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a black tie dinner. “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up!” he said, shortly before passing out on the floor.

Lucky folks in the Washington area:  Tony Hoagland is giving a reading November 12 at the Library of Congress.  Look here for details.

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poem is under the white railing


Come, Let Us Find

by William Henry Davies

Come, let us find a cottage, love,

That’s green for half a mile around;

To laugh at every grumbling bee,

Whose sweetest blossom’s not yet found.

Where many a bird shall sing for you,

And in your garden build its nest:

They’ll sing for you as though their eggs

Were lying in your breast,

My love–

Were lying warm in your soft breast.

‘Tis strange how men find time to hate,

When life is all too short for love;

But we, away from our own kind,

A different life can live and prove.

And early on a summer’s morn,

As I go walking out with you,

We’ll help the sun with our warm breath

To clear away the dew,

My love,

To clear away the morning dew.

I began this post all a-snigger over the ironies of putting the simple and sweet “Come, Let Us Find” on the cottage of an old man gone crackers with lovers and real estate.  I do enjoy irony, perhaps more than I should; and like other overindulged pleasures, the ironies have begun to sting a bit.  The joke, as you shall see, is on me.  But first a detailing of the initial ironies:

There once was a cottage, brand new, fresh and airy with spectacular lake front views.   A local King of Retail, millionaire philanthropist and incorrigible goat of an octogenarian bought the cottage, and to the dismay of his neighbors, began a renovation to the specifications of his much-younger girlfriend. He gutted the marble bathrooms, the stone fireplace, the tongue and groove walls, the landscaping, the driveway, even the shoreline. Mind you, this cottage is in Hemingway country; but anything rustic or reminiscent of Papa’s outdoorsy early life was plastered over and covered in flagstone and Star-Trek-sized boulders.  The cottage became a pleasure dome, complete with a bunker house, an outdoor kitchen, an English-style garden, a wine cellar, workout room, and chef’s quarters.

In the course of this renovation, the King broke up with Girlfriend #1 (who should probably be named “Mistress #1,” as the King’s marriage is older than his business); found another much younger companion, Girlfriend #2, who had different ideas for the cottage (Renovation #2); was threatened with a lawsuit by GF #1; decided to sell; and most recently reunited with GF #1 who still has ideas about what the cottage should be (Renovation #3).  There’s no fool like an old fool, the neighbors muttered.

And so in spite of (well, probably because of) the “No Trespassing” signs planted everywhere, I hid “Come, Let Us Find” on the exterior of the empty, half-renovated cottage.  Sentimental, innocent, pastoral—William Henry Davies’ dream of cottage life stands in stark contrast to the betrayal, affluenza and pure waste that characterize the King’s cottage. The bad ju-ju of breakups and lawsuits, of the perfectly lovely toilet sitting forlornly on the front porch, of neglected hydrangeas and exposed tree roots spoil what should have been the most charming of love nests.  All the blueprints scattered on the granite countertops (yes, I’ve snuck in the house) have failed to create the happiness that Davies paints in this poem.  The first lines of the poem’s second stanza would be a far better guide:

‘Tis strange how men find time to hate,

When life is all too short for love

(Here again are lines worthy of memorization.  Simplistic they may be, corny even: but these lines just slay me.  The musicality, that catchy iambic tetrameter, has burned its way into my brain.  I think about those lines a lot, and not in a global “Make Love, Not War” kind of way.  I hear them in my head anytime I’m caught up in gossip or an urge to wound.)

The contrast of the two men, the retailer and the poet, makes good pickings for irony lovers as well.  The poet, born 60 years earlier than the King, was famous for being a tramp (in the lingo of the times), for living nowhere at all, for being “The People’s Poet,” a poorly educated wanderer from Wales with a talent for wordsmithing.

Davies crossed the Atlantic seven times in cattle ships, and for years road the rails across America. He lost a leg jumping on a train, which led him to take up writing. On the road decades before Kerouac, he wrote a book about his adventures called The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp that, with the help of playwright George Bernard Shaw*, became a bestseller. (And yes indeed, the rock band of “Logical Song” fame took their name from Davies’ book.) His life is fascinating, but I’ll mention only two highlights here:  late in life he married a former prostitute 30 years his junior (not unlike the King, whose GF#1 is a former exotic dancer), and lived and circulated in Bloomsbury, probably driving Virginia Woolf nuts.

Davies did not write sophisticated poetry (check out “Leisure,” his most famous), but the sentiments are real and often beautifully expressed. The first line of this poem (Come, let us find a cottage, love) echoes the first line of another famous poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” about the joys of rustic life:  Come live with me and be my love. He follows an age-old tradition of courting the beloved by describing the space the lovers will share when they are together.  Think of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”; “There’s a Small Hotel” (my parents’ favorite song); “Love Shack,” and even “Thunder Road.”

Even though the poem begins with a hunt for real estate, the space the lovers will share is an entirely natural one.  The lovers are so connected to nature and integrated with their surroundings that they actually become part of it, helping the sun with its work.  How lovely is that last image of the two lovers walking about the garden, their warm breath drying up the morning dew.

Lovelier still, but much more strange, is the erotic image Davies conjures of the eggs in his lover’s breast:

They’ll sing for you as though their eggs

Were lying in your breast,

My love–

Were lying warm in your soft breast.

The sensuality of it is beyond. . . just beyond.  Wow. The nest in her garden, the warm eggs, the birdsong to bring it forth—well, he had me at nest.

I’ve been obsessed with that bizarre image for days now. I’ve finally figured out why, and this is where the irony gets personal. I thought I was clever to place this poem where it so needed to be found—but really, this poem found me.  That image of the eggs sheltered in a breast attracts and repels me because I am a woman without breasts, or real breasts anyway.  What I have on my chest are two mounds of skin and scar stretched to the limit and filled with plastic.  To imagine breasts cradling an embryo rather than hiding a mutation; holding something about to burst open with life, not death; something to be sung to, not carved out; something that rests, not something that attacks and must be killed—is all to imagine and remember the wondrous beauty of what I once had.

*Davies reminds me of Shaw’s Pygmalion character Alfred Doolittle, also a Welshman, whose speech Professor Henry Higgins describes in the play as, “Sentimental rhetoric!  That’s the Welsh strain in him.” Makes me wonder if Shaw used Davies as a basis for Doolittle.

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poem is on thin tree in center



by Angus Martin

All these people at my back,

watching me—out there—

people clothed in animal skins

and others only in body hair,

half animals themselves, poking me with sticks

in the soft parts of my unconscious,

startling me with sudden mad cries

and eliciting responses

that escape my knowledge

let alone my understanding.

I have been waking lately

in the middle of dreams, demanding

explanation, but they are secretive

and sly, and slide their sticks

under my bed and slink

along the walls, their shadowy backs

eluding me.  But sometimes I will

lie awake and catch them unawares,

crouched in the middle of my room,

shielding small fires.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is wild, barely-inhabited country. Whenever I visit, I feel uneasy, as though a moose might charge at any moment, or the overbearing evergreens will scoop me up into their dark branches and hurl my body miles into the freezing depths of Lake Superior. In every town I’m struck by the gentle failure of attempts to civilize the place.  Most of the 50’s-era buildings are musty and run-down and clump together at crossroads, not bothering to venture into the wilderness.  Of the few human inhabitants I spot (Yoopers, they call themselves) most are big like bears, solid for cold winters. Call me cuckoo, but I love the place and make a point to go back every summer for an extended hike.

This July I brought three or four poems with me, not sure which one I would post on Grand Island, a beautiful spot across from Pictured Rocks, reached by a raggedy pontoon boat that pulls right up on the beaches. A few miles into our 10-mile hike, we happened upon a group of archeology students from Illinois State University on break from a dig, eating lunch and sunning themselves.  Which poem I would use suddenly became clear.

They gave us a tour of the dig, a shallow 10-foot area, and shared their discoveries thus far:  a handful of  “projectile points” (what we’d call arrowheads), and some French trading beads dating from the time of “Contact” of Europeans and the island’s original inhabitants. The students were a genial group, but far more interested in the past under their feet than the poem I taped to a tree above them.

I, conversely, was positively giddy.  I couldn’t believe my luck in having brought this particular poem with me. The subject matter, obviously, matched nicely with the site; but the poet, Angus Martin, was the person who first introduced me to hiking. My sister and I had stayed with him over 25 years ago on the Kintyre peninsula south of Glasgow. He was an expert hiker and could name all the plants along the way and knew which were edible; as the local historian (you can find one of his books here) and village postman, he entertained us as we walked with stories of the land and its people; and as a poet, (you can hear him here) he inspired us with his love of the Scottish countryside.

It’s tempting to apply what I know (admittedly information that’s 25 years old) of the poet to my understanding of this poem. But I’m stepping back to read “Ancestors” as if I never met him.

The speaker in the poem seems paranoid (“All these people at my back/ watching me”) and with good reason.  Cavemen in his bedroom cast shadows, cry out, poke him with sticks, and light fires. But unlike Dickens’ Scrooge, he’s strangely unspooked by these night-time visitations.  He’s amused by their nude and hairy bodies, perhaps a little unnerved, but mostly riveted by their presence in his life. The ancestors, on the other hand, seem threatened.  They avoid being seen and lope along the walls like melancholy Peter Pans of the Paleolithic age.

My understanding of the strange scenario of the poem is that the poet is having a physical experience of mental activity. He imagines his unconscious as an organ, something that can be poked at with a stick. We all experience moments when our unconscious mind takes over and we feel the power of our primeval natures.  For me, that wild spirit overwhelms me sometimes when I’m dancing (there was a reason I was seldom asked to dance in high school), or in childbirth or in another activity you can well imagine which leads to that.  These experiences are as mysterious and elusive to the conscious mind as cavemen appearing and disappearing in a 21st century bedroom. To try to capture and restrain that kind of unthinking, emotional experience into the formal setting of a poem—a poem that rhymes, even—is ambitious.  Perhaps this is the ambition of every poet.

Granted, the ancestors the archeology students unearthed were not the prehistoric ones of the poem. But the Upper Peninsula feels that way to me–pre-verbal and untouched.  It frightens and attracts me, just as the bedroom creatures affect the poet. Each visit I want to leave quickly and get back to civilization; and as soon as I cross the Mackinaw Bridge, I’m longing to go back.  Something fierce and free about the place claims me as its citizen.

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Despite good intentions (isn’t this always the way), I didn’t get much done on PoemElf during the month of August.  Vacation and sloth kept me away from the computer, and then the fall, spinal cord injury, massive infection and passing of my dear father-in-law.  I loved him so much.

On returning from his funeral, I was happy to see Wordsworth’s poem STILL on the drainpipe of the bank. Three months of summer heat and summer storms have only managed to curl the edges of the paper.  I’m rooting for it to last through winter.  I’ll keep you updated.

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by Eavan Boland

Where are the lives we lived

when we were young?

Our kisses, the heat of our skin, our bitter words?

The first waking to the first child’s cry?

With just three questions and four lines, Irish poet Eavan Boland pulls up memories for me so swiftly and so abundantly that the poem acts like an allergen.  I have a physical reaction to reading it. My hearts beats faster and there’s a tingling in my hands that I can work into a tremble with a little concentration. Marcel Proust, the high priest of memory himself, explored similar themes through seven volumes and a million and half words: Boland does it in the seconds it takes to google “Remembrance of Times Past.”

Right away she puts her reader in a wistful mood with the musicality of the first two lines:  “Where are the lives we lived/when we were young?”  Try saying that out loud.   It’s beautiful and intoxicating. The cadence and the emotional pull of those lines remind me of a French phrase my high school boyfriend used to recite after much teasing and begging on my part:  Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?  But where are the snows of yesteryear? 

I didn’t know it then, but that red-headed bespectacled beanpole of a boy who spoke a little French would become the father of my four children, my life’s partner of 30 years, my husband of 23. Like Proust’s madeleine, the smell of sawdust and body odor (we met as the set for the play we were in was being constructed in a boys’ gymnasium) brings me right back to the intensity and ripeness of our early lives.  And so does this poem.

In the last two lines, the tempo picks up. Boland swoops through an overview of courtship and early marriage: the long, long kisses, the rip-your-blouse-off kind of sex, the lovers’ quarrels, the anxiety, exhaustion, and wonder of caring for the first baby.

And then the poem is over, just like that.  Just as quickly as youth has passed for those on the other side.

On a hot summer evening I posted this little cherry of a poem on the seventh hole of a putt-putt golf course.  I do not like putt-putt golf and never have, but I found myself feeling nostalgic about it when I accompanied two of my teenagers and their much younger cousins as they played. The joy of children who shout “Hole in one!”;  the racing from hole to hole to see what kooky obstacles must be played through; the scowls and grins as scores are tallied—it was all so good. And so gone.

my erstwhile baby with size 12 flip-flops


My fantasy was that an overtired parent or even a young couple on a date might happen upon Then and have the same visceral reaction to it that I did.  The fullness and sweetness of life and all that jazz.  Ah, youth!

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Magna Est Veritas

by Coventry Patmore

Here, in this little Bay,

Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

Where, twice a day,

The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,

Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,

I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail:

When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;

The truth is great, and shall prevail,

When none cares whether it prevail or not.


I once began an ambitious embroidery project of stitching this poem on a very large piece of muslin which I planned to stretch over a wooden frame like a canvas and hang on a wall.  I chain-stitched my way through the title and the first line and a half but lost heart with the uous of tumultuous.  The loops and curves of cursive vowels were beyond my skills with the needle, just as they have always been with a pencil.

Every few years when I clean out shelves in the basement, that barely-begun project sees the light of day.  It’s a reminder not so much of my vision outsizing my resolve (goodness knows I don’t need to be reminded) but of how much I love this poem.  It’s almost like a prayer to me, not surprising since Coventry Patmore (can’t you smell the English countryside in a name like that, the vines growing over the cottage gates) was a convert to Catholicism, very much preoccupied with matters of the spirit. 

I’ve twice committed this little powerhouse of a poem to memory, and twice forgotten it.  Though the words come and go, the idea of a man finding balance, as we say in these modern times, as he sits under cliffs at the ocean’s edge, stays with me.  Just thinking of the line “I sit me down” calms me or calls me to be calmed.  I even briefly titled a book I had written (unpublished, hiding in a drawer) I Sit Me Down.  (My husband spent a few days teasing me, I stand me up, I sleep me here, until the joke degenerated into pirate talk– I eat me cereal–and I changed the title.)

I don’t want to spoil Magna Est Veritas with further comment, some banality about how important it is to step outside our multi-tasking, media-crazed world to connect with something larger than our needs.  The Victorian poem has aged well and says all that and more just fine on its own.

Changed my mind.  I’ll make one more comment because it’s something I just discovered.  This 10-line poem is perfectly balanced.  The first four lines and last four lines follow the same rhyme scheme, abab and dede.  The first half of the poem describes the poet’s physical environment and the second half he expands his vision to the spiritual realm.  In the exact middle of the poem, the poet makes the shift from one world to the next.  For these two lines, the rhyming pattern emphasizes the shift by changing to cc: far from the huge town/I sit me down.  The form mirrors the message in so pleasing a way, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before.

If you haven’t memorized a poem since grade school and find that Suduko isn’t slowing the degeneration of your brain cells, I recommend this poem to you.  

still there two days later at sunset

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