Friday, November 29, 2013

Chaucer: We goon wrong ful often, trewely

(Chaucer, from the Ellesmere Manuscript)

Surely we do not know exactly what we pray for; we behave like a man as drunk as a mouse. A drunk man knows very well that he has a home, but he does not know the right way to it; in addition, the road is slippery for a drunk man. Certainly, in the world we behave similarly. We try hard for happiness, but we very often go wrong.

--Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale.” His Middle English verse, followed by R. M. Lumiansky’s prose modern English translation

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Allen Tate: Calidus Juventa?

I finished Allen Tate's Collected Poems: 1919-1976 the other day. I cannot say it was always a pleasurable experience (he really makes a reader work hard, in a way like unto Eliot), but there were plenty of perfect lines to keep a reader occupied. Here's one of his earlier poems, from 1922, that is a good example of what I mean.

Calidus Juventa?

         Non ego hoc ferrem, calidus juventa, Consule Planco.

We are afraid that we have not lived.
We are not afraid of dying.
Toss images to the indifferent morning
Amid laughter and crying--
Amid fitful buffetings of strangled hearts
While they are dying.

Draw tight the words of death shivering
On the strictured page--
The cup of Morgan Fay is shattered.
Life is a bitter sage,
And we are weary infants
In a palsied age.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wendell Berry: Tu Fu

(Tu Fu, Tang Dynasty Chinese poet)

Tu Fu 
As I sit here
in my little boat
tied to the shore
of the passing river
in a time of ruin,
I think of you,
old ancestor,
and wish you well. 
      --Wendell Berry, from Leavings

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ted Kooser: A Glimpse of the Eternal

(Image credit:

Just now,
a sparrow lighted
on a pine bough
right outside
my bedroom window
and a puff
of yellow pollen
flew away.

--Ted Kooser, from Delights & Shadows

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stephen Crane: Black Riders XLVII

"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked;
"You are a toad." 
And after I had thought of it,
I said, "I will, then, be a toad."

   --Stephen Crane, from Black Riders and Other Lines

Friday, November 15, 2013

Christian Wiman: I Sing Insomnia

I sing insomnia
                          to the minor devils

prowling alleys
                         of my mind

loneliness’s lipsticked leer

no fix can ease
                         envy sipping bile

I make a lullaby
                           to make myself

into a sleeper
                      of the faith

             my little while

         without a why

                    --Christian Wiman, from Every Riven Thing

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thoreau: A Different Drummer

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

--Henry David Thoreau, from Walden

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Vachel Lindsay: The Golden Orchids

(Vachel Lindsay: Nov. 10, 1879-Dec. 5, 1931)
Anniversary of Vachel Lindsay's birth. The "Singing Poet." American Troubadour. Realized the potential of poetry as performance. His Nature poetry, like the golden orchids in the following poem, sits in the mind "delicate, serene and golden."

The Golden Orchids

In the snow-bound waterfalls we found the golden orchids
Nodding in the moss beneath the thunder.
Though many a snowstorm there had come and gone,
Though many a wind had deeply snowed them under,
They nodded there, and slept in spite of thunder,
In delicate, serene and golden wonder.

                 --Vachel Lindsay

Friday, November 8, 2013

John Milton: The Temptation and Fall of Eve

Today is the anniversary of John Milton's death. What's there to say about Milton? An incredible mind--after he became blind he composed his verse in his head and dictated it later to his amanuensis. I also recall hearing or reading somewhere that there is good evidence that he had learned all of the accumulated human knowledge up to his time (at least knowledge in the Western tradition). The following is an excerpt from his most famous work, Paradise Lost. The illustration is from William Blake, whose thoughts on Milton are most interesting.

. . . her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat.
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost. 
           --John Milton, Paradise Lost, IX.780-784

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

On the bill tonight at dVerse Form for All—Googlism poetry! Sam Peralta invites us to create a list poem by using the search results from this site. To create mine, I searched for “nico” and chose several results that were incomplete sentences or thoughts that I felt I could do something with. These make up the first line of each stanza, unmodified from the original. The second lines are just whatever first surfaced in my disturbed head. The title is Latin for "a defense of one's life."

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

nico is finding that his fumbling around with this pal is leading
       to unavoidable personal discomfort for both parties.

nico is based on the fick method,
       but is a bigger ficking method ficker than a real fick.

nico is also ex
       -plained very well by nothing known to humankind.

nico is a quadruped robot which is based upon principles of 4

nico is designing
       a fool-proof means of escape.

nico is ready to stop while dani is clearly interested in
       continuing. It’s an age-old plot.

nico is without a doubt extremely smart

nico is really impacted by the beauty
       of a stiff bourbon.

nico is gay

nico is currently for sale for more information please contact us at
       the discount booth.

nico is one of the most flabbergasting electric bass virtuosi i've heard
       people say, but they were undoubtedly lying to me. Or I might have said that

nico is one of the most flabbergasting electric bass virtuosi i've heard
       and the word “flabbergasting” always makes me think of enormous butt cheeks vibrating 
       from the forcible expulsion of air from the rectum.

nico is a happy boy who is great with children of all ages and dogs too
       --it’s the big humans he has a problem with.

nico is as nico does
       so get over it.


Leo Tolstoy: Ivan Ilych

(Leo Tolstoy: Aug. 28/Sept. 9, 1828-Nov. 7/20, 1910)
I saw that today is the anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's death--but only if one ignores the fact that in Tolstoy's Russia time was calculated on a different calender than we use today. There is a thirteen day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calenders, so while Nov. 7th is the number assigned to his death, the actual day would be the 20th. Confused yet? The Russian Orthodox Church (and some other Orthodox churches) still use the old calendar for ecclesiastic purposes--if you really want to see the fur fly, get one Old Calenderist and one New Calenderist together in a room and let 'em go at it. Jesus, people, it's just an arbitrary number assigned to the passing of days! Anyway . . . I love this passage from Tolstoy's short story, "The Death of Ivan Ilych." It has nothing to do with calender issues, but everything to do with the passing of time.

Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair. 
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. 
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiezewetter's Logic: "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius--man in the abstract--was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother's hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? "Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it's altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible."
Such was his feeling.
                   --Leo Tolstoy, from "The Death of Ivan Ilych," trans. Aylmer Maude and J. D. Duff

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Eugene Debs: I am my brother's keeper

(Eugene Victor Debs. Nov. 5, 1855-Oct. 20, 1926)
A little break from my usual poetry posting. Eugene V. Debs. Labor leader. Five time Socialist Party candidate for U.S. Presidency. Much of what he said still burns with his original intensity, and is as true today as when he said it:

Now my friends, I am opposed to the system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural equipment to do for myself, but because I am not satisfied to make myself comfortable knowing that there are thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the barest necessities of life. We were taught under the old ethic that man's business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked: "Am I my brother's keeper?" That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society.
Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe to myself. What would you think of me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death.

                                 --Eugene Debs, from his 1908 speech “The Issue”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Amy Lowell: Wind and Silver

(Image credit: Harvard Gazette)
Amy Lowell, an extraordinary writer of Imagist poetry, once wrote that poetry should be "hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite." The following poem shows how well she could attain her ideal.

Wind and Silver 
Greatly shining,
The Autumn moon floats in the thin sky;
And the fish-ponds shake their backs and flash their dragon scales
As she passes over them.
              --Amy Lowell

Sunday, November 3, 2013

William Cullen Bryant: from Thanatopsis

(Nov. 3, 1794-June 12, 1878)
Not a huge fan of Bryant, but he does have his moments. This is the opening few lines of perhaps his most famous poem, "Thanatopsis." A good example of American Romanticism. Besides, you've got to love a guy with a beard like his.

        To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.
                           --William Cullen Bryant, from "Thanatopsis"

Saturday, November 2, 2013

James Thurber: It takes away from the beauty of the flowers anyway

Humorist and cartoonist James Thurber, Dec. 8, 1894-Nov. 2, 1961. Very funny man. Famously bad eyesight. I appreciate the several levels of meaning in this bit of humor:

(Credit: Wiki Commons)
I passed all the other courses that I took at my University, but I could never pass botany. This was because all botany students had to spend several hours a week in a laboratory looking through a microscope at plant cells, and I could never see through a microscope. I never once saw a cell through a microscope. This used to enrage my instructor. He would wander around the laboratory pleased with the progress all the students were making in drawing the involved and, so I am told, interesting structure of flower cells, until he came to me. I would just be standing there. “I can’t see anything,” I would say. He would begin patiently enough, explaining how anybody can see through a microscope, but he would always end up in a fury, claiming that I could too see through a microscope but just pretended that I couldn’t. “It takes away from the beauty of flowers anyway,” I used to tell him. “We are not concerned with beauty in this course,” he would say. “We are concerned solely with what I may call the mechanics of flars.” “Well,” I’d say, “I can’t see anything.” “Try it just once again,” he’d say, and I would put my eye to the microscope and see nothing at all, except now and again a nebulous milky substance—a phenomenon of maladjustment. You were supposed to see a vivid, restless clockwork of sharply defined plant cells. “I see what looks like a lot of milk,” I would tell him. This, he claimed, was the result of my not having adjusted the microscope properly, so he would readjust it for me, or rather, for himself. And I would look again and see milk.

                                         --James Thurber, from My Life and Hard Times

Friday, November 1, 2013

Stephen Crane: Black Riders XIII

(Stephen Crane: Nov. 1, 1871-June 5, 1900)


If there is a witness to my little life,
To my tiny throes and struggles,
He sees a fool;
And it is not fine for gods to menace

   --Stephen Crane, from Black Riders 
                               and Other Lines