Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Good Joke

Dear Everybody:

Easy one today! It’s Billy Collins again, with...

The Country
by Billy Collins

I wondered about you

when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice
might get into them and start a fire.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s still in copyright]

As I said, an easy poem. I don’t have to explain any of it to you, do I? But the workings are wonderful, the unexpected little twists (“little brown druid”), the economy of narration (note how “lit up in the blazing insulation” deftly skips over actually mentioning the house catching fire), the bits of visual magic (“the tiny looks of wonderment” is an instant frozen in time). And it’s an excellent example of how often a poem moves “from the specific to the general,” as the academic phrase goes. In a conventional poem, this consists of an organized group of specific observations (the characteristics of dried grass, say, or the workings of a clock) and then soars upward at the end to a generalized observation, usually an abstraction (we are all as mortal as the grass, God is a watchmaker and he expects to be paid for that Rolex). Here, the imagined doings of the Promethean mouse are so wonderfully specific that we get caught up in its tiny drama. Then, at the very end, the camera pulls back to reveal the general, the larger picture: Your house has just burned down.

Yes, it’s a joke. Good one. But there’s also a serious point there about how we can get caught up in the small and valid details of our lives and miss the larger drama as well.

Nifty little poem. I learned last weekend that our friend Gail has never read any Billy Collins. So I’m sending her one of his books later today.

All best,

p.s. Another Hugo! That makes five in six years. Marianne tells me I’m the first ever to have done that.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Introduction to Poetry

Dear Everyone:

Today, another poem by one of our favorite poets, Billy Collins. And, as a special favor to Sean, it’s not one he heard two days before on A Prairie Home Companion!

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

Ahem. I believe that today, mirabile dictu, I have nothing to add.

All best,

p.s. Marvelous useful Latin tag, mirabile dictu! Especially for those of you who like being ironic to someone’s face without (the standards of education today being what they are) being called on it. Look it up.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Rather Better Poem by Carl Sandburg

Dear Guys:

Today, a rather better poem by Carl Sandburg:

They Will Say
by Carl Sandburg

OF my city the worst that men will ever say is this:
You took little children away from the sun and the dew,
And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky,

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

This is a one-trick poem, but it’s a good trick and it’s a short poem. You don’t mind getting only the one thing when all you’ve paid in attention is a mere seven lines.

The trick is in the first line, in those words “the worst that men will ever say.” Coupled with the possessive in “my city,” it sets up the reader to expect a positive statement, an expression of love for Chicago, which is Sandburg’s city and which he did indeed love. So the anti-child-labor (and child labor was a hideous thing, as bad as and even worse than portrayed here) editorial slips right past the reader’s defenses. Reading it, you’re expecting a BUT... my city has this virtue or that, or else this terrific beauty arises from it.

Then the poem ends.

And because there’s that unresolved “worst that men will ever say,” your mind goes back over the words, thinks about them, and realizes that there is nothing worse to be said about the city because there is nothing worse that COULD be said about a city, this side of Hell.

To see such white-hot anger so cunningly employed is a humbling thing. The man really did know what he was doing.

All best,


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Death Snips Proud Men

Dear Everyone:

Here’s your folksy poem du jour. How folksy is it, you ask? It’s by Carl Sandburg

Death Snips Proud Men
by Carl Sandburg

DEATH is stronger than all the governments because
the governments are men and men die and then
death laughs: Now you see 'em, now you don't.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

So you see Sandburg’s basic trick here? He starts out with serious diction, “Death is stronger than all proud men,” say, and follows it up with “Read ‘em and weep.” The latter is called (useful word!) demotic speech. “Demotic” means of or pertaining to the common man. The demotic, as we call it (eliding - another useful word! - the word “speech” entirely) is simply language as she are spoken, as opposed to book-language. Similarly but not identically, “demotic Greek” is the language spoken in Greece today, as opposed to the classic Greek of bygone millennia.

So does it work? Well, the language has shifted underfoot. You don’t hear people speaking like that anymore, though it was common back when the poem was written, and so it sounds to our ears kind of cornball. Because the only places we’ve encountered it before are in books and on television. And usually cornball books and TV.

This sentimental man-of-the-people thing is Sandburg’s Achilles heel. There’s a famous story that one time, when he was late for a panel with the notoriously surly Robert Frost and somebody wondered aloud where he could possibly be, Frost snarled, “He’s probably in the lavatory, combing his hair to look wind-blown.”

More soon.



Monday, September 22, 2008

Billy Collins Rides Again!

Dear Everyone:

A cheerful and upbeat poem today, by (former, I think) American poet laureate Billy Collins. He read a poem whose first lines he liked, but not the way the poem developed. So he borrowed those lines, and restarted the poem. As follows:

by Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker

[Rest of poem removed because it’s still in copyright]

Cool, huh? This poem (as if you needed to be told) is an exploration of metaphor. And what is the difference between simile and metaphor, boys and girls? Right. A simile is a metaphor using the words “like” or “as” and a metaphor is a direct comparison. So if you say that the president brays like a donkey, that’s a simile. If you say he is an ass, that’s a metaphor.

End of lesson.

Nonpolitically yours,


Friday, September 19, 2008

The Poem That Killed Ossip Mandelstam

Hi, y'all!

I'm back from Russia, and I brought a souvenir: The poem that killed Osip Mandelstam. All you need to know is (1) that the poem is about Stalin, (2) that "Ossette" refers to a rumor that Stalin came from an ethnic group of Iranian blood living in Georgia, and (3) that the poem was untitled.

Or maybe all you needed to know was item (1).

Here's the poem:

Journey to Armenia
by Ossip Mandelstam
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

[All but first couplet of the poem removed because it’s still in copyright]

So there I am in front of the Urals Heavy Machinery Plant ("Uralmash") with a group of friends, and they start pointing out that those buildings across the street were built by captured Germans after the war, and those other buildings by Russian labor, people denounced as spies by "friends" who wanted their apartment or their job or were maybe just snatched up from the street by underlings who had a quota to fill.

Then they tell me about this poem.

Osip Mandelstam was one of the great Russian poets of the Twentieth Century. In 1933 he wrote the above poem, which he was not foolish enough to publish, but distributed quietly, by hand, among his friends. Somebody talked. Stalin read the poem. Not long after, Mandelstam was sent to the gulags. He died there.

They told me that what really pissed Stalin off was being compared to a cockroach.

All best,


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

John Donne Conquers the Universe!

Dear Everyone:

Well, I’m off to Russia, and won’t be able to provide you with poems for another two weeks. So I”m leaving y’all with John Donne, a good man with serious emotional and intellectual content alike. For your convenience, I’ve modernized the spelling a bit, so that, for example, “soules” and “goe” become “souls” and “go.” Cheap and modern of me, I know. But I don’t think it will hurt the poem much.


A Valediction: forbidding mourning
by John Donne

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls, to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say,

The breath goes now, and some say, no:

So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,

'Twere prophanation of our joys

To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,

Men reckon what it did and meant,

But trepidation of the spheres,

Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit

Absence, because it doth remove

Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refin'd

That we ourselves know not what it is,

Inter-assured of the mind,

Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,

Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the'other do.

And though it in the center sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as it comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must

Like th'other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end, where I begun.

Here, ripp’d untimely from a website, is a quick gloss on the vocabulary of the poem:

Valediction - a farewell, but a stronger meaning than that: Valedictions for people are read at funerals, etc, and ties in with the first stanza.

Prophanation - sacreligious

Laity - common people.

Trepidation - Not fear, in this sense, but movement. It also implies (a) cautious, silent movement, and (b) an irregularity of movement.

Elemented - instigated, started, constructed.

And I hope you guys are familiar with compasses, despite not being allowed to bring them to school. If not, for Pete’s sake, look it up. Otherwise this poem will be incomprehensible to you.

So here’s a poem Donne wrote for his wife, when he had to go away on a trip. First he compares their parting to the death of a virtuous man. Quiet, without show of emotion because if one lover showed too much emotion that would upset the other. Also, like the man putting his faith in God, the separation is not really a tragedy.

When the Earth moves (he means earthquakes here), that’s bad; but when planets move, that’s natural and serene. We’re like the planets, celestial, above worldly cares.

“Dull sublunary lovers” (mundane or worldly, as opposed to spiritual; this world, existing beneath the lunar orbit, is made up of four elements - fire, air, water, earth - and the fifth spiritual element, the quintessence is not to be found sub lunae; there is neither sin nor pain in the heavens) are made miserable when they’re parted because their love is merely physical. True lovers, however, do not miss each other’s eyes, hands, touch, but their spirit, their essence.

You and I, he says, are like the two legs of a compass. The one wanders widely while the other barely moves. Yet they are never truly separated because ultimately they are one thing. Which being so, their coming together again is inevitable. When the circle is completed and he comes home (he does not even have to say), the two halves of the compass are joined together as close as two bodies can be.

You guys, being young, got the smutty bits, that one half of the compass grows erect as it approaches home, the praise of the other’s firmness. Donne was very explicitly appreciative of the physical joys of love. Here he joins them seamlessly with the spiritual joys. Which is easier to achieve in life than it is in words. He’s achieved an alchemical marriage, the union of opposites which in alchemy is the spiritual aspect of the Great Work, whose physical expression consists of turning lead into gold. Which is why he worked the beating of gold (which is both malleable and pure; so the beating, while painful, does it no harm) into the poem.

Got all that? It’s only a beginning. This is one complex word-machine. And a brilliant one. I could go on and on about this poem for days, without once wandering into dubious territory. I didn’t like it much when I was in high school, but I was wrong.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s emotionally true? You’ll learn.

All best,


Saturday, September 13, 2008

An Extremely Rude Poem

Dear Everyone:

Here it is, and rude as all get-out:

the way to hump a cow is not
by e. e. cummings

the way to hump a cow is not

to get yourself a stool
but draw a line around the spot

and call it beautifool

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Witty, eh? And half the wit comes from adhering to a strict rhyme scheme. Imagine the same poem rendered as free verse. More offensive, less funny. Something to think about, and it has analogous application to the work of those of you who are writers or artists.

All best,


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Conger Chowder!!

Dear Everybody:

Today we continue our discovery of Pablo Neruda with a poem from the same series as yesterday’s tomato poem:

Ode To Conger Chowder
by Pablo Neruda

In the storm-tossed



lives the rosy conger,

giant eel

of snowy flesh.

And in Chilean

along the coast,

was born the chowder,

thick and succulent,

a boon to man.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

The above poem is, you will note, perilously close to being a recipe. Yes, of course. What recipes and poems have in common is that they are both the reduction of a complicated thing to the least number of words. Anything more and it would be wordy and flabby. Anything less and it wouldn’t work.

All best,


Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Dear All:

Today we continue our discovery of Pablo Neruda. This poem is particularly timely because local tomatoes are just coming into season. We ate the first one from our back yard a few days ago and there’s a second one almost ripe on its vine.

Ode To Tomatoes
by Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is


its juice
through the streets.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Oh, man, it makes me want to eat a tomato right now! Not a store-bought tomato. Not one of those flavorless crunchy things that are bred for looks, the hardiness to withstand shipping, and the ability to finish ripening just as they hit the stores. No. A real tomato, plucked from the vine and sliced and eaten on the spot. Sun-warm, with the juice running down your chin.

You’ll note that there is no allegorical reading of this poem. The tomato stands for nothing but itself. That’s part of the poet’s job, too: To make you aware of what’s right in front of you. To help you celebrate the richness of the quotidian.

Great word, quotidian. Look it up.

All best,


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Not the Poem Itself, But . . .

Dear Everybody:

It’s Pablo Neruda’s birthday! Well, okay, he’s dead. But if he weren’t, he’d be one hundred years old today.

And who is Pablo Neruda when he’s at home, you ask? Well, according to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a terrific writer! foremost of the magic realists, and the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I urge you to take out of the library and read the first ten pages of; odds are strong you’ll read it all at a gallop), he was the greatest poet of the twentieth century.

Greater than Yeats? I can’t say. I don’t read Spanish. And, just against the possibility that neither do you, I’ve secured the following in English translation:

by Pablo Neruda

And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

So there’s our infinitesimal drunken poet, by all accounts a good guy. Of the poem itself, I will note only that this is not that poem. It’s a translation. Followers of Islam say that the Koran existed from the beginning of time and that it cannot be translated. So, I wondered, what are all these English-language books I see in the stores labeled “Koran”? A couple of years ago, I stumbled across the answer: They’re not translations, but books of commentary, explaining the Koran as best as possible to English speakers.

So here. Not the poem itself, but a very good commentary on it.

Tomorrow, if you’re good, I’ll tell you what Neruda had to say about tomatoes.

All best,


Thursday, September 4, 2008

A History of the Night

Dear Everybody:

Did you guys know that Jorge Luis Borges got his start as a poet? Okay, well, have you ever heard of Jorge Luis Borge?

Sigh. In very brief, this guy wrote very short, very intellectual stories. Everyone on this list would love ‘em. “The Library of Babel” describes an infinite library containing not only every written book but every possible book. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is about a man who spends his life writing the first chapter of Don Quixote – word for word identical to the one that Cervantes wrote. Oh, these are strange works. A man discovers that he’s only a dream, another finds all the world in a small copper coin. And his nonfiction essays are stunning. In fact, there are some pieces where you can’t determine if they’re fiction or essay.

Here’s one of his poems:

History Of The Night
by Jorge Luis Borges

Throughout the course of the generations
men constructed the night.
At first she was blindness;
thorns raking bare feet,
fear of wolves.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Now is that a cool idea or what? A history of the night! Borges was brilliantly erudite, too. You can trust him to have gotten the facts right.

Did you notice the kicker? It exists in the last couplet. Borges was blind.

All best,


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

We Lucky Few . . .

Dear Everybody:

Today I'm going to ask you to do something different. I want you to be absolutely sure to read through the entire poem before you read any commentary afterwards. Maybe you do normally. But if you don't, then this once make an exception:

What is So Rare As a Day in June
James Russell Lowell

AND what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there's never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature's palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o'errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
'Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
And if the breeze kept the good news back,
For our couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer's lowing,
And hark! How clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!

Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Everything is happy now,
Everything is upward striving;
'Tis as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,
'Tis for the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave not wake,
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
The soul partakes the season's youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep 'neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.

Phew! Done! Okay, now, congratulate yourselves. Most educated English-speaking humans know at least the title and can quote it on a day like some we've had recently. "What is so rare as a day in June?" they asked rhetorically, and stop. Because they're on vacation and who needs the mental work? It's time for hot dogs!

But now, we few, we brave band of brothers, have soldiered through the reversals of words, the hark!s and 'tises, the phrasing that looked so poetic when it was new and looks so poem-y now, and won to the final sulphurous rifts.

So what did you think of it? Liked it in spite of the poetic diction? Disliked it for the artifice of the thing? Yours is the judgment of posterity, after all, and as any artist can tell you, it's the only judgment that matters.

All best,


Monday, September 1, 2008

Try to Praise the Mutilated World


My apologies for posting this two days late. I was at a family funeral and, contrary to expectations, could not find the time and the hot spot to post from the road. I really am sorry about this.

Dear Everybody:

Today we have a translation of a work from a poet about whom all I know is that he’s Polish.

Linguistically, Polish is quite a distance from English. Which makes the easy, unforced beauty of the following a small miracle:

Try To Praise The Mutilated World By Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Wow. What we have here is a poem of hope for people who have seen the worst, been through Soviet occupation, suffered wars and injustice. A poem that doesn’t deny the hurt and pain of the world, but reminds you that, underneath it all, life is an extraordinary gift.

There is a lot of stuff packed into the 134 words of that poem. How much? Well, my next novel should run to about 150,000 words and say essentially the same thing.

All best,