Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Courageous Stride, the Ridiculous Slippers

Hi, All:

Okay, it's been more than a day. But here's your second poem on the subject:

by Anne Sexton

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.

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

You all noticed, of course, that the poem contains a lifetime. That it begins with a child's first steps and proceeds chronologically to end with old age and death. And Sexton tells you up front that it's about courage.

Courage is an everyday thing, Sexton says. Imagine the courage it took for you to stand up and walk for the first time, an event "as awesome as an earthquake." And I'm sure you can still remember the courage it took to endure schoolyard taunts. Nobody ever forgets them.

The next stanza moves courage into the arena of war, and refers specifically to the Korean War. "Waitaminute," you say. "Women weren't allowed in the war arena back then." Absolutely right. But your teachers misled you when they said that poetry was about self-expression. Sexton is speaking about the world and she's speaking for everyone.

Herein is the most subversive aspect of the poem: She converts the act of a buddy dying to save you from the martial rhetoric of Homer and the USMC to a quotidian (that means "everyday") reality. It's as simple as "shaving soap." Simultaneously here, she has undone the glory of the act while elevating it to the status of love.

So it goes, for two more stanzas. At the end of life, Sexton says, we are the most courageous of all. And when at last you can't stave off death for even an instant longer, "you'll put on your carpet slippers and stride out." Picture that in your mind: The courageous stride, the ridiculous carpet slippers. Fools on the outside, but heroes within. This is the human condition glorified.

Life is tough business, Sexton says. It's not for sissies. We're not sissies, you and I. We're human beings.

All best,

P.S. So why shaving soap and not hand soap? To defend herself from the charge that she's trying to "feminize" men. She's just trying to reflect on the way things really are.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Should We Kill Kipling?

Dear Everyone:

Today I offer one of the most popular and sneered-at poems every written. There's much to be said on both sides. But to begin with, read the poem with an open and sympathetic mind. Try your best to hear and appreciate it exactly as Kipling meant you to:

by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And–which is more–you'll be a Man, my son!

So... what do you think? Moving? Ripe? Both? These are all valid reactions. The two most common reasons for disliking this poem are 1) overexposure, and 2) a dislike for people who offer advice at length. For the first, there is no cure – people do pass this around too much, and once you've heard "In A Gadda Da Vida" five hundred times, you'll never want to hear it again. But for the second, it helps to remember that Kipling is trying to be helpful. He's offering the distilled wisdom that a lifetime of being knocked down and getting right back up again has taught him.

The big criticism of Kipling, though, is that he was the mouthpiece of the British Empire, the jingoistic sloganeer, the man who perceived and embodied the Victorian spirit in all its brave, foolish, world-conquering bulletheadedness. When applied to his best (and usually early) work, this is cruelly unfair. But there's no getting around the fact that success turned him into the guy who wrote "The White Man's Burden" and such lines as, "Oh, it's Tommy this and Tommy that, And shove ‘im out, the brute. But it's savior of ‘is nation, When the guns begin to shoot."

And certainly, in this poem, you can see the distilled essence of the shared values and attitudes that allowed the British to conquer half the world in, as one historian put it, "a fit of absent-mindedness." There's a story of a seven-year-old Victorian English girl in India who fell out of a tree while playing and broke her arm, but went on playing for another half-hour because she knew she was expected to not show weakness before the natives. If you read George MacDonald Fraser's wonderfully comic Flashman novels, you'll see that exact same attitude examined by somebody who finds it kind of weird and creepy.

On the positive side, the poem is clear and lucid – and isn't that a relief after some of the stuff we've plowed through? We know exactly what Kipling was trying to tell us. And his formal command of the language is astounding. The rhyme scheme (ABAB, repeated endlessly) ought to make the poem sound singsong and yet it doesn't. How did he do that?

There are lots of cunning bits of craft hidden in the poem so openly that you probably missed them entirely. To mention just one: The fact that the poem is addressed to the narrator's son isn't revealed until the very final word. Which, since the reader has been receiving the poem as a direct admonition directed at him, turns him into the poet's son, and Kipling into his father. A very powerful relationship has thus been imposed, and absolutely without resistance on the reader's part!

But the key question is, does the poem work? That is, is it of actual help in the messy business of living? And the answer is, I think, on balance, yes. Not as a self-improvement program -- it contains a near-infinite number of goals and no advice on how to reach them -- but as a way of making the reader brave. I'm sure there have been any number of times when somebody faced adversity and defeat and drew strength from these lines in the form of a determination to be THAT kind of man, one who can force his "heart and nerve and sinew" to act hopeful, courageous, and strong, long after hope, courage, and strength have left him.

Yes, it's a hokey poem. Yeah, if you successfully internalize it, you'll be a massively repressed Type-A personality. But anything that helps you when times are hard is to be cherished. And, even at its worst, it's like the parson's egg – parts of it are excellent.

So, on balance, I think we'll let Kipling live.

Tomorrow, a rather different poem on the subject of courage

All best,


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cat! Poem (What Could Be More Commercial?)

Dear Everybody:

I having been away so long, at various times in Australia, in my own thoughts, and in fluenza, I'm getting you back into the swing of poetic things easily with:

To a Cat
by Jorge Luis Borges

Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.

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

Borges is respected as a poet, but revered as a writer of prose. (He's the guy who wrote about an infinite library containing not only every book written but every book possible; a man who forgets nothing and another who sets out to write Cervantes' Don Quixote four hundred years after Cervantes; the Alef, which contains within it all things; the Lottery of Babel, which is indistinguishable from life itself; and many, many other intellectual mind-benders.) So his poetry is more cleverly-constructed than profoundly-felt.

Note here how the cat is a thing of absences, defined by negatives ("not more silent nor... more secretive), never seen or described, identified with mirrors, the dawn, a long-forgotten time, the Ganges, a setting sun, a dream. All of which are absolutely unlike the physical thing that is a cat. In fact, what Borges has evoked here is a day, from sunup to sundown and sleep, and a world, through at least two continents. No furs, no claws, no eyes. Only, in fact, a "haunch" pushing up against "the love of a distrustful hand."

"You know my methods," as Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson. What am I getting at here?
Two things: The poem is in the second person, so the poet is addressing a cat. The haunch and the hand place the cat in the poet's lap. Borges is feeling contemplative, dreamish. That's one. The other is that "distrustful" hand. The word leaps out at the reader. You'd expect "distrusted." But no, that word reveals that the poem is not about the cat at all. It's about the poet himself, the member of the race that distrusted the cat's wild ancestors, and somehow, so long ago the facts are forgotten, tamed it anyway.

So the poem's not really about a cat at all. It's about how the poet feels about cats. It's about the idea of a cat.

That's all for today. But we'll have more soon.



Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fat, Gay, Jewish -- and Way Cool

Dear Everyone:

Today a not at all bad poem by a guy who was fat, gay, Jewish, and one of the coolest people on the face of the earth. Neat trick, eh?

Allen Ginsberg got his start in the 1950s, hanging around with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, became world famous with the publication of “Howl,” was ubiquitous in the Sixties and Seventies (a couple of times a year I’d see him in my college’s public cafeteria, hanging out with anybody who wanted to sit at his table; a couple of hours after the solar eclipse of – I’m guessing – 1973, a couple of my friends went into a diner and there he was; “Did you see the eclipse?” he asked. “Oh, it was mad – mad!”) Then, long before it was cool to do so, he traded in the hippie drag for a suit and tie, trimmed his beard, and went back to looking like an ordinarily respectable Jewish guy, someone who might be in rugs or small appliances. Apparently he’d lost patience with the guru role, and all the luggage that went with it. But he kept on traveling, writing poetry, keeping things churned. He died a few years ago, leaving behind such an enormous body of work that nobody’s yet sorted through it to determine what’s great, what’s not quite, and what’s hardly worth the trouble.

The problem with Allen Ginsberg is that his best poems are enormously long, immersive experiences. But wonderful. Consider “Howl”:

It begins, I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

And continues, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

and goes on, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

Oh, man. That’s on beyond cool. Try reading those lines out loud. You guys should go to the library and check out a copy. It’s an astonishing poem. It maintains that level of energy all the way to the end.

Today, however, we have something simpler, with a self-explanatory title:

New Stanzas for Amazing Grace
by Allen Ginsberg

I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone

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

Yes, it’s meant to be sung. What I want you guys to admire in it is its simplicity. It takes a lot of hard work and experience to write something that simple without looking silly.

Not that simplicity is everything. Consider “Howl.” Not at all simple. Immeasurably better.

All best,


Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Arrow, the Song, Will Not Stay Us Long

Hi, everybody!

Today’s poem is another ripe one from Longfellow. So why do I think you should read it? Well, for one thing, you know its first lines already.


The Arrow and the Song
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

So there it is, the poem that launched a thousand parodies. (“ hit my teacher’s derriere” to note but one.) Now you know the point of those lines.

In a footnote to the poem (useful things, footnotes) I discovered an entry from Longfellow’s diary: "October 16, 1845. Before church, wrote The Arrow and the Song, which came into my mind as I stood with my back to the fire, and glanced on to the paper with arrow's speed. Literally an improvisation." So now we know a second thing, which is that the poem did not take up a great deal of Longfellow’s time.

Nor need it ours.



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sing "Wreck of the Hesperus" Today!

Dear Everyone:

We’ve got a ripe one today! For your sins, I’ve been reading a volume of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But as Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

In which spirit, I urge you to read the following before my commentary:

Wreck Of The Hesperus
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.

The Skipper he stood beside the helm,
His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
The smoke now West, now South.

Then up and spake an old Sailor,
Had sailed the Spanish Main,
"I pray thee, put into yonder port,
for I fear a hurricane.

"Last night the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!"
The skipper, he blew whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.

Colder and louder blew the wind,
A gale from the Northeast,
The snow fell hissing in the brine,
And the billows frothed like yeast.

Down came the storm, and smote amain
The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
Then leaped her cable's length.

"Come hither! come hither! my little daughter,
And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever wind did blow."

He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat
Against the stinging blast;
He cut a rope from a broken spar,
And bound her to the mast.

"O father! I hear the church bells ring,
Oh, say, what may it be?"
"Tis a fog-bell on a rock bound coast!" –
And he steered for the open sea.

"O father! I hear the sound of guns;
Oh, say, what may it be?"
Some ship in distress, that cannot live
In such an angry sea!"

"O father! I see a gleaming light.
Oh say, what may it be?"
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,
With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
On his fixed and glassy eyes.

Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed
That saved she might be;
And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave,
On the Lake of Galilee.

And fast through the midnight dark and drear,
Through the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
Tow'rds the reef of Norman's Woe.

And ever the fitful gusts between
A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf,
On the rocks and hard sea-sand.

The breakers were right beneath her bows,
She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
Like icicles from her deck.

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.

Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
With the masts went by the board;
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank,
Ho! ho! the breakers roared!

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman's Woe!

I have two things to say about this poem. First, that you shouldn’t be overly scornful of the sentiment. Longfellow died in 1882, before a lot of the improvements in medicine that we take for granted. Back then, the average reader – you – would have lost at least one sister or brother in his or her infancy. So that line about the little daughter with eyes “blue ... as the fairy flax” would have been a shot right to the heart. It would have touched undying pain.

The other is that this poem can be sung to the tune of the theme from “Gilligan’s Isle.” Some of the verses (the first one most notably), you have to scrunch the second line together to make fit. But most work just fine. Try it right now:

"O father! I see a gleaming light.
Oh say, what may it be?"
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.

(Don’t forget the refrain: “... frozen corpse was he.”)

So now you know why modern poets abandoned rhyme!

All best,


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cultured Literary Doodling

Dear Everyone:

Your teachers, no doubt, emphasized emotion when they taught poetry. Yet, considering how much of it is rhyme and scansion, wouldn’t logic be a better emphasis? And doesn’t it stand to reason that mathematicians would make particularly good poets?

So the following, by Professor Charles Luttwidge Dodgson, who wrote two well-regarded children’s books under a pseudonym, is nothing more than you’d expect, right?

(Epilogue to Through the Looking Glass)
by Lewis Carroll

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July –

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear
Pleased a simple tale to hear –

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream –
Lingering in the golden gleam –
Life what is it but a dream?

Good poem. But did you get it?

No, I don’t mean the fact that it was written about going boating with Alice Pleasance Liddell and her sisters on those golden afternoons when he made up the stories that became Alice in Wonderland. That’s pretty obvious by the fact that the poem first appeared at the very end of that exact same book. Did you get the secret he hid in the poem?

Nor do I mean anything dark and sexual either. Though many people do think that Dodgson was a natural pederast who managed to stifle his impulses. (Then again, the case is not proved; a recent biographer claimed that the man’s dark secret was that he was attracted to adult women, and hung around with little girls because being pre-sexual they were safe.)

Here’s a clue: The poem was cast in triplets of lines in order to draw the eye away from the hidden secret. Which is that it’s an acrostic poem. Look at the first letter of each line. Read straight down. The poem contains its own dedication to the girl who inspired Alice.

Acrostic poems were not at all uncommon in an age when any educated gentleman might be expected to dash off an occasional verse or two. So it wasn’t a terribly big secret – you were expected to get it sooner or later. The trick was to make the poem itself good enough that the acrostic came as a surprise.

All best,


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Three Metafictionally Blind Recursive Mice

Dear Everybody:

One of our favorite poets, Billy Collins, seems to have a thing about mice. As witness:

I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of "Three Blind Mice"
by Billy Collins

And I start wondering how they came to be blind.
If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

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

So what’s it about? I bet you can’t readily say. Good. Collins is, you’ll remember, the guy who complained that rather than lean back and experience a poem, his students want to tie it to a chair and beat it with a rubber hose until it tells them what it means. So if you enjoyed the poem, if it felt right to you, then you got it, exactly the same way you might get a really good jazz riff. What does it mean? Who knows? Sounds good, though.

Me, I’d say the poem was about the pleasure of experiencing things: Chopping parsley, listening to music, thinking about mice, getting sentimental. All that good stuff that makes life worth living, even though nobody can tell us what it “means.”

Oh, and it’s a metafictional commentary on poetry, too, since “Three Blind Mice” is a poem. Which also makes the whole thing recursive as well, doesn’t it? But enough of that.

All best,


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No! No! Not a Filthy Poem at All!

Hey, Everybody!

Today we’ve got our longest poem ever. But don’t despair. It’s easy, easy, easy to read. And according to some, myself included, it’s saturated with sex.

Decide for yourself:

Goblin Market
by Christina Rossetti

MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries–
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy."

Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
"Lie close," Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
"Come buy," call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.

"O! cried Lizzie, Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men."
Lizzie covered up her eyes
Covered close lest they should look;
Laura reared her glossy head,
And whispered like the restless brook:
"Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds' weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes."
"No," said Lizzie, "no, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us."
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.

Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.

Backwards up the mossy glen
Turned and trooped the goblin men,
With their shrill repeated cry,
"Come buy, come buy."
When they reached where Laura was
They stood stock still upon the moss,
Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother.
One set his basket down,
One reared his plate;
One began to weave a crown
Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown
(Men sell not such in any town);
One heaved the golden weight
Of dish and fruit to offer her:
"Come buy, come buy," was still their cry.
Laura stared but did not stir,
Longed but had no money:
The whisk-tailed merchant bade her taste
In tones as smooth as honey,
The cat-faced purr'd,
The rat-paced spoke a word
Of welcome, and the snail-paced even was heard;
One parrot-voiced and jolly
Cried "Pretty Goblin" still for "Pretty Polly";
One whistled like a bird.

But sweet-tooth Laura spoke in haste:
"Good folk, I have no coin;
To take were to purloin:
I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather."
"You have much gold upon your head,"
They answered altogether:
"Buy from us with a golden curl."
She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore,
She sucked until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away,
But gathered up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turned home alone.

Lizzie met her at the gate
Full of wise upbraidings:
"Dear, you should not stay so late,
Twilight is not good for maidens;
Should not loiter in the glen
In the haunts of goblin men.
Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Plucked from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the moonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew gray;
Then fell with the first snow,
While to this day no grass will grow
Where she lies low:
I planted daisies there a year ago
That never blow.
You should not loiter so."
"Nay hush," said Laura.
"Nay hush, my sister:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
To-morrow night I will
Buy more," and kissed her.
"Have done with sorrow;
I'll bring you plums to-morrow
Fresh on their mother twigs,
Cherries worth getting;
You cannot think what figs
My teeth have met in,
What melons, icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed:
Odorous indeed must be the mead
Whereon they grow, and pure the wave they drink,
With lilies at the brink,
And sugar-sweet their sap."

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other's wings,
They lay down, in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fallen snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars beamed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest.

Early in the morning
When the first cock crowed his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetched in honey, milked the cows,
Aired and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churned butter, whipped up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sewed;
Talked as modest maidens should
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part;
One warbling for the mere bright day's delight,
One longing for the night.

At length slow evening came–
They went with pitchers to the reedy brook;
Lizzie most placid in her look,
Laura most like a leaping flame.
They drew the gurgling water from its deep
Lizzie plucked purple and rich golden flags,
Then turning homeward said: "The sunset flushes
Those furthest loftiest crags;
Come, Laura, not another maiden lags,
No wilful squirrel wags,
The beasts and birds are fast asleep."
But Laura loitered still among the rushes
And said the bank was steep.

And said the hour was early still,
The dew not fallen, the wind not chill:
Listening ever, but not catching
The customary cry,
"Come buy, come buy,"
With its iterated jingle
Of sugar-baited words:
Not for all her watching
Once discerning even one goblin
Racing, whisking, tumbling, hobbling;
Let alone the herds
That used to tramp along the glen,
In groups or single,
Of brisk fruit-merchant men.

Till Lizzie urged, "O Laura, come,
I hear the fruit-call, but I dare not look:
You should not loiter longer at this brook:
Come with me home.
The stars rise, the moon bends her arc,
Each glow-worm winks her spark,
Let us get home before the night grows dark;
For clouds may gather even
Though this is summer weather,
Put out the lights and drench us through;
Then if we lost our way what should we do?"

Laura turned cold as stone
To find her sister heard that cry alone,
That goblin cry,
"Come buy our fruits, come buy."
Must she then buy no more such dainty fruit?
Must she no more such succous pasture find,
Gone deaf and blind?
Her tree of life drooped from the root:
She said not one word in her heart's sore ache;
But peering thro' the dimness, naught discerning,
Trudged home, her pitcher dripping all the way;
So crept to bed, and lay
Silent 'til Lizzie slept;
Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnashed her teeth for balked desire, and wept
As if her heart would break.

Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain,
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry:
"Come buy, come buy,"
She never spied the goblin men
Hawking their fruits along the glen:
But when the noon waxed bright
Her hair grew thin and gray;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay, and burn
Her fire away.

One day remembering her kernel-stone
She set it by a wall that faced the south;
Dewed it with tears, hoped for a root,
Watched for a waxing shoot,
But there came none;
It never saw the sun,
It never felt the trickling moisture run:
While with sunk eyes and faded mouth
She dreamed of melons, as a traveller sees
False waves in desert drouth
With shade of leaf-crowned trees,
And burns the thirstier in the sandful breeze.

She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetched honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat.

Tender Lizzie could not bear
To watch her sister's cankerous care,
Yet not to share.
She night and morning
Caught the goblins' cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy."
Beside the brook, along the glen
She heard the tramp of goblin men,
The voice and stir
Poor Laura could not hear;
Longed to buy fruit to comfort her,
But feared to pay too dear,
She thought of Jeanie in her grave,
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
In earliest winter-time,
With the first glazing rime,
With the first snow-fall of crisp winter-time.

Till Laura, dwindling,
Seemed knocking at Death's door:
Then Lizzie weighed no more
Better and worse,
But put a silver penny in her purse,
Kissed Laura, crossed the heath with clumps of furze
At twilight, halted by the brook,
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.

Laughed every goblin
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Demure grimaces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter-skelter, hurry-skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes, –
Hugged her and kissed her;
Squeezed and caressed her;
Stretched up their dishes,
Panniers and plates:
"Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries
Bite at our peaches,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red with basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and suck them,
Pomegranates, figs."

"Good folk," said Lizzie,
Mindful of Jeanie,
"Give me much and many"; –
Held out her apron,
Tossed them her penny.
"Nay, take a seat with us,
Honor and eat with us,"
They answered grinning;
"Our feast is but beginning.
Night yet is early,
Warm and dew-pearly,
Wakeful and starry:
Such fruits as these
No man can carry;
Half their bloom would fly,
Half their dew would dry,
Half their flavor would pass by.
Sit down and feast with us,
Be welcome guest with us,
Cheer you and rest with us."
"Thank you," said Lizzie; "but one waits
At home alone for me:
So, without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I tossed you for a fee."
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
One called her proud,
Cross-grained, uncivil;
Their tones waxed loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,
Like a rock of blue-veined stone
Lashed by tides obstreperously, –
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire, –
Like a fruit-crowned orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee, –
Like a royal virgin town
Topped with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguered by a fleet
Mad to tear her standard down.

One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,
Coaxed and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,
Kicked and knocked her,
Mauled and mocked her,
Lizzie uttered not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in;
But laughed in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syruped all her face,
And lodged in dimples of her chin,
And streaked her neck which quaked like curd.
At last the evil people,
Worn out by her resistance,
Flung back her penny, kicked their fruit
Along whichever road they took,
Not leaving root or stone or shoot.
Some writhed into the ground,
Some dived into the brook
With ring and ripple.
Some scudded on the gale without a sound,
Some vanished in the distance.

In a smart, ache, tingle,
Lizzie went her way;
Knew not was it night or day;
Sprang up the bank, tore through the furze,
Threaded copse and dingle,
And heard her penny jingle
Bouncing in her purse, –
Its bounce was music to her ear.
She ran and ran
As if she feared some goblin man
Dogged her with gibe or curse
Or something worse:
But not one goblin skurried after,
Nor was she pricked by fear;
The kind heart made her windy-paced
That urged her home quite out of breath with haste
And inward laughter.

She cried "Laura," up the garden,
"Did you miss me ?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men."

Laura started from her chair,
Flung her arms up in the air,
Clutched her hair:
"Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted
For my sake the fruit forbidden?
Must your light like mine be hidden,
Your young life like mine be wasted,
Undone in mine undoing,
And ruined in my ruin;
Thirsty, cankered, goblin-ridden?"
She clung about her sister,
Kissed and kissed and kissed her:
Tears once again
Refreshed her shrunken eyes,
Dropping like rain
After long sultry drouth;
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.

Her lips began to scorch,
That juice was wormwood to her tongue,
She loathed the feast:
Writhing as one possessed she leaped and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast.
Her locks streamed like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like the mane of horses in their flight,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run.

Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame,
She gorged on bitterness without a name:
Ah! fool, to choose such part
Of soul-consuming care!
Sense failed in the mortal strife:
Like the watch-tower of a town
Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast,
Like a wind-uprooted tree
Spun about,
Like a foam-topped water-spout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life ?

Life out of death.
That night long Lizzie watched by her,
Counted her pulse's flagging stir,
Felt for her breath,
Held water to her lips, and cooled her face
With tears and fanning leaves:
But when the first birds chirped about their eaves,
And early reapers plodded to the place
Of golden sheaves,
And dew-wet grass
Bowed in the morning winds so brisk to pass,
And new buds with new day
Opened of cup-like lilies on the stream,
Laura awoke as from a dream,
Laughed in the innocent old way,
Hugged Lizzie but not twice or thrice;
Her gleaming locks showed not one thread of gray,
Her breath was sweet as May,
And light danced in her eyes.

Days, weeks, months,years
Afterwards, when both were wives
With children of their own;
Their mother-hearts beset with fears,
Their lives bound up in tender lives;
Laura would call the little ones
And tell them of her early prime,
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruits like honey to the throat,
But poison in the blood;
(Men sell not such in any town;)
Would tell them how her sister stood
In deadly peril to do her good,
And win the fiery antidote:
Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
"For there is no friend like a sister,
In calm or stormy weather,
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands."

Aaaaand... we’re done! You’ll be surprised to learn that Ms Rossetti was quite indignant when people said they could detect a sexual subtext in her poem. It seems inescapable to us, dunnit? I like to recite the lines: "Did you miss me ? Come and kiss me. Never mind my bruises, Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices... Eat me, drink me, love me; Laura, make much of me...” At which point I have to mop my brow with a handkerchief.

But Christina wasn’t kidding when she said that people who thought those lines was anything but innocent simply had filthy minds. She really didn’t intend the jolly lesbian incest that seems so inescapable to us.

So what happened? Sigmund Freud. His insights into unconscious impulses and sexual imagery are so pervasive we don’t even realize today that they came from him. We think they’re simply obvious. But there was a time when a cigar was just a cigar, and a girl might kiss and kiss her sister “with hungry mouth” and suck her juices too, with nobody thinking the less of her.

Ah, but then Freud came along, and now the thought of goblin juice syruping a young girl’s face has made us turn red with embarrassment. The mind, it turns out, doesn’t work the way he hypothesized. But our literature has never been the same since.

All best,


Sunday, November 9, 2008


Dear Everybody:

Brevity is the soul of wit. So said Shakespeare, or, rather, his character Polonius in Hamlet. To be specific, he said:

This business is well ended. –
My liege, and madam, –to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night is night, and time is time.
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: –your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.

That's pretty funny! Those windy gushes of words smacking up against an austere "But let that go." And you gotta admire how deftly Willy proved the aphorism by negative example.

Now today's poem:

By Thomas Hood

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –

Great grouse, huh? Try reading it aloud. Terrific stuff when it's November and you're feeling curmudgeonly about it.

But, alas, I told you a lie. The poem is not titled "November" but "No!" And it's almost three times longer than the above version. Common usage has curtailed the verbiage and re-named it. Well, that's posterity for you – a stern editor with a good eye.
Here's the original:

By Thomas Hood

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day – No sky – no earthly view –
No distance looking blue –
No road – no street – no "t' other side the way" –
No end to any Row –
No indications where the Crescents go –
No top to any steeple –
No recognitions of familiar people –
No courtesies for showing 'em –
No knowing 'em!
To traveling at all – no locomotion,
No inkling of the way – no notion –
No go – by land or ocean –
No mail – no post –
No news from any foreign coas t–
No park–no ring–no afternoon gentility –
No company – no nobility –
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees.
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds.

So didja read it? No, you didn't. You skimmed over it. Thus proving my point: Brevity is the soul of wit.

All best,


Thursday, November 6, 2008

For Those In Sorrow . . .

Contemporary Note: Honesty and the opening line compel me to mention that I wrote this four years ago. But if you're a conservative and in mourning, then this applies as surely to you now as it did to me then. I wish you -- and the Republic -- all the best.

Dear All:

Because you are intelligent men, I reckon the odds are good that your candidate lost in yesterday’s election. So how do you cope? Well, the mature respond, despite everything you were told as children, with bitterness and self-pity. And how better to wallow in bitterness and self-pity than with poetry?

Today’s poem was penned by Miss Neurosis of 1886, the Belle of Amherst and favorite poet of high-school girls everywhere (but we must forgive her that), Emily Dickinson. As follows.

Success is Counted Sweetest
by Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory,

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break, agonized and clear.

And the primary virtue of this poem, class? That’s right. Clarity. Followed shortly by concision. It’s short enough to memorize and if you do, you can someday throw it in the face of some gloating bastard and make him feel like the subhuman toad he is.

Not that I would I encourage such uncivil behavior, mind you.

All best,


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Please to see the king"

Hey, guys. I'm as busy as you are, so I'll make this short and sweet. A bit of traditional verse, with explication lifted from a Web page:

The old English custom of hunting the wren on this day [December 26] may be the remnant of an ancient midwinter sacrifice. The official explanation given is that wrens are hunted on St Stephen's Day because their chattering in the bushes gave away the saint's hiding place, leading to his martyrdom. The usually sacred and protected bird was ceremonially hunted and its decorated corpse carried about to bring luck.

The custom still survives in Ireland and the Isle of Man where the bird's corpse is replaced by a potato stuck with feathers.

And here's the poem:

The Wren, the Wren, the King of all Birds
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
Although he be little, his honor is great
Therefore, good people, give us a treat.

So, okay. You guessed this day of slaughter was not really a Christian tradition. In fact, on St. Stephen's Day (the day after Christmas), children would go out hunting until they caught a wren (or, depending on location, some other animal) and kill it. Then they'd hang it from a stick and go door-to-door with the greeting, "Please to see the king." And people would have to give them sweets, food, even small coins.

Much like Halloween, only with real (but small) corpses.

Ah, the good old days! We made our own amusements, then. Not like you young folks, with your video games and rubber balls.

All best,


Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Dainty Touch of Caramelization

Hail, fellow devotees of the arts!

Yesterday’s poem came to umpety-ump lines and however many words, and I challenged you to cut it down to three and twenty-four. Well, here’s how Marianne did that very thing:

by Marianne Moore

[Vastly shorter poem removed because it’s still in copyright. But you should be able to find it on the Web with no trouble.]

That’s a tour de force, for sure. And it gains a lot in compactness and immediacy.

But it loses something as well. Specifically, it loses “real toads in imaginary gardens.” You can argue that this version has a real toad (useful insight) in an imaginary garden (the poem), but it doesn’t have those words: real toads in imaginary gardens. Those are good words. I know because I must have heard or read them quoted a dozen times before I finally encountered the poem.

Now let’s take a second look at yesterday’s poem: No rhymes, no poetic meter ... why this stuff is just cadenced prose! (Remember what Moore said about business correspondence and school-books.) She’s stripped away all the “poetic” stuff, the prettiness, the quaintness, the iambic pentameter in order to look at what a poem really is.

But there’s a lot of hidden craft there too. Moore refers to poetry as “all this fiddle” (nonsense), but a fiddle is also an instrument for making music. And if you count the syllables in each line (but why would you?) you’ll see that the first line of each stanza has exactly nineteen syllables, the fourth and fifth lines have five and eight, or eight and five syllables, and four of the five last lines have thirteen syllables.

What does all this structure mean to you? Not a lot. That’s why I rarely touch upon it. But the ear hears it and the subconscious appreciates it in the same way that the tongue tastes and the stomach appreciates a particularly subtle culinary concoction. When you’re in a restaurant, you rarely say, “Hey! I’ll bet this has been cooked eighty degrees hotter than usual – the surface has dainty touch of caramelization that can’t be achieved otherwise.” But when you say, “Hey, this is really good!” that factors in there.

All best,