Feb 14th, 12
The Best Valentine Poem (Sonnet) Ever
The Bard, we think, wrote his 29th sonnet around about 1592 at a time when he was deeply troubled by something. Perhaps it was the closure of London theatres due to the plague. That would put you in a sour mood.
Or it might have been a critics – it’s always the critics – who wrote dismissively of Shakespeare’s artistic merit. In any event, the sonnet transcends the writers sour mood and ends with a wonderful statement of love.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Apr 8th, 11
Billy Collins on…What Was It?
In celebration of National Poetry Month – I love that poetry month coincides with the start of the baseball season – a great little poem for all of us growing a little older every day.
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
Feb 6th, 11
Another wonderful little poem…
My lanyard wearing mom was born on this day in 1922. I miss her every day.
The Lanyard by Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
Jan 14th, 11
The History Teacher
When I saw the story that Idaho’s State School Superintendent Tom Luna had pulled a pop history quiz on lawmakers on the legislature’s education committees, and that 17% couldn’t name the year Idaho became a state and that 15% didn’t know Lewiston was the original capital, I thought immediately of Billy Collins’ wonderful little poem – The History Teacher.
Trying to protect his students’ innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.
And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.
The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”
The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.
The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,
while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.
Idaho became a state in 1890, by the way.
Jan 6th, 10
Carl Sandburg and Downtowns
It is the birthday of the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg born January 6, 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.
Twice winner of the Pulitzer – The War Years about Lincoln’s presidency won the award in 1940 and his Complete Poems won in 1951 – Sandburg is often dismissed today as too much the sentimentalist. Perhaps that is why I like him very much.
I thought of Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and Omaha and other cities this morning while absorbing the news that downtown economic mainstays – big Macy’s department stores – in Missoula and Boise are soon to close. As Idaho Statesman reporter Tim Woodward noted, the Boise store was a fixture in the heart of Idaho’s Capitol City for decades; a meeting place, a lunchtime destination. Such icons are hard – impossible perhaps – to replace.
Boise once had five downtown department stores. Now it will have none. Boise and Missoula are still among the most attractive downtowns in the west, but big, old time department stores are magnets for people and help support other small merchants and one hates to see them close and you wonder what can possibly fill the void.
But, back to Sandburg.
The editor of a recent collection of Sandburg’s poetry, Paul Berman, told NPR a while back that the writer was inspired by cities: “His genius, his inspiration in [the Chicago] poem and some others, was to look around the streets, at the billboards and the advertising slogans, and see in those things a language,” Berman says. “And he was able to figure out that this language itself contained poetry.”
There is poetry in great cities and, yes, a yearning for the variety and uniqueness of downtowns where people gather, things happen and the look and culture is much different – and vastly more interesting – than a strip mall or suburban shopping destination surrounded by acres of parking.
In one of my favorite Sandburg poems – Limited – the narrator is headed to a city, or at least a final destination.
I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
Read some Sandburg. This is a great site to sample some of his enduring work.
Nov 23rd, 09
The Greatest Poet…
For me the answer is easy – W.B. Yeats.
In December 1923, nearly 86 years ago, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature and made much of the fact that the recognition came shortly after Ireland had gained independence. His recognition, Yeats contended, was an acknowledgement of the quality of Irish literature. Perhaps, but Yeats was an immense talent. In fact, his greatest work – lyrical, beautiful poetry – came after he received the big prize that had been awarded largely for his work as a playwright.
One of my favorites poems is called The Choice:
The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
I also like Yeats because he was a man of the world, indeed he served in the Irish Senate where he became a major voice celebrating Irish culture.
Pour a little Irish whiskey on a cold November night and open Yeats’ collected works. You’ll find some magic.