Friday, March 27, 2009

Palabra Pura

The Guild Literary Complex has a schedule thick with poets again in 2009. Here is how they describe their Palabra Pura series of poetry readings:

Palabra Pura promotes literary expression in more than one tongue through a monthly bilingual poetry reading featuring Chicano and Latino artists. With an aim to foster dialogue through literature in Chicago and beyond, each evening pairs a local poet with a visiting writer along with an open mic to engage the interaction of diverse voices, ideas, and aesthetics. The readings are held the third Wednesday of every month (except August and December) throughout 2009.

Palabra Pura se enfoca en la expresion literaria en varios idiomas a traves de una serie de lecturas mensuales bilingues con artistas Chicanos y Latinos. Nuestra meta es promover el dialogo a traves de la literatura en Chicago y mas alla. Con este fin, cado lectura combina un poeta local con uno invitado, ademas de un open mic para cultivar la interaccion de voces, ideas esteticas diversas. Las lecturas se ofrecen el tercer miercoles de cada mes (con excepcion de agosto y diciembre).

Visit their website for the full description.

See the Guild's website for the full schedule. The site has detailed information for each event as well as links to partner organizations. For instance, on April 3rd (2009), one of the readers is
Raul Zurita:

Raul Zurita was born in Santiago, Chile in 1951. He started out studying mathematics before turning to poetry. His early work is a ferocious response to Augusto Pinochet's 1973 military coup. Like many other Chileans, Zurita was arrested and tortured. When he was released, he helped to form a radical artistic group CADA, and he became renowned for his provocative and intensely physical public performances.

Visit their website for the full announcement.

"It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."River Junction Poets Mission Statement

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

EChap Review: Well Enough

When I asked Daniel Sumrall if I should write a review for his chapbook Well Enough at goodreads, he told me not to bother because people were either indifferent or hostile to his work. This naturally made me more curious .
Although I had a million and one things to do, I decided to read his poetry. Sumrall’s style is approachable and easy to understand. I’m not struggling to understand his meaning and can enjoy his intent, at least with the first poem.
His beginning poem begs the question of privacy in an open space on telephone. In the public domain is about listening in to someone’s personal conversation and then seeing that the other person has caught you doing this and they know you have heard and understood their conversation. He compares this to “a knife’s intense precision when hands lack curative intent.”
Ah, guess I spoke too soon about easy to understand. “If landscape rolls out like a body” refuses to feed me the same way as the poem above now “I must penetrate the city’s architecture towers from erections and penetrations upon the earth…no more natural or necessary as the sea ripped with waves in a chiseled man’s abdomen.” gives me more food for thought and I can flow with sensuousness of the prose. I’m not at expert in poetry or about writing metaphor or similes, alliteration or any of these things, and I don’t claim to be. I feel words that make me move inside. I write what I feel and this is what Mr. Sumrall does too. Now I know why people are either indifferent or hostile to his poetry.

I am adding more links for people who would like to read more free chapbooks.

Issuu is another place to read free chapbooks. You can actually click through the pages.

Friday, March 20, 2009

John Haynes and Creative Writing

John Haynes and Nigel McLoughlin are among the many teachers I *met* through Facebook. They teach students in creative writing. John's website currently features brief introductions to topics of interest to poets. Here is an excerpt from his introduction to the topic of poetic language. In this introduction, Haynes refers to the Russian linguist and literary critic Roman Jakobson:
. . . The poetic function is when the focus of attention is on the 'message' (i.e. the language) itself. For this reason poetic language is sometimes called 'reflexive'. This doesn't mean that in poems we don't also take account of other factors such as emotion and content.

Jakobson points out that the poetic function occurs in all areas of life not just in poems. 'Heinz meanz beanz', 'Go to work on an egg', 'No pain no gain', 'credit crunch' and so on are all examples.

A poem is a kind of text in which language itself is the defining feature. On this line of thinking all the poetic 'devices' we come across are seen as ways of turning our attention to the text as text. So poetry is not just understanding what the writer is talking about and how they feeling about it, but about language as such.
Jakobson's view tends to present poetic language as a sort of 'play', where we enjoy and celebrate the words in our mouths, as it were. Obviously there are more serious things here, such as having a sense of what human communication is, how language and thought intermesh.
Read the whole thing at John's website.

In addition to his comments on creative writing, Mr. Haynes has generously posted engaging commentary on poems at his Reading Blog. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of his commentary on W.B. Yeats' poem "When You Are Old":
A medieval poem, a translation with variation from a time when courtly romantic love was the mode. As in much of such poetry the poet/lover expresses a platonic sort of love which is not returned by the beloved. Also the troubadour poet would not really expect to be loved in return, partly because the beloved was of a far higher social status than himself.
(John's Reading Blog contains the full text of Yeats' poem.)
Read the full essay at John's reading blog. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

forget-me-not (List Poem)

mahogany table
empty glass ashtray
leather bound book
withered sprig of forget-me-not
silver fountain pen
stacks of white sheets of paper
photo of me and him
leaning to each other

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Poet's Hagaddah (Book Review)

A Poet’s Haggadah
by Rick Lupert
Published by Ain’t Got No Press
ISBN: 978-0-9727555-8-0

A True Haggadah Collection
Mr. Lupert’s A Poet’s Haggadah is a compilation of poetry reflecting the holiness of Passover. Each poem is written by different poets from around the world, and every poem shows how important this event is. From the Drinking of Wine, the Festive Meal up to the Hope it promises, every chapter reveals the beauty and true meaning of Passover. As one of the main contributors to this compilation, I find myself touched and amazed by this feast. You can see the colors and hues in every poem, and you will surely want you read it again and again. Mr. Lupert has once again proved in this compilation of poetry how this feast should be always remembered and observed.
A Poet’s Haggadah is truly a haggadah book and every Passover observer will find this compilation as one unforgettable book for it will surely touched the deepest part of your soul.

To get a copy of the book, please visit this link to order the book
It is also available at

Monday, March 16, 2009

Something for your Muse

Here are some writing prompts I would like to share with you and I hope that these will spark some wonderful ideas:

1. Write about a noise or a silence that won't go away.

2. A character arrives at her / his kitchen and saw a pair of loafers on the sink. What will happen?

3. Write about a trouble resulting from a good deed.

4. A dull person suddenly become interesting.

5. Write about a food that has significance for you.

6. Write a poem / short story that begins with a quote.

7. Write a story / poem that starts with a dream.

8. Take a walk, come back and write a story / poem.

9. Write about the loneliest day of your life.

10. Write about the happiest day of your life.

I hope these will help you make your masterpiece. Don't be afraid to write down what you feels because unforgettable piece comes deep within. Happy Writing!

Rose (Tanka)

covered with snow
will you be warm
if I take you

Book Review: For The May Queen by Kate Evans

Review by Joy Leftow

I started reading For The May Queen disliking the title and cover. That’s an early and easy prejudice to get through. The title made sense after I read the line of the song it had been taken from, referring to lyrics from Stairway to Heaven. I especially didn't like the cover photo. The model didn't look young at all, with dowdy looking clothes she looked about thirty years old, staring at a wilted flower. I would have preferred a photo of a punked up looking rock girl with a stoogie and attitude. Once I got past these minor flaws and prejudices, the book flowed from beginning to end. I finished the book in less than twenty hours.
Very simply written, in first person, the dialogue flows along with the story. I’ve always been curious about what it would have been like to go to college as a teen since I never experienced it. It’s difficult to read Evan’s book For The May Queen and not compare one’s own experiences since that’s what this book is all about; Norma’s early experiences and learning to be on her own while attending college. I never had a childhood or teen years & was forced to be adult beyond my years because of my family situation. I didn’t get to go to college until I was twenty-eight years old. Me going to college was all about “fixing” my life and having a career so I could support my son as a single mom. Naturally the stepping-stones and rituals that Norma focused on made me curious.
Norma defines the ritualistic separation that takes place when we leave home for the first time and how this evolves along with her search of self. Parallel to this young Norma simultaneously seeks her voice as a writer as she searches for her identify. Part of Norma’s learning experience is the richness of people she’s exposed to and drawn to. Naturally drawn to nonconformists Norma recognizes her own hidden depths and how she too is somehow different.
Norma at first only knows herself through how she imagines her friends see her. When she discovers her roommate is gay and realizes the special closeness he had with another mutual male friend is based on this, Norma begins to question her sexuality. She realizes that she loves Chuck because he inspires her to see the world differently. Chuck’s “movie vision view” of the world & his capacity to quote Casablanca and make it fit everyday events make him special. Norma disappoints Chuck after a night of sex & love, by protesting to her unfaithful boyfriend who shows up unannounced that “it meant nothing.” This ends the romance between her & Chuck but after this occurrence Norma begins to explore her inner motivations more.
Kate Evan’s book engrossed me with its sharp wit & humor. I couldn’t help but get involved with her characters. They are similar to the highly artistic creative people we know, each with his own brand of quirky eccentrics. Her characters are real; I could hear their voices.
A very fast reader and entirely engrossing, I highly recommend Ms. Evan’s first novel, For The May Queen. As a former educator I would recommend this book for high school students as well as adults.

This review was published also at

Sunday, March 15, 2009


the other side of the bed
was empty, creased-free
when I woke up again this morning
forgetting you had to leave
that I have to do things by
myself, alone.
it was already ten A.M.
the sun was high but I
can’t feel the heat
only the coldness of the nights
I tried to bear, endless nights without you.
I dragged myself from the bed
fix a cup of hot coffee
I looked for your favorite mug
but the usual spot was empty
remembering you took it with you.
I took a cold shower
hoping the pain will ease a bit
even for awhile
but the splatter of the water on my face
only mingled with my tears.
dripping wet, I opened my wardrobe
and saw only pastel, soft garments
neatly folded
no faded denims, no dark colored shirts.
quietly I dressed up
went downstairs and I say
goodbye out loud
forgetting again
another slap on my face
that there’s no one will answer back
I crossed down the street
without looking back
why should I
if I knew that it was just
an empty house.

Lanie Shanzyra Rebancos is a Filipino author of three anthologies, book reviewer and a Pushcart prize nominee. Her works have been published worldwide and made the honorable mention awards at Japan
and Germany for her poetry. She is now recently working on her fourth book.

Dan Albergotti

Dan Albergotti is a poet I e-met at and in person, briefly and by chance, at the 2009 AWP conference in Chicago. I had enough time to congratulate him on his recent publication, The Boatloads, with BOA Editions. He generously talked with Brian Brodeur of the "How a Poem Happens" blog about his poem "The Vestibule". Here's the poem:

by Dan Albergotti

I sometimes wish I could find Cindy
to thank her for agreeing with my fine idea
that we sneak into the university chapel
late one night in 1983 to make love.
I don't just want to thank her for giving me
the trump card — “house of worship”—
I hold in every stupid party game that begins,
“Where's the strangest place you've ever . . . ?”
No, I want to thank her for the truth of it.
For knowing that the heart is holy even when
our own hearts were so frail and callow.
Truth: it was 1983; we were nineteen years old;
we lay below the altar and preached a quiet sermon
not just on the divinity of skin, but on the grace
of the heart beneath. It was the only homily
we knew, and our souls were beatified.
And if you say sentiment and cliché, then that
is what you say. What I know is what is sacred.
Lord of this other world, let me recall that night.
Let me again hear how our whispered exclamations
near the end seemed like rising hymnal rhythm,
and let me feel how those forgotten words came
from somewhere else and meant something.
Something, if only to the single moth
that, in the darkened air of that chapel,
fluttered its dusty wings around our heads.

Here is an excerpt from Brian Brodeur's interview with Dan Albergotti:

BB: Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

DA: I certainly don’t believe there’s a magic wind floating out there biding its time before willfully flowing through me to produce a divine text. But at the same time, I don’t think creating a poem is a purely mechanical, conscious process. I believe in trusting the subconscious mind. I think it’s an essential part of realizing yourself as a poet (or as any other sort of artist). If your art is entirely within the realm of your articulation, I don’t believe you’ve begun to tap your potential. As for how much of this poem is “received,” I’ll just say that I have no idea where the dusty-winged moth came from. I don’t know why it flew into my poem, but I’m very happy it’s there now.

Read the full interview here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

15 minutes of fame by Joy Leftow

An open moment to eternity
Fastidious & attached as I am to so many tremendous moments
I live in the day Warhol predicted
An open heart mends wounds
Are you for or against
On their side or mine
Is it them or is it us
Or is there even any us anymore
Who is us anymore anyway
I don’t know
An open wound
A bleeding ulcer seeking to be healed
A headache that covers wide world news
& closer to home news too,
All news is bad news
Except the rescued puppy thrown in to control you
A news forecast makes everything worse –
See what happens if you ignore the news a week or two
Act like you’re on Pluto
Ignore my bleak forecast of doom
All of us doomed as we all are anyway
The more you do - the more gets done
When you stop doing there’s no more to do
Another open wound
Always the dream remains of
Another go-round

Friday, March 13, 2009

I don't get it by Joy Leftow

If one was well enough to do everything that one needed to do to get the relief that one needed, then one wouldn’t need the help that one was attempting to get in the first place, would he?

Life is a Catch 22 of the universe.

He said, “I don’t understand why you keep on helping him.”

“I want to,” I said, “It’s a feeling I have to want to. What difference does it make to you?”

Meanwhile we waste time on bullshit. Suddenly it hits me how controlled our lives are. What served as warnings years ago has now come into play. We ignored the critics of our forefathers back in the day.

We’re tracked by GPS. Our cell phones and our credit cards are tracked. Their usage tallied and compiled daily. We’re forced to pay more than our share of taxes while the Masonry lead our government, their symbols lurking everywhere. Taxes were never meant for the small working class man like you and me, yet we pay our taxes every day, day after day.

Some refuse to see the small insidious ways we’re controlled by society and our jobs our families, our conscience which finally takes their place.

Now even Facebook and MySpace take charge and overwhelm me with enough rules to spin my head. Either I add too many or too little friends. They have trouble deciding. I’d think that adding friends would be a boon but Facebook and MySpace employees become dictators in another virtual reality.

It becomes more and more difficult to understand the world I’m living in.

The Weaver Poets

One of the tragedies of our history, as is the tragedy of every nation's history, is the divide between new settlers and the native populations, as in Ireland between the native Irish and the settler Scots.
Some of these Scots provided the best of the Irish patriots in 1798, although events conspired to place a wedge between them and the natives who share this little island.

Celebrated in legend is Roddy Mc Corley and his comrades, and lesser known throughout the island are figures like Betsy Gray, who gave their lives for the land they loved...

As weavers, they formed part of the Romantic tradition of Burns, and the weaver poets of Northern England, and Scotland itself, writing in their native dialect, leaving us gems which will not be forgotton for years to come.

The Weaver Poets

Most famous in these isles of the Weaver Poets were the ones of Scotland and Ireland, though the North of England also had a very strong tradition.

However, being Irish, I'll focus on those of my isle first.

The weavers were traditionally Scottish by ethnicity, and from Down and Antrim in origion, and this small area created the "Bards" who published books in the 1750 - 1850 decade, often by subscribing to the books being published by others.

The nearest the mainstream reader would have come to most of these would be Robbie Burns, though not a weaver or of the tradition, his works inspired them in the latter stages, and the peasent poetry styles were of his type.

There was a broader group, often called the Classical, where standard English and traditional verse forms were the rule, written by the Anglo Irish element in the Romantic tradition, these are not of what I write.

The subjects of which these poets wrote were of Kirk and Kitchen - everyday life in other words. They wrote of their trade, their lives, the works of others, the politics of the day, addresses to the Freemason lodges of which they were part and suchlike. With one or two exceptions, there was not much tribute to the beauty of the land in which they lived.

Some of these poets were pro-Union, but many formed the basis of the United Irishman movement as founded by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy Mc Cracken and James and William Orr, the latter two being names highly respected among all shades of opinion in the North of Ireland to this day.

They wrote in many forms of verse, but most often in the Standard Habbie format, where the first three lines rhymed, the fourth did not, the fifth rhymed with the first three, and the last rhymed with the fourth. While this may look complicated, it suited the verse they wrote, and the speech pattern employed due to their accents.

They wrote in the standard dialect of their day, which they identified as Doric, nowadays known in Ireland as Ulster Scots in its revived form.

The most famous poem from these that would be known in Ireland would be "An Irish Cottiers Death and Burial".

A book "The Rhyming Weavers" charts and analyzes the poems of these writers, and the culture from which they came.
Below are links to poems I wrote based on them and their story...
Poems on the Ulster Weavers:

On Reading Poems of the Ulster Weavers
Parson and PreacherSpeak of God
As A Bard I Write Like Those Before Me
Poem To A Cow and the Poets Who Wrote About Her
Wee Wain Walkingon the Road
The Stray Dogand the Tramp
Give Glory to theSabbath Day
A Land Worth Fighting For
To March They Had No Need
The Death of Betsy Gray
Curse of a Bride Jilted
His Ain Native Toun
A Tribute to Miners
To Eat Without Saying Grace
We Are No WeaversWho Write Today
It Foils Their Art
The rich history of poetry in and around Ulster is featured in Darran Anderson's article "The Poetry of Rural Ulster (1)" which is online at the Culture Northern Ireland site. In the article, Anderson mentions the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, John Hewitt and Seamus Heaney. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of that article:
Rural Ulster is a place mapped in poetry. From the Bardic songs of Gaelic times to the weaver ballads of the Scottish planters, it is an area immortalised in words. Many poets have turned to the countryside for inspiration and yet there is no universal theme to this place. The vast wealth of rural poetry has only one thing in common and that is its diversity. For, like the poets who write of it, rural Ulster is a multitude of things.
Read the full article here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I love to read mysteries... by Joy Leftow

I just finished two of Carl Hiaasen's books, Nature Girl & Sick Puppy. Hiaasen is a quirky writer and truly understands gifted crazy type people that he writes about. As a professional clinical social worker & a writer, it is very important that the characters have substance and their traits are well developed. His humor is ironic, biting, like the bite of a Labrador puppy. I'm ready to read the rest of his books now. That's usually the way for me; being a completist once I find an author I like. Hiaasen's timing is exquisite as his comic relief. If you want to be entertained & laugh read him. The story follows an independently wealthy guy, Twilly, who happens to drive by a schmuck who is throwing garbage out the window of his huge van. The schmuck is Palmer Stoat, who is a lobbyist. Twilly sets out to teach Palmer a lesson on littering. Whether or not he succeeds is the mystery. The characters are completely believeable - I think I've met a few...

Another author who I highly recommend is Jasper Fforde, Lost In A Good Book & The Well of Lost Plots. The characters escape from books - his humor reminds me of Catch 22. The heroine, Thursday Next, hops from book to book literally, becoming part of the plot of each story she gets into. Thursday is part of an undercover task force aimed at preventing escaped characters from committing crimes. I've already covered too much ground discussing two authors.

The deal is these are two mystery authors who will make you laugh and both have excellent literary skills.

I love to write when the muse strikes and if it doesn't strike, I write anyway and then, invariably, my muse joins me." - Joy Leftow

check Joy's Poetry Blog

Joy Leftow AKA VioletWrites

A few haikus to say hello!!!

Everyman is
No more than a speck of sand
In the beach of life

How cruel the hard world
That sees men die of hunger
And more from eating

Both the kangaroo
And digeridoo are few
In Tullamore town

Short skirt, low cut top
Swaying drunkenly slurring words
Evolved woman: yes?

There is no sound now
All the drunks are off the street
Home: maybe in a cell

Soft white winter snows
Bring joy to the children's eyes
And dread to old hearts.

He fights being so strong
His might makes him be right
But not before God

Monday, March 09, 2009

Robert Frost: Questions for Discussion

As I prepare for next week when we meet in Saginaw to celebrate Robert Frost's birth and poetry, I look online to see if I can find any study guides or questions for discussion posted somewhere. As it turns out, I did find some questions. Mr. John McIlvain has posted several questions for his students, some of which are sufficiently open-ended for our purposes. Specifically, these questions and the poems they refer to are posted at I am selecting only a few of these questions for our group that will meet next week. We need only to get the discussion started, then we can warm our hands and roast the marshmallows and so forth. I will send the questions out in an e-mail to the people who might show up, and we'll see what we get. So far I've found questions that relate to the following poems: "Spring Pools", "The Oven Bird", "Hyla Brook", and "Stopping by Woods in a Snowy Evening".

Spring Pools

These pools that, though,in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods -
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Questions for discussion:
  • How would you describe the relationship between the trees and the pool?
  • What do you think is the poet’s attitude towards nature in this poem?

The Oven Bird
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal fall is past
Where pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Question for discussion:
  • Try to explain the following paradox: “The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing.” The "but" here means "except".

Hyla Brook

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)-
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat-
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

Question for discussion:
What's the difference between "Hyla Brook" and "brooks taken otherwhere in song"?

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Question for discussion:
This is Frost's most remembered poem. Why do you think it's been so widely anthologized and memorized?
Poems and questions excerpted and/or adapted from accessed 9 March 2009.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Recommended Reading: The Branch Will Not Break

Don Wentworth of Issa's Untidy Hut recently posted at his blog - well, not his blog but Lilliput Review's blog - about a book of poems by James Wright called The Branch Will Not Break. Don likes the small size - smaller than a cell phone - of this particular publication which fits conveniently in his pocket. Here is an excerpt from his post:

. . . let me share another little gem from this groundbreaking volume. Besides being a lyrical poet of the first order, Wright was an accomplished translator. I will forever be in his depth for his translations of Hermann Hesse, in the volume simply entitled Poems. Though narrow in scope, Wright strictly selected work concerned with what might loosely be described as "homesickness," a theme the two poets shared. It is nonetheless a valuable collection, one of only a few in English by the prolific poet, Hesse (yes, we have lots of his great fiction, but a truly miniscule amount of his poetry - if there are any translators out there who want to see Hesse's work see the light of day, I'm interested).
In a footnote to the following translation, Wright says: "These three stanzas are from Goethe's poem Harzreise im Winter. They are the stanzas which Brahms detached from the poem and employed as the test for his Alto Rhapsody of 1869."

Three Stanzas From Goethe
That man there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.

Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
but hatred of men from loves abundance?
Once despised, not a despiser,
He kills his own life,
The precious secret.
The self-seeker finds nothing.

Oh Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone
That his ear still might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own desert.

translated by James Wright

The subject, tone, and even style perfectly fit the poems this translation is surrounded by in The Branch Will Not Break. As with Hesse, it shows how a translator/poet, in a sense, makes another's work his own.
So if you'd like something to carry along while waiting around for your front-end to be aligned, your wisdom teeth to be extracted, or your boss to stop talking, this tiny little volume may do the trick. . . . No matter what the size, this is a near perfect book of poems.
Excerpted from accessed 3/7/09.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Faith and Works

A number of poets from what would become known as the United Kingdom were priests in one Church or another. For example:
  • George Herbert (1593 – 1633) Welsh priest
  • John Donne (1572 - 1631) Anglican priest
  • Johnathan Swift (1667 - 1745) priest in Church of Ireland
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1845) Catholic priest
Maybe there are others I'm not thinking of just now. Anyway, I started thinking about these guys when I reread Percy Bysshe Shelley's "England in 1819":

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king, -
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, -mud from a muddy spring, -
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow, -
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field, -
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield, -
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless -a book sealed;
A Senate, -Time's worst statute unrepealed, -
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

from accessed 3/4/09

The way I read this poem, I perceive a great bitterness and anger. The speaker of this poem feels hurt and outraged that these things are happening. The poem ends with a note of hope that would seem out of place to me if the notion of Time wasn't so carefully threaded through the last three lines.

Of course, Shelley (1792 - 1822) is known for his atheism. But I wonder whether the case was simply that Shelley felt that the people who were going to Church regularly had little sense of wisdom as Shelley understood Wisdom. I think there's a good chance that Shelley felt similarly to the way Nietszche felt before he decided that "God is dead". Sometimes I think the anger in "England in 1819" could only come from someone who feels deeply hurt that religious faith doesn't prevent such suffering as indicated in the poem. And it seems to me only a Christian would write such a poem. I understand that I may be naive in this view but still it seems reasonable. The end could be as it is to keep the poem from being overtly Christian and simply to keep it from being (overly) preachy.

A nice commentary on Shelley's poem can be found here at Spark Notes.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell was born in 1917 into one of Boston's oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He took graduate courses at Louisiana State University where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. His first and second books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, at the age of thirty), were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and explored the dark side of America's Puritan legacy. Under the influence of Allen Tate and the New Critics, he wrote rigorously formal poetry that drew praise for its exceptionally powerful handling of meter and rhyme. Lowell was politically involved—he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War and was imprisoned as a result, and actively protested against the war in Vietnam—and his personal life was full of marital and psychological turmoil. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was
repeatedly hospitalized.

Partly in response to his frequent breakdowns, and partly due to the influence of such younger poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg, Lowell in the mid-fifties began to write more directly from personal experience, and loosened his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result was a watershed collection, Life Studies (1959), which forever changed the landscape of modern poetry, much as Eliot's The Waste Land had three decades before. Considered by many to be the most important poet in English of the second half of the twentieth century, Lowell continued to develop his work with sometimes uneven results, all along defining the restless center of American poetry, until his sudden death from a heart attack at age 60.
Excerpted from accessed 3/2/2009

Skunk Hour
by Robert Lowell

for Elizabeth Bishop

Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
nobody's here--

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

From accessed 3/2/2009

The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town. I move from the ocean inland. Sterility howls through the scenery, but I try to give a tone of tolerance, humor, and randomness to the sad prospect. The composition drifts, its direction sinks out of sight into the casual, chancy arrangements of nature and decay. Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.

From "On Skunk Hour," in Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical
Essays, ed. Thomas Parkinson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall,
accessed 3/2/2009

Dark Night
by St. John of the Cross
subsequent commentary by
Ivan M. Granger

(Songs of the soul delighted at having reached the high state of
perfection, the union with God, by way of spiritual negation.)

On a darkened night,
Anxious, by love inflamed,
-- O happy chance! --
Unnoticed, I took flight,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

Safe, disguised by the night,
By the secret ladder I took flight,
-- O happy chance! --
Cloaked by darkness, I scaled the height,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

On that blessed night,
In secret, and seen by none,
None in sight,
I saw with no other guide or light,
But the one burning in my heart bright.

This guide, this light,
Brighter than the midday sun,
Led me to the waiting One
I knew so well -- my delight!
To a place with none in sight.

O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined
The lover with the Beloved;
Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!

Upon my flowered breast,
For him alone kept fair,
There he slept
There I caressed,
There the cedars gave us air.

I drank the turret's cool air
Spreading playfully his hair.
And his hand, so serene,
Cut my throat. Drained
Of senses, I dropped unaware.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.
All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.

Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is one of my favorite poems by the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. It touches on so many important metaphors of sacred poetry: darkness, light, a secret ladder, the heart, the joining of lover and Beloved, silence, and death of the little self. Let's take a look at
just a few of these themes...

Although mystics often experience the Divine as a radiant, all permeating light, sometimes God is described in terms of night or darkness.

On a darkened night...

Night is the great Mystery, the unknown. Darkness is the place of secrets. It is the time of sleep, rest, peace. We drop all of our activities and turn inward.

Because nighttime is associated with sleep and, by analogy, death, it can also represent the time when the ego sleeps and most easily can "die" or fade away. The ego is less in charge at night, less demanding that its every desire be instantly met. The busy mind is less active, more likely to be at rest.

Night is the time when lovers meet, when the soul meets its Divine Beloved.

Darkness, like God, envelops everything in its embrace. It is in the darkness of night that all things become one, losing their individuality as they disappear into that mystery. Nighttime is the time of nondual awareness, when dichotomies and artificial notions of separation fade.

John of the Cross is particularly known for speaking of "the dark night of the soul." This is not so much a reference to the experience of the Divine as mentioned above, but a preliminary state. Prior to experiences of union, the soul loses its orientation, where worldly distractions seem pointless, but the blissful fulfillment of divine union hasn't yet been experienced. This can be a period of confusion, being "anxious," a period of intense spiritual thirst, and a feeling of blindness that is the equivalent of trying to find one's way in the dark. But that too can be an important stage of the journey that indicates the nearness of the sacred goal, not its distance.

Yet in this "blessed night," John of the Cross discovers light. This is not just any light but an overpowering radiance, "Brighter than the midday sun."

For genuine mystics, light is not a mere concept or metaphor; it is directly experienced. This light is perceived as being a living radiance that permeates everything, everywhere, always. This light is immediately understood to be the true source of all things, the foundation on which the physicality of the material world is built.

The sense of boundaries and separation, long taken for granted by the mind as the fundamental nature of existence, suddenly seems illusory, for this light shines through all people and things. It has no edges, and the light of one is the light of another.

This light is recognized as your own Self, while simultaneously being the Self of all others. Since this light is you and, at the same time, it radiates within all, the question arises: How can there be separation? conflict? loss?

This is how John proceeds so boldly from the experience of light to union, the sacred marriage, "Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!"

And what about death? Why does he startle us by shifting from the ecstasy of union to death? "And his hand, so serene, / Cut my throat. / Drained of senses, I dropped unaware."

Without understanding of this imagery, it can sound as if every mystic and saint has some strange death wish.

In deep ecstasy, the sense of individuality, the sense of "I" thins and can completely disappear. Though you may still walk and breathe and talk, there is no "you" performing these actions. The separate identity, the ego, disappears, to be replaced by a vast, borderless sense of Self. Suddenly, who you have always thought yourself to be vanishes and, in its place, stands a radiant being whose boundaries are no longer perceived in terms of flesh or space.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.

It is this experience, this complete shedding of the limited ego, that is the death so eagerly sought by mystics throughout time.

All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.

Accessed 3/2/2009