by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Welcome to the third week of the darling bards of May (with apologies to Shakespeare). As you might expect, most of the poets are English and American, but we do have one of the most famous Italian poets, and a modern Swedish poet this week. As a group, they cover over 750 years of poetry.
Much has changed in that amount of time, including the forms of poetry, yet the content is often very much the same. Humankind has radically altered many of the externals of our existence, while the large themes that poets were concerned with in the past – Life, Death, Love, Loneliness, Joy, Despair, War, Peace, Oppression, Freedom, Eternity – are still concerns of poets now.
- Mary Biddinger (1974 – )
Mary Biddinger was born in Fremont California, author of four books of poetry. She is a professor in the English department of the University of Akron. As senior editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, she oversees preparation of three collections of poetry each year, published by the University of Akron Press. Biddinger also founded the Barn Owl Review.
Parlor Games Are For The Weak
Calligraphy was for girls with nobody
to knife like a tree. Bowling
was for lives that never got lucky.
By the time I had my first
apartment, I kept a lipstick in every
room. There were exactly
three rooms. The garbage chute
backed up seven floors.
Old ladies of ghost vaudeville paid
for pints of gin with dimes
downstairs. Card games, violent
hairpieces, an illegal gray
monkey dressed as a rooster clown.
Certain days I swore they
boiled unpaired boots in the atrium.
Some tenants were never
seen, had Polish maids with elbows
like witch-handles, laundry
hampers and harp buckets. I failed
to comprehend a word.
- Adrienne Rich (1929 –2012)
Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Poet, essayist, and an icon of radical American feminism, Rich is one of the most widely read and influential poets of the late 20th century. An irony of the 1940s-early 50s era in which she attended Radcliffe College is that none of her teachers were women. In 1951, Rich’s last year at college, her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award by W.H. Auden. He also wrote the introduction to the book when it was published. Rich received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study at Oxford for a year in 1952, but after a visit to Florence, she spent the rest of her time exploring Italy. Through the following decades, she struggled with the 1950s version of marriage and motherhood, became a ‘60s anti-war, civil rights and feminist activist, then ended her marriage, acknowledged her lesbianism, and became a leading voice in the campaigns for sexual equality and gay rights. When she shared the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry with Allen Ginsberg, she insisted on Alica Walker and Audre Lorde, the two other feminist nominees, accepting with her, on behalf of all women “whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world.”
Diving into the Wreck
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
What Kind of Times Are These
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
- Lars Gustafsson (1936 –2016)
Lars Gustafsson was born in Västerås, Sweden. He is a Swedish poet, novelist, and scholar. His first novel was published in 1959, and his first poetry collection the following year. Some of his poetry collections have been published in the U.S, including: The Stillness of the World Before Bach (New Directions, 1988), Elegies and Other Poems (New Directions, 2000), and A Time in Xanadu (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). Gustafsson was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin from 1983 until 2006, when he retired and returned to Sweden.
Elegy for a Dead Labrador
Here there may be, in the midst of summer,
a few days when suddenly it’s fall.
Thrushes sing on a sharper note.
The rocks stand determined out in the water.
They know something. They’ve always known it.
We know it too, and we don’t like it.
On the way home, in the boat, on just such evenings
you would stand stock-still in the bow, collected,
scouting the scents coming across the water.
You read the evening, the faint streak of smoke
from a garden, a pancake frying
half a mile away, a badger
standing somewhere in the same twilight
sniffing the same way. Our friendship
was of course a compromise; we lived
together in two different worlds: mine,
mostly letters, a text passing through life,
yours, mostly smells. You had knowledge
I would have given much to have possessed:
the ability to let a feeling—eagerness, hate, or love—
run like a wave throughout your body
from nose to tip of tail, the inability
ever to accept the moon as fact.
At the full moon you always complained loudly against it.
You were a better Gnostic than I am. And consequently
you lived continually in paradise.
You had a habit of catching butterflies on the leap,
and munching them, which some people thought disgusting.
I always liked it. Why
couldn’t I learn from you? And doors.
In front of closed doors you lay down and slept
sure that sooner or later the one would come
who’d open up the door. You were right.
I was wrong. Now I ask myself, now this
long mute friendship is forever finished,
if possibly there was anything I could do
which impressed you. Your firm conviction
that I called up the thunderstorms
doesn’t count. That was a mistake. I think
my certain faith that the ball existed,
even when hidden behind the couch,
somehow gave you an inkling of my world.
In my world most things were hidden
behind something else. I called you “dog,”
I really wonder whether you perceived me
as a larger, noisier “dog”
or as something different, forever unknown,
which is what it is, existing in that attribute
it exists in, a whistle
through the nocturnal park one has got used to
returning to without actually knowing
what it is one is returning to. About you,
and who you were, I knew no more.
One might say, from this more objective
standpoint, we were two organisms. Two
of those places where the universe makes a knot
in itself, short-lived, complex structures
of proteins that have to complicate themselves
more and more in order to survive, until everything
breaks and turns simple once again, the knot
dissolved, the riddle gone. You were a question
asked of another question, nothing more,
and neither had the answer to the other.
- Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321)
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, then a Republic. He was a major poet of the Late Middle Ages, called il Sommo Poeta (the Supreme Poet), and “the Father of the Italian language.” La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), considered the greatest literary work in the Italian language, was written when poetry was composed in Latin, accessible only to the educated and wealthy. By writing in the vernacular, Dante’s work had a major impact on the Italian language, and influenced not only later Italian writers but writers of many other nationalities as well.
Inferno, Canto I
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout
The night, which I had passed so piteously.
And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
Turns to the water perilous and gazes;
So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
Which never yet a living person left.
After my weary body I had rested,
The way resumed I on the desert slope,
So that the firm foot ever was the lower.
And lo! almost where the ascent began,
A panther light and swift exceedingly,
Which with a spotted skin was covered o’er!
And never moved she from before my face,
Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
That many times I to return had turned.
The time was the beginning of the morning,
And up the sun was mounting with those stars
That with him were, what time the Love Divine
At first in motion set those beauteous things;
So were to me occasion of good hope,
The variegated skin of that wild beast,
The hour of time, and the delicious season;
But not so much, that did not give me fear
A lion’s aspect which appeared to me.
He seemed as if against me he were coming
With head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger,
So that it seemed the air was afraid of him;
And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings
Seemed to be laden in her meagreness,
And many folk has caused to live forlorn!
She brought upon me so much heaviness,
With the affright that from her aspect came,
That I the hope relinquished of the height.
And as he is who willingly acquires,
And the time comes that causes him to lose,
Who weeps in all his thoughts and is despondent,
E’en such made me that beast withouten peace,
Which, coming on against me by degrees
Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent.
While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.
When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.
‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.
A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.
But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb’st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?”
“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.
“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.
Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”
“Thee it behoves to take another road,”
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
“If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;
Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.
He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
‘Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;
Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;
Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.
Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,
Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;
And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene’er it may be, to the blessed people;
To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee;
Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.
He governs everywhere, and there he reigns;
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!”
And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,
Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”
Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.
- Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)
- Robert Creeley (1926 –2005)
Alexander Pope was born in London, England, the son of Roman Catholics. At the time, Catholics were not admitted to British universities. He suffered from curvature of the spine, probably tuberculous spondylitis, an infection of the spinal cord by the tuberculosis bacillus, which seriously damaged his health, and left him only 4 feet 6 inches tall as an adult. His physical limitations reinforced his scholarly tendencies. Pope attended Catholic schools, but studied much on his own, reading in Latin, Greek, French and Italian. His Pastorals were published when he was 21 years old, by Jacob Tonson, the leading publisher of poetry, in his Poetical Miscellanies (1709). Pope’s work is the origin of many epigrams, still in common use today, such as: “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” and “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Pope’s poor health may account for the melancholy tone in his view of the ‘ideal’ life of a farmer with a few acres of his own.
Ode on Solitude
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.
Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
Robert Creeley was born in Arlington Massachusetts. He and his sister were raised by their mother. At age two, Creeley lost his left eye. He interrupted his schooling at Harvard to work in the American Field Service medical operations in Burma and India. After the war, he earned a BA from Black Mountain College, and also taught there. He and his then-wife Ann started Divers Press when they were living on the Spanish island of Mallorca, and Creeley divided his time between teaching at Black Mountain and their island home. When the school closed in 1957, he traveled to San Francisco, then to New York, and wound up getting an MA from the University of New Mexico. In 1967, he began teaching at the University of Buffalo, co-founding the Poetics Program at the University of New York at Buffalo, and stayed until 2003, when he accepted a post at Brown University. He published more than sixty books of poetry.
Love Comes Quietly
Love comes quietly,
about me, on me,
in the old ways.
What did I know
able to go
alone all the way.
America, you ode for reality!
Give back the people you took.
Let the sun shine again
on the four corners of the world
you thought of first but do not
own, or keep like a convenience.
People are your own word, you
invented that locus and term.
Here, you said and say, is
where we are. Give back
what we are, these people you made,
us, and nowhere but you to be.
- Thomas Hood (1799 – 1845)
- Jane Kenyon ((1947 –1995)
- Sheila Wingfield (1906 -1992)
Thomas Hood was born in London, England, above in father’s bookshop. His father died when Hood was 12, and his mother moved them to Islington, where he studied for two years with an inspiring teacher, but then had to go to work the counting house of a family friend, but it adversely affected his health, and Hood began to study engraving, but his health continued to decline, so he was sent to his father’s relatives in Dundee, Scotland. Through the influence of friends, Hood became sub-editor of The London Magazine, making him part of the literary society of the day. In 1830, he began publishing (and largely writing) the Comic Annual, followed by other works. By 1841, they were all written from his sick-bed as his health continued to worsen. He died just three weeks before his 46th birthday in 1845
I Remember, I Remember
I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.
I remember, I remember
The roses red and white,
The violets and the lily cups–
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,–
The tree is living yet!
I remember, I remember
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then
That is so heavy now,
The summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow.
I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy.
Jane Kenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She earned a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Michigan, and met her future husband, poet and editor Donald Hall. After their marriage in 1972, they moved to his old family home, Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire. Kenyon published four collections of poetry before she died from leukemia in April 1995 at age 47.
Heavy Summer Rain
The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day
turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.
Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.
Sheila Wingfield, née Beddington, was born in Hampshire, England. Her father, a Major in the British Army who hid his Jewish heritage, so disapproved of her interest in writing that he forbid to read. She read and wrote in secret. Under family pressure to “marry well,” she began drinking and taking drugs during her debutante season. In 1932, she married the Honorable Mervyn Patrick Wingfield, later the 9th Vicount Powerscourt. Her husband was initially supportive of her literary ambitions, but asked her not to be involved in Ireland’s artistic circles after some of her poems were published in The Dublin Magazine. By the time her first volume of poetry was in production, she was addicted to alcohol, morphine and cocaine, and suffered her first breakdown. During WWII, her husband was captured by the Germans in Italy, and came home with his health compromised and afflicted with shell shock. While she wrote most of her best work during this period, their marriage never recovered. In 1963, she left her husband, and the financial impact forced the sale of the Powerscourt estate.Lady Powerscourt produced eight collections of poetry, and three memoirs of Irish life before her death at age 85.
I think Odysseus, as he
Which was Calypso, which
Only remembering the
wind that sets
Off Mimas, and how
His eyes were stung with
Argos a puppy, leaping
And his old father
digging round a vine.
So there they are, these poets from different places, different times, full of sound and rhythm, memories and desires, musing on Life and Death, sharing a month on the calendar, and a love for words.
- Dante – Canto II illustration by Gustave Doré
- Pope – Ode on Solitude – Peasant Spreading Manure, by Jean-François Millet
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud