by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
“Now is the month of maying” says the old song by Thomas Morley. Our month of maying is drawing to a close, but we have explored far more than spring romance.
Many of these end-of-May poets have taken darker turns, some because of illness or alcohol. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson seems darker in his poetry than his essays.
So we must look a littler harder for the gleams of light.
Pieter Brueghel, the Elder – Village Scene with Dance Around the May Pole (1634)
- Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was born in Leningrad, and exiled from the Soviet Union as a dissident.
The last twenty years were good for practically everybody
save the dead. But maybe for them as well.
Maybe the Almighty Himself has turned a bit bourgeois
and uses a credit card. For otherwise time’s passage
makes no sense. Hence memories, recollections,
values, deportment. One hopes one hasn’t
spent one’s mother or father or both, or a handful of friends entirely
as they cease to hound one’s dreams. One’s dreams,
unlike the city, become less populous
the older one gets. That’s why the eternal rest
cancels analysis. The last twenty years were good
for practically everybody and constituted
the afterlife for the dead. Its quality could be questioned
but not its duration. The dead, one assumes, would not
mind attaining a homeless status, and sleep in archways
or watch pregnant submarines returning
to their native pen after a worldwide journey
without destroying life on earth, without
even a proper flag to hoist.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
- Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
- Raymond Carver (1938-1988)
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston MA, American philosopher, essayist, poet and minister, who led the Transcendentalist movement; his poetry often reflects his fascination with Eastern philosophy and culture.
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, or sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
Theodore Roethke was born in Saganaw MI, the son of a German immigrant; struggled with manic depression, but is regarded as one of the great poets of the 20th century; also highly influential as a teacher of poetry.
I Knew a Woman
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).
In a Dark Time
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie Oregon, an American short story writer and poet.
October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen
I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.
In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.
But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either,
and don’t even know the places to fish?
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
- Maxwell Bodenheim (1893-1954)
- Michael Benedikt (1935–2007)
Maxwell Bodenheim was born in Hermanville, Mississippi; Modernist poet; lived for a time in Chicago, then moved to New York, where increasing alcoholism reduced him to peddling his poems in bars. He and his third wife were murdered in their lodgings by a former mental patient.
Thoughts While Walking
A steel hush freezes the trees.
It is my mind stretched to stiff lace,
And draped on high wide thoughts.
My soul is a large sallow park
And people walk on it, as they do on the park before me.
They numb my levelness with dumb feet,
Yet I cannot even hate them.
To One Dead
I walked upon a hill
And the wind, made solemnly drunk with your presence,
Reeled against me.
I stooped to question a flower,
And you floated between my fingers and the petals,
Tying them together.
I severed a leaf from its tree
And a water-drop in the green flagon
Cupped a hunted bit of your smile.
All things about me were steeped in your remembrance
And shivering as they tried to tell me of it.
Michael Benedikt was born in New York City, American poet, editor, and literary critic.
It is a haven climbing here under Your hand, as it
moves across the porch Thumbing among the
As it dips into the pit of the night And
grasps the wrist of the departing.
I wish I could be one of your lovers
And could bring you food and rings
Good news and stationery,
Photographs and improved climate. I would climb
out from under your fingertips And would leap
from knee to knee. You would surely supply me
with dust particles then For me to drop on all these
beetles; And I would roll them down mountainsides
And listen for the crushing noise.
Together we would forge a mode of life.
They would find us hidden under the sea
Just after the earth entirely collapsed,
A situation I hope will never obtain.
I like it here very much now.
- Linda Pastan (1932 – )
Linda Pastan was born in New York City, but now lives in Maryland; she was Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995.
On this first day of spring, snow
covers the fruit trees, mingling improbably
with the new blossoms like identical twins
brought up in different hemispheres.
It is not what Housman meant
when he wrote of the cherry
hung with snow, though he also knew
how death can mistake the seasons,
and if he made it all sound pretty,
that was our misreading
in those high school classrooms
where, drunk on boredom, we had to recite
his poems. Now the weather is always looming
in the background, trying to become more
than merely scenery, and though today
it is telling us something
we don’t want to hear, it is all
so unpredictable, so out of control
that we might as well be children again,
hearing the voices of thunder
like baritone uncles shouting
in the next room as we try to sleep,
or hearing the silence of snow falling
soft as a coverlet, even in springtime
whispering: relax, there is nothing
you can possibly do about any of this.
- Alex Grant
- May Swenson (1919-1989)
Alex Grant was born in Greenock, Inverclyde, Scotland, but lives and teaches in Chapel Hill NC
Describe the sound when a penny drops
into a wishing-well. Consider the relevance
of the following factors: acoustics, knowledge
of wells, odds of fulfillment, presence of stars.
To be written from the coin’s point of view.
Imagine gravity traded as a commodity.
From a bird’s perspective, make a case
for public ownership, apportioned by weight.
Set on an uninhabited island.
Explain the attraction of the moon.
In no more than thirty-two lines, suggest
a new name for the number zero.
Combine the responses in a 12-line pantoum.
Establish a seamless association between
the following: an executioner’s birthday party,
fractal geometry, attention deficit disorder.
Result must be tacitly non-judgmental,
and be suitable for a sixth-grade audience.
Bonus question – substantiate your findings.
May Swenson was born in Logan Utah, an American poet and playwright; considered one of the most original poets of the 20th century.
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
how will I hide?
- G.K. Chesterton (1874-1892)
G.K. Chesterton was born in Kensington, London UK; author, poet, philosopher, and biographer among a number of other things.
For a War Memorial
(INSCRIPTION PROBABLY NOT SUGGESTED BY THE COMMITTEE)
The hucksters haggle in the mart
The cars and carts go by;
Senates and schools go droning on;
For dead things cannot die.
A storm stooped on the place of tombs
With bolts to blast and rive;
But these be names of many men
The lightning found alive.
If usurers rule and rights decay
And visions view once more
Great Carthage like a golden shell
Gape hollow on the shore,
Still to the last of crumbling time
Upon this stone be read
How many men of England died
To prove they were not dead.
Landscape by William Wendt (1865-1946)
- Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
Countee Cullen was born in New York City; African-American poet, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
I Have a Rendezvous With Life
I have a rendezvous with Life,
In days I hope will come,
Ere youth has sped, and strength of mind,
Ere voices sweet grow dumb.
I have a rendezvous with Life,
When Spring’s first heralds hum.
Sure some would cry it’s better far
To crown their days with sleep
Than face the road, the wind and rain,
To heed the calling deep.
Though wet nor blow nor space I fear,
Yet fear I deeply, too,
Lest Death should meet and claim me ere
I keep Life’s rendezvous.
- Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
- Elizabeth Coatsworth (1912-1995)
- Al Young (1939 – )
- Carolyn Srygley-Moore (1962 –)
Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, NY; essayist, and journalist, one of the most influential American poets.
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
“Are you the new person drawn toward me?”
Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?
Elizabeth Coatsworth was born in Buffalo NY; author and poet who wrote for both children and adults.
Always when Absalom returned at night,
Tired from hunting, yet adventure-filled,
‘Twas Michal met him in the darkened court,
Gave him his wine and listened to his tales.
Seldom looked she at him from lowered lids
But slow spoke words of praise he learned to love.
When at bright noon he wandered in the groves
Or lay in meditation ‘neath a tree
Michal would chance to meet him as she walked-
Michal, the queen, daughter of Saul was she.
David, the king, never beheld her face
Since she rebuked him; yet she never wept
For that she lived a widow while a wife-
She never spoke of those her five young sons
Whom David gave to death, nor of her house
Whose very name was seldom on men’s lips
So it had fallen before David’s power- Instead,
She listened to the tales of David’s son,
Her white face near his eager beauteousness-
Or told him he was fair that he was strong,
The people loved him more than the King’s self,
It was a grief to her he was not heir.
And while she spoke with lips that scarcely moved,
Her eyes kept watch of him ‘neath lowered lids.
Al Young was born in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in the rural South; an African-American novelist, poet, screenwriter and professor; California Poet Laureate (2005-2008)
Key to the Dollar Store
Just tell me who the hell am I?
What powers did I, do I hold?
What right have I to say “my”
or “mine” or “me” — all honey-
glazed, all bullet-proofed and
worshipful of any gangster “I”?
The key to the Dollar Store
hangs on my belt. Yes, “my”
again. And what of roof, of bread,
of loving laughter? What’s in?
My vinyl favorite Booker Little,
vintage, soothes me. He jars
our ears with trumpet joy and
stuff freed folks stash in cabinets.
Never one to make too much of
why we love and what, I love my
powers. I might put you in my will.
Carolyn Srygley-Moore (1962 – ) lives in upstate New York.
Childhood’s Recurring Dream
Battlegrounds, betrayals, sought proof
of miracles: were there patches of ice on the sea he walked on.
You wear power lightly, a sheathe of light
like a leaf touching time. Look to the trees, then. Blue, she said
softly, blue. And somebody stitched up the sky, a girl and her piano.
They sing of a man and a gun
as birds nibble the quieting rain. I clasp air like memory, asking,
is there room in the wild for one more wish.
The dream, it recurs, the one where I’m not crying anymore.
Wherein I am more than a guess. And the ugly is suddenly beautiful: can one wish
render a difference, a crosshatch of reflection on water?
The dead gull is surrounded by wingbeats of light. I am a chance, taken,
an instant of unthinkable, indefinable wind.
Stunned by a highrise of loveliness, I brush scattered tealeaves
from the astrologer’s encrypted note, smudging the ink.
I only want a way into this world.
Blue, she says: blue. And I begin weeping on the playground again.
So we’ve arrived at the end of this impressive array of May poets, and it occurs to me that I’ve never once seen a word for a gathering of poets.
If there can be a “murder of crows” or a “parliament of owls,” an “intrusion of cockroaches,” and a “flamboyance of flamingos,” then why not a word for poet group?
Perhaps “an aspiration of poets”? If you think of one, please share it in the comments.