TCS: Stand and Deliver – Poetry Out Loud

Good Morning!

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Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.

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You will find poetry nowhere unless
you bring some of it with you.
– Joseph Joubert

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Today’s featured poets might seem to have nothing in common, but their poems are only half-alive on the printed page – they need to be read aloud to be fully appreciated.

In the U.S., before motion pictures, radio, television, and the internet, people memorized poetry and declaimed it at family gatherings, parties, and charitable fund-raising events. Many a young lady was known for her dramatic recitation of poems like “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” by Rose Hartwick Thorpe, while a young man blessed with a good memory might hold forth with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This tradition continued in rural areas and small towns even after radio came along, and many school children were still required to memorize poetry and recite it in front of the class into the early 1960s in America.

But as more and more forms of entertainment became available, at prices affordable to the majority of the population, this oral tradition of poetry faded out, and with it, many people stopped reading poetry at all. We became spectators instead of creating our own pastimes and amusements.

So I urge you to read these poems out loud – ideally, with someone else listening. It’s a different experience from reading poetry silently on the page.

The closest most of us come to recitation nowadays is when we sing the lyrics of our favorite songs – but we’re usually singing in the shower, or while driving our cars, or half under our breath as we move through our day, so no one else is listening to us.

So be bold – be heard – and find anew something which I believe we need back in our lives: the power and thrill of poetry out loud.

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Songs for the People

by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.

I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.


“Songs for the People” is in the public domain

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Eliza Harris

by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Like a fawn from the arrow, startled and wild,
A woman swept by us, bearing a child;
In her eye was the night of a settled despair,
And her brow was o’ershaded with anguish and care.

She was nearing the river—in reaching the brink,
She heeded no danger, she paused not to think;
For she is a mother—her child is a slave—
And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!

It was a vision to haunt us, that innocent face—
So pale in its aspect, so fair in its grace;
As the tramp of the horse and the bay of the hound,
With the fetters that gall, were trailing the ground!

She was nerv’d by despair, and strengthened by woe,
As she leap’d o’er the chasms that yawn’d from below;
Death howl’d in the tempest, and rav’d in the blast,
But she heard not the sound till the danger was past.

Oh! how shall I speak of my proud country’s shame?
Of the stains on her glory, how give them their name?
How say that her banner in mockery waves—
Her “star-spangled banner”—o’er millions of slaves?

How say that the lawless may torture and chase
A woman whose crime is the hue of her face?
How the depths of the forest my echo around
With the shrieks of despair, and they bay of the hound?

With her step on the ice, and her arm on her child,
The danger was fearful, the pathway was wild;
But, aided by Heaven, she gained a free shore,
Where the friends of humanity open’d their door.

So fragile and lovely, so fearfully pale,
Like a lily that bends to the breath of the gale,
Save the heave of her breast, and the sway of her hair,
You’d have thought her a statue of fear and despair.

In agony close to her bosom she press’d
The life of her heart, the child of her breast:—
Oh! love from its tenderness gathering might,
Had strengthen’d her soul for the dangers of flight.

But she’s free!—yes, free from the land where the slave
From the hand of oppression must rest in the grave;
Where bondage and torture, where scourges and chains
Have place’d on our banner indelible stains.

The bloodhounds have miss’d the scent of her way;
The hunter is rifled and foil’d of his prey;
Fierce jargon and cursing, with clanking of chains,
Make sounds of strange discord on Liberty’s plains.

With the rapture of love and fulness of bliss,
She plac’d on his brow a mother’s fond kiss:—
Oh! poverty, danger and death she can brave,
For the child of her love is no longer a slave!


“Eliza Harris” from Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, originally published in 1857 –
 now in the public domain 



Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was an only child, born to free black parents, but they died when she was three years old. Frances was raised by her aunt and uncle, Henrietta and William Watkins. Her uncle was an outspoken abolitionist, who practiced self-taught medicine, and organized a black literary society. Watkins had established his own school in 1820, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, which Frances attended until she was 13 and went to work. She was a nursemaid and seamstress for a white Quaker family who were owners of a bookshop, where she was allowed to spend her free time. By age twenty-one, she had written her first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves. In 1859, Harper published a short story in the Anglo-African Magazine called “The Two Offers,” the first short story by an African American woman to be published. She was also an influential abolitionist, suffragist, and reformer, who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She became a traveling lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society before her marriage to Fenton Harper in 1860, and resumed her speaking tours after her husband died just four years later. In 1866, Harper gave her famous speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York. Her books of poetry include Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects; Sketches of Southern Life; and The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems. She died in 1911.

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The Victory Ball

by Alfred Noyes

The cymbals crash,
And the dancers walk,
With long white stockings
And arms of chalk,
Butterfly skirts,
And white breasts bare,
And shadows of dead men
Watching ’em there.

Shadows of dead men
Stand by the wall,
Watching the fun
Of the Victory Ball.
They do not reproach,
Because they know,
If they’re forgotten
It’s better so.

Under the dancing
Feet are the graves
Dazzle and motley,
In long white waves,
Brushed by the palm-fronds
Grapple and whirl
Ox-eyed matron,
And slim white girl.

Fat wet bodies
Go waddling by,
Girdled with satin,
Though God knows why:
Gripped by satyrs
In white and black.
With a fat wet hand
On the fat wet back.

See, there’s one child
Fresh from school,
Learning the ropes
As the old hands rule.
God! how the dead men
Chuckle again,
As she begs for a dose
Of the best cocaine.

What do you think
We should find”, said the shade,
“When the last shot echoed
And peace was made?”

“Christ” laughed the
Fleshless jaws of his friend,
“I thought they’d be
Praying for worlds to mend,
And making earth better
Or something damn silly
Like whitewashing hell
Or Picc-damn-dilly.

They’ve a sense of humour
These women of ours,
These exquisite lilies,
These fresh young flowers.”

“Pish”, said a statesman
Standing near,
I’m glad they keep busy
Their thoughts else where!
We mustn’t reproach ‘em
They’re young you see”

“Ah”, said the dead men,
“So were we.”

Victory! Victory!
On with the dance!
Back to the jungle
The new beasts prance!
God, how the dead men
Grin by the wall
Watching the fun
Of the Victory Ball.


“The Victory Ball” was published by The Saturday Evening Post (with the reference to cocaine changed) in 1920. The poem was inspired by a celebration thrown by the British aristocracy, to which Alfred Noyes was an invited guest, after the Armistice ended WWI in November, 1918. He had been outspoken against the Boer War, because he saw Great Britain as the aggressor, but he believed that the Allies were fighting defensively in both World Wars, and supported his country. During World War I, Noyes was debarred by defective eyesight from serving at the front. Instead, from 1916, he did his military service on attachment to the Foreign Office, where he worked on propaganda. He also wrote morale-boosting short stories and poems.

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The Highwayman

by Alfred Noyes

PART ONE

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

PART TWO

He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
Marching—marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.
But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast!
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
         Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

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And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
         Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.


“The Highwayman” – from Alfred Noyes: Collected Poems in One Volume, © 1947 by Alfred Noyes J.B. Lippincott



Alfred Noyes was born on September 16, 1880, an extraordinarily prolific and popular English poet, short story writer, and playwright. His father had been unable to go to college, but studied on his own, and passed on to his son his knowledge of Latin and Greek, and a love of the written word. Though Alfred Noyes wrote in the 20th century, at heart he was really a 19th century poet, despising the modernist movement, and continuing to write traditional rhymed verse. As modernist poetry grew in popularity, critics became increasingly harsh in their reviews of his work, but Noyes remained beloved by “ordinary” readers. Noyes wrote his last poem, “Ballade of the Breaking Shell,” in May 1958, one month before his death. He died at age 77, and now is best remembered for his poem, “The Highwayman.”

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Amanda Gorman reciting her poem at the Biden inauguration

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About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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