TCS: The Door to the Future – A Week of Poets

Good Morning!


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.

“The future belongs to those who believe
in the beauty of their dreams.”

— Eleanor Roosevelt


The thing about writing poetry is that your words are always in the past as soon as they are on paper (or stored in digital memory), but at the same time, they have footholds in the future. There are love poems from Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.) that still evoke what love feels like for us, so far into future from when they were written.

This is a week of birthdays for a dozen remarkable poets, who all wrote at least some of their work in English. They cover a range of topics, but not all of them are best-known for their poetry. Their birthdates range from 1799 to 1947, but only one of them is still writing words for the future.


May 23


The Song of the Shirt

by Thomas Hood

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread–
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

“Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!
And work — work — work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s Oh! to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work!

“Work — work — work
Till the brain begins to swim;
Work — work — work
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in a dream!

“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, Men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch — stitch — stitch,
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap!

“Work — work — work!
My Labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shatter’d roof — and this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

“Work — work — work!
From weary chime to chime,
Work — work — work!
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumb’d,
As well as the weary hand.

“Work — work — work,
In the dull December light,
And work — work — work,
When the weather is warm and bright —
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet
For only one short hour
To feel as I used to feel,
Before I knew the woes of want
And the walk that costs a meal!

Oh! but for one short hour!
A respite however brief!
No blessed leisure for Love or Hope,
But only time for Grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
Hinders needle and thread!”

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch, —
Would that its tone could reach the Rich! —
She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”

“The Song of the Shirt” from Poems of Thomas Hood, originally published posthumously in 1845 – BiblioLife historical reproduction, 2009 edition

Thomas Hood (1799-1845) born in London; English poet, author, and humorist. His father was a partner in the business of Vernor, Hood, and Sharp, booksellers, and a member of the Associated Booksellers. After his father’s death, Hood’s education was cut short at age 14, and he became a clerk in a counting house, but it adversely affected his already fragile health. He studied engraving, but it was no better. He spent some time living with relatives and then friends in Scotland recuperating, spending more time outdoors, but also reading voraciously. Hood became serious about writing, and started contributing poetry and humor pieces to newspapers. He returned to London in 1818, where he became a regular contributor to The London Magazine, Athenaeum, and Punch. After the editor of The London Magazine was killed in a duel in 1821, Hood became a sub-editor of the publication, and greatly expanded his acquaintance among London’s literary society. He married in 1824.  Hood’s health declined, and he lapsed into invalidism by the age of 41, but continued to write from his sick bed, including his more serious work, like “The Song of the Shirt,” one of his best-known poems. He died at the age of 45.


After an Illness, Walking the Dog

by Jane Kenyon

Wet things smell stronger,
and I suppose his main regret is that
he can sniff just one at a time.
In a frenzy of delight
he runs way up the sandy road—
scored by freshets after five days
of rain. Every pebble gleams, every leaf.

When I whistle he halts abruptly
and steps in a circle,
swings his extravagant tail.
Then he rolls and rubs his muzzle
in a particular place, while the drizzle
falls without cease, and Queen Anne’s lace
and Goldenrod bend low.

The top of the logging road stands open
and light. Another day, before
hunting starts, we’ll see how far it goes,
leaving word first at home.
The footing is ambiguous.

Soaked and muddy, the dog drops,
panting, and looks up with what amounts
to a grin. It’s so good to be uphill with him,
nicely winded, and looking down on the pond.

A sound commences in my left ear
like the sound of the sea in a shell;
a downward, vertiginous drag comes with it.
Time to head home. I wait
until we’re nearly out to the main road
to put him back on the leash, and he
—the designated optimist—
imagines to the end that he is free.

“After an Illness, Walking the Dog” appeared in the October/November 1987 issue of Poetry magazine

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) made a long journey in a short life. Before she died from leukemia a month and a day before her 48th birthday, Kenyon published four volumes of poetry, and a volume of translations of the poems of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. While at the University of Michigan, student Jane Kenyon had met professor and poet Donald Hall. In 1972, they married, he for the second time, she for the first – there was a 19-year difference in their ages. A couple of years later, they spent what was supposed to be a working summer vacation on Hall’s grandparents’ Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire, but his grandmother, who was in a nursing home, died while they were there. They bought the farm from her heirs, and moved in permanently. Kenyon fought a recurring battle with depression even before she became ill.  She was diagnosed with leukemia, and a bone-marrow transplant failed. Kenyon was editing  Otherwise: New and Selected Poems until just before her final days. The editing was finished later by her husband, and Otherwise was published posthumously.


Odysseus Dying

by Sheila Wingfield

I think Odysseus, as he dies, forgets
Which was Calypso, which Penelope,
Only remembering the wind that sets
Off Mimas, and how endlessly
His eyes were stung with brine;
Argos a puppy, leaping happily;
And his old father digging round a vine.

“Odysseus Dying” from Collected Poems: 1938-1983, © 1983 by Sheila Wingfield – Enitharmon Press

Sheila Wingfield (1906-1992) 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 her to read. She read and wrote in secret. One of the few things she and her father seemed to agree on was the necessity to hide their Jewish heritage. 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, Lady Powerscourt left her husband, and the financial impact forced the sale of the Powerscourt estate. Sheila Wingfield produced eight collections of poetry, and three memoirs of Irish life before her death at age 85.


May 24


Part of Speech

by  Joseph Brodsky

… and when “the future” is uttered, swarms of mice
rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece
of ripened memory which is twice
as hole-ridden as real cheese.
After all these years it hardly matters who
or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes,
and your mind resounds not with a seraphic “doh”,
only their rustle. Life, that no one dares
to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,
bares its teeth in a grin at each
encounter. What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

“Part of Speech” from Selected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was born as Iosif Alexandrochich Brodsky, in Leningrad. He left school at the age of fifteen, taking jobs in a morgue, a mill, a ship’s boiler room, and on a geological expedition. During this time Brodsky taught himself English and Polish, and began writing poetry. His poetry was full of ironic wit and independent thinking, which got him into trouble with the Soviet authorities. Brodsky was also persecuted because his family was Jewish. In 1963, his poetry was denounced by a newspaper as “pornographic and anti-Soviet.” He was tried in 1964 for “parasitism,” condemned to a Soviet mental institution, and later sentenced to five years at Arkhangelsk, an Arctic labor camp. He served 18 months of that sentence, before an international outcry over his imprisonment helped secure his early release.  The Soviet authorities had prevented the woman he loved from marrying him, an dhe had to leave her and their son behind when he was exiled in 1972. His poetry was banned in the U.S.S.R. Later, in a poem he described an exiled writer as one “who survives like a fish in the sand.” He came to the U.S. His Less Than One, an essay collection, won the National Book Critics Award for Criticism. In 1987, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was invited back after the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, but Brodsky never returned to his homeland. His son came to see him in New York, and they were able to develop a relationship. His poetry collections include A Part of Speech, and To Urania.  In 1991, Brodsky became Poet Laureate of the United States. He died at age 55 of a heart attack in January of 1996.


May 25


“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel,
And the former called the latter, “little prig”:
Bun replied,
You are doubtless very big,
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year,
And a sphere.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I’m not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry:
I’ll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut.

“Fable” from Early Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1899 edition – Thomas Y. Crowell & Company

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, lecturer, and poet; a leader of the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century,  champion of the intrinsic worth of the individual, and critic of the countervailing pressures of society to conform. Among his best-known essays are Nature, Self-Reliance, and Experience. Since 1960, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize has been given to non-fiction books that have made the most significant contributions to the humanities. In May 2006, 168 years after Emerson delivered his “Divinity School Address,” Harvard Divinity School announced the establishment of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship.

In a Dark Time

by Theodore Roethke

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 a 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.

“In a Dark Time” from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, © 1966 by Beatrice Roethke as Administrator of the Estate of Theodore Roethke –Anchor Books, 1975 Edition

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) American poet, born in Micigan, 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 at the University of Washington. He won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry  for The Waking, and the National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1959 for Words for the Wind, and posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a pain the neck, it’s a thorn
in the flesh, it’s

A Catful of Buttermilk

by Phyllis Gotlieb

nothing, a family saying, like for
enough is enough, enough already! yoysher!
a bellyful, something turning queasy, storm
brewing, gorge rising, that ‘s when
you say enough is a
catful of buttermilk
when you’ve got a spirit
ache like an ague
of the bones, when the sky
pushes down like the
lid of a garbage-can and all
words ring down a fall of
lead nickels, the old
gnaw their gums and blink and the
wind is a wolves’ bite in the thigh
the hue and cry out at the graves
of the unnumbered
dead riding in their careers
in turn howling a hollow
tolling from hell
can we
crawl down to the cat from here
and the buttermilk?
Prince, President, Prime
minister, Premier, Potentate,
Pontifex, Pasha, Panjandrum & Pooh-bah, ah
the hell with it, it ‘s a
catful of buttermilk

“A Catful of Buttermilk” from Ordinary, Moving, © 1969 by Phyllis Gotlieb –
Oxford University Press

Phyllis Gotlieb (1926-2009) born, Canadian science fiction novelist and poet; won the Prix Aurora Award for Best Novel in 1982 for her novel A Judgement of Dragons; The Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic is named for her first novel in 1964, Sunburst; much of her poetry is collected in Red Blood Black Ink White Paper: New and Selected Poems 1961-2001.

The Best Time of the Day

by Raymond Carver

Cool summer nights.
Windows open.
Lamps burning.
Fruit in the bowl.
And your head on my shoulder.
These the happiest moments in the day.

Next to the early morning hours,
of course. And the time
just before lunch.
And the afternoon, and
early evening hours.
But I do love

these summer nights.
Even more, I think,
than those other times.
The work finished for the day.
And no one who can reach us now.
Or ever.

“The Best Time of the Day” from All of Us: The Collected Poems, © 1966 by Tess Gallagher – Vintage Books, 2015 Edition

Raymond Carver (1938-1988) American short story writer and poet, best known for his award-winning short stories, including “A Small, Good Thing” and “Where I’m Calling From.” He had a problem with alcohol when he met the love of his life, poet Tess Gallagher, in 1977, the same year he became a recovering alcoholic. For eleven years they were friends, lovers, editors, and mutual sounding boards. They were married in 1988, six weeks before his death from lung cancer at age 50.


May 26



by Maxwell Bodenheim

I shall walk down the road
I shall turn and feel upon my feet
The kisses of Death, like scented rain.
For Death is a black slave with little silver birds
Perched in a sleeping wreath upon his head.
He will tell me, his voice like jewels
Dropped into a satin bag,
How he has tip-toed after me down the road,
His heart made a dark whirlpool with longing for me.
Then he will graze me with his hands
And I shall be one of the sleeping, silver birds
Between the cold waves of his hair, as he tip-toes on.

“Death” from Minna and Myself, © 1918 by Maxwell Bodenheim – Leopold Classics Library 2015 Reissue

Maxwell Bodenheim (1893-1954) born in Mississippi, but his family moved to Chicago when he was eight, and around 1912, he became friends with writer Ben Hecht. They founded the short-lived but influential Chicago Literary Times together. Bodenheim moved to New York City in the 1920s, and he became a notable figure of the Bohemian scene in Greenwich Village. But he liked drink too much during Prohibition, as well as carouse with other men’s wives, and he wound up on the street, begging for change. He was with Ruth, a woman working as a prostitute to bring in money, when a man called Weinberg invited them to share his sorry room in a Manhattan flophouse. Then, while Weinberg was having sex with Ruth, he was challenged by Bodenheim. The man shot him dead, and then turned on her with a knife.  Weinberg escaped the death penalty for the double homicide when a judge declared him insane.


May 27


Limitations of Benevolence

by Julia Ward Howe

“The beggar boy is none of mine,”
The reverend doctor strangely said;
“I do not walk the streets to pour
Chance benedictions on his head.

“And heaven I thank who made me so.
That toying with my own dear child,
I think not on his shivering limbs,
His manners vagabond and wild.”

Good friend, unsay that graceless word!
I am a mother crowned with joy,
And yet I feel a bosom pang
To pass the little starveling boy.

His aching flesh, his fevered eyes
His piteous stomach, craving meat;
His features, nipt of tenderness,
And most, his little frozen feet.

Oft, by my fireside’s ruddy glow,
I think, how in some noisome den,
Bred up with curses and with blows,
He lives unblest of gods or men.

I cannot snatch him from his fate,
The tribute of my doubting mind
Drops, torch-like, in the abyss of ill,
That skirts the ways of humankind.

But, as my heart’s desire would leap
To help him, recognized of none,
I thank the God who left him this,
For many a precious right foregone.

My mother, whom I scarcely knew,
Bequeathed this bond of love to me;
The heart parental thrills for all
The children of humanity.

“Limitations of Benevolence” is in the public domain.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) American author, essayist, and poet, best known for writing the words to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but she also was an editor and contributor (1872-1892) to the suffragist magazine Woman’s Journal, and was very active in the movements for the abolition of slavery, social reform, women’s rights, and peace. She died at age 91.


by Linda Pastan

I remember when my body
was a friend.

when sleep like a good dog
came when summoned.

The door to the future
had not started to shut,

and lying on my back
between cold sheets

did not feel
like a rehearsal.

Now what light is left
comes up—a stain in the east,

and sleep, reluctant
as a busy doctor,

gives me a little
of its time.

“Insomnia” from Insomnia, © 2015 by Linda Pastan – W.W. Norton & Company

Linda Pastan (1932 – ) American poet born in New York City, but now lives in Maryland; she was Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995. Among her many poetry collections are: Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; Queen of a Rainy Country; Traveling Light; and A Dog Runs Through It.


May 28


Water Picture

by May Swenson

In the pond in the park
all things are doubled:
Long buildings hang and
wriggle gently. Chimneys
are bent legs bouncing
on clouds below. A flag
wags like a fishhook
down there in the sky.

The arched stone bridge
is an eye, with underlid
in the water. In its lens
dip crinkled heads with hats
that don’t fall off. Dogs go by,
barking on their backs.
A baby, taken to feed the
ducks, dangles upside-down,
a pink balloon for a buoy.

Treetops deploy a haze of
cherry bloom for roots,
where birds coast belly-up
in the glass bowl of a hill;
from its bottom a bunch
of peanut-munching children
is suspended by their
sneakers, waveringly.

A swan, with twin necks
forming the figure 3,
steers between two dimpled
towers doubled. Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.

“Water Picture” from Poems Old and New, © 1994 by the Literary Estate of May Swenson, Houghton Mifflin

May Swenson (1919-1989) was born in Utah, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, and English was her second language; American poet, translator, playwright, and poet-in-residence at several universities. She was also a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and published over a dozen books of poetry, including some for young readers. She won the 1981 Bollingen Prize for lifetime achievement.



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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 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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