TCS: Music Swifter Than a Sword – Nine Poets

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The world is full of magic things, patiently
waiting for our senses to grow sharper.

― William Butler Yeats


Nine notable poets have birthdays this week — a bounty at any time, but especially with so much going awry in our society. Some of their poems remind us that ‘The Past’ is usually only golden in hindsight, while other poems are very here and urgently now. 

And in some, their troubled past brushes up against our painful present, a stranger’s momentary recognition of an unknown face in a crowded street.


June 13, 1865 – William Butler Yeats

The Second Coming

by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

“The Second Coming” from The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, © 1989 by Ann Yeats – Scribner Paperback Poetry

William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer; admired as one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century; awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival (also ironically called the Celtic Twilight), and a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre with Lady Augusta Gregory. His collected works take up fourteen volumes.


June 13, 1893 – Dorothy L. Sayers

A Man Greatly Gifted

by Dorothy L. Sayers

YOU are the song that a jester sang,
Gambolling down the woods alone,
When a wide, low, yellow moon
Stared into the dusk of June;

And here and there, among the trees,
Where sudden foxgloves showed like ghosts,
The tiny streams, from edge to edge
Slipped, smothered by the mossy ledge.

The shadow dodged between the stems
Fantastically lengthening,
And like a silly, sweet guitar,
The little bells were all a-jar.

O music swifter than a sword,
Sharper than scent of spikenard,
Thus carelessly, to left and right
Tossed by a jester in the night!

“A Man Greatly Gifted” from Poetry of Dorothy L. Sayers – published by The Dorothy L. Sayers Society – 1996 edition

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) British author, poet, playwright, and translator; best known for the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery novels. She studied classical and modern languages at Somerville College, Oxford, and considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy her best work. She worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency from 1922 to 1931, and is credited with coining the phrase, “It pays to advertise!” Although Gaufy Night has been described as “the first feminist mystery novel,” Sayers was “not sure I wanted to ‘identify myself,’ as the phrase goes, with feminism, and that the time for ‘feminism,’ in the old-fashioned sense of the word, had gone past.” She believed that it is the recognition of our shared humanity as individual human beings upon which equality should be built.


June 13, 1894 – Mark Van Doren

Spring Thunder

by Mark Van Doren

Listen, The wind is still,
And far away in the night —
See! The uplands fill
With a running light.

Open the doors. It is warm;
And where the sky was clear–
Look! The head of a storm
That marches here!

Come under the trembling hedge–
Fast, although you fumble…
There! Did you hear the edge
of winter crumble

“Spring Thunder” from Collected and New Poems, 1924-1963 by Mark Van Doren – Hill and Wang, 1963 edition

Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) American poet, writer, scholar, and critic. He was a professor of English at Columbia University – among his students were Thomas Merton, Robert Las, John Berryman, and Allen Ginsburg. He was also literary editor (1924-1928) and film critic (1935-1938) for The Nation. Van Doren won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Collected Poems 1922–1938. In addition to several collections of poetry, he wrote three novels, a short story collection, and numerous studies of works by American and British authors, and the great poetry of Western literature.


June 13, 1940 – David Budbill

What Issa Heard

by David Budbill

Two hundred years ago Issa heard the morning birds
singing sutras to this suffering world.

I heard them too, this morning, which must mean,

since we will always have a suffering world,
we must also always have a song.

“What Issa Heard” from Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse, © 1999 by David Budbill – Copper Canyon Press

David Budbill (1940-2016) American poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and short story writer, who lived for many years in the mountains of northern Vermont. Author of eight poetry collections, eight plays, two novels, a short story collection, a children’s picture book, and dozens of essays. His play Judevine, a stage version of his narrative poems, has had at least 65 productions in 22 states since the early 1980s. In 2011, he was honored with the Kjell Meling Memorial Award for Distinction in the Arts & Humanities. He died at age 76 in 2016, and was posthumously named The People’s Poet of Vermont by the state’s legislature.


June 15, 1763 – Kobayashi Issa

Blossoms at Night

by Kobayashi Issa

Blossoms at night,
and the faces of people
moved by music.

_ . _

A World of Dew

 by Kobayashi Issa

A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) was born as Kobayashi Nobuyuki; Japanese poet who used ‘Issa’ as his pen name (meaning cup of tea); one of the ‘Great Four’ haiku masters, with Bashō, Buson, and Shiki. He wrote over 20,000 haiku, and is also known for his drawings, which frequently illustrated his poetry. He was a lay Buddhist priest.


June 15, 1920 – Amy Clampitt


by Amy Clampitt

When the bay flashed, and an unrecorded number
of the Persians troops, whip-flicked toward the spear-
clogged hourglass of the pass, were impaled and fell
screaming from the precipice to drown, the mirror

clogs: geography too gathers dust, though busloads
of us (sandaled Germans mostly), hankering for
the glitter of an essence, a principle that still
applies, a cruse of oil, a watershed no rain erodes,

find small inkling of what was staved off here,
or saved. A calcined stillness, beehives, oleanders,
polluted air, the hung crags livid; on a little hill
(beneath, the bay flashed as men fell and went under

screaming) where  a stone lion once stood in honor
of that grade-school byword of a troop commander
Leonidas, we ponder a funneled-down inscription: Tell
them for whom we came to kill and were killed, stranger,

how brute beauty, valor, act, air, pride, plume here
buckling, guttered: closed in from behind, our spears
smashed, as, the last defenders of the pass, we fell,
we charged like tusked brutes and gnawed like bears.

“Thermopylae” from The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, © 1997 by the Estate of Amy Clampitt – Alfred A. Knopf

Amy Clampitt (1920-1994) American poet and author born in Iowa to Quaker parents. She began writing poetry while studying English literature at Grinnel College. After graduation, she moved to New York, where she worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press, a reference librarian at the Audubon Society, and a freelance editor. She returned to writing poetry in 40s. She produced a couple of chapbooks, and one of her poems appeared in the New Yorker in 1978. In 1983, Clampitt published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher, at age 63.  It was followed by several more poetry collections, and three prose works on Keats, Donne, and other poets. Amy Clampitt died of cancer at age 74.


June 15, 1953 – Ana Castillo

A Amazônia está queimando

by Ana Castillo

We sing and dance in praise of the butterfly—
translucent blue,
gilded wings,
all its life
from orchid to cacao,
ceiba to banana and fig,
tying invisible strings
that hold our home in the sky.

It must,
lest we drop
into an abyss,
or drift
where the gods won’t find us.
This place
where butterflies work
for you and me,
keep rivers full and flowing—
Amapari, Canapantuba and Feliz,
the wide and deep goddess far beyond we call the Sea,
Rain—floods and drought,
a mist or fog,
the sun finds us each dawn
after a journey home,
when the moon comes to guide
both the weary and the ready
to pounce and hide—
our home is burning.

Menacing fires blaze.
Moneyed Whites rid the earth
of the people,
anacondas and spider monkeys,
hawks and toucans,
cicadas and cinnamon,
glass frogs and vines,
palm and rubber trees,
tapirs and manatees.
We hear their screams
And all that dies silently.
A Amazônia está queimando.

They want our abundant lands
and to annihilate our Mother’s opulence.

They will end the dance of the butterflies
and then what?
We, too, will die
like in a story told by the ancestors
that we only imagined.
They come for our copper, gold, ore
Ranchers and loggers raze the land.
At the United Nations Bolsonaro1 announced,
     Don’t listen to what you hear on the news. Lies.
     Nothing is burning, nothing has been set ablaze.

We are Waiapi.
We keep the butterflies happy.
They stay working
to hold the planet in place.
We are the guardians
of our Mother.
Each day before I go to school,
I smear the sweet juice of urucum seeds
on my body and face.
They are protection
from insects and evil spirits.
sit in a classroom with thatched roof
and other Waiapi women.
I am the only grandmother there.
I am Chief of my people.
I will learn to write and speak
for the butterfly
to those who set fires
and to the ones who may help
save our home.

“A Amazônia está queimando” © 2021 by Ana Castillo – published in Poem-a-Day on March 27, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets

Ana Castillo (1953- ) Mexican-American author, poet, novelist, editor, playwright and scholar, recipient of an American Book Award in 1987, and a Carl Sandburg Award. She was the first appointee to the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Endowed Chair at DePaul University. She describes Chicana feminism as Xicanisma, and much of her work centers on identity, racism, sexism, and classism. She often intermingles Spanish and English in her poetry.

June 16, 1938 – Joyce Carol Oates

The Blessing

by Joyce Carol Oates

Barefoot daring
to walk
the thrashing eye-glitter
of  what remains
when the tide
we ask ourselves
why did it matter
so much
to have the last
Or any

Here, please—
take what
It is yours.

“The Blessing” by Joyce Carol Oats appeared in Poetry magazine’s July/August 2020 issue

Joyce Carol Oates (1938 – ) prolific American novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, literary critic, and editor. Among her many awards and honors, she was the recipient of two  O. Henry Awards (1967 and 1973), the 1970 National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal in 2010, and the 2019 Jerusalem Prize. She grew up on her family farm outside Lockport, NY, and began her education in the same one-room school her mother had attended. She was an early and avid reader, and went on to Syracuse University, graduating valedictorian with a B.A. summa cum laude in English in 1960. Vanguard Press published Oates’ first book, a short-story collection, By the North Gate, in 1963. After getting her M.A, she became a Ph.D. student at Rice University, but left to become a full-time writer.  As of 2021, she had published a dozen poetry collections, including Women In Love and Other Poems; Angel Fire; Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1970–1982; and American Melancholy: Poems.

June 17, 1871 – James Weldon Johnson

Mother Night

by James Weldon Johnson

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

“Mother Night” from Complete Poems, by James Weldon Johnson –
Penguin Books, 2000 edition

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1939) African American writer, anthologist, and civil rights activist, married to civil rights activist and feminist Grace Nail Johnson. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt’s administration appointed him as consul of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909, he was transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua. He wrote substantial portions of his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and his poetry collection, Fifty Years, during this period. He published the novel anonymously to avoid controversy during his diplomatic career. However, when Johnson returned to the U.S., he abandoned diplomacy to become part of an anti-lynching campaign (1917-1920). As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s first black executive secretary (1920-1930), he helped increase membership and extended the NAACP’s reach by organizing many new chapters in the South.  During the 1920s, he and his wife promoted the Harlem Renaissance, encouraging young black writers, and helping them to get published. He also collaborated with his brother, composer J. Rosamond Johnson, on many songs, including “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” In 1933, he was honored with the W.E.B. Du Bois Prize for Negro Literature.  His poetry collections include Fifty Years and Other Poems; God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse; and Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems. He was killed at age 67 in an automotive accident. His wife, who was driving, was seriously injured but survived the crash.



Visual: ‘Tall Trees’ by Lilia D.

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