TCS – The Mystery of Rhythm – What Explains Poetry

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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
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“What explains poetry is that life is hard
But better than the alternatives …”
 — Alicia Ostriker, from ‘Daffodils’

“I’m a great believer in poetry out
of the classroom, in public places,
on subways, trains, on cocktail
napkins. I’d rather have my poems
on the subway than around the
seminar table at an MFA program.”
— Billy Collins


We cover a lot of territory with this week’s birthday poets – Ancient Egypt’s Goddess of War, a scathing 17th century denunciation of the Double Standard, a 21st century tribute to Sappho, a life’s worth of memories sparked by a single line from a forgotten poem, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and a rollicking drinking song are just some of the highlights.



November 7, 1872 – Leonora von Stosch Speyer, Lady Speyer, born in America, poet who won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Fiddler’s Farewell; played violin professionally before her first marriage, which ended in divorce; her second husband was Sir Edgar Speyer, a British banker


Sekhmet the Lion-Hearted

by Leonora von Stosch Speyer

In the dark night I heard a stirring,
Near me something was purring.
A voice, deep-throated, spoke:

I litter armies for all easts and wests
And norths-and souths:
They suckle my girl-goddess breasts,
And my fierce milk drips from their mouths.
The voice sang:

I do not kill! I, Sekhmet the Lion-headed, I!
But between my soft hands they die.
I asked:

O Sekhmet, Lion-headed one,
How long shall warring be?
And Sekhmet deigned to make reply:
Bold in my faith I grew:

Dread goddess-cat, you lie!
Warring shall cease!
My God of love is greater far
Than you!

How gentle was the voice of Sekhmet then:
He of the Star?
He Whom they called the Prince of Peace —
And slew? —
And slew again — and yet again? —
Ah, yes! —she said.
And all about my bed
The night grew laughing-red:
Sekhmet I did not see
But in that bleeding dusk I heard
That Sekhmet purred.

“Sekhmet the Lion-Hearted” from A Canopic Jar, by Leonora von Stosch Speyer, originally published in 1921 – Franklin classic 2018 scholar select edition  


November 7, 1944 – Hannah Szenes, Hungarian Jewish poet; at age 23, she was one of 37 Mandate Palestine paratroopers dropped into Hungary by the British Army during WWII to rescue Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz; she was arrested near the Hungarian border, imprisoned and tortured, but refused to reveal any details of her mission. Even when she was brought face-to-face with her mother, whom she had not seen in five years, both women refused to give any information to their captors.  After a pro forma trial, she was executed by firing squad on this day. A national heroine of Israel, where her poetry is widely known. The Israel Hatzeira (Zionist youth movement) headquarters and several streets are named for her.

Hora to an Exiled Girl

by Hannah Szenes

A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation

But then a figure flutters before my eyes
My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace
My heart spurns the tempestuous singing,
Far and near it consumes me whole

Blue eyes
Such a bewildered glance
A sad silence and a stubborn mouth
The stillness grows in me
I remain standing
Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I

 – translation by Elie Leshem

This poem, written in Hebrew, was unknown until it was discovered in 2012 by Hannah Yasur, the daughter of the woman to whom Hannah Szenes had sent it.



November 9, 1818 – Ivan Turgenev born, Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and translator. Best known for his novel Fathers and Sons and his play A Month in the Country.

How Fair, How Fresh Were the Roses

by Ivan Turgenev

Somewhere, sometime, long, long ago, I read a poem. It was soon
forgotten … but the first line has stuck in my memory─
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses …’
Now is winter; the frost has iced over the window-panes; in the dark
room burns a solitary candle. I sit huddled up in a corner; and in my
head the line keeps echoing and echoing─
 ‘How fair, how fresh were the roses …’
And I see myself before the low window of a Russian country house.
The summer evening is slowly melting into night, the warm air is
fragrant of mignonette and lime-blossom, and at the window, leaning
on her arm, her head bent on her shoulder, sits a young girl, and
silently, intently gazes into the sky, as though looking for new stars to
come out. What candour, what inspiration in the dreamy eyes, what
moving innocence in the parted, questioning lips, how calmly breathes
that still-growing, still-untroubled bosom, how pure and tender the
profile of the young face! I dare not speak to her; but how dear she is
to me, how my heart beats!
 ‘How fair, how fresh were the roses …’
But here in the room it gets darker and darker … The candle burns dim
and gutters, dancing shadows quiver on the low ceiling, the cruel
crunch of frost is heard outside, and within the dreary murmur of
old age …
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses …’
There rise up before me other images. I hear the merry hubbub of
home life in the country. Two flaxen heads, bending close together,
look saucily at me with their bright eyes, rosy cheeks shake with
suppressed laughter, hands are clasped in warm affection, young kind
voices ring one above the other; while a little farther, at the end of the
snug room, other hands, young too, fly with unskilled fingers over the
keys of the old piano, and the Lanner waltz cannot drown the hissing
of the patriarchal samovar …
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses …’
The candle flickers and goes out … Whose is that hoarse and hollow
cough? Curled up, my old dog lies, shuddering at my feet, my only
companion … I’m cold … I’m frozen … and all of them are dead …
dead …
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses …’

‘How Fair, How Fresh Were the Roses’ from Poems in Prose, by Ivan Turgenev – first published in 1883 – Sutton Press 2008 Bilingual edition


November 9, 1928 – Anne Sexton born, American poet; 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Live or Die; co-authored four children’s books with poet Maxine Kumin; she battled severe bipolar disorder. Her last poetry collection, The Awful Rowing Toward God, was published after her 1974 suicide.

The Starry Night

by Anne Sexton

That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—
shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to
paint the stars. — Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

“The Starry Night” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr.  – Houghton Mifflin


November 9, 1937 – Roger McGough born, one of England’s best-loved poets for both adults and children, is also an author and playwright; he began his career as one of the leading Liverpool poets in the 1960s, known collectively for ‘The Mersey Sound.’

First Day at School

by Roger McGough

A millionbillionwillion miles from home
Waiting for the bell to go. (To go where?)
Why are they all so big, other children?
So noisy? So much at home they
Must have been born in uniform
Lived all their lives in playgrounds
Spent the years inventing games
That don’t let me in. Games
That are rough, that swallow you up.

And the railings.
All around, the railings.
Are they to keep out wolves and monsters?
Things that carry off and eat children?
Things you don’t take sweets from?
Perhaps they’re to stop us getting out
Running away from the lessins. Lessin.
What does a lessin look like?
Sounds small and slimy.
They keep them in the glassrooms.
Whole rooms made out of glass. Imagine.

I wish I could remember my name
Mummy said it would come in useful.
Like wellies. When there’s puddles.
Yellowwellies. I wish she was here.
I think my name is sewn on somewhere
Perhaps the teacher will read it for me.
Tea-cher. The one who makes the tea.

“First Day at School” from Collected Poems, © 2005 by Roger McGough – Penguin UK



November 10, 1728 – Oliver Goldsmith born, Irish-English playwright, poet and novelist; noted for his play, She Stoops to Conquer, and his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield

A Song, from She Stoops to Conquer

 by Oliver Goldsmith

Let school-masters puzzle their brain,
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning;
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives ‘genus’ a better discerning.
Let them brag of their heathenish gods,                      
Their Lethes, their Styxes, and Stygians:
Their Quis, and their Quaes, and their Quods,
They’re all but a parcel of Pigeons.
         Toroddle, toroddle, toroll.

When Methodist preachers come down
A-preaching that drinking is sinful,                            
I’ll wager the rascals a crown
They always preach best with a skinful.
But when you come down with your pence,
For a slice of their scurvy religion,
I’ll leave it to all men of sense,                            
But you, my good friend, are the pigeon.
         Toroddle, toroddle, toroll.

Then come, put the jorum about,
And let us be merry and clever;
Our hearts and our liquors are stout;
Here’s the Three Jolly Pigeons for ever.                    
Let some cry up woodcock or hare,
Your bustards, your ducks, and your widgeons;
But of all the birds in the air,
Here’s a health to the Three Jolly Pigeons.
         Toroddle, toroddle, toroll.

She Stoops to Conquer was first performed in 1773 at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. The comedy was a big hit then, and is one of the few 18th century plays that is still regularly performed.


November 10, 1759 – Friedrich Schiller born, German poet, playwright, historian, and philosopher. Noted for his plays Don Carlos, Maria Stuart, The Maid of Orleans, and The Bride of Messina. His poem, Ode to Joy, was the basis for the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

My Antipathy

by Friedrich Schiller

I have a heartfelt aversion for crime, ―a twofold aversion,
Since ’tis the reason why man prates about virtue so much.
“What! thou hatest, then, virtue?”―I would that by all it were practised,
So that, God willing, no man ever need speak of it more.

– translator not credited

“My Antipathy” is in the public domain.


November 10, 1879 – Vachel Lindsay born in Illinois, American poet; he was known for “The Congo” but its reputation has been tarnished by the racist stereotypes it contains. He h=is also known for his writings about Abraham Lincoln. He is noted for what he called “singing poetry” – poems that were meant to be sung or chanted.

The Traveller-Heart

 by Vachel Lindsay

(To a Man who maintained that the Mausoleum
is the Stateliest Possible Manner of Interment)

I would be one with the dark, dark earth:—
Follow the plough with a yokel tread.
I would be part of the Indian corn,
Walking the rows with the plumes o’erhead. 

I would be one with the lavish earth, 
Eating the bee-stung apples red: 
Walking where lambs walk on the hills;
By oak-grove paths to the pools be led.

I would be one with the dark-bright night
When sparkling skies and the lightning wed—
Walking on with the vicious wind
By roads whence even the dogs have fled.

I would be one with the sacred earth
On to the end, till I sleep with the dead.
Terror shall put no spears through me.
Peace shall jewel my shroud instead.

I shall be one with all pit-black things
Finding their lowering threat unsaid:
Stars for my pillow there in the gloom,—
Oak-roots arching about my head!

Stars, like daisies, shall rise through the earth,
Acorns fall round my breast that bled.
Children shall weave there a flowery chain,
Squirrels on acorn-hearts be fed:—

Fruit of the traveller-heart of me,
Fruit of my harvest-songs long sped:
Sweet with the life of my sunburned days
When the sheaves were ripe, and the apples red.

“The Traveller Heart” is in the public domain.



November 11, 1937 – Alicia Ostriker born, American Jewish feminist poet and scholar; professor of English at Rutgers University sine 1972; noted for her poetry collections: Once More Out of Darkness, which featured poems about pregnancy and childbirth; A Dream of Springtime; and the feminist classic The Mother-Child Papers, inspired by the birth of her son during the Vietnam War, just weeks after the Kent State shootings. Her collection, The Imaginary Lover, won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America. Her non-fiction work includes Writing Like a Woman, which explores the poetry of contemporary poets like Anne Sexton, May Swenson and Adrienne Rich; and The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Vision and Revisions, which takes a look at the Torah, which was followed by For the Love of God.  In 2018, she was named as the New York State Poet.

Saturday Night

by Alicia Ostriker

Music is most sovereign because more than anything
else, rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost
soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with
them and imparting grace.
—Plato, The Republic

The cranes are flying …

And here it comes: around the world,
In Chicago, Petersburg, Tokyo, the dancers
Hit the floor running (the communal dancefloor

Here, there, at intervals, sometimes paved,
Sometimes rotted linoleum awash in beer,
Sometimes a field across which the dancers streak

Like violets across grass, sometimes packed dirt
In a township of corrugated metal roofs)
And what was once prescribed ritual, the profuse

Strains of premeditated art, is now improvisation,
The desperately new, where to the sine-curved
Yelps and spasms of police sirens outside

The club, a spasmodic feedback ululates
The death and cremation of history,
Until a boy whose hair is purple spikes,

And a girl wearing a skull
That wants to say I’m cool but I’m in pain,
Get up and dance together, sort of, age thirteen.

Young allegorists, they’ll mime motions
Of shootouts, of tortured ones in basements,
Of cold insinuations before sex

Between enemies, the jubilance of the criminal.
The girl tosses her head and dances
The shoplifter’s meanness and self-betrayal

For a pair of stockings, a scarf, a perfume,
The boy dances stealing the truck,
Shooting his father.

The point is to become a flying viper,
A diving vulva, the great point
Is experiment, like pollen flinging itself

Into far other habitats, or seed
That travels a migrant bird’s gut
To be shit overseas.

The creatures gamble on the whirl of life
And every adolescent body hot
Enough to sweat it out on the dance floor

Is a laboratory: maybe this lipstick, these boots,
These jeans, these earrings, maybe if I flip
My hair and vibrate my pelvis

Exactly synched to the band’s wildfire noise
That imitates history’s catastrophe
Nuke for nuke, maybe I’ll survive,

Maybe we’ll all survive. . . .

At the intersection of poverty and plague
The planet’s children—brave, uncontrollable, juiced
Out of their gourds—invent the sacred dance.

“Saturday Night” from The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998, © 1998 by Alicia Ostriker – University of Pittsburgh Press



November 12, 1651 – Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz born, Hieronymite nun of New Spain, self-taught scholar, feminist philosopher, composer and poet; called “The Mexican Phoenix”; Her criticism of misogyny and the hypocrisy of men led to her condemnation by the Bishop of Puebla, and in 1694 she was forced to sell her collection of books and focus on charity towards the poor; she died the next year, from the plague while treating her sister nuns.

Ustedes Los Hombres

por Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis:

si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
¿por qué quereis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?

Combatís su resistencia
y luego, con gravedad,
decís que fue liviandad
lo que hizo la diligencia.

Parecer quiere el denuedo
de vuestro parecer loco,
al niño que pone el coco
y luego le tiene miedo.

Queréis, con presunción necia,
hallar a la que buscáis,
para pretendida, Thais,
y en la posesión, Lucrecia

¿Qué humor puede ser más raro
que el que, falto de consejo,
el mismo empaña el espejo
y siente que no esté claro?

Con el favor y el desdén
tenéis condición igual,
quejándoos, si os tratan mal,
burlándoos, si os quieren bien.

Opinión, ninguna gana:
pues la que más se recata,
si no os admite, es ingrata,
y si os admite, es liviana

Siempre tan necios andáis
que, con desigual nivel,
a una culpáis por crüel
y a otra por fácil culpáis.

¿Pues cómo ha de estar templada
la que vuestro amor pretende,
si la que es ingrata, ofende,
y la que es fácil, enfada?

Mas, entre el enfado y pena
que vuestro gusto refiere,
bien haya la que no os quiere
y quejaos en hora buena.

Dan vuestras amantes penas
a sus libertades alas,
y después de hacerlas malas
las queréis hallar muy buenas.

¿Cuál mayor culpa ha tenido
en una pasión errada:
la que cae de rogada
o el que ruega de caído?

¿O cuál es más de culpar,
aunque cualquiera mal haga:
la que peca por la paga
o el que paga por pecar?

Pues ¿para quée os espantáis
de la culpa que tenéis?
Queredlas cual las hacéis
o hacedlas cual las buscáis.

Dejad de solicitar,
y después, con más razón,
acusaréis la afición
de la que os fuere a rogar.

Bien con muchas armas fundo
que lidia vuestra arrogancia,
pues en promesa e instancia
juntáis diablo, carne y mundo.


You Men

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 

Silly, you men-so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you’re alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman’s mind.

After you’ve won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave–
you, that coaxed her into shame.

You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.

When it comes to bravely posturing,
your witlessness must take the prize:
you’re the child that makes a bogeyman,
and then recoils in fear and cries.

Presumptuous beyond belief,
you’d have the woman you pursue
be Thais when you’re courting her,
Lucretia once she falls to you.

For plain default of common sense,
could any action be so queer
as oneself to cloud the mirror,
then complain that it’s not clear?

Whether you’re favored or disdained,
nothing can leave you satisfied.
You whimper if you’re turned away,
you sneer if you’ve been gratified.

With you, no woman can hope to score;
whichever way, she’s bound to lose;
spurning you, she’s ungrateful–
succumbing, you call her lewd.

Your folly is always the same:
you apply a single rule
to the one you accuse of looseness
and the one you brand as cruel.

What happy mean could there be
for the woman who catches your eye,
if, unresponsive, she offends,
yet whose complaisance you decry?

Still, whether it’s torment or anger–
and both ways you’ve yourselves to blame–
God bless the woman who won’t have you,
no matter how loud you complain.

It’s your persistent entreaties
that change her from timid to bold.
Having made her thereby naughty,
you would have her good as gold.

So where does the greater guilt lie
for a passion that should not be:
with the man who pleads out of baseness
or the woman debased by his plea?

Or which is more to be blamed–
though both will have cause for chagrin:
the woman who sins for money
or the man who pays money to sin?

So why are you men all so stunned
at the thought you’re all guilty alike?
Either like them for what you’ve made them
or make of them what you can like.

If you’d give up pursuing them,
you’d discover, without a doubt,
you’ve a stronger case to make
against those who seek you out.

I well know what powerful arms
you wield in pressing for evil:
your arrogance is allied
with the world, the flesh, and the devil!

 – translator not credited

“Ustedes Los Hombres” is in the public domain.


November 12, 1945 – Judith Roitman born, American mathematician specializing in set theory, topology, and Boolean algebra; has run workshops for elementary and high school teachers on teaching mathematics; served in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics writing group which produced Principles and Standards for School Mathematics; received the Louise Hay Award in recognition of her work as a math educator. Roitman is also a poet. Her poetry collections include Slippage, No Face, and Roswell.

After Sappho

by Judith Roitman
Flowers under the throne.

Her shimmering mind.

Stop. Start.

Iridescent rain & portico.

Sky focus.

First, indirect speech.

And she’s there! She herself is there!

The fire put out

Rendered together at your side.

This has always been so special to me.

“After Sappho,” © 2013 by Judith Roitman, was published at The Coop: A Poetry Cooperative on October 7, 2013.



About wordcloud9

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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