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Robert Frost, looking much the poet
Robert Frost, looking very much the poet

Robert Frost was one of my mother’s favorite poets.  He wrote a lot about farms and farmers, trees and nature — all of which appealed to the farm girl in her.

She  transferred her appreciation of Frost to me.  I like his poems a lot.  At least some of them.

For my money, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is a near-perfect poem.  It’s widely appreciated and popular, and it should be. It’s so simple that you might dismiss it as trivial. But there is a lot there.

Frost captures the mood of the moment in time.  The silence of snowfall.  The primeval tug of the forest.  The conflict between mundane duty and the longing for something more profound.  The awareness of the inevitability of death.

The repetition of “And miles to go before I sleep,” in the last two lines may be the most famous example of this technique in American poetry.  It really brings the whole scene to a profound conclusion.

And you get all of that and more out of a simple, everyday, rural event.

I had been reading a lot of Frost when I wrote this.

FALLING LEAVES LIKE LOVERS 

The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.
But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality —
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.
For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down — they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.

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Rest in Peace, Rod McKuen

220px-Rod_McKuen_1972

Rod McKuen died today.  God bless him.  He taught me something important about poetry and poets.

In the ’60s, Rod made more money and was more popular than any poet could have every hoped to be.  He sold books, wrote songs, and saw his material recorded by legitimately great artists like Frank Sinatra.

While the masses loved him, he was universally reviled by critics.

I was a silly high school kid.  I didn’t know any better.  I bought his books and pored over his sappy, sentimental poems.

When I had the chance to compete in the poetry reading event at a speech and debate tournament, of course I chose to read McKuen.

I polished my reading of “Folk Song for Judy.”

I gave my love a cherry,
And she spit the seed at me.
I gave my love a baby,
And she went away.

On the day of the tournament, I wore a turtleneck sweater and look the part of an earnest beat poet.  My readings went smoothly.  In the first round, the judge was a cute young English instructor, fresh out of teacher’s college.  I was confident I had her vote.

In the second preliminary round, I was thrown a curve.  The judge was a sophisticated older gentleman, probably the English Department head.  As I wrapped up my most sincere reading, he burst my bubble.

“You have such a nice voice,” he said.  “Why do you waste it on such drivel.  You could be doing Masefield.”

As I stood there stunned, he launched into his own recital of “Sea Fever.”

I must do down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to see her by,

Despite the disapproval of the older judge, I went on to have a great final round and win the contest. I had my trophy and the glory that accompanied it. But, I was on notice: If you want to be taken seriously, be careful and do not become popular.

I think I had an inkling of how McKuen must have felt. He had popularity, money and glory. But he never had the approval of the arbiters of taste. He never was regarded as a real poet.

I’ve been wondering about this ever since.  Is it possible to write good poems that people comprehend?

Nature poems, part two

For several years, I lived in Minnesota.  It starting getting cold early and winter hung around for a long time.

AUTUMN SONG

Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.

When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?

Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.

Nature poems

Winter scene with frost
“When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung …”

Yesterday, I praised an early nature poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins inspired by his youthful sense of wonder.

More than 30 years ago, I woke up to a Minnesota morning that looked like a winter wonderland.  It was not snow, but frost that coated everything.  The thickest frost I’d ever seen.

It was Saturday morning, and in those days, Garrison Keillor was a local radio personality with a Saturday morning show on the local public station.  (His “Prairie Home Companion” show was just taking off, and so he still had a day job.)

He memorialized the remarkable morning by reading poetry celebrating frost and winter. I was so inspired I wrote one of my own.

FROST IN MORNING

When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung,
And the white fog lifts leaving trees bright new,
The foliage flashes with a crystal clue
Of how the world looked when light first leaped young.

Before man’s weight and weakness had begun
To break the branch or bruise the sodden slough,
The garden grew unburdened, bathed in dew,
Grew like a canticle, perfectly sung.

 

“My own heart let me have more pity on”

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poetic champion
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889)

Gerard Manley Hopkins deserves a special mention.  He’d be a poetic champion based solely on the fact he wrote some stunning poems, doing things with the language I’ve never seen anywhere else.

But he also labored in obscurity, published almost nothing during lifetime, and had to overcome inner conflicts over whether he should even be indulging in poetry at all.

He was born in 1842 into an artistic English family of devout High Anglicans.  A bright boy, he studied classics at Oxford, where he flourished as a poet and enjoyed a lively social life.  But he underwent a religious crisis and was drawn to Roman Catholicism.  He converted, to the consternation of his family, and eventually became a Jesuit priest.

During this period of turbulence, Hopkins was wracked with guilt and self-doubt.  He decided that poetry was too self centered.  So he burned his work.

Good thing for us, at Oxford he had formed a friendship with Robert Bridges (who eventually became the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom).  Hopkins had shared some of his poems with Bridges, so not all his early work was destroyed.

Hopkins later became more comfortable with using his poetic gifts and wrote a limited number of wonderful and innovative poems.  His more popular works are fairly well known.  “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover” deservedly make it into anthologies and are still studied today.

I love one of his early works called “Winter with the Gulf Stream.”  (Could it have been one that Bridges preserved from Hopkins’ bonfire?)  It’s not included in most collections of his work, but the first few lines knock me out:

The boughs, the boughs are bare enough
But earth has never felt the snow.
Frost-furred our ivies are and rough
With bills of rime the brambles shew.
The hoarse leaves crawl on hissing ground
Because the sighing wind is low.

I think Robert Frost must have had those lines in the back of his mind when he wrote “Reluctance”:

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

Probably my favorite of all Hopkins’ poems is the achingly beautiful “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.”  Take a look and see if you can read it without choking up a little.

My first poetic champion

Mother.1

My mother, Ida Mae Ball, loved poetry.  Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings.  She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly.  After her death, I found her Bible.  It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape.  Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been

In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s.  At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties.  She forgot names and nouns.

Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks.  “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.

But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone.  She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her.  She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

I wrote her a poem, which I read at her funeral.

ICE AGE

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.
 
You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.
 
Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.
 
So now for you I pick this small bouquet,
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.