Respect for Elders: A Tanka

Cliff Solum heading off to serve in World War II

Made strong by hard times,
they stood up to tyrants,
and laid down their lives.

So sorely missed by us now,
the Greatest Generation.

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New Favorite Poem

My new favorite poem is in this book. It's by Theodore Roethke.

Guys, read this poem to your beloved

Poems get on my list of favorites for different reasons. Some are so sublime they make the list on the first ballot, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty. It may just be the perfect poem, in my humble opinion.

Other poems come along at just the right time, and hit me right where I’m at.  They earn a place on my list by virtue of good timing. Robert Frost’s Reluctance is one example.

Then, there are those poems I wish I had written myself …

I found one of these while on vacation.  Before I left, I threw a battered old collection of poems by Theodore Roethke in my carry-on bag.  I had just picked it up at my local used book store for 3 bucks.  It contains a real gem.

Apparently Roethke’s I Knew a Woman is quite well known.  Apparently, it pops up in anthologies all over the place.  The book’s introduction calls it “one of the most famous poems of our time.”  But thanks to my pitifully spotty education, I had failed to encounter it until now.

For your sake, I’ll copy the whole poem here:

I Knew a Woman

By Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went!  She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees,
Her several parts could keep a full repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for?  To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

What makes me want to have written this poem?

It’s so full of life and love and good humor.  It’s original and clever.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Just take a look at that third line:  Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one.  If that’s not evocative, I don’t know what is!

But the 3 lines that rhyme rake, sake and make, cinch the deal.  The audacious metaphor contained in these lines warms the heart of this old farm boy.

The double meaning of the word rake, as both the farm implement and the profligate, is a wonderful pun.

(At least the poet gets to be the rake, and not the grass! Although he “nibbled meekly,” he gets to have a complementary role in the hay-making. He doesn’t just get mowed down by the sickle.

Another line that jumps off the page:  (She moved in  circles, and those circles moved.)

Then in the last stanza, the poet turns reflective.  He’s aware of his mortality, but grateful for knowing the love of this woman.  It somehow has allowed him a glimpse of eternity.

All in all, this is a wonderful poem to read to your beloved, especially on vacation. I can vouch for it.

I just wish  I had  written it, though!

Good Father, a Tanka

Raymond Ball gave me a good example of fatherhood
My father with one of his grandsons

 Father, all I ask —
unbutton your coat, and warm
my toes on your skin.

This weary world is so cold,
and I am a trembling reed.


Notes on the form:

Tanka is a type of Japanese short poetry that some believe predates haiku.  Rather than the three line 5/7/5 haiku for, tanka adds two more seven syllable lines to form a 5/7/5 7/7 pattern.

From what I can determine, the content tanka tends to be more personal than haiku.  Some are even love notes passed between lovers.  But many also express an appreciation of nature.

I chose the tanka form for this poem inspired by my own father, and written as a prayer.

Notes on the content:  The example of a good father

I had the most excellent good fortune to have been blessed with a wonderful dad.  Because of his example, I found it easy to comprehend the idea of God as a good and loving father.

One of my earliest memories goes back to a winter day when I must have been no more than 3 years old.  Word came to our farmhouse on the party phone line that something strange had been found in a tree a couple of miles from our place.

We all bundled up and went to the scene.  It seems that a large weather balloon had fallen back to earth and gotten snagged high up in the tree.  It seemed to me that it took forever for the local high school-age farm lads to determine how best to climb the tree and free the object from its captor.

As the proceedings dragged on and on, I got colder and colder, and my feet were freezing.  When I  complained to my dad, he scooped me up, took off my socks and shoes, and stuck my tiny feet inside his coat and inside his shirt to warm them up.

A bit about my dad

He was a provider.  He worked hard all his life to provide for his family the best way he knew how.  In his youth during the Great Depression, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day (and glad to get it!)  Then, after saving up, he bought his own 80 acre dirt farm, which he operated for many years.

I came along as a late child, as Mom and Dad were facing middle age.  When I was young, he sold the farm, made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, and bought a Ford Tractor dealership with a couple of partners.  When that business ultimately failed, Dad kept one working, this time as a mechanic.  Through hard times and disappointments, he just kept chopping wood, and doing the best he could.

He possessed a merry disposition, quick with a story or a quaint country expression.  But he was capable of administering effective corporal punishment when required.  His boys learned early on that he was not afraid to use his belt to emphasize a disciplinary point.  I must say his spankings, while no fun, were short, undamaging, and few.

He was honest to a fault, even refusing to charge mark-ups on the parts he bought to use in repairing cars, trucks, and farm implements.  Even though that was standard practice in auto and farm repair shops everywhere, it just didn’t seem right, he said, to take that money for nothing.   It was known throughout the county that if Ray Ball couldn’t fix it, it couldn’t be fixed.

And in those rare cases when he could not get the  tractor to run or the corn picker to pick, Dad wouldn’t charge the farmer anything at all.

An example as a husband

Dad was faithful to our mother throughout his life, and he clearly adored her.  And when she declined in health past the point where he could care for her at home, he visited her in the nursing home every day, personally spoon feeding lunch to her.

Finally, Dad did his best to expose his four sons to faith and to the love of God as he had come to know it.  He had seen his own father undergo a dramatic adult conversion, which resulted in a softening and sweetening in the disposition of my grandfather.  This must have had  an effect on my own father, because he was always a gentle and kind man.

Although my brothers and I all initially rejected the faith of our parents, at least some of us eventually came around.  Dad passed away in 2000, but I would like to think that Dad would appreciate this little poem, if he were around to read it.