The theme of lost love fuels a love of poetry. As a motivator, I’m guessing it ranks right ahead of found-love, nature and war.
I was not immune. Many years ago — what seems like a lifetime now — I wrote a little sonnet about lost love. But it’s a sonnet with a twist.
I call it an “unnatural sonnet.” Not sure if the form is original or not. It has one extra line. The poem has had its DNA altered just a bit.
I thought a poem about an unnatural subject deserved and unnatural form.
The places we once went I often haunt,
As one cut off from sensibility.
The willing women are no threat to me,
While others dance seducing I sit gaunt.
Oh some, their new-found liberty might flaunt,
And advertise their eligibility.
I vex the lookers’ curiosity —
It’s you, it’s you, not others that I want.
Yes, mine’s an old, old story that’s well known:
How he who’s loved and left still walks the nights
And stalks the long-gone pleasures all alone,
Appears from nowhere at familiar sites,
Hears leaping laughter as a monotone.
Unable to partake in their delights,
He dents their merry with a glance of stone.
Yesterday, in response to the post about love not always working out, I received a great recommendation from a friend.
I was introduced to poet Sara Teasdale. (Where had she been all my life?)
She was popular with the public and many critics, though others called her work “unsophisticated. Which means she and I will get along just fine.
Though not considered a major poet, she was popular and good enough to win the first Columbia Prize for Poetry in 1918, would later become the Pulitzer Poetry Prize.
She had a troubles in love, dating poet Vachel Lindsay before marrying another man. Years later, she divorced and rekindled her ill-fated love affair with Lindsay, who was married by this time, himself.
Things didn’t work out. Lindsay died by suicide in 1931. Teasdale took her own life two years later.
Her wonderful “tell-off” poem, “I Shall Not Care,” was rumored to have been a suicide note to the deceased Lindsay. But it was written years before. It is heart-breaking and wickedly good.
I Shall not Care
When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.
I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.
When I was a junior in high school, our English teacher, Mr. Paul Hagedorn, gave what seemed like a daunting assignment: Compile a personal poetry notebook of what seemed like an outrageous number of poems we liked, and pick one poet from a prescribed list, and write a term paper on our selection.
I didn’t recognize many names on Mr. Hagedorn’s list. He seemed intent on moving us past the old classic American poets that our parents had loved and to introduce us to modern poets.
I panicked. I already instinctively knew that picking the wrong poet could prove to be deadly. I was going to have to get to know everything about the poet I selected. Read his works and live with him until the term paper assignment was complete.
Nothing worse than being forced to spend time with a boring or impenetrable poet!
So I did the sensible thing. I chose the poet with the most interesting name: John Crowe Ransom.
You must admit. That’s a great name.
I got lucky. John Crowe Ransom proved to be a poet I could read, understand and appreciate. I learned a few new words, but I didn’t have to translate every other word into everyday English.
But Ransom’s poem that really knocks me out is “Winter Remembered.” It’s about love and loss. A common tale, but told so well.
If you’ve got a minute, read the whole thing. (It’s pretty short. Just five stanzas.) I’ll quote the last stanza here. That image of the frozen fingers as frozen parsnips is worth the price of admission.
Dear love, these fingers that had known your touch,
And tied our separate forces first together,
Were ten poor idiot fingers not worth much,
Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.
I’ve got a few poems about lost love myself. This one isn’t really in the style of Ransom. But if I’m reading him right, we have shared some common experiences.
COME GENTLE SNOW
Come gentle snow and cloak the ground,
Shroud budding branches all around,
Let not one scent of spring be found,
Make flowers wait.
Come frost and freeze the throbbing juice,
Break March’s short and shaky truce,
No sprout nor songbird yet aloose,
Let spring be late.
Come wind and make the oak leaves hiss,
When they descend no one will miss
Their brittle shade — no artifice
Can bring them back.
Come night and steal the season’s gain;
The verdure will begin to wane
Despite the wealth of easy rain
If it stays black.
Come sleep and shield me from the past,
Help me forget her I loved last,
Wrap safely me in sanctums vast,
Away from pain.
… and hearts will be turning to thoughts of love. Robert Browning knew how to write a love poem. Way back in high school I stumbled across his “Summum Bonum,” and thought it was great.
It’s short, so I’ll copy the whole poem here:
All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee:
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea:
Breath and bloom, shade and shine,–wonder, wealth, and–how far above them–
Truth, that’s brighter than gem,
Trust, that’s purer than pearl,–
Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe,–all were for me
In the kiss of one girl.
Here’s wee love poem of my own. I’d hope Robert Browning would think it was passing fair.
LUMBERJACK LOVE Though I am not a hirsute man nor burly, I love you with a lumberjack-type love. The only axe I take in hand securely, This meager pen across the page I shove. Please treat me not so fickle nor so surly, Don’t shield your limbs below nor lips above. I aim to fell you skillfully and purely; Each word’s to chip the bark around your love.
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.
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?
For several years, I lived in Minnesota. It starting getting cold early and winter hung around for a long time.
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.