Lilac time

Lilacs
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”

I owe some of my enthusiasm for poetry to my 11th grade English teacher back at Marshall High School in Marshall, Missouri–Paul Hagedorn.

He devoted an inordinate amount of time that year to the study of poetry. Our major assignment for the whole year, as I recall, was two-fold. We were to create a poetry notebook in which we copied — and illustrated, if we desired — a good number of poems that spoke to our hearts.

He encouraged us to venture beyond the usual suspects. So, along with poems by Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson, I included lyrics by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Then, we were to pick one American poet from a prescribed list of lesser known poets, and write a lengthy term paper on our choice. (I choose John Crowe Ransom because I thought his name was cool. Incidentally, I’m was happy with my choice.)

Mr. Hagedorn passionately believed that Walt Whitman was the greatest poet that had ever lived and he did his best to infect his impressionable students with this enthusiasm. I dutifully bought a paperback copy of “Leaves of Grass,” and read the whole thing.

I failed to completely fall in love with Whitman. Some passages were interesting and hypnotic. I recognized some of the cadence of the King James Bible, which I was raised on. He clearly was making an ambitious attempt to encompass the breadth and depth of all of America in his work. I appreciated that he was attempting to do something had not been done before in American poetry.  But I never could figure out why my teacher was such a Whitman nut.

One poem that did thrill me, however, was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I understood it was an elegy to President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on April 14, 1864, just days after the end of the Civil War.

Lilacs were my mother’s favorite flower, and she had passed along that enthusiasm to me. So I was predisposed to be open to any poem about lilacs.

One other factor, just a few years earlier, America had celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War.  I can remember fighting the Civil War during recess in grade school.  Back in my hometown in the heart of “Little Dixie,” there were plenty of kids who had inherited Confederate sympathies from their families.

As the great-grandson of a Yankee soldier, I was clearly a Northern sympathizer.  So, one year, I recall us  dividing up and re-fighting great battles out on the playground.

Lincoln was a revered figure in my family.  So, that made an elegy to him even more interesting.

As I re-read Whitman’s poem today, decades later, it feels a bit overdone.  I had forgotten it was so long.

Just my opinion, but Old Walt could have used a good editor.

But here are those lines that are pure genius, and so beautiful that you think Whitman found them fully formed somewhere:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

It’s been a tough year for lilacs here in the Northwest.  We had such a warm and early spring that many lilac bushes were tricked into blooming too early.  Our premature spring was interrupted by some cold clear nights that nipped many lilacs in the bud.

Pity, because  there is nothing quite like the heart-shaped leaf and the perfume of the lilac.

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That day we lay …

Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis
Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis

More than 40 years ago I read a poem by my friend and childhood schoolmate John Marquand that stuck with me all these years. It had something to do with love and a town in Colorado.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think it started, “Remember the way we lay in Ouray ….” There was something about that repeated internal rhyme that knocked me out.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember any more of the poem. Years later I asked John about it and he couldn’t remember it either. Sadly, it may be lost forever.

That rhyme was kicking around in my brain recently and it inspired a poem about another experience in another place. It was Minneapolis, and it involved rediscovering love against all odds.

That Day We Lay Upon the Grass

That day we lay upon the grass,
A luminescent green.
The sparks that arced from arm to arm
Across the space between.

Our bodies quickened by the sun,
The willow leaves aflush,
The sunlight sparkling on the lake,
Our blood bestirred to rush.

Up and down the parkway, flowers
Enticing with their blooms,
Our loveless winter ended there,
Emerging from our tombs

For we had slept as sleepers sleep,
Unmindful of the world,
Astonishingly we awoke,
Much like a rose unfurled.

“When the dizzy petal peak is past …”

Spring blossoms
 Spring comes early to the Pacific Northwest.

Spring does indeed come early here in western Washington.  Two weeks ago, we were enjoying summer-like weather in early March. Which is unusual, even for here.

The ornamental flowering trees were bursting with blooms, the sun was warm, and I walked for miles in shirtsleeves.  Life was good.

Two weeks and several rainstorms later, and the blossoms are much worse for wear.  In some places the fallen petals cover the sidewalks like snow.  The weather is back to normal — cool and wet, and occasionally windy.

As I walked tonight, I saw the fallen flower petals and was reminded of an old poem, written more than 30 years ago.

PASSION LIKE A FLOWER

Passion like a flower must expire.
Nothing can be rigged to spare desire
From life’s rigors — magic nor petitions.
Petals fall to various conditions.

When the dizzy petal-peak is past,
Some folks act as if the bloom could last,
Pick some wilting lilacs for their table,
Haul them homeward just to show they’re able,

Plunk them in a fruit jar lately washed
Clean of last fall’s bounty, cooked and squashed —
Like they thought the glass itself had power
To delay the spoiling of the flower.

It may work a day, two days, or so,
Then the smell and color start to go.
Nothing glassy can preserve desire;
Passion like a flower must expire.

Crow haiku

Japanese Woodblock Print by Kyosai (1831-1889)
Japanese Woodblock Print by Kyosai (1831-1889)

Crows show up in some of the most poignant haiku. They are such marvelous creatures, it is not surprising they captured the notice of the haiku masters.

My favorite guy, Issa, wrote this:

The crow
walks along there
as if it were tilling the field.

Perhaps the most famous crow haiku is Basho’s Autumn Crow:

A crow
has settled on a bare branch —
autumn evening.

Spring came early to western Washington this year. On a recent walk, I encountered some crows who were very upset about my presence.

Relax, noisy crows,
I mean your babies no harm.
The cat, however …

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Back in college, I had a poetry professor who believed William Butler Yeats was the greatest poet the world had ever seen.

Dr. John A. Bernstein was one of those rare teachers who could instill a passion for the subject matter in the hearts of his students. And that suited me just fine because I was not taking the class to fulfill a major requirement or to get into grad school.

It was the early 70s. I was seeking truth, beauty and love. I was taking Dr. Bernstein’s class to immerse myself in the great poets of the English language.

We spent a lot of time with Dylan Thomas, with Yeats and with Robert Frost. I was familiar with Frost from my childhood. But Yeats was a new discovery.

Frankly, I did not share my teacher’s unbridled enthusiasm for this Irish poet. I was a spiritually promiscuous as anyone in those days, but Yeats’s forays into spiritualism and automatic writing freaked me out.

Besides that, his poetry simply did not resonate with me. Mostly. Except for his poignant poem, When You Are Old.

Almost certainly written for his lover Maud Gonne, who had rejected his proposal of marriage at least three times. It’s a fairly straightforward poem, but touching and one of my favorites.

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Poets on poetry

George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633)

By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.

I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.

Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.

But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.

When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.

Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.

But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.

The Quiddity
by George Herbert

My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.

Haiku, with feeling

Mother and father
Father cared for Mother through her decade-long ordeal with Alzheimer’s. After her death, he went downhill very quickly.

My recent infatuation with haiku master Issa, has led me to his poems about his family. Sad story. His mother died very early. His father remarried, but the new wife was not a warm, nurturing stepmom.

So, Issa leaves home early to wander and find his fortune.

Later, as his father was dying of typhus, Issa returns home to care for his father in his dying days. His verse about his father’s last days is a heartbreaker.

Last time, I think
I’ll brush the flies
from my father’s face.

I was reminded of my last contact with my father.  This is a different time and a different age.  Instead of being in the same room brushing away flies, I was 2,000 miles away.  I attempted to reach my father by telephone.

Last call to my dad.
Nurses wheeled him to the phone.

Couldn’t hear a thing.