It has been a busy season the past couple of months. Lots to do workwise, and more travel than usual.
The result has been a bit of a dry spelling for poetry and blogging. (I don’t know how all those poets with busy day jobs managed to keep producing! But then, when you think about it, nobody feeds themselves from their poetry earnings. Everybody needs a side hustle to stay afloat.)
Whenever I’m feeling stuck, I try things. I go for a walk, read other poets, listen to tapes of great poems being read aloud.
I was combining both walking and listening the other day when I ran across an amazing tape of a story I’d never heard before.
One of the tapes made for the project was from Kunitz, himself a former Poet Laureate back in the 1970s.
In his introduction to his selection, Kunitz tells how he first discovered the poem. He was a student a Harvard in 1926, he says, roaming through the library’s 19th century English poetry section. Seemingly at random he reached up and took down a book by an author he did not know.
Just read how the poem completely gobsmacked Kunitz:
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading, it really shook me because it was unlike anything I had ever read before. As I starting reading it suddenly that whole book became alive to me. It was filled with such a lyric passion. It was so fierce and eloquent, wounded and yet radiant, that I knew it was speaking directly to me, and giving me a hint of the kind of poetry that I would be dedicated to for the rest of my life.” — Stanley Kunitz
Kunitz himself gives one of the best readings of the poem I’ve ever heard here.
It’s remarkable Kunitz found Hopkins, who had died unpublished in 1889. His collected poems were did not reach the public until his friend Robert Bridges finally published them in 1918.
It was also remarkable that such an overtly religious poem by a devout 19th century Roman Catholic priest had such a profound effect on a 20th century American Jew. Such is the power of great poetry.
My own study of poetry is even more random that this one anecdote from Kunitz. I’ll wander through libraries, and especially used book stores, just to see what treasure I might stumble across.
Nobody has assigned me a reading list. No one is paying me to do this. So why not enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
In fact, that’s how I discovered Kunitz earlier this year. (I had never read anything by him until I plucked his book, The Wild Braid from the shelves of my local used bookstore. (There are so many gaps in my education!)
While none of his poems has broken through to me in quite the way that Hopkins did to him, I’m reading Kunitz these days and enjoying him. He’s growing on me.
Some poets have conducted quite conventional careers during the day to support their poetry habit at night. Insurance executive Wallace Stevens and physician William Carlos Williams are a couple of well known examples.
Dylan Thomas really couldn’t do much else besides write poems, and so he waged a losing war with poverty until he drank himself to death. He probably would have perished much sooner except for the fact he was able to charm wealthy female admirers into becoming patronesses.
About the only thing I have in common with the aforementioned gentlemen is that while I sometimes commit poetry, I also need another means to make a living.
I started my professional life in the 1970s as an ink-stained wretch of a newspaperman. While chasing deadlines was exhilarating when I was still a young man, there were already storm clouds on the horizon for journalism. Afternoon dailies were going extinct, and cities that had formerly had 2, 3 or more newspapers were seeing them merge or go out of business.
Little did I know that in just a few years, the internet would come along and fatally wound the mainstream media organizations, forcing them to trim their newsrooms and close regional bureaus.
I sensed that there was a disturbing uniformity of political opinion in the newsrooms of my youth. My own political worldview was still evolving, but even back then everybody I worked with seemed to be left-leaning and Reagan-loathing. The lockstep groupthink bothered me.
In my naïve idealism, I thought journalists were supposed to be fiercely objective. I never caucused with any party, and I strove to play my own coverage right down the middle. I’d have coffee with both Democrats and Republicans, and always made sure to pay my own check because I didn’t want to owe anybody anything.
When the owner of one paper tried to pressure me to join the local Rotary Club, I refused because I didn’t want membership to influence my coverage of any organization.
If I had still been a journalist this past year I think my head would have exploded. With news organizations colluding with political campaigns, and sharing debate questions in advance with the favored candidate, it became clear that our creaky old news institutions had jumped the shark.
I would have burned my press card in protest.
I wish I could say I was smart enough to foresee the death of journalism and jump ship intentionally, but it was more random than that. I was about to get married and I needed a job in Minneapolis. The cash-strapped metropolitan dailies weren’t hiring right then, and so I took the first job I could get.
Fortunately I had stumbled my way into direct marketing. That later led me into non-profit fundraising. The bulk of my career since has been helping good causes raise money. Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, defending the persecuted, visiting those in prison, bringing the good news to those in bondage — that sort of thing.
I began to appreciate what I do a whole lot more when I stopped thinking about it as marketing and started thinking about it as “soul stirring.” When I’m doing it right, I touch the heart to stir people up to good works, and inspire them to be generous.
If you ask me, that’s really just a short step away from poetry. It’s all soul stirring.
That bleak season the cold creek ceased to run,
Grey weeds withered beside the roadside ditch,
Flat leaden clouds obscured a sullen sun,
Winds lashed ice-lacquered leaves without a twitch.
Field stalks bowed down to winter’s weary weight,
The world conspired to pile pang upon pang,
Even the crusted snow cried, “Much too late!”
Caged by a skeleton hedge, no bird sang.
That bleak season love went the way of leaves,
Good green seeming, but poised to take the fall,
First frost stunned then assailed by windy thieves,
Some futile few sought stubborn to forestall
The impending end ’til a fell gust cleaves
Asunder with only a scrawny squall.
Notes: If you read enough Gerard Manley Hopkins, it can mess up your iambic pentameter. That’s because he often wrote in what he called “sprung rhythm,” which involved tossing out the sing-song metric rules that so many of his Victorian contemporaries followed.
Sprung rhythm was not free verse. Hopkins followed his own complex set of rules, but he was wildly eccentric for those times.
I do not claim to follow Hopkins or his rules here. This poem is more like “disjointed rhythm” than sprung rhythm. But this seems to me to be very appropriate for the subject matter of a world and a love wrenched all out of joint.
This poem still faintly resembles a sonnet. It still has 10 syllables to each line. It still rhymes in a familiar pattern, close to the English sonnet, but ending in an e-f rhyme instead of g-g.
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.
NOTES: Many years ago and many miles away, I awoke one Minnesota winter morning to the most astounding display of hoarfrost I had ever seen. The world was completely coated, clothed in white.
This was approximately 35 years ago. Garrison Keillor was just getting traction with his Prairie Home Companion show. He still had a day job on the local public radio station, and that morning, he celebrated the frosty morning by reading a poem.
I regret that I do not remember the name, or author of the poem he read that day. Perhaps it could have been this poem, Hoarfrost and Fog, by Barton Sutter. But I don’t think so.
It might have been his own work. But his efforts inspired the modest 8 lines I’ve posted above.
This fall, I’ve been writing a lot about how the death of summer is a metaphor for the inevitable death we all as humans face. This might be the single most-used image in all of literature.
Hopkins also wrote a 2-part poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, that gets at something even more. The first part, The Leaden Echo, sets up the problem of the decline and decay of beauty. It ends with despair.
But, in The Golden Echo, we come back to hope for redemption, for eternal life, and for the love of a Heavenly Father who restores.
“When the thing we forfeit is kept with fonder a care Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it ….”
He’s truly a treasure. Virtually unpublished during his own lifetime, he left behind a small but rich collection of stunning poems.
A complete original, he labored in obscurity, writing poetry in his spare time when not occupied with his vocation as a Roman Catholic priest.
He took his poetry — like his religion — seriously, developing his own philosophy of poetry. And he innovated style and form, as well, creating his own form he called “sprung rhythm.”
Check out his poem, “Inversnaid.” The poem is a description of a steam rushing down a hillside emptying into Loch Lomond in Scotland.
The description is wonderful, and well worth clicking away to read the whole poem. But the last stanza is amazing. It’s four lines that form a prayer, seemingly beseeching God to preserve nature from the depredations of mankind:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
When I read that out loud, I forget about what’s blaring on television, and I smile a little smile, and I find myself drawn back to the heart and center. Actually drawn back to God.
That’s what John Ciardi must have meant when he said, “Enrich language, and you cannot fail to enrich our experience. Whenever we have let great language into our heads, we have been richer for it.”
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 Womanis 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.