Madeleine L’Engle, also a Poet

Madeleine L'Engle and

With the release of the new move, “A Wrinkle in Time,” writer Madeleine L’Engle has come back into the cultural consciousness. Her Newbery award-winning book was first published when I was at an impressionable age, and helped fuel both my imagination and love of reading.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that despite a strong cast headed by Oprah Winfrey, it is not doing particularly well at the box office. As I write this it has a long way to go to earn back the more than $100 million it took to produce.

L’Engle’s book was criticized for its liberal treatment of religious themes back in the 1960s. Ironically, this year’s movie has been criticized for not sticking closely enough to the book and watering it down its Christian references even further.

But I digress.

Today, in one of my used bookstore haunts, I was intrigued to discover a slender book of verse by L’Engle, entitled “The Weather of the Heart.” I hadn’t realized she also had written poetry.

And what a discovery! Chock full of verse about wonder and love and death and faith.

But the one that really jumped out at me was all too human, and startling in its honesty. Written to her husband while they were apart, it recounted an affair averted. It’s hard to say just how close she came, but because the poem is so honest, it results in a reaffirmation and celebration of fidelity.

It helps to understand the poem to know that L’Engle’s husband, Hugh Franklin, was a stage and television actor.

L’Engle’s poem doesn’t seem to be published on the internet, so I will set it down for you here. It is inspiring on many levels.

Lovers Apart

In what, love, does fidelity consist?
I will be true to you of course.
My body’s needs I can resist,
Come back to you without remorse.

And you, behind the footlight’s lure,
Kissing an actress on the stage,
Will leave her presence there, I’m sure,
As I my people on the page.

And yet–I love you, darling, yet
I sat with someone at a table
And gloried in our minds that met
As sometimes stranger’ minds are able

To leap the bound of times and spaces
And find, in sharing wine and bread
And light in one another’s faces
And in the words that each has said

An intercourse so intimate
It shook me deeply, to the core,
I said good-night, for it was late,
We parted at my hotel door

And I went in, turned down the bed
And took my bath and thought of you
Leaving the theatre with light tread
And going off, as you should do,

To rest, relax, and eat and talk–
And I lie there and wonder who
Will wander with you as you walk
and what you both will say and do …

We may not love in emptiness,
We married in a peopled place;
The vows we made enrich and bless
The smile on every stranger’s face.

And all the years that we have spent
Give the job that makes me able
To love and laugh with sacrament
Across a strange and distant table.

No matter where I am, you are,
We two are one and bread is broken
And laughter shared both near and far
Deepens the promises once spoken

And strengthens our fidelity
Although I cannot tell you how,
But I rejoice in mystery
And rest upon our marriage vows.

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Poetry Month, Continued …

Oyster.shell

As the Oyster Forms the Pearl

As the oyster forms the pearl,
So the poet pens the verse
As balm for the current ache
Born out of the ancient curse.

As the oyster feels compelled
To shellac the sandy grain,
So the poet feels the urge
To transmogrify the pain.

So the pearl grows rich and round
As its luster covers the sand.
So the verse unseen takes form
In its way, designed unplanned.

Sad the pearl that lies unseen
In the depths of the murky sea.
Sad the verse that dies unheard
In the heart ceasing to be.

So the diver frees the pearl,
Breaks the stony shell apart.
So the poet frees the verse
Ripped out of his broken heart.


NOTES:  Apparently there is some skepticism about my assertion that April is Poetry Month.

Let this settle the matter once and for all.

Let’s call this one an extended metaphor.

Something We Can All Relate To

When the Rent is Due by John Marquand

My friend and schoolmate, John Marquand, was writing poems before I knew what to do with a pencil. While I was playing football, Johnny was putting his heart on paper and getting published.

Our senior high English teacher saw his potential and submitted some of John’s poems to a magazine that published the best of Missouri high school poetry.  He got three poems accepted, including one on the cover.

He went off to the University of Missouri, where he took some writing classes, and met some real, live poets.  He was influenced by Weldon Kees, an undervalued and underappreciated poet from the 20th Century.

I got to read a few of his poems when we were back in school together.  They inspired me even then.

While John is now concentrating on nature photography, he is still a poet at heart.

His pen name is Quill.  He’s got a bit of Weldon Kees in him.  But he is his own poet.

Poem in protest of spring

Late snowfall

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.


NOTES: We haven’t had that wonderful March snowstorm here in Western Washington yet this year.  So I’ll have to settle for a photo from last year.

We had some snow in late February, but I’m still pulling for a blizzard in March.

You see, I’m allergic to March here — the alder and cedar pollen are not kind to me.

Nearly 40 years ago when I wrote this poem protesting spring, I was an unrequited, tragic romantic. O woe was me!  I thought I’d never be happy again.  Of course, I was wrong.

If I can just make it through March to April, I should be fine.

Memento Mori Free Verse

Sappington Cemetery

Old Cemetery

That day we ditched our duties at the music contest,
And drove to the old cemetery out by Arrow Rock,
The one with the mossy tombs above the ground,
Like down in New Orleans.
And it was even better because it was like we were playing hooky,
Only there were no classes,
Just that we’d volunteered to welcome the kids from other schools,
And help them find their rooms.
It was expected that we’d show up and do our civic duty,
But we figured they’d never notice we were missing.
We heard the call of other tunes,
And we had other demands that day to serve.
It was coming down one of those warm spring rains,
The air and everything was wet and willing,
It was the middle of the day but no one would be driving by,
And, even if they had, the old Ford’s windows were so fogged up
That no one could ever see what was going on inside.
In school, we’d learned how the doctor buried there
In the grandest tomb of all had made his fortune and his fame
selling quinine to cure malaria,
Made it possible for pioneers to settle in the boggy bottomlands,
And for America to finish where the French had failed
at digging the Panama Canal,
Opening up a passage that had never before been penetrated.
(In another class, we’d hear it wouldn’t be the last time
We would have to bail out the hapless Frenchmen.)
And though the aging tombs beckoned us to come and learn,
And contemplate the weakness of our flesh,
We’d have to take our teachers’ word for it.
That day we never got out of the car …
++++++it was raining so hard …
And we had other geography to explore,
And history of our own to write.


Notes:  Growing up in my Missouri hometown, I heard stories like this actually happened. This one may or may not be partly true.  Names have been redacted to protect the guilty.

The medieval Christian tradition had an ascetic practice called memento mori, meaning, “Remember that you will die.” The monk might keep some object, such as a skull, to remind him that life is transient, and that death is inevitable. The idea was to focus the soul on things that really mattered.

I’m not sure, but some of the poems I write might serve as my own personal memento mori.

Vanishing Act

Unjustly overlooked poet Weldon Kees

Made another discovery recently, this one thanks to my old friend and schoolmate, the photographer and artist (and poet) John Marquand.

John turned me on to his favorite poet, Weldon Kees, an important, but overlooked poet from the last century. Kees really hasn’t gotten the attention his fans think he deserves, possibly because his output was small.

He was a modern day Renaissance Man, who in addition to writing poetry, was a novelist, short story writer, painter, literary critic, jazz pianist, and filmmaker.

Kees’ career was cut short when he disappeared in 1955 at age 41, a presumed suicide. His car was found near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, but his body was never found.

Kees captured the despair of modern urban life in the 20th Century, and expressed in fresh ways.

Perhaps the best examples of this is his series of four “Robinson” poems about an outwardly successful, but inwardly despairing modern man.

One of these is perhaps his mostly widely known poem, “Aspects of Robinson.” This essay by one of Kees’ champions, the poet Dana Gioia, gives a far better explanation of the poem than I ever could write.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth your time to read the whole essay, but I’ll include a tidbit:

“This poem demonstrates how Kees transformed the alienation and vacuity of contemporary life into lyric poetry. It does not offer readers comfort or escape. Kees did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or a political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by stealing away into an aesthetic realm. What he offered was uncompromising honesty, the transforming shock of recognition.” — Dana Gioia

It would very well be that the Kees’ uncompromising honesty combined with his inability to find redemption amidst a fallen culture finally led to his demise.

Some have speculated that Kees’ anti-hero, Robinson, was named after E.A. Robinson, the earlier American poet, who enjoyed a bit of a revival after Simon and Garfunkle adapted one of his poems into a famous song in the 1960s — “Richard Cory.”

There are certainly similarities between Kees’ Robinson, and Robinson’s Richard Corey.  But Kees’ Robinson is much more of a world-weary man of the mid-century.  Robinson’s Cory was a member of the sated upper class at the turn of the century.

More intriguing is the theory that Kees’ Robinson is really an aspect of the poet himself.