Saturday, September 29, 2007

Don't Quit by Quinton Howell

Don't Quit

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh

When care is pressing you down a bit
Rest if you must - but don't you quit
Life is queer with its twists and turns
As everyone of us sometimes learns

And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out
Don't give up, though the pace seems slow
You might succeed with another blow

Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far

So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit
It's when things seem worst, That you MUST NOT QUIT!
--Quinton Howell

This poem was printed on a magnet that Mom had on the side of the fridge in Michigan (I don't remember whether it made it to Ohio). I would often stand by that side of the fridge and read the magnets and clippings while I ate sugar (I'd just drink it straight from the sugar shaker) since it was a good out of the way place to sort of hide while I did it.

I've always thought that this poem is about four lines too long. It feels like he made his point, but still had some rhymes he wanted to use, so he stuck in another stanza. There's nothing new in the fourth stanza -- he's already mentioned that you might be one "blow" away from success -- and it only serves to break up the fight metaphor that's begun at the end of the third stanza. I guess the poet just didn't know when to quit :)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Antigonish by William Hughes Mearns


Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away...
--William Hughes Mearns

Hughes Mearns, who wrote this poem, was an educator around the turn of the century who dabbled in child psychology, especially as it relates to creativity. He pretty much invented "creative writing" as it's taught in schools. He thought that kids were naturally creative and eloquent, and they just needed to be shown how to let the natural poetry of their language come out as they put their thoughts down on paper. He said, "Poetry is an outward expression of instinctive insight that must be summoned from the vasty deep of our mysterious selves. Therefore, it cannot be taught; indeed, it cannot even be summoned; it can only be permitted." (quoted in Creative Writing And The New Humanities By Paul Dawson) He also talked about writing as a "transfer of experience" from writer to reader. He sounds like a fascinating person, and I'm surprised I didn't hear about him in my Education classes at college.

As for the man who wasn't there, I love how ambiguous this poem is. Is it a bit of nonsense rhyme? Is it talking about something prosaic like his shadow? Is it a ghost or fairy or spirit of some sort? A "man in black" government agent? A scandal that has little basis in reality, but won't stay out of the tabloids? A reference to some sort of mental illness? The answer is YES. It doesn't matter what he had in mind when he wrote it (though it might be an interesting bit of trivia to know), when I read it, it can mean any of those things or something else entirely.

Here's a good quote on that topic from a blog called Knocking From Inside:
One way that poetry can communicate is to make clear, simple statements with which the reader either agrees or not. Another way, perhaps more characteristic of poetry, is to deploy images or ideas whose “meaning” is not completely specified; this allows the reader to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Readers will associate these signifiers with whatever seems most emotionally immediate or relevant to the reader. Thus readers can tailor-make their own “meanings”, within a framework suggested by the poem.

This is why we sometimes read a poem written by a complete stranger and feel as though it was written expressly for and about us. In a sense, it is; as readers, we become co-authors. We write our own thoughts, feelings and experiences into the spaces between the poet’s lines.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hope by Emily Dickinson


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
--Emily Dickinson

After I posted yesterday's poem, I found another by Emily Dickinson that I wanted to share. It reminded me of a quote that I printed out and hung on my cubicle wall way back when I was working at Dentrix:
Be like a bird, who,
Halting in flight
On limb too slight,
Feels it give way beneath him;
Yet sings
Knowing he has wings.
--Victor Hugo
Why is it that birds are such a potent symbol of hope? Is it because they have wings and can fly away from their troubles? Is it because they communicate by singing? Because they're heard most often in the early morning of a bright new day? Because their arrival after a long winter signals that spring is on the way? Because they are so beautiful and delicate? Maybe all of the above. I think it's interesting that though birds seem so carefree, they have all of the same struggles that other creatures do. They have to work hard to build homes, raise and feed their young, avoid predators, find enough food to eat, and make long journeys just to survive. Do we ignore these factors when we associate them with hope and freedom? Or do they make the symbol that much stronger? The birds have all sorts of troubles, but still find time to sing and make the world a prettier place.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking by Emily Dickinson

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
--Emily Dickinson

This is not precisely a love poem -- I'm thinking of revising my schedule since I have a lot of poems that don't fit into the listed categories. Anyway, here's another from the Belle of Amherst (though not our Amherst). I think that I'm drawn to her poems because of their simplicity. She doesn't try to take on the whole range of human emotions in one poem, or explore a deep metaphor. She picks one small thing and treats it carefully. You could paraphrase this poem to sum up her literary philosophy - If I can write about one thing well, I shall not have written in vain.

One thing I struggle with in my life is taking this philosophy (the original one, not the literary one I just made up) to the extreme. The flawed thinking goes like this: If a good deed is what keeps a life from being lived in vain, then any time not spent doing things for other people is living in vain, and therefore, if I'm not helping someone I'm a waste of space and not worthy of even being alive. I have to work hard to remember that while I can do many things, I physically can't do everything for everyone, and that I have to have the physical and mental resources available to do be able to do anything for anyone, and that means that I have to take care of myself too. Though at times, this train of thought devolves as well, and taking care of myself becomes one more duty that I have to do in order to be able to do more for everybody else.

Another conundrum I have is whether to tell people about all the skills I have, since if they know that I can do virtually anything well, they'll end up asking me to do more than I'm able to. This happens at church a lot. Each auxiliary is only asking me to do one little thing, but I end up leading the choir, going on splits with the missionaries, teaching a homemaking craft, and helping out with girls camp all at the same time and it's too much.

But then if I don't tell people that I can do things, I end up feeling bad too. Take the ward activity we had this weekend, for instance. It was advertised as a "Hoe Down" with dancing. The only dancing they ended up having was one single solitary line dance, badly taught so that half the dancers lost track of where they were every time through. If they had asked me, I could have taught six or seven line dances and/or called some square dancing (complete with music from Daddy's old reel to reel tapes (Oh Johnny Oh!).

But then I stop and remind myself that the poem says stop ONE heart from breaking. I've already managed that, so now my entire life is not in vain, and anything else I do is gravy. Gravy is nice though...especially on meat 'n potata's...though not on ice cream.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Roald Dahl

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

As soon as Wolf began to feel
That he would like a decent meal,
He went and knocked on Grandma's door.
When Grandma opened it, she saw
The sharp white teeth, the horrid grin,
And Wolfie said, "May I come in?"
Poor Grandmamma was terrified,
"He's going to eat me up!" she cried.
And she was absolutely right.
He ate her up in one big bite.
But Grandmamma was small and tough,
And Wolfie wailed, "That's not enough!
I haven't yet begun to feel
That I have had a decent meal!"
He ran around the kitchen yelping,
"I've got to have a second helping!"

Then added with a frightful leer,
"I'm therefore going to wait right here
Till Little Miss Red Riding Hood
Comes home from walking in the wood."

He quickly put on Grandma's clothes,
(Of course he hadn't eaten those).
He dressed himself in coat and hat.
He put on shoes, and after that,
He even brushed and curled his hair,
Then sat himself in Grandma's chair.

In came the little girl in red.
She stopped. She stared. And then she said,
"What great big ears you have, Grandma."
"All the better to hear you with,"
the Wolf replied.
"What great big eyes you have, Grandma."
said Little Red Riding Hood.
"All the better to see you with,"
the Wolf replied.
He sat there watching her and smiled.
He thought, I'm going to eat this child.
Compared with her old Grandmamma,
She's going to taste like caviar.

Then Little Red Riding Hood said,
"But Grandma, what a lovely great big
furry coat you have on."

"That's wrong!" cried Wolf.
"Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I've got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I'm going to eat you anyway."

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head,
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, "Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat."
--Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl wrote several of these fairy tale poems in his book Revolting Rhymes. It's a fun read for kids that are old enough to know the original stories well enough to get a kick out of them being turned on their heads. I first found this poem in a collection of children's stories and poems by famous authors. I used it as one of the poems I read to my 4th grade Drama and Dance classes during Poetry Week at Lowell.

There are several things I like about the poem. First, it has an easy conversational rhythm that is just prominent enough to remind you that somebody worked on it and decided on each of these words. At the same time, he sacrifices his rhythm entirely when the characters are speaking their traditional lines. The point of this poem is that we know how the story goes -- until it goes in a completely different direction. Leaving in lines like, "All the better to hear you with," lulls the reader into a ice false sense of security.

Then there are the rhymes. Mostly, they're single syllable solid rhymes that any child might come up with in a rhyming game. Occasionally, though, he throws in something that doesn't quite work unless you've got an accent that tacks r's on to the end of some words that have them and drops them from the ends of words that do (for example, "Compared with her old Grandmamma, She's going to taste like caviar).

Finally, of course, there's the surprise ending: "The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. She whips a pistol from her knickers." Suddenly, she's not the familiar little girl from the fairy tale anymore. But in a very few words she's something just as familiar -- she's the sharp-shooting, sly, wise-cracking hero of the Westerns and cop shows we see all the time on TV. It's so masterfully done that it's no wonder his works are still very popular among readers and moviegoers alike.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What are Little Girls Made Of? by Anonymous

What are Little Girls Made Of?

What are little girls made of, made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

What are little boys made of, made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

Guess which I'm having? A month ago, when we had the ultrasound that was supposed to let us know, baby was feeling shy and uncooperative, and no amount of poking and prodding would get it to turn over and show us what we wanted to see. Today, though, the Doctor got a good view and says that he's 90% sure it'll be a girl (the other 10% being due to the general disclaimers about ultrasound images are fuzzy, and some kids develop differently, etc, so he's as sure as anybody can get reading an ultrasound). So we're having a baby girl!! Yay!! This'll be the first girl grandchild for my mom since my brothers all seem to favor making boys.

I'm very excited. I've had the feeling all along that it would be a girl, and it's nice not to have to rearrange my thinking. I also recently brought home all my old toys (to get them out of Mom's way), and most of them are girl-centric. finally, girls are just so much fun to dress with in ruffles and lace and twirly dresses, etc. I recently took Peter shopping for clothes, and he just doesn't care enough to make it any fun at all.

I'd probably better talk about the poem, too. Let's see...well, as much as people would like to pretend that there are no gender differences, little girls and little boys really are different. I was babysitting a 2 year old boy the other day, and all he wanted to do was climb up on things, jump off them, kick balls, etc. At one point, we went out in the back yard where he found a stick and a rock, and was happy sitting and knocking them against each other. I left feeling amazed at how very obviously BOY-ish he was.

But I'm having a girl!! Yay!! Hooray!!

Friday, September 21, 2007

I Sit and Think by JRR Tolkien

I Sit and Think

I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago,
and people who will see a world that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.
--JRR Tolkien

Well this is my 100th post! Hooray for me! I gave my blog page a bit of a makeover, and I thought I'd go back and post a few more poems from novels to bring us back to where we began.

I chose this one, though it's not one I have memorized or anything, because as I've been writing this blog, I've had a lot of time to sit and think. It takes between 30 and 60 minutes on an average day to find a poem, research the history or critical analysis, think of something worthwhile to say about it, put my thoughts in order on the computer, find an appropriate picture, proofread and spell check, publish the post, and email it out. I understand now why Steve said his TPMOTD's were taking up too much of his life.

It's also been interesting to really think about poetry, what it is that I like and dislike, and how to put those feelings into words. I've learned a lot, and it's helped me become more aware of my own thought processes.

Then there are the images in the poems themselves. When reading poetry out of a book, I'm tempted to read several poems quickly in order finish the book. This blog has helped me to realize that poetry is different than fiction. You're not reading it to reach the end of a story. Instead, poetry is best consumed slowly with plenty of time to think and absorb what's being presented. It's like the difference between climbing a mountain and walking around in a meadow. Reading fiction is like mountain climbing. You want to get to the peak or the story's climax. Reading poetry is more like wandering in a meadow. You have no place you're trying to get to, but each step along the way there are sights to be seen. The faster you move, the more you'll miss, but if you slow down and look closely, there are layers upon layers of life in the tall grass and wildflowers. Anyway, there are a lot of images and clever buts of wordplay in these poems that I've never stopped to notice before.

I hope you've enjoyed the first hundred poems, and here's to a hundred more!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Old Ironsides by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Old Ironsides

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more!

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the God of storms,
The lightning and the gale!
--Oliver Wendell Holmes

This poem was written in the 1830's when the USS Constitution was about to be decommissioned and broken up. Evidently, public opinion was very much against such an ignoble end to the country's most famous ship, even if she was unfit for service, and this poem represented that sentiment in a very public way. The navy, bowed to the pressure and paid for a refit. She saw service in various roles after that, as a training ship, patrolling the Southern coast looking for slavers before the Civil War, as a barracks (with a funny house built on top), and as a transport. In the 20th century, again saved from the wrecker's yard by public opinion, she began her service as a sort of museum and public relations vessel. In the 1950's an Act of Congress made the Secretary of the Navy responsible for her upkeep. She's currently the oldest commissioned ship afloat (the HMS victory is older, but in drydock).

Fans of Patrick O'Brian's work will recognize her as the ship that took the Java at the start of Fortune of War (as well as the Guerriere earlier). She was the best known of the "Heavy American Frigates" built out of the oak trees that America still had plenty of, while England had few left. The British were shocked to find that their cannon balls seemed to bounce right off planks of solid oak seven inches thick, and nicknamed her Old Ironsides (which is where the title of the poem comes from). I was also interested to learn that she was involved in the wars America fought against the Barbary Pirate states, and that Paul Revere forged many of her copper spikes and bolts, and the copper sheathing for her hull.

I really like the tone of affectionate respect in this poem. It's a feeling we have for many of our heroes--both military and non--that isn't easy to put into words. We feel as if their victories are our victories, and that somehow letting them be defeated or tossed aside as no longer useful would be letting the same thing happen to a part of us. Far better to go out in a blaze of glory.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Chamber Music VII by James Joyce

Chamber Music VII

My love is in a light attire
Among the apple-trees,
Where the gay winds do most desire
To run in companies.

There, where the gay winds stay to woo
The young leaves as they pass,
My love goes slowly, bending to
Her shadow on the grass;

And where the sky's a pale blue cup
Over the laughing land,
My love goes lightly, holding up
Her dress with dainty hand.
--James Joyce

I know we had some James Joyce a few weeks ago, but I really wanted to post this picture, and the poem fits it. I imagine that when writing it, his thought process was much the same. He doesn't write about what his love does that makes him love her. We don't get a listing of her virtues or faults. She just makes a pretty picture as she walks with the wind blowing--and that's enough.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Further Reflections on Parsley by Ogden Nash

Further Reflections on Parsley

Is gharsley.
--Ogden Nash

After a few days of deep philosophical thinking, we have a poem that's not only utter nonsense, it's shorter than its title. I have nothing to add to this poem.

On another topic, somebody on Peter's Tokyopop messageboard was trying to find a poem. Here's their post:
Yep yep. So as a kid I used to read and hear this one poem all the time. And now I'm trying to find it and I can't! So I'd like some help finding it, if it's possible, please. Unfortunately, my knowledge of this thing is somewhat limited. :[

So anyways, it has a certain rhythm to it, and it says something about standing on the banks of the ocean or something, and it says something about a whale song. The author is female. Google brought me nothing. And I heard it all the time as a kid, so it's not recent.

And it's not "The Song of Hiawatha", but I heard that one as a kid too.
Please make me a happy Puru, thanks!
After one person suggested a poem, she added this:
Thanks, but I remember the author was def. a female. Also, the word "daughter/s" is used somewhere in the poem.
And later, she added this:
I think I first heard it on a kid's story book on tape kinda' thing. And it kinda' had a Native American-ish vibe to it, but I may have just imagined that.

Did I mention that Google gave me nothing? Alas, it is not all-powerful after all. :[

I thought this was hilarious. This is entirely the wrong way to go about finding a poem. You need to have some specific recollection, or you pretty much have to go with random chance. What book did you read it in? What tape did you hear it on? If you don't remember, you can narrow it down by figuring out what books or tapes you had access to at that period in your life. It helps a lot to have a line or two of specific words to search on even if they're not in the title. Finally, you have to realize that Google has two major problems: first, there's too much information out there to give you a good hit on vague information, and second, Google can only show you what's been posted on the web. Of course, you all knew that already.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The White Man's Burden by Rudyard Kipling

The White Man's Burden

Take up the White man's burden --
Send forth the best ye breed --
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild --
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man's burden --
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain.
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden --
The savage wars of peace --
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden --
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper --
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
And mark them with your dead!

Take up the White man's burden --
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard --
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light: --
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
"Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden --
Ye dare not stoop to less --
Nor call too loud on freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Take up the White Man's burden --
Have done with childish days --
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!
--Rudyard Kipling

I knew I was opening up a can of worms when I gave my opinions about yesterday's poem, and I know it'll be worse when I post today's. I had always intended to post this one today, even before Doug asked me what I thought of it in his responses to yesterday's.

I don't think Kipling is being entirely ironic here. There's obviously some--especially in the 5th stanza--but mostly, I think that he genuinely thinks that the "civilized" nations of his time have a responsibility to the people they've conquered. As I said in my response comments yesterday, Kipling is far from being politically correct by our standards, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's racist. When he uses the term "white man's burden" he's acknowledging the fact that people of European ancestry (and I include white Americans in this group) generally had more power to act for the betterment of others than those who weren't. They generally had more chances for education, and more political clout than the natives, and yes, they were already Christian, and so could share that message.

By the time he wrote this poem, heck, by the time he was born, the native people were mostly conquered already (there were still uprisings, but the Europeans were there, and they weren't going away anytime soon). Had he been writing at an earlier time, he might have argued against colonial imperialism, but he wasn't writing in an earlier time. He saw first hand that "the tawdry rule of kings," or merely making the natives into slaves, didn't work. The people resented this, and as I said, there were uprisings that made society in general view the natives as "half devil and half child." I think his main message in this poem is, "we're there, and we've made a mess of their societies, and now it's our responsibility to fix that in the best way we know how--Fight 'The savage wars of peace, Fill full the mouth of Famine, And bid the sickness cease."

You may say, "Who did they think they were? Why should their version of civilization and religion be any better than what the people had already? Why couldn't they just go away and leave them alone?" This is a tough question that we still don't have an answer for today. Our church sends out missionaries all over the world to convert the heathen masses (though we use a different term, that's what we mean). While we're at it, we have massive education and welfare programs teaching people the basics of hygiene, water management, farming, literacy, etc. Who are we to say that our way of doing things is any better than the way they've been doing things for centuries? Who are we to say that our religion is better than theirs? Well, we believe our religion offers the truth, and our way of life offers prosperity happiness and longevity. I think that Kipling and his contemporaries felt the same way.

Right now, America (generally under the auspices of the UN) has the role of Global Cop. We believe we are fighting the wars of peace, filling the mouths of famine, and bidding the sickness cease. Many people ask why we're not doing more to stop the suffering in Darfur, why we're not sending more food to starving third world children, and what we intend to do about the AIDS crisis in Africa. Yesterday, even Doug imagined being asked by someone in the future, "What?! People were dying of malaria while you were still alive? Why didn't you do something about it?" These are problems we didn't cause. We cannot be held legally responsible for a plague that originated in Africa, and is now ravaging their population because of sexual practices that far predate the Christian presence there. European/American weapons may make the genocides worse than they would be with spears, but they certainly didn't learn their tactics of guerrilla warfare and conscripting children to be soldiers from us.

Morally, though, we do feel responsible. We know it's wrong to sit back and watch people suffer and die with diseases like malaria and guinea worm when a few mosquito nets, a little easily manufactured medicine, and yearly treatment of the water supply will virtually wipe those diseases out. We know it's wrong to waste food and get fat while there are people in our own cities that are starving. We know that God has commanded us to share the truths of the gospel with every nation, kindred, tongue and people, and that those truths include more than just the ordinances, they entail an entire change in a convert's way of life.

To sum up, though he used terminology that we would consider racist today, and though that terminology was adopted by people who used it to justify atrocities, I don't think that Rudyard Kipling was racist (meaning that I don't think he thought that white people were inherently better than those with darker skin just by virtue of having been born that way). I think that the issues he raises in this poem are as relevant today as when he wrote it. It takes hard work and sacrifice to make the world a better place, and people won't always roll out the welcome mat for those that want to change their world (even if we think it's for the better).

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Recessional by Rudyard Kipling


God of our fathers, known of old--
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe--
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard--
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard--
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!
--Rudyard Kipling

I really like Rudyard Kipling's poetry. Here is a man who knows the value of just the right word, and has a great ear for finding it. I think that's the reason his Just So Stories are so consistently popular. They have a rhythm and cadence that's almost poetry. Take this line from The Elephant's Child "to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out."

Many people read his poems and say that he's imperialist, racist, jingoist, etc. I personally feel that he's something else. Perhaps nationalist comes close to being the right word. He wants the best for his nation, and believes that God wants it too. He doesn't say, "my nation, right or wrong," but, "my nation had better do right." You don't have to read much of his work (try Gunga-Din for starters) to see that he thinks that it's what a man does, rather than the color of his skin, that makes him worthwhile. I don't think that he believes that simply conquering a country, enslaving the natives, and taking all the natural resources you can get is the right thing for his nation (on practical as well as moral grounds).

He is, however, unapologetically religious, and that's what this poem is about. For whatever reason, God blessed England and America (Kipling lived in both places, and though this poem was written for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, it, and other poems written at the time were directed at both audiences) with the military and economic power to make and maintain colonial empires. Kipling is warning them that if they forget that it was His power, not their own, that they'll be likely to lose it.

There are plenty of instances of this happening in the Old Testament (see the Babylonian captivity), but I really like a section in the Book of Mormon where some brothers start warning each other about the same thing:
Alma 26:10 And it came to pass that when Ammon had said these words, his brother Aaron rebuked him, saying: Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.
11 But Ammon said unto him: I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.
12 Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.
13 Behold, how many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore have we not great reason to rejoice?
14 Yea, we have reason to praise him forever, for he is the Most High God, and has loosed our brethren from the chains of hell.

The issues Kipling addresses in this and other poems are as pressing today as they were when he wrote them. America and England are still fighting in pretty much the same parts of the world for pretty much the same reasons. Today, more than ever, we need to hear words, "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget - lest we forget!"

Friday, September 14, 2007

Is Love A Fancy, Or A Feeling? by Hartley Coleridge

Is Love A Fancy, Or A Feeling?

Is love a fancy, or a feeling? No.
It is immortal as immaculate Truth,
'Tis not a blossom shed as soon as youth,
Drops from the stem of life--for it will grow,
In barren regions, where no waters flow,
Nor rays of promise cheats the pensive gloom.
A darkling fire, faint hovering o'er a tomb,
That but itself and darkness nought doth show,
It is my love's being yet it cannot die,
Nor will it change, though all be changed beside;
Though fairest beauty be no longer fair,
Though vows be false, and faith itself deny,
Though sharp enjoyment be a suicide,
And hope a spectre in a ruin bare.
--Hartley Coleridge

Here's another sonnet about true love lasting forever. I think it's interesting sometimes to look at a bunch of things I've collected, seemingly at random, because I liked each one independently, then when they're arranged together in a new way, I find a theme I wasn't aware of before.

There have been sonnets written about every topic under the sun -- and some about the sun itself, too. When I was choosing poems to put on my list of possible posts, I didn't feel the need for sonnets about kisses, or the moon, or somebody's eyes, or the fickleness of a lady. What I needed were sonnets about how true love would last forever. It's not hard to see what this says about me, but it is interesting. I wonder if I would have chosen the same poems ten years ago, or ten years from now.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

With Ships the Sea Was Sprinkled by William Wordsworth

With Ships the Sea Was Sprinkled

With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh,
Like stars in heaven, and joyously it showed;
Some lying fast at anchor in the road,
Some veering up and down, one knew not why.
A goodly vessel did I then espy
Come like a giant from a haven broad;
And lustily along the bay she strode,
Her tackling rich, and of apparel high.
The ship was nought to me, nor I to her,
Yet I pursued her with a lover's look;
This ship to all the rest did I prefer:
When will she turn, and whither? She will brook
No tarrying; where she comes the winds must stir:
On went she, and due north her journey took.
--William Wordsworth

This poem is not, as Mom said about another poem earlier this week, beautifully subtle in its use of the sonnet form. Each line ends solidly on the rhyming word. Even the enjambed line, "She will brook/No tarrying" seems forced rather than natural as Browning's were.

I like it anyway. It describes the very human tendency to focus on specifics. It's hard to see a big picture for long, we want something to relate to. Studying the history of the pioneers, for instance, is all well and good, but what makes it real is the one little anecdote about the boy who was tired of walking and hid in the empty molasses barrel on the side of the wagon only to find that it wasn't quite empty, and that he was going to be sticky for days or weeks till they came to the next stream. Or when you go to a play and focus on one dancer in the chorus scenes.

That's what good poetry is about. Whatever the subject, it enlightens us about the human condition in ways more powerful and memorable than simple prose can.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
--William Shakespeare

Here's a famous sonnet by Shakespeare. I'm not going to comment on the sentiment in this one (that she's too perfect to grow old or even die) except to say that it's the sort of ridiculous gallantry that makes romantic women swoon. I do like the way the first part can be read both literally and metaphorically. On one hand, he's listing the things about a summer's day that don't fit the analogy he wants to paint. On the other hand, those things could fit very well into a poem about a lady who is beautiful but a bit capricious.

Since you can easily imagine rough words, a short infatuation, passion that burns too hot, occasional unexplained coldness, and eventual loss of beauty coming from any normal human being, the fact that he thinks these are inappropriate puts this particular lady on a pedestal.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

If Thou Must Love Me, Let It Be For Nought by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If Thou Must Love Me, Let It Be For Nought

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say
"I love her for her smile her look her way
Of speaking gently, for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of ease on such a day"
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee, and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheek dry,
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is best known for her "Sonnets from the Portuguese" which, I have just found out, are are only pretending to be translations. I've already posted the most famous of these sonnets, How Do I Love Thee?

I like this particular sonnet for a couple of reasons. For instance, I really admire the skill it takes to write a poem with sentences that end midline without ruining the rhythm. The most important reason however, is that the sentiment behind it is so much more practical than many love poems. People change over time, and so loving any one quality or attribute exclusively could get you in trouble. At the same time, the sentiment is as sweetly romantic as a poet could wish -- Love me for love's sake alone, and we can be in love forever. It's an interesting paradox that you can't change the person that you're in love with, but that everybody is changing all the time. The only way love can survive is to be able to change and grow with the couple.

Compare this poem with Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 which says, " Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove: O no! it is an ever-fixed mark." This implies that true love stays the same forever. I've always had trouble with this poem, because all around us we see people moving on after a broken heart. If true love never changes, then what they felt for their first love was not true love at all which means that the broken heart shouldn't hurt like it does. Love, like everything else in life worth having, changes and grows all the time, and it's that quality that lets it endure.

Monday, September 10, 2007

An Aeronaut to His Lady by Frank Sidgwick

An Aeronaut to His Lady


--Frank Sidgwick

Sonnets have some definite rules attached to them, but they don't all have to look exactly the same. For instance, there are several different accepted rhyme schemes available, which subdivide the style into schools. Sonnets based on the original Italian style are generally known as Petrarchan. They start out with eight lines called an octave which are generally rhymed a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b; or a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a. The sestet, the last six lines, have the options of c-d-e-c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c. The English or Shakespearean sonnet generally has three quatrains and a couplet a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. They're also usually written in iambic pentameter which adds even more structure. Then there's the Spenserian sonnet which uses the a-b a-b, b-c b-c, c-d c-d, e-e scheme. Then there's all the variations on those schemes.

It's safe to say, though that there are 14 lines, and a specific rhyme scheme.

Here's another quote from the article "How Does a Poem Mean"
Just for the frivolous pleasure of poetry, if you like, there is a marvelous sonnet. It is one of my favorite tricks in poetry—a skeletal sonnet. You have probably studied the sonnet at one time or another. Here is a trick played on the sonnet. This sonnet contains one word per line—nothing but the rhyme scheme. That is about as thin as you can get with the sonnet. I have tried for years to find another 14 words that would perform this trick well. No luck. This is called “An Aeronaut to His Lady”:

That is all there is to it. But in those 14 words the poet has observed the a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d, c-d, e-e rhyme scheme. The first eight lines ask a question; the next six lines answer it. That is the octet and sestet. It divides properly, and the tone of it is the tone of the sonnet. That is a tremendous lot to get into 14 words.

Now supposing instead of that he had sent a wire, saying, “Walking too slow; am flying, love.” You see what would be left out of it. All the joy of the performance. And that is the difference.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought by X. J. Kennedy

Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought

Nothing in Heaven functions as it ought;
Peter’s bifocals, blindly sat on, crack;
His gates lurch wide with the cackle of a cock;
Not with a hush of gold as Milton had thought;
Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing
The nimbus off the Venerable Bede
Like that of a dandelion gone to seed;
The beatific choir keep breaking up, coughing.

But Hell, sweet Hell hath no freewheeling part:
None takes his own sweet time, nor quickens pace.
Ask anyone, “How come you here, poor heart?”
And he will slot a quarter through his face—
There’ll be an instant click—a tear will start
Imprinted with an abstract of his case.
--X. J. Kennedy

Welcome to a week about sonnets. Our first is from an Ensign article called, "Liberating Form" by Marden J. Clark. I think his comments are a good way to start out the week because the sonnet is all about form. If you want to call it a sonnet, you have to have 14 lines, and one of the expected rhyme schemes. As Clark shows more elegantly below, it is a restricting rule, but it lends the finished whole a powerful elegance.

I just thought of an analogy. If writing poetry is like dancing, writing sonnets is like dancing the waltz in a ballroom competition. There are plenty of other legitimate forms of dancing -- from folk dance to tap to the almost formless "modern dance" -- but there's something eternally fascinating about watching the two bodies in perfect synchronization gracefully sweeping around the floor. The gentleman's tuxedo and the lady's flowing ballgown and high heels, far from seeming restrictive clothing, lend a sense of occasion to the dance. In the same way, sonnets aren't the only form of poetry, but they certainly are an elegant and impressive one.

Here's what Marden Clark had to say about the sonnet in his article, "Liberating Form"

It’s a simple enough poem, at least on the surface. This particular kind of sonnet came to us from the Italian poet Petrarch. It “scans” with a rhyme scheme of abba abba cdcdcd. The rhyme scheme divides the poem neatly into two parts: the eight-line octet and the six lines of the concluding sestet. In this sonnet form the octet traditionally sets up some kind of problem or question or situation, the sestet somehow answers or responds to or plays against the octet. In this poem the picture of hell in the sestet plays against that of heaven in the octet.

We may be struck by the unusual qualities the poet imagines in heaven and hell and the images he uses to make us see each. We may even be struck by the unusual subject matter for a sonnet. But we recognize the traditional sonnet form used without too much variation.

I describe the poem as a sonnet not to give a lesson in poetry but to get at something else. The sonnet is a highly restrictive form. Each of its fourteen lines, almost by prescription, has ten syllables with five accents in each line. The tight rhyme scheme almost dictates a poem of two parts. The form is artificial and prescriptive. There are those who feel it restricts them, ties them down. And yet some of the most lovely, most spontaneous, most energetic poems in the language are written in the sonnet form.

Where does the energy in this poem come from? Partly from its ideas, of course, from the inverted views of heaven and hell, from the unusual and sometimes powerful pictures it makes us see. But these ideas stated in ordinary language would not have had the force they have in this tight form. The poem gets most of its energy from what the poet does with the form: from the way the poem works within, yet strains against and plays with the conventions of its form.

Without the form, what do we have left? “Neither heaven nor hell is what we think it is; people make mistakes in heaven, but that is better than hell, where nothing goes wrong because no one is free.” But where is our energy? We could get some of it by adding details. We could even build up a prose form that would get quite a bit of it. But this is a remarkably energetic sonnet, and prose can hardly catch its vigor.

Because of the rigid form, the poet can make subtle statements by the way he uses it. In the octet, for example, the accents do not come in perfect order, and the rhymes slant—huffing with coughing. But in the sestet, there is not one departure from the rigid form: the poet emphasizes that in his idea of hell, the soul as automaton cannot deviate from any norm. Prose could not demonstrate that contrast. The rigidness of form emphasizes the deadness of hell, but the form itself pulses with life.

The major energy of the poem, though, comes from the way the two parts play against each other. Our first reaction to this whimsical view of heaven may be negative. We may think the poet doesn’t like heaven. But when we look back from the orderly but mechanical hell the poet pictures, where no man takes his own sweet time, nor quickens pace, suddenly one’s own sweet time becomes very sweet and precious indeed. The imperfections of this poet’s heaven are humorous, but they become precious because we recognize that they result from freedom.

That, I presume, is mostly what the poem is “about”: the meaning of freedom, not so much in the afterlife as in this world. It is easy enough to make a prose statement of that meaning: the price of freedom is a certain amount of inefficiency; lack of freedom may produce efficiency but its price is infinitely greater: the soul becomes a mechanism. Latter-day Saints, of course, can see a parallel with the two plans in the preexistence. But the plain statement, contrasted with the poem, is insipid. All the paradoxical qualities of heaven and hell, all the fascinating contrasts set up by the two parts, all the nuances of sound and rhythm and image are lost.

And the prose statement obliterates an additional source of energy in the form. Since the sonnet is traditionally a love poem the poet gets an intriguing irony out of using it for what seems at first to be a theological discussion. But the irony goes further: the form suggests that because God loves us he gives us freedom, even to err—the poem may be a love sonnet, after all!

And here we come again to perhaps the most intriguing paradox in art—and in life: Form—the form that seems to restrict, to limit, to hold one in—is the means of liberating creative energy.

PS. I love the image of gangs of slaughtered innocents huffing the nimbus off the Venerable Bede. It makes me laugh. Also, in the picture, the guy in the middle with the video game is not intended to be Jesus, but some guy named Brian who just died.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Considerable Speck by Robert Frost

A Considerable Speck

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt--
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
-- Robert Frost

I chose this poem today for two reasons. First, as an example that a poem doesn't need to be about something big or significant to be worthwhile. I don't think you need convincing of that, but later in my post you'll see why I wanted a poem about something "insignificant."

The second reason is in the last two lines. I don't know if he meant to have a double meaning here, but I suspect he did. All too often people write or say things that look like there was no real thought behind them.

The rest of my post today is going to be from an article I found in The New Era archives at It's called, “How Does a Poem Mean?” by John Ciardi.
When I began teaching at the University of Kansas City in 1940, I spent a lot of time on the trains, going back and forth between Kansas City and Chicago. My salary just about kept the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rolling. I would often find myself in the club car with the world’s traveling salesmen. They meet there. They would begin a ritual—a very tight ritual. It always seemed to have the same opening phrase. They would say, “What are you in?”

One man would say he was in glue, and they would talk about that for a while. Another man would say he was in brass doorknobs, and they would talk about brass doorknobs for a while.

Then they would turn to me and say, “What are you in?”

At first I used to invent things. I had a feeling that it would take too much explanation to tell a club car full of salesmen that I was a poet.

But one day, for the fun of it, when the question came to me, “What are you in?” I said, “I am a poet.”

I found that it took very little explanation. As a matter of fact, there was a long silence, in which people detached and regrouped. After a suitable interval, I went into the main body of the car and sat down. Soon a salesman slid into the seat next to mine and began talking in a low voice. He had something that he wanted to say to me that he could not say to other salesmen. This experience was repeated many times. Often the salesman would have a poem in his wallet. I think I have seen some of the world’s most miserable and most uninspired poems out of the wallets of salesmen.

Always they would make the terrifying mistake that all bad, over-enthusiastic poets make—the assumption that if the subject is large enough, it does not matter whether or not the poem is good. If you can just take the largest possible subject and begin the poem “Truth is … , “Beauty is … ,” “Life is … ,” you have got to end up beautiful. I am afraid such a poem is more likely to be a disaster. The size of the poem is not determined by the size of the subject. It is determined by the size of the mind that is trying to enclose it. The value of a science is not decided by the size of the subject it studies. Otherwise microbiologists would be insignificant people and only geologists would really count. They deal with mountains and whole continents.

I had a lovely exchange at the Saturday Review with, I guess, a sweet lady. I had rejected some of her poems. I have to reject a lot of them. I get about 500 a week, and I can only accept two. But she took my rejection personally, as many people do, and wrote me a hot letter. I had not remembered the poem, but she said, “I suppose you rejected my poem because it was about God.”

I had to reply. “Dear Madam: No, I did not reject your poem because it was about God. I rejected it because I could not conquer a feeling that you were not equal to your subject.”

I think it is likely to go that way often. The impulse of the poem is fine, but there is another life behind it. An oration is not a poem. A poem is some sort of a living performance. It comes out of live sources in us. And everyone has these live sources. But, for example, great human feeling will make nothing out of the cello until your fingering arm and your bowing arm have gone to school. I submit that it takes at least as much discipline to write a poem as it does to play the cello well. The feeling is there, yes, but the communication of the feeling is a skill—a way of doing. It starts with joy but involves difficulty. I think it does, in a way that was best stated by Robert Frost when he spoke of “the pleasure of taking pains.” That is the aesthetic joy.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bilbo's Last Song (At the Grey Havens) by JRR Tolkien

Bilbo's Last Song (At the Grey Havens)

Day is ended, dim my eyes,
But journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship's beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
Beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the sea.

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
The wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
Beneath the ever-bending sky,
But islands lie behind the Sun
That I shall raise ere all is done;
Lands there are to west of West,
Where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Guided by the Lonely Star,
Beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I'll find the heavens fair and free,
And beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship my ship! I seek the West,
And fields and mountains ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the star above my mast!
--JRR Tolkien

I don't find this one as sad as Legolas's poem about the sea. Bilbo is old and tired and done with living in this world of woe. It's like the difference between the funeral of a relatively young accident victim, and the funeral of a great grandparent who lived a full live, and has finally succumbed to a terminal illness.

I like how this poem, though obviously written for a specific occasion in this particular book, can easily be moved out of its original context. Rather than losing something because you don't know the backstory, it gains a universal quality. It's not just about Bilbo sailing away to the undying lands with the elves, it's about anyone saying goodbye to this life, and sailing off into the sunset, over the horizon to "the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns." To me, one measure of a good poem or song is how universal and specific it can be at the same time. In musical theater, for instance, you could have a great song, but if it makes no sense outside the context of your show, it'll be tough for it to get very popular, whereas if it's universal, then people could imagine that this love song is really talking about their particular love, and so they'll want to sing or listen to it a lot (an exception to this is "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" -- which, when you think about it, doesn't really make much sense in context to begin with).

I also like the idea of using a sea voyage as a metaphor for death. Tolkien is certainly not the first to use it. So many people sailed away, never to return, that it's a natural connection to make. It's also comforting to imagine that for the traveler, it's just the beginning of a new adventure. Somewhere out there, on a beautiful South Sea island, they're enjoying peace and comfort not generally available to mere mortals.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Warning! This poem has some decidedly PG-13 imagery. Proceed at your own risk.
To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shoudst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's wing├ęd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
--Andrew Marvell

This poem starts off sweetly enough -- that's the part I had heard before looking up the whole thing to post here. The man is waxing poetic as he tells his lady how he'd love to spend eternity letting their love slowly grow. I really like this imagery. I've though a lot about the idea of living forever, and I've come to the conclusion that it would only be worth it if you had someone to share it with as you both grow and change.

The second section also begins with a reasonable concern. The speaker reminds his lady that they are not going to live forever, and so they'd better hurry things along. About the middle of this stanza, I realized that he's not talking about marrying this girl, he just wants to satisfy his lust at the expense of her "quaint honor." The poem just got a whole lot less romantic to me. The image of the worms is in especially bad taste.

The third section picks up the pace without changing the meter. A neat trick accomplished by using shorter words, and longer sentences without much punctuation so the reader feels out of breath after a couple lines. Here, the man drops all charade of being a gentleman with a bald faced plea for sex right now. In one of the comments I read about this poem, someone said they hoped the scene ended with the lady giving him a well deserved slap in the face.

While looking for this poem, I found a neat site that has an in-depth analysis of it using several different methods. I'd encourage you to give it a try, since I only touched on a few of the technical aspects here, and almost none of the historical.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside--

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown--
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!
--Robert Louis Stevenson

This is one of my favorite poems ever. I love how the lines have a swinging rhythm so you feel like you're really going up and down as you read it aloud. I like that it's a simple poem about a simple pleasure. I think it's a shame that "one of the pleasantest things that ever a child can do" is seldom possible for adults to do in the same way. Swing sets at parks are designed for children. As an adult, you can sometimes manage, but generally, your hips are too wide to be comfortable between the chains, and your legs are too long to pump them adequately on the downswing without running into the ground, and the chains are too short to let you really get going as high as you'd like. I suppose it makes sense from a safety and liability point of view -- an adult swinging high and trying some silly stunt like jumping off or doing a backflip out of the swing could really hurt themselves, and a child on an adult set would also potentially be in more danger. All the same, I really enjoyed swinging on the one Mike and Dad put up in Riverside -- even if I did worry constantly about the seat breaking.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Labor Day by Nicholas Gordon

Labor Day

Labor is the burden of our being,
A weight that weds us firmly to the earth,
Blessed servitude that serves a common meaning
On which each may erect a sense of worth.
Remember, then, the beauty of a calling
Demanding both integrity and skill:
A dancer in the drifts of early morning,
Yet traveling towards sunset through sheer will.

Labor’s a commodity, like fish,
As children are fast-frozen and filleted,
Beating down the price. Fortunes are made
On selling to us all so cheap a dish.
Remember how the world is being run,
Determined by the market’s iron laws
As slaves and children jingle in its jaws.
Yet there is nothing, nothing to be done.
--Nicholas Gordon

There were a bunch of poems at this guy's site, all in the same Labor Day acrostic format. Some of them were more cynical than others. I've given you a taste here. I like this style of acrostic better than the "L is for ____" style. I think it's more natural. You could read these and think they're regular old poems, until you look down the side and see the words spelled out.

Thinking about my post yesterday, I realized that I may have come across as thinking that there aren't employers who oppress laborers today. This is just plain wrong. There are people who desperately need unions and labor laws that are enforced. Even in the United States, we still have sweat shops that use mostly immigrant labor where the working conditions are horrible and the pay negligible. I'm sure that migrant farm workers have difficult working conditions and low pay. Many of these places get people to work like this because their legal status in the country is questionable. That's one of the most important reasons to me to have immigration reform. I don't really care what the laws end up being so long as they're enforceable, and then enforced.

What I object to are policies like protectionism or cushy union negotiated contracts that keep prices artificially high, and unfair labor practices (like those used by Wal-mart or the sweatshops) that keep prices artificially low. I wish there was a better middle ground where people were paid a living wage with decent insurance benefits (so they can afford to go to the doctor or dentist) for doing worthwhile work. That's what Labor Day should be all about.