Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door,
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here forevermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore?"
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment, and this mystery explore;—
'Tis the wind and nothing more!"

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "are sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never—nevermore.'"

But the Raven still beguiling all my sad fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh, quaff this kind of nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil! —
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting—
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
--Edgar Allan Poe

OK! Here's the one you've all been waiting for. The quintessential Halloween poem...THE RAVEN. I've been resisting posting this one for months, just so I could have it to post today. I hope you appreciate it.

There is good reason for this poem to be almost universally highly regarded, and one of the most famous American poems ever. Poe uses nearly all of the poetic devices I've been talking about with the finesse of an expert.
  • The rhythm and meter of the poem is nigh on perfect--with not a syllable out of place except once or twice to produce a jarring effect. The way he alternates between ending the lines on a stressed or unstressed syllable helps with the feelings of empty darkness and suspense--there's a void at the end of some lines that makes you want to hurry and read the next.
  • The rhyme scheme is ABCBBB, but there's lots of internal rhyme as well. My favorite example is in the lines "Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;/ Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
  • He uses alliteration frequently as well, carefully choosing the sound to be repeated for maximum effect. Sought, Surcease and Sorrow make a ghostly whispering while Grim, unGainly, Ghastly, Gaunt makes a gagging revulsion.
  • He has plenty of classical allusions which pack more connotations of meaning into the relatively small space he has to work with than mere description alone. By having the bird perch on the pallid bust of Pallas, he implies that the bird is associated with classical wisdom, but wisdom offers no life or health or hope to this man.
  • The visual imagery is striking with its contrasts--The black bird on the white bust, or the December tempest outside compared to the plush comfort inside. At the same time, these opposites are equated to each other--he constantly asks the raven for wisdom, and the velvet cushion just makes him remember how lonely he is.

These examples and many others that I don't have room to list are not there by accident. Poe wrote a whole essay on the hard work involved in composing poetry with The Raven as his case in point. Though he may have exaggerated just how calculated every step was, he certainly thought about all these things during the composition and editing of the poem.

I also think it's interesting that in that essay (The Philosophy of Composition), he says that "the death... of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." I thought that matched nicely with my poem, Farewell My Love, written because having one's fiance die was the most tragic thing I could think of.

One more thing that not many people point out, that stood out to me in today's re-reading are the questions the man asks the Raven. He has already decided that it only knows the one word, but then asks questions like, "Will I ever see her again?" and is outraged at the expected answer. This man is making himself miserable on purpose.

This poem is perfectly suited as a read-aloud, and many people have done so to great effect. Poe himself did it--At one literary salon, a guest noted, "to hear [Poe] repeat the Raven... is an event in one's life." It was recalled, "He would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the center of the apartment he would recite... in the most melodious of voices... So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken."

Finally, I thought it was appropriate that last night's Simpson's Treehouse of Horror was the episode had this clip in it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hallowe'en by Joel Benton


Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite
All are on their rounds to-night,-
In the wan moon's silver ray
Thrives their helter-skelter play.

Fond of cellar, barn,or stack,
True unto the almanac,
They present to credulous eyes
Strange hobgoblin mysteries.

Cabbage-stomps-straws wet with dew-
Apple-skins, and chestnuts too,
And a mirror for some lass,
Show what wonders come to pass.

Doors they move, and gates they hide,
Mischiefs that on moon-beams ride
Are their deeds, and, by their spells,
Love records its oracles.

Don't we all, of long ago,
By the ruddy fireplace glow,
In the kitchen and the hall,
Those queer, coofllke pranks recall?

Eery shadows were they then-
But to-night they come again;
Were we once more but sixteen,
Precious would be Halloween.
-Joel Benton

There's a couple of reasons why I picked this poem today. The first is to remind you of "the reason for the season." Halloween is All Hallows Eve. November 1 is All Saint's Day when we theoretically honor all the saints for the good work they did in defeating the forces of evil. Therefore, the forces of evil are particularly weak on that day and a while after. Since they know it's their last chance to snare souls before they're severely weakened, all the Bad Things out there make a last ditch effort to get people.

In order to keep them at bay, Mummers and Morris Dancers used to go around putting on performances which theoretically scared the Bad Things away. Then people gave them food in payment for their services. If someone didn't pay, the performers would withdraw their protection, and Bad Things would happen on that person's property. As time went on, these customs gradually lost some of their original meanings, and through various stages came to be what we celebrate today.

This poem talks about some of the Bad Things and the mischief they'd cause, which relates back to my reason number one for posting it. The second reason appears in the last two lines of the poem: Were we once more but sixteen, Precious would be Halloween. I would personally put the ideal Halloween age a little younger, but I certainly agree that certain holidays are a lot more fun when you're a little kid.

I love Halloween. The activities around it like Hayrides and Apple Picking, and Walks through the autumn woods and fallen leaves at night till you come upon a hillside full of flickering Jack-O-Lanterns. I like how it's a little bit scary and mysterious and magical--but not too much. I like having an excuse to get more varieties of candy than I generally treat myself to. And I especially like having an excuse to dress up in costume.

This year though, the weather is in the 80's, there are no woods, fallen leaves, or hayrides. I might convince Peter to carve a Jack-O-Lantern tonight if I'm lucky. I got to dress up for one church party, but got there late and there were far too many kids there to get a good look at any of them. I really don't need any more candy, and the whole thing is generally disappointing. Ah well...maybe in a few years when I have kids of my own it'll be fun again.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Lady Button-Eyes by Eugene Field

Lady Button-Eyes

When the busy day is done,
And my weary little one
Rocketh gently to and fro;
When the night winds softly blow,
And the crickets in the glen
Chirp and chirp and chirp again;
When upon the haunted green
Fairies dance around their queen -
Then from yonder misty skies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Through the murk and mist and gloam
To our quiet, cozy home,
Where to singing, sweet and low,
Rocks a cradle to and fro;
Where the clock's dull monotone
Telleth of the day that's done;
Where the moonbeams hover o'er
Playthings sleeping on the floor -
Where my weary wee one lies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Cometh like a fleeting ghost
From some distant eerie coast;
Never footfall can you hear
As that spirit fareth near -
Never whisper, never word
From that shadow-queen is heard.
In ethereal raiment dight,
From the realm of fay and sprite
In the depth of yonder skies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Layeth she her hands upon
My dear weary little one,
And those white hands overspread
Like a veil the curly head,
Seem to fondle and caress
Every little silken tress;
Then she smooths the eyelids down
Over those two eyes of brown -
In such soothing, tender wise
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Dearest, feel upon your brow
That caressing magic now;
For the crickets in the glen
Chirp and chirp and chirp again,
While upon the haunted green
Fairies dance around their queen,
And the moonbeams hover o'er
Playthings sleeping on the floor -
Hush, my sweet! from yonder skies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes!
--Eugene Field

I find this poem vaguely disturbing. It's a nice poem about the magic that happens as a child falls asleep and the fairy queen comes and gives her dreams. That sort of poem should make a nice little lullaby, and not a spooky Halloween offering. But the fairy queen has button eyes. Why? She's got all sorts of ethereal loveliness, and white hands, and a floaty dress, and then something as incongruent as button eyes. Maybe the child for whom it was written had a fairy queen doll with button eyes. Maybe the buttons are more elegant than the flat thing with four holes and an X of thread that I'm envisioning. I don't know. It just throws the whole thing slightly off kilter for me. Lady Button-Eyes is a slightly sinister character, and the child is falling into that sort of deep sleep where you can't move, and you can't scream, and there's nothing you can do but watch in horror as this freakish woman with button eyes comes and caresses your face and hair and sends images into your brain. It's the stuff of nightmares.

I'm not sure if you will find this poem as disturbing as I did. I think that a large part of my reaction comes from reading Neil Gaiman's book Coraline. Here's a complete review, but I'll sum up what's in this very creepy book. A little girl moves into a new apartment, and stumbles into a parallel shadow world where her parents have white hands and buttons sewn over their eyes. They want her to stay with them forever and pay more attention to her than her real parents, but they want to sew buttons over her eyes too. As she tries to resist, things get very weird. I didn't really like the book as much as several reviewers, and wouldn't necessarily recommend it unless you like to be weirded out and left vaguely uneasy ever after.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
--Emily Dickinson

I often read what other people have to say about a poem before deciding what to write about it. I've found that I don't always know what it is about the poem that I like--only that I like it. Reading analysis helps me to decide whether it's the things that other people mention, or something else entirely that drew me to the poem that day. I also find that reading analysis helps me to see things in other poems (for instance--my comments on the meter in the Shakespeare poem the other day were all from my own head rather than rephrasing what I had found other people saying).

As I was looking for something to say about this poem, I stumbled on a site with an interesting way of showing some of the poetic devices visually using different font effects. It's something that you may want to look at if you're more visually oriented.

I had often read this poem, and liked its feel of calm acceptance of Death, but I really didn't ever pay much attention to the symbols she uses other than the obvious one of Death as a gentlemen caller taking her on a carriage ride that turns out to be much longer than she expected. She's also got a stanza where she shows all of life (childhood -- in the schoolyard, maturity--the grain, and old age--the setting sun). For a time, she's uncomfortable, feeling the cold and damp in what seems more appropriate clothing for a wedding than a funeral, but then she comes to see the grave (mound) as a homey place.

I've liked Emily Dickinson's work on principle ever since I found out she was from Amherst (even if it is the wrong one), but it's only since I've been paying attention to the mechanics and analysis of poetry that I really see what makes her work so enduring.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Farewell My Love by Karen Stay Ahlstrom

Farewell My Love

"Farewell my love, but return soon
And meet me here beneath the moon
By the garrison gate, and come what may
That morn shall bring our wedding day.

"For our leige lord hath called to war
And thou must ride for him once more.
His summons will not brook delay
To wait until our wedding day.

"Not one month hence we were to wed
And could have shared our marriage bed,
But as thou now must go away
We must postpone our wedding day.

"Each night I’ll come. I will be true
Beneath this tree I’ll wait for you.
And in thy care, my heart will stay
Till thou dost come back home to stay.

"The trumpets blow the captains call.
Fight well my love, and do not fall.
As thou dost go the foe to slay
Swear thou’lt return to me one day."

He swore the oath that he’d not fail.
He kissed her hand. He donned his mail.
She whispered as he rode away,
"I will await our wedding day."

Each night she stood by garden gate--
Nearly a month till cruel fate
Did send her news the first of May
Which would have been her wedding day.

A messenger sent from the king
Arrived that day tidings to bring.
Her knight was lost and none could say
If her true love yet lived that day.

When she was told, the maid did weep
And yet resolved her vow to keep.
"I told my love," the lass did say,
"I would await our wedding day."

So still each night she waited there.
Each passing day she grew more fair.
Though suitors thronged, she told them nay
She would await her wedding day.

One night the moon shone up above.
She saw the shape of her true love,
Ran to his arms and there did say,
"This morn shall bring our wedding day"

He spoke no word, but held her tight
And there they stayed till the first light
Of dawn did shine with golden ray
And heralded the break of day.

Yet as he felt the golden glow
He kissed her once, then turned to go
And with a cry of deep dismay
She saw her true love fade away.

"I’ll follow you where’ere you go
To heaven’s gate, or down below!"
And with conviction she did say,
"This day shall be our wedding day."

The spectre shook his weary head.
"The living can but mourn the dead.
Thy oath hath been fulfilled this day
And thou must learn to live I say."

Then he was gone. The lady cried.
When she arose, her eyes had dried.
Just as the night gives way to day
Her grief at last had passed away.
--Karen Stay Ahlstrom

Here's a poem that I wrote myself. It's the first one I've posted on my blog. The rest can be found by following the link in the sidebar. If you want to sing this as a sad song, it's written to fit to the tune of "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie."

I'm posting it today because it's a ghost story--though not really a scary one. Originally, the lady did follow her true love by dying of a broken heart after the ghost left. If you look at my state of mind when I wrote it, you can probably understand why. It was 1999, while I was engaged to Peter the first time, and if you recall, that was about when I really hit rock bottom with my depression and anxiety for the first time as well. I wrote this poem because I liked how very sad the tune sounded, and I wanted to write about the saddest thing I could think of. After I got treatment and began to recover, I rewrote the poem to have a happier ending.

I've also been noticing the rhythm of poems lately, especially since someone I know asked me to critique a poem they wrote. If you're just starting out writing poetry, and want to make sure you have decent rhythm and scansion, you might consider picking a tune that has the same feeling as the poem you're hoping to write, and then fit the words to the tune. It really helped me to know where accented syllables belonged or didn't, and when I could fudge by adding an extra syllable at the beginning or end of a line without throwing the rhythm off.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
Where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam
‘Round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold
Seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way
That “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
Over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold
It stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze
Till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one
To whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight
In our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead
Were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he,
“I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you
Won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no;
Then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold
Till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘taint being dead—it’s my awful dread
Of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,
You’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed,
So I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn;
But God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day
Of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all
That was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death,
And I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid,
Because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
“You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you
To cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,
And the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb,
In my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight,
While the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows—
O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay
Seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent
And the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad,
But I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing,
And it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,
And a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice
It was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,
And I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry,
“Is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor,
And I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around,
And I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared and the furnace roared—
Such a blaze you seldom see;
Then I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal,
And I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like
To hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled,
And the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled
Down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak
Went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow
I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about
Ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said:
“I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked;”
...Then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
In the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile,
And he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear
You’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
It’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee
--Robert W. Service

People don't really associate the Yukon with Halloween, but I thought that this poem had enough of a ghost story feel that it'd do. This is one of Mom's favorite poems--I'm pretty sure she has at least parts of it memorized.

This is a pretty popular poem, and I found several recordings of it being read aloud. There's the author Robert Service reading it, or perhaps you'd rather hear it in the deep sonorous tones of Johnny Cash. Or, if you're an NPR fan, how about Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater reading the poem and discussing the book with illustrations by Ted Harrison?

One thing I didn't realize was that Robert Service actually lived in the Yukon for a while. A friend, Dr. Sugden, told him the story of cremating a frozen corpse in the boiler of a derelict steamboat (called Olive May) because he had no way to bury him. The name Sam McGee belonged to a real person. Service saw his name on a form at the bank where he (Service) was working, and asked the man if he could use it in his poem. McGee agreed, but regretted it ever after because of the teasing he got from the prospectors. It's said that he eventually took to selling urns containing "the ashes of Sam McGee."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Little Orphant Annie by James Whitcomb Riley

Little Orphant Annie

Inscribed with all faith and affection
To all the little children: - The happy ones; and sad ones;
The sober and the silent ones; the boisterous and glad ones;
The good ones - Yes, the good ones, too; and all the lovely bad ones.

Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an-keep;
An' all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun,
A-listenin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn't say his prayers, -
An' when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wuzn't there at all!
An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
An seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an' roundabout: -
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you

An' one time a little girl 'ud allus laugh an' grin,
An' make fun of ever' one, an' all her blood-an'-kin;
An' wunst, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,
She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!
An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'for she knowed what she's about!
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you

An' little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An' the lamp-wick sputters, an' the wind goes woo-oo!
An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,
An' the lightnin'bugs in dew is all squenched away, -
You better mind yer parunts, an' yer teachurs fond an' dear,
An' cherish them 'at loves you, an' dry the orphant's tear,
An' he'p the pore an' needy ones 'at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns 'll git you
--James Whitcomb Riley

It always annoyed me that this poem has nothing whatsoever to do with a little red haired girl that sings about tomorrow (though it's generally accepted that this poem is where the comic strip got its name).

It also annoys me that the poem is so packed with "morality." If a little orphan girl ends up somewhere, working hard to earn her keep, she may very well tell the other children stories (Sara Crewe did). Yet I doubt that those stories would be about how you ought to be respectful to your elders and say your prayers or else Bad Things will happen. By that sort of reckoning, the orphan girl must have done something horrible to deserve her fate. No, her stories would be about how Bad Things happen to even the most virtuous children, but that if you play your cards right, you might prevail.

I think it's interesting that many of the sites that quote this poem only post the first stanza. It's got the "Little Orphant Annie" bit, which is one reason people remember it. It's also got the main idea of the poem -- kids sit around and listen to this girl tell ghost stories. Finally it's got the fun "An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you Ef You Don't Watch Out!" part which is the other reason people remember this poem. When you get past that fun scene that reminds you of campfire tales, the actual ghost stories are a real let down.

I heard an interesting quote yesterday. I've found various versions online, and can't tell which is the accurate quotation, since none of the quotes sites give sources other than the supposed author. Anyway, the gist of it is that G.K. Chesterton said: "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."

Take a look at poetry and literature. Lots of stuff has been written from both of these philosophies. But what has survived? Which stories do children ask to be told again and again? What books do parents fondly remember and buy for their children? It's certainly not the ones with heavy handed moralizing like we've got in this poem.

Children instinctively know, or quickly learn that those stories are false. Parents or nannies may tell them to scare the children into obedience, but when the child does something bad, and nothing bad happens, or when somebody else does something bad to the child, and they aren't instantly devoured by Gobble-uns, then the child feels betrayed and lied to, which indeed he was. If stuff happened that way, then we'd be living in Satan's world of forced obedience. Nobody would do bad things if they were instantly punished for them. I think it's interesting that one of the most common arguments against religion is "How could a loving, all-powerful God allow (bad thing x) to happen?" Satan has gotten people to blame God for allowing free will to exist.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1 by William Shakespeare

Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1

1st WITCH. Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
2nd WITCH. Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd.
3rd WITCH. Harpier cries:—'tis time! 'tis time!
1st WITCH. Round about the caldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!

ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2nd WITCH. Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3rd WITCH. Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches' mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg'd i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.

ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2nd WITCH. Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
--William Shakespeare

Here's one of the more recognizable bits of Shakespeare. Just about everyone has heard at least portions of this scene (quoted in varying levels of accuracy). It's interesting to read, and see just what it was people thought witches were putting into their cauldrons. It makes the witch trials more understandable--if I thought people were actually doing this sort of thing, I'd want to stop them too.

I think it's interesting to look at the rhythm of this piece as well. Most of Shakespeare's plays were written in Iambic Pentameter. That means there's five sets of two syllables--unstressed then stressed. For instance: But soft!/ What light/ through yon/der win/dow breaks? In this scene though, he reverses the stresses so that he's using trochees rather than iambs. Notice the difference: Double,/ double/ toil and/ trouble. The stress on the first syllable of each line makes it seem like more of a plodding chant than his usual flowing lines. He's also cut the normal ten syllables per line down to eight (in the double double lines) or even seven (in most of the others)--leaving off the last unstressed syllable. This leaves a feeling of each line being incomplete somehow, adding to the not-quite-right feeling of the poem.

It's no coincidence that these "weird" sisters changed the meaning of that word to mean "odd or unsettling" rather than "having to do with fate."

PS: I like the bit where "Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
--Robert Frost

I think that there has been plenty of commentary done on this poem. If you're interested in the Love/Hate Fire/Ice symbolism, I'm sure you can find some page online to explain it to you. I'm going to talk about something else.

We've been watching some of the coverage of the fires here in Southern California this week. It pretty much dominates the news shows, and there are some channels that show nothing else all day. For those of you that don't know, there are (at last count) 15 separate wildfires that have sprung up since Sunday morning. In an appallingly dry year, we have unseasonably high temperatures and single digit humidity. The Santa Ana winds kicked in this weekend, and all last week we were getting stern warnings from the news people to get the brush cleared, have an emergency plan, and be VERY careful about fire safety in the wilderness areas (If you don't know, the Santa Ana winds are when hot dry air from the Great Basin of Utah blows across the deserts of Nevada and down the canyons of Southern California. They're hot, dry, and strong--20-80 mph--and make wildfires spread like crazy).

Last night on the news, they said that at least one of the fires was caused by arson. I don't think that I have been so outraged in my entire life as when I heard that. Even if nobody dies in that particular fire, I think that the guy who did it should be charged with murder as well as anything else the DA can think of. The firefighters and equipment are spread far too thin already, and if they have to go contain another fire, it means that they can't be fighting the several that were caused by lightning or downed power lines. At least one person HAS died. At least one group of firefighters was overtaken by the flames and had to get into their aluminum foil tents and ride it out (EXTREMELY dangerous for them). Well over six hundred homes have burned -- many of them expensive, and one valued at seventeen million dollars for that house alone. I saw footage of a fire that had sprung up in the five minutes since the newscast began that had already consumed two mobile homes -- these people had NO warning! Even here in Torrance, where we're in relatively little danger from wildfires, the air quality is bad because of the falling ash (we're warned to spend as little time outside as possible).

It's hard for me to believe that in these circumstances, somebody would be so inconsiderate -- so mean -- so STUPID -- as to set a fire on purpose. It boggles my mind. I simply can't imagine what would make a person do that. Maybe the world is coming to an end after all.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Gashlycrumb Tinies

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.
B is for Basil assaulted by bears.
C is for Clara who wasted away.
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.

E is for Ernest who choked on a peach.
F is for Fanny sucked dry by a leech.
G is for George smothered under a rug.

H is for Hector done in by a thug.
I is for Ida who drowned in a lake.
J is for James who took lye by mistake.
K is for Kate who was struck with an axe.

L is for Leo who swallowed some tacks.
M is for Maud who was swept out to sea.
N is for Neville who died of ennui.
O is for Olive run through with an awl.
P is for Prue trampled flat in a brawl.

Q is for Quentin who sank on a mire.
R is for Rhoda consumed by a fire.
S is for Susan who perished of fits.

T is for Titus who flew into bits.
U is for Una who slipped down a drain.
V is for Victor squashed under a train.

W is for Winnie embedded in ice.
X is for Xerxes devoured by mice.
Y is for Yorick whose head was knocked in.
Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin.
--Edward Gorey

Before I say anything else, I think you should go to this website or this one and look at all the Gorey pictures.

I used to work at the Friends of the Library bookstore in Newport Beach. They had amazing donors among the rich, well educated people that live in that city, so they had an impressive quantity and quality of books donated on a consistant basis. They probably made several hundred dollars every Saturday that I worked, and lower, but still significant totals on the other days of the week. And even with all they sold at the bookstore, they had enough to fill the community room every quarter for their Buck a Bag sale. I loved working there because I had first dibs on any of the amazing things that came through the sorting and pricing room on the days when I worked.

Anyway, I found a copy of Gashlycrumb Tinies, published as an appointment calendar, and thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen. I have a morbid sense of humor that a lot of people around me just don't understand. I don't like realistic violence and killing, but when it's obviously fake, and over the top, I really think it's funny for some reason (see the Die Hard movies for example). I bought the book and put it with the children's books ('cause it's the same size), and Aidan pulled it out one time when he was over visiting. He read the whole thing, but had a very odd, confused, fascinated look on his face as he did so. He asked me what a couple of the words meant, but that was about all the response I got from him about it. I sometimes wonder whether it scarred him for life.

The picture is of Neville who died of ennui. I was feeling Neville's pain yesterday. I got one of those 24 hour bugs that ruin your sense of balance for a while. I couldn't even sit up at church, so Peter drove me home. I slept for a few hours, but then I was done sleeping. There was NOTHING on TV. My head hurt too much to read. I didn't have the manual dexterity or concentration power to work on the handmade Christmas gifts my siblings are all getting. When Peter came back home from church, he slept for several hours. There was NOTHING to do. I was so bored I started thinking about poor Neville, and how it must have been a relief to finally die--it would at least be interesting. OK not really, but I thought it for about a minute before I went and made Peter get up and entertain me with Trivial Pursuit questions.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Forgiveness Flour by Marguerite Stewart

Forgiveness Flour

When I went to the door, at the whisper of knocking,
I saw Simeon Gantner’s daughter, Kathleen, standing
There, in her shawl and her shame, sent to ask
“Forgiveness Flour” for her bread. “Forgiveness Flour,”
We call it in our corner. If one has erred, one
Is sent to ask for flour of his neighbors. If they loan it
To him, that means he can stay, but if they refuse, he had
Best take himself off. I looked at Kathleen . . .
What a jewel of a daughter, though not much like her
Father, more’s the pity. “I’ll give you flour,” I
Said, and went to measure it. Measuring was the rub.
If I gave too much, neighbors would think I made sin
Easy, but if I gave too little, they would label me
“Close.” While I stood measuring, Joel, my husband
Came in from the mill, a great bag of flour on his
Shoulder, and seeing her there, shrinking in the
Doorway, he tossed the bag at her feet. “Here, take
All of it.” And so she had flour enough for many loaves,
While I stood measuring.
--Marguerite Stewart

This is a poem suggested by Mom. It's from the Religious Educator magazine that a couple of people sited articles from on our email list last week. I think that she likes it so much, as I do, because the husband walking in the door could so easily be Daddy. Many many times in my life, I've seen Daddy offer Christlike forgiveness and service to people who, in any objective measure, didn't "deserve" it. They were in trouble because of their own stupid decisions, they had made the same mistakes before (and had him bail them out), and everybody knew they'd do it again.

As much as I was confused by this, I was also comforted. I knew that when I did something stupid, I could go to Daddy, and he'd help me make it all right and, if necessary, explain it to Mom. And when I really needed to forgive somebody for doing the unforgivable, I knew it could be done because I saw him do it over and over.

Everybody in the world has the opportunity to see these things in action as they and others are forgiven through the atonement of Jesus Christ. He doesn't hold back because we've made the same mistakes before, and will probably do them again. He even offers full forgiveness to even the vilest of sinners. Yet very few are privileged to see this happen consistently in their own homes. I am very blessed to know my Father in Heaven better because I've known my father here on earth.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Listeners by Walter de la Mare

The Listeners

"Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret, 5
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
"Is there anybody there?" he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill 10
Leaned over and looked into his gray eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight 15
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call. 20
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even 25
Louder, and lifted his head:
"Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake 30
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward, 35
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
--Walter de la Mare

Since Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, I'm going to post a series of poems appropriate for the season. Interestingly, I found it very difficult to find a good list of spooky, ghostly, autmunal, Halloween poems. Searching on Google mostly gave me junk appropriate for greeting cards or elementary school handwriting practice. Eventually, I was able to gather several, and remember where I'd put a couple more, so we'll have enough to see us through till the end of the month.

I love how deliciously spooky this poem is. A man comes to an empty house and talks to the ghostly presences there. Why did he come? He had an urgent message or errand -- he had made a promise. It reminds me of the scene at the beginnig of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Ros: That's it--pale sky before dawn, a man standing onn his saddle to bang on the shutters--shouts--What's all the row about?! Clear off!--But then he called our names. You remember that--this man woke us up...It was urgent--a matter of extreme urgency, a royal summons, his very words: official business and no questions asked--lights in the stable-yard, saddle up and off headlong and hotfoot across the land, our guides outstripped in breakneck pursuit of our duty! Fearful lest we come too late!!
Guil:Too late for what?
Ros: How do I know? We haven't got there yet.

So was it something like that? Or perhaps he was a sailor, finally come home from the sea, having made his fortune, to marry his true love...and she's not there...nobody's there.

Why is nobody there? Was there a fire? Is he banging on the remnants of charred ruins? Was there plague -- is everybody waiting for him dead? Was he bringing the medicine? Have they lost all their money and moved away? I feel certain that there must have been some tragedy. What do you think?

This poem is one that I found in that wonderful anthology of poems called Off The Ground. I've mentioned these books in my blog before -- Mom got them for me at the LCCC Library book sale. Here are the questions he asks after the poem:

  1. This poem is famous for its atmosphere (see question 10, below). It must be read aloud.
  2. Draw up a rhyme scheme for lines 1-8. In which of these lines do you find alliteration?
  3. Line 5. Why did the bird fly up and out of the turrett?
  4. Line 7. Why "smote"? Would "knocked" do as well? Is there anything strange about the metre of this line? What would be the effect of omitting "again"?
  5. How would you read lines 8, 15, 17-18?
  6. Lines 25-28. Why does the traveller do this? To whom is he speaking?
  7. How would you read lies 28, 31, and 33-36?
  8. Why is the picture so indefinite?
  9. What has the poet not told us that we should like to know? Why did he not tell us?
  10. Have you discovered what is meant by the atmosphere of a poem, and why you have been asked so often how you would read such and such a line?

Try to answer some of the questions before you read the answers he provides at the back of the book.
  1. N/A
  2. Rhyme Scheme: abcbdefe. Alliteration: Line 4.
  3. The traveler has knocked at the moonlit door and called, "Is there anybody there?" and now stands listening in the silence. But he has startled the bird which flies up out of the turret
  4. The sudden flapping of the bird's wings startles him and he again strikes the door, louder because it's the second time, and perhaps because he is startled, therefore "smote". See lines 25-26. Compare line 7 with the corresponding one in rhythm, line 3.
    And his horse in the si-lence champed the gras-ses,
    And he smote up-on the door a-gain a se-cond time.
    Theh slight irregularity in line 7 suggests the disturbed mind of the traveller. We are not sure whether to accent "time" or not. If we omitted "again" we should miss this effect (Karen's note: the version I found online--so I wouldn't have to retype the whole thing-- had indeed omitted "again" as well as a few other words).
  5. The name of this poem is "The Listeners". If you make a decided pause at the end of line 8 you turn your audience into listeners, like the traveller waiting for a reply.
    Line 15. A listening line, therefore quiet, yet every syllable clear.
    Lines 17 and 18. Let the voice go down the stair. Begin high at "Stood thronging", and go down tone by tone till you reach "the empty hall". It makes the hall seem very far down, and dark, and ghostly.
  6. Lines 25-28. See line 12. The strangeness, the stillness is disturbing him (see lines 21-22) and he suddenly makes up his mind, hence "suddenly smote even louder". He is addressing the phantom presences (lines 13-22).
  7. Line 28. What was said of line 8 applies even more here.
    Line 31. An echoing line, therefore slow, to give time for the echo, and every syllable clear though quiet, for the still house; a most beautiful line to read.
    Lines 33-36. If the silence is to surge softly backwards we must begin rather loudly. Note that the sound of iron on stone (line 34) would be clear and ringing. From there begin the diminuendo; do not suddenly drop to silence, but let it surge softly backward.
  8. Note how indefinite even the definite things are: the traveller has grey eyes, but is he old or young, tall or short, fat or thin? He is just a traveller. This indefiniteness seems to add to the strangeness.
  9. The mystery surrounding the story, rousing so many questions that are not answered adds to the strange eerie atmosphere of the poem.
  10. The dictionary says that the atmosphere of a peom is the spiritual influence pervading it. Think of the feeling aroused, the effect on you as you read the poem--that is the atmosphere. As it is the finest thing in this poem and can be obtained only by reading the poem aloud, we must watch how we read each line.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell by Thomas Brown

I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why, I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.
--Thomas Brown

Whenever I have an anonymous poem -- especially nursery rhymes, I try to look them up online to see if they're really anonymous, or whether the source I got them from was just too lazy to site an author. I'm glad I did on this one because it has such a fun history.

Evidently, Thomas Brown was a student at Christ Church college at Oxford in the 1600's. When he got into some kind of trouble, he was sent to the Dean, Dr. John Fell, who threatened to expel him unless he could complete some scholarly work including translation of an epigram by a Roman by the name of Martial. Brown successfully translated the lines, "Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum posso dicere, non amo te" literally as "I don't like you, Sabidius, and I can't say why; all I can say is I don't like you." He then penned the verse above. Whether he showed that part to Dr. Fell, I don't know, but he did manage to stay at Oxford and finish his education.

I chose this poem today because of a conversation I had with Miriam this morning. She said that she was enjoying the poetry I was posting, and found that the poems I posted were often some of her favorites as well. She wondered whether this was coincidence, evidence that we both had literary good taste, or if it said something about the way we both think--if we like the same poems, we must think similarly about things in general.

I've been considering that today, and I have some further thoughts on the issue. I think that the major reason is that I have been selecting my poems mostly from anthologies and collections made by other people in the past. There's no way I could read through all the poetry there is out there--nor would I want to, since most of it is lousy forgettable stuff. The point is that I've been picking what I think are the best poems from a short list of what are generally accepted as the best poems by the best poets in the history of the world (Of course this "short list" still has tens of thousands of poems on it, but still, it does narrow the field considerably).

I think that there is probably a lot of overlap, not only in the way we think, but also in the experiences we've had in life. A lot of what we consider literary good taste comes from seeing what is popular in books, movies, and our culture in general. We were both brought up reading nursery rhymes and A Child's Garden of Verses. We've both been exposed to Shakespeare as "the bard," and to the great Romantic poets through Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables. We've both heard many of the same conference talks which often include poetry. I doubt that either of us has had extensive experience with someone we admire gushing over the virtues of other styles of poetry -- like some of the more abstract and modern stuff that I have a hard time getting into.

What do you think of our shared taste in poetry? Those of you who had different role models growing up, do you find that I've been leaving out your favorite poems? For my siblings who had a lot of the same influences as I did (though certainly not identical ones), do you think that idea is valid? Have any of you had someone in your life who extolled the virtues of a different style and taught you how to understand it? If so, drop me a line, or post a comment!

PS--if you still don't get the connection to the poem today: We know we both like the poetry I've been posting, but we're not entirely sure why.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dreams by Langston Hughes


Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
--Langston Hughes

I'm fascinated by dreams. I have so many very odd ones, and they all seem so important at the time. Yet when I wake up, or soon after, the details all quickly disappear, leaving only the feeling of an urgent need to do something that I can never accomplish while asleep. I entirely understand how the King in Daniel chapter 2 felt when he demanded that the wise men tell him not only what his dream meant, but what exactly it was that he had dreamed in the first place. "The thing is gone from me," he said.

Last night, among other things, I dreamed that I was trying to sell some postage stamps to somebody, and I couldn't add up what they were worth -- the math part of my brain that I knew needed to count up how many there were of each denomination and multiply that by the value simply wouldn't do it. I couldn't multiply, I couldn't count, and most of the time I couldn't even read the numbers on the stamps (they kept shrinking when I looked at them). I finally realized that I was dreaming, and so gave the stamps away since it didn't matter anyway, but in the meantime, it was very odd not to be able to do simple math. Of course, that was only the last part of the dream, and I only remember it because I told Peter about it while I was still half asleep. There was a lot more to the situation that is gone from me.

At the same time, there's an entirely different definition of dreams. These dreams are not what you experience while you're sleeping. They're the hopes and aspirations that fill up waking daydreams and plans. These are the dreams that this poem is talking about. I certainly wouldn't want my actual nighttime dreams to come true--even the ones I remember.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jellyfish by Patricia J. Machmiller


Summer sea—
from the depths random thoughts
--Patricia J. Machmiller

I went to the aquarium today. I'm Visiting Teacher to a woman in our ward who homeschools her son. The charter school/homeschool consortium that she has him enrolled in planned a field trip, and since she doesn't drive, she asked if I'd take them. Since that meant that I could get into the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific for $6 instead of the usual $21, I said I'd be glad to -- and meant it. Two days ago, she found out that she had to work, and so was about to cancel, when I suggested that I could take her son without her, and then he'd have the field trip, she could work in peace (she works from home, but on a set schedule), and I could still go to the aquarium. This satisfied everybody, and we had a fun day.

I wanted to post the Jellyfish Haiku by Jack Prelutsky, but I found that I had already posted it. It's short, so I'll remind you what it said.
Boneless, translucent,
We undulate, undulate,

Looking for another one, I found this one, which was part of an art exhibit you can look at here. Today's picture is a print being sold by a company called Haiku Design.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Riddle Of The Dinosaur by Bert Leston Taylor

The Riddle Of The Dinosaur

Behold the mighty dinosaur,
Famous in prehistoric lore, ,
Not only for his power and strength
But for his intellectual length.

You will observe by his remains
The creature had two sets of brains---
One in his head (the usual place),
The other at his spinal base.

Thus he could reason 'A priori'
As well as 'A posteriori.'
No problem bothered him a bit
He made both head and tail of it.

So wise was he, so wise and solemn,
Each thought filled his spinal column.
If one brain found the pressure strong,
It passed a few ideas along.

If something slipped his forward mind
'Twas rescued by the one behind.
And if in error he was caught
He had a saving afterthought.

As he thought twice before he spoke
He had no judgment to revoke.
Thus he could think without congestion
Upon both sides of every question.

Oh, gaze upon this model beast,
Defunct ten million years at least.
-- Bert Leston Taylor

Here is a poem Daddy got when he bought a selection of fossils. I really like they way he gets not just one, but several plays on words using common phrases. My favorite is, "He made both head and tail of it."

The Stegosaurus is a particularly fascinating dinosaur because scientists can't really agree on what most of its most striking features are for. The "second brain" might have been used for speedier reflexes in the tail, or maybe for extra processing power when under threat, but it's just as likely that the space was filled with an organ for distributing glycogen to the nervous system. Then there's the plates. Were they made for intimidation (so the beast looks bigger), sexual display, heat regulation, armor, or identifying features to tell individuals in the herd apart? There's even debate as to whether the tail spikes (with the cool name of thagomizer--coined by Gary Larson--really, you can look it up) would have been useful in combat.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Where Go the Boats? by Robert Louis Stevenson

Where Go the Boats?

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating--
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.
--Robert Louis Stevenson

As I write this blog, I am more and more impressed with Robert Louis Stevenson. Not only did he write some of the best adventure stories ever, he's also a remarkably sensitive poet. He must have really understood children in order to get their feelings on so many subjects just right. He writes about things that really matter to kids like swings, shadows, and the unfairness of bedtimes.

Most importantly, his works have a timeless quality on a couple of levels. First, although they were written over a hundred years ago, children of today can still relate to his stories and poems. The specific circumstances of their lives may be different, but the feelings he writes about are universal. Secondly, there's a depth to his works that adults can appreciate on an entirely different level from children.

In this poem, for instance, a child is fascinated by the fact that the river near his house flows along forever--the water goes away, but there's always more water coming--and that further on down the river, there are other children, just like him, playing in the water that has just left him and maybe pulling out the boats that he made--they're sharing something, but they'll never meet. As an adult, I can see larger metaphors in this. I'm sharing not only the river, but the whole world with people I'll never meet, and my actions can have consequences for them. Or perhaps the river is a metaphor for time, and the things I do now will influence later generations. One could write an excellent church talk on the lines, "Other little children Shall bring my boats ashore."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Purple Cow by Gelett Burgess

The Purple Cow

(Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who's Quite Remarkable, at Least.)
I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.
--Gelett Burgess

First published in 1895, this prompted lots of parodies, for example:
O.Henry wrote:
I never beat a rotten egg,
I never hope to beat one;
But this you'll understand, I beg,
I'd rather beat than eat one.

And here's an anonymous example:
I've never seen a purple cow,
My eyes with tears are full.
I've never seen a purple cow,
And I'm a purple bull.

In desperation, Burgess retorted:
O yes, I wrote the Purple Cow,
I'm sorry now I wrote it.
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'll kill you if you quote it.

As Peter and I were driving up Interstate 5 last weekend, we were amazed to see the wide variety of agriculture that goes on in California. It seemed like there was something different growing on every farm. We saw grapes and oranges, which we knew grew in Ca, but we also saw cotton, apricots, pistachios, and almonds for sure, and several other things I couldn't identify. It was certainly a change from driving past a hundred miles of corn at a time like you do in Nebraska.

At one point, we started smelling that distinctive livestock smell. We had seen cows and sheep grazing, so we weren't particularly surprised, but there were none to be seen on this particular stretch of road. The smell got stronger and stronger for about 10 minutes, and then we came around a bend and could see a valley between two hills. There were solid cows as far as the eye could see. Seriously, there must have been thousands of them -- or maybe even ten thousands. It was hard to get a clear idea because we only caught glimpses between hills, but there were more cows there than I've ever seen in my whole life. Even in movies, they generally only have a couple of hundred at a time, and this was on another order of magnitude altogether. The cows looked like they were pretty well taken care of. There were awnings set up to give many of them shade, and they were also sprinkling the whole lot of them with water from one of those giant irrigation sprinklers. All the same, I don't imagine they intended to keep any given cows there for very long. The only thing you could do with so many cows at a time is turn them into meat.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Address To A Haggis by Robert Burns

Address To A Haggis

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut ye up wi' ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they strech an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit!' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An' legs, an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o 'fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
--Robert Burns

Translations into English are available here and here. The first is closer to the original text, and attempts to remain poetic. The second translates not only the dialect, but also the expressions and metaphors. You can take your pick.

When I was at Mike's house, the subject of Haggis came up somehow. I mentioned that I had eaten Haggis once, and that it wasn't really all that bad. It tastes like meatloaf with lots of oatmeal filler in it. As long as my eyes and mouth kept telling me that it was like meatloaf, I could eat it just fine. I just told the parts of my brain that were complaining that it was really made of the unmentionable leftover bits that it didn't matter -- meat is meat, and people have eaten those bits without any trouble for thousands of years. It really does make sense to grind them up into sausage or haggis or whatever since it's the sight and texture of them that are objectionable.

Anyway, back to my Haggis story. I went to a Scottish festival with my roommate Elizabeth. It was held on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach. We went to the booths of each of the clans and got them to stamp our "passports" with their crests. We watched the dancing competition and did some shopping. One of the highlights of the day was the sheepdog demonstration. Those dogs were SOOOO excited to get out there and chase those sheep. There was one dog in particular that couldn't stand to see the other less experienced dogs do it wrong, and she'd dash out and get the sheep back in line before her owner could call her back. The other highlight was when they had every pipe and drum corps in the west line up and play a few songs as they marched down the street. There were men in kilts and bagpipes as far as the eye could see. It was truly a thing of beauty.

Towards the end of the day, there was the Haggis. Everybody gathered in a big hall, and a man went up on stage. He held his Haggis high, and lovingly recited this poem. Then he cut it up and everybody got a little slice. It was a fun day.

As a funny final anecdote, when telling the story to Mike and Miriam, I couldn't remember who had written the poem. One of them suggested that it might have been Robert Burns, and the other said, something like, "Well, yeah. Of course. Who else could it be?"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother Translated by Charles Kennedy

Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother

Beowulf donned his armor for battle,
Heeded not danger; the hand-braided byrny,
Broad of shoulder and richly bedecked,
Must stand the ordeal of the watery depths.
Well could that corselet defend the frame
Lest hostile thrust should pierce to the heart.
Or blows of battle beat down the life.
A gleaming helmet guarded his head
As he planned his plunge to the depths of the pool
Through the heaving waters-a helm adorned
With lavish inlay and lordly chains,
Ancient work of the weapon-smith
Skillfully fashioned, beset with the boar...

...After these words the prince of the Weders
Awaited no answer, but turned to the task,
Straightway plunged in the swirling pool.
Nigh unto a day he endured the depths
Ere he first had view of the vast sea-bottom.
Soon she found, who had haunted the flood,
A ravening hag, for a hundred half-years,
Greedy and grim, that a man was groping
In daring search through the sea-troll's home.
Swift she grappled and grasped the warrior
With horrid grip, but could work no harm,
No hurt to his body; the ring-locked byrny
Cloaked his life from her clutching claw...

...He swung his war-sword with all his strength,
Withheld not the blow, and the savage blade
Sang on her head its hymn of hate...

...Then the Scylding warrior, savage and grim,
Seized the ring-hilt and swung the sword,
Struck with fury, despairing of life,
Thrust at the throat, broke through the bone-rings;
The stout blade stabbed through her fated flesh.
She sank in death; the sword was bloody;
The hero joyed in the work of his hand.
The gleaming radiance shimmered and shone
As the candle of heaven shines clear from the sky.
Wrathful and resolute Hygelac's thane
Surveyed the span of the spacious hall;
Grimly gripping the hilted sword
With upraised weapon he turned to the wall.
The blade had failed not the battle-prince...
--Translated by Charles Kennedy

So here we have a section of Beowulf--the oldest "English" literature. I memorized a big chunk of this for Mr. Strohm's class, and then made the mistake of wanting to be first to recite on the day when extra credit points were given out. I know for a fact that some other people had intended to recite (as opposed to writing it out), but after I had spouted off my gazillion lines, nobody else would even try. I've felt bad about that for years.

I like this translation a lot. Kennedy focuses on the things that are important to me: alliteration and rhythm. Take this line for instance: "As he planned his plunge to the depths of the pool." I love how he finds ways to get the alliterative sound not just at the start of words, but in the middle as well. The rhythm seems ideally designed for a storyteller -- The BUM-ba-ba-BUM-ba-ba is like a heartbeat, and if the storyteller speeds up his reading/recitation, then the listener's hearts will speed up to keep time. In skillful hands, it could do exactly the same thing as a modern film score in directing our emotions.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Menolly’s Fire Lizard Song by Anne McCaffery

Menolly’s Fire Lizard Song

The little queen, all golden
Flew at the sea.
To keep it back,
To turn it back
She flew forth bravely.

As she attacked the sea in rage
A holderman came nigh
Along the sand
Fishnet in hand
And saw the queen midsky.

He stared at her in wonder
For often he'd been told
That such as she
Could never be
Who hovered there, bright gold.

He saw her plight and quickly
He looked up the cliff he faced
And saw a cave
Above the wave
In which her eggs he placed.

The little queen all golden
Upon his shoulder stood
Her eyes all blue
Glowed of her true
Undying gratitude.
--Anne McCaffery

I like this poem for mostly sentimental reasons. Looking at it from a purely critical standpoint, it's adequate, but there's really nothing elegant about it. There's no perfect turn of phrase, no metaphor, no alliteration etc. All the same, I like it.

Like I said, it's mostly for sentimental reasons. I really loved the Pern books, and I think I identified with Menolly more than with almost any other character I was reading about at the time. Here's a sad, misunderstood, teen aged girl who's good at running and teaching children. She has self-esteem issues that are compounded by having to deal with spiteful girls her own age. Besides that, she's good at singing. I will admit that my parents were nicer than hers, but she got to go off riding Dragons and had a whole flock of Fire Lizards by the end of the story, so that almost makes up for it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Acorns I by Raymond Luczak

Acorns I

At Spruce and Oak Streets
they are sleeping.
Their knit caps have been pulled
smugly over their ears.
Their cheeks are a rose brown,
frozen numb under inches and
inches of calming snow.
But then they feel the
sudden pressure
of a boy’s snowmobile boots
across the layers above.
They awake, alarmed,
but remember that in spring
the garrulous soil will weaken,
adopt them as their own.
They dream of sprouting green,
taking a firmer stance
against the tiring seasons
--Raymond Luczak

This poem comes from the book This Way to the Acorns and is one of the sample poems posted on the author's site. I picked it because it talks about acorns wearing knit caps, which I must say is more that even I was hoping for when I started searching.

We went to visit Mike and Miriam and the boys this last weekend (which is why there were no posts for a few days). On Saturday afternoon, I found that I had used up all the yarn I brought for crocheting, and still had all of Sunday's conference to get through. Miriam and I went to JoAnn's and she picked out some yarn to make hats and scarves for the boys. I intended them to look like Peruvian knit hats, but since I didn't have a picture, and I tend to make things up as I go along while crocheting, they ended up looking more like acorn caps with ear flaps. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. between the two of us, we got all three hats, and scarves finished before I had to leave, and you can see how cute they turned out. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the boys are so very cute to begin with...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Fog by Carl Sandburg


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
--Carl Sandburg

I have two reasons for posting this poem today. We'll start with the poem itself. It's short--there's just one little metaphor here. He's simply telling us that fog is silent and mysterious like cats are. Something about the way the poem is written, though, makes you think that there must be more there. The metaphor is so very apt that the image is crystal clear even on a first reading. There are a lot of sibilants, like S's and F's, so it almost sounds like the poem ought to be whispered. I think that one of the most important parts of this poems charms is that it is so short -- it arrives, quietly does something mysterious, and then it's gone before you can really figure out quite what it was doing there in the first place.

I also chose this poem because it talks about fog/mist. Peter and I went to Brandon Sanderson's book signing last night, and he was promoting his new Mistborn novel. I'd highly recommend it, and any of the other books he's written for that matter. The signing went really well -- besides us, there were a couple of other people there who were either part of the old TLE crowd at BYU, or who are active on the messageboards started by that group so there was some good audience participation in the question and answer section. There was even a fan artist there with some of her sketches of the main characters. After the signing, we went out into the misty night and about five of us went to dinner at Outback. It was yummy, and a lot of fun to catch up with good friends. Brandon is at an interesting point in his career right now, and it'll be fascinating to see which of the possible paths he outlined last night he'll actually end up going down.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Taffy was a Welshman by Anonymous

Taffy was a Welshman

Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief.
Taffy came to my house
And stole a piece of beef.

I went to Taffy's house,
Taffy wasn't in;
I jumped upon his Sunday hat,
And poked it with a pin.

Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a sham.
Taffy came to my house
And stole a leg of lamb.

I went to Taffy's house,
Taffy was away,
I stuffed his socks with sawdust
And filled his shoes with clay.

Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a cheat,
Taffy came to my house
And stole a piece of meat;

I went to Taffy's house,
Taffy was in bed;
I took up marrow bone
And beat him on the head.

Here's a Mother Goose rhyme that I first heard in Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever. I could never figure out why the guy felt like he could call Taffy names like cheat and thief, when he did just as much bad stuff to Taffy. I also didn't know what being a Welshman had to with anything (or really what the word meant at all, since I wasn't really aware of Wales at the time). Mom told me something to the effect that it was a rude poem, and that I shouldn't repeat it, which just made it more mysterious.

I eventually learned that Taffy is a generic not-especially-polite name for Welshmen, much like Paddy or Mick for Irishmen. Evidently, it's sung on St. David's Day in England, especially near the Welsh border. Wikipedia claims that it's referring to a thief in Celtic Mythology, but I'm pretty sure that whatever its origins, it has come to symbolize and summarize the relations between England and Wales over the years with various border raids and conquests.

I still think what I thought when I first read it: if these guys would just stop being mean to each other, they'd be happier.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash

The Tale of Custard the Dragon

Belinda lived in a little white house,
With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse,
And a little yellow dog and a little red wagon,
And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.

Now the name of the little black kitten was Ink,
And the little gray mouse, she called hum Blink,
And the little yellow dog was sharp as Mustard,
But the dragon was a coward, and she called him Custard.

Custard the dragon had big sharp teeth,
And spikes on top of him and scales underneath,
Mouth like a fireplace, chimney for a nose,
And realio, trulio daggers on his toes.

Belinda was as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chased lions down the stairs,
Mustard was as brave as a tiger in a rage,
But Custard cried for a nice safe cage.

Belinda tickled him, she tickled him unmerciful,
Ink, Blink and Mustard, they rudely called him Percival,
They all sat laughing in the little red wagon
At the realio, trulio, cowardly dragon.

Belinda giggled till she shook the house,
and Blink said Weeck! which is giggling for a mouse,
Ink and Mustard rudely asked his age,
When Custard cried for a nice safe cage.

Suddenly, suddenly they heard a nasty sound,
And Mustard growled, and they all looked around.
Meowch! cried Ink, and Ooh! cried Belinda,
For there was a pirate, climbing in the winda.

Pistol in his left hand, pistol in his right,
And he held in his teeth a cutlass bright,
His beard was black, one leg was wood;
It was clear that the pirate meant no good.

Belinda paled, and she cried Help! Help!
But Mustard fled with a terrified yelp,
Ink trickled down to the bottom of the household,
And little mouse Blink strategically mouseholed.

But up jumped Custard snorting like an engine,
Clashed his tail like irons in a dungeon,
With a clatter and a clank and a jangling squirm,
He went at the pirate like a robin at a worm.

The pirate gaped at Belinda's dragon,
And gulped some grog from his pocket flagon,
He fired two bullets, but they didn't hit,
And Custard gobbled him, every bit.

Belinda embraced him, Mustard licked him,
No one mourned for his pirate victim.
Ink and Blink in glee did gyrate
Around the dragon that ate the pirate.

But presently up spoke little dog Mustard,
I'd been twice as brave if I hadn't been flustered.
And up spoke Ink and up spoke Blink,
We'd have been three times as brave, we think,
And Custard said, I quite agree
That everybody is braver than me.

Belinda still lives in her little white house,
With her little black kitten and her little gray mouse,
And her little yellow dog and her little red wagon,
And her realio, trulio little pet dragon.

Belinda is as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chase lions down the stairs,
Mustard is as brave as a tiger in a rage,
But Custard keeps crying for a nice safe cage.
--Ogden Nash

Here's another funny long narrative poem for kids. You can even find a nice picture book version. Once again, there are some truly clever rhymes, like "Ink trickled down to the bottom of the household, And little mouse Blink strategically mouseholed." and some oldies but goodies, like the "gyrate/pirate" one borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan.

What I really like about this poem, though, is the idea that you don't have to be brave all the time. I've spent a large portion of my life being very afraid of a lot of things. It makes life really inconvenient at times. I've missed out on things like hiking Timp with my Dad because I'm afraid of falling off high things (Mountains are very high things, and mountain trails often have what I consider steep ledges dropping off one side. I have a hard time keeping myself from hyperventilating when I'm climbing the trail to the caves on Timp, which is a notoriously safe and easy trail). During college, I had a very hard time walking outside after dark, and often prevailed on my brothers or other guys to go out of their way to walk me home.

At the same time, I liked to tell myself that if it really mattered, I would be able to do the thing that scared me. I believed that if somebody's life depended on me climbing up someplace high, I'd be able to do it without freezing up, whereas when I was asked to climb up onto a rickety scaffolding to clean a roof (working at the metroparks), it reduced me to tears. Likewise, when I was in Moscow, and the only way to get to the Bolshoi theater was to walk, in the dark, past an abandoned construction site, and be accosted by mafia thugs, I made up my mind and did it.

I don't know if it makes sense to other people, but I think of myself as a brave person, even though I don't always do things that are uncomfortable for me. I've stopped worrying about what Peter will think of me if I make him deal with all the spiders and larger bugs that find their way into the house. I find other things to do with my family than mountain climbing. I may never go off a high dive. I carry a giant great safety pin for self defense when I go out at night (and believe me--that thing could do some damage). There are times when I let myself be shy at church events where I don't know people. I just plain don't watch certain types of scary movies--no matter how popular or well reviewed they are. I guess I'm saving up willpower for the times when it really matters.