Poems

A Song for Matthew Shepard

Image result for a song for matthew shepardIt may be surprising that I started the year with such a depressing book, but I felt ready today to read this poetry pamphlet. Lesléa Newman delivered these poems at the University of Wyoming five days after Matthew Shepard’s murder.

Matthew Shepard is to the LGBTQ movement what Emmett Till was to the Civil Rights Movement. Shepard was kidnapped and tortured by two boys on the night of October 6, 1998. He was found tied to a fence by a cyclist who mistook the body for a scarecrow.

The poems in October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard are told from a variety of perspectives – some inanimate. Each section begins with a poem from the fence’s perspective, and most of the poems begin with a quote from one of the actual people involved in the case. According to the pamphlet, Newman was heavily inspired by the structure of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.

I was the most moved by the poems that addressed the national response to Shepard’s murder. “A Chorus of Parents”, “Then and Now”, and “The Drag Queen” were my favorite in the collection.

Not all of the poems were brilliant. A few were frankly pretty trite. But overall, I felt that Newman captured well Shepard’s influence on the Gay Rights Movement. We must not forget the son, student, and lover behind the involuntary martyr.

Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost

Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson.

– from “Then and Now”

Reflections

Reading Poetry

When did you get into poetry? Have you ever gotten into poetry?

I was first introduced to poetry in the eighth grade. The summer before classes started, the English teacher asked us to make a poetry anthology. I chose to focus on poems written about farm animals. Because I didn’t know any “fine” poets, I searched for fun children’s poems. I knew that Roald Dahl included poetry in his fiction, so I decided to start with him. Dahl wrote a poem called “The Pig” that is still one of my favorite poems. I recited it to my teacher before class one day, and I got a role in a school play with the poem. Even though my anthology focused on farm animals, the poems I loved the most were not about animals at all. I loved “Father William” by Lewis Carroll and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, so I recited both to my teacher. Nearly every week, I memorized a new poem so that by the end of the year I had memorized quite a few poems. While they weren’t necessarily the most sophisticated poems, I finally found poetry that I liked.

I dip in and out of poetry collections from time to time. Some poems resonate with me on a deep level like “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I first came across it in the short, young adult novel Baby by Patricia McLaughlin. If you want a beautiful but depressing book, read Baby. Millay’s poem goes perfectly with yesterday’s post since it addresses grief.

My favorite French poet is Paul Claudel. His “Chemin de la Croix” (The Way of the Cross) is a 14-poem meditation on the Stations of the Cross. Claudel was a very difficult person and a fascist to boot, but I find his poems particularly moving. I also love “Zone” by the surrealist, World War I poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

So many young people hate poetry because of the way it’s taught in school. They spend hours dissecting a poem line by line, but they don’t get the point. Students today feel intimidated by the genre.

I am grateful to my 8th grade English teacher for having assigned that poetry anthology project. I found poems that I enjoyed, which encouraged me to read more poetry. At one time, most children’s books included short poems. They were a part of a child’s intellectual development. But today, students only encounter poetry in school where it’s dissected and analyzed bit by bit. I am not denying the value of literary analysis. I am a literature student after all. And I do it all the time on my blog. But poetry should be fun. Students should be encouraged to find poems that they love, even if they’re children’s poems.

I can’t say that I really understand poetry. I don’t have much experience analyzing poetry. But I care deeply about the poems that I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure that formal poetry courses would help me better appreciate 20th-century poetry, but that doesn’t mean that I am ignorant of the genre. I appreciate my favorite poems more each time I reread them. We would never tell a non-English student that she can’t understand The Great Gatsby because she hasn’t studied it in school, so why do we assume that those who lack formal education in poetry are completely ignorant of the genre? Find the poetry you enjoy and read it.

Cervantes, Miguel de, Literary Miscellanea

Don Quixote and Aristotle

In Chapter III of the Second Part of Don Quixote, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza discuss the First Part of Cervantes’ work. One of the questions addressed is the difference between poetry and history.

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

“That’s where the truth of the history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness,” said Don Quixote, “because the actions that do not change or alter the truth of the history do not need to be written if they belittle the hero. By my faith, Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That is true,” replied Sansón, “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

The debate that these three men are having centers on an Aristotelian question, treated heavily by 16th and 17th century humanists. In chapter 9 of his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

But it is evident from what has been said that it is not the province of a poet to relate things which have happened, but such as might have happened, and such things as are possible according to probability, or which would necessarily have happened. For a historian and a poet do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with meter than without meter. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened.

The poet’s job is to relate what might have happened while the historian’s job is to give an account of what actually happened. But what does Aristotle mean? During the Renaissance, writers try to systematically describe a verisimilitudinous play (i.e. a play that presents events as they might have happened). The 17th century humanist Nicolas Boileau even applies Aristotle to non-theatrical poetry in his Art Poétique (Art of Poetry). The debate concerning the difference between a poet and a historian is also a debate about the role of the public. What does the public expect from a poet vs. from a historian?

Don Quixote, as part meta-fiction, is not only a satire on courtly romance but also a commentary on Renaissance values such as verisimilitude. What does the public expect from a history of Don Quixote? If the story is about a knight errant, should it follow tropes found in the courtly romances that Don Quixote‘s audience know so well? How should Don Quxote act? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once ignorant and self-aware. They behave irrationally, but they know what readers of courtly romance expect. They try to realize in their own lives what a knight or a squire never did historically but might have done poetically. What is ironic about the above conversation is that Don Quixote seems to know that the heroes in his favorite stories were idealized and mythologized, yet he attempts to imitate them anyway. Sancho Panza definitely knows what the public (i.e. Don Quixote) expects because he frequently lies about events to fool and please his master.

Poems

The Second Coming – W.B. Yeats

This poem seems particularly relevant today.

 THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Berry, Wendell, Poems

The Cold by Wendell Berry

Update: I have not blogged in almost 2 months. I switched graduate programs from entomology to French and have been really busy reading for school. I know that I was supposed to participate in read-alongs that I had organized, but I bit off way more than I could chew. I hope to get to the books at some point before the end of the year, but it may not be for a while. I apologize for dropping the ball. Until I have more time do read for pleasure, I will post more poems or reviews of plays than book reviews. I may even discuss some philosophical treatises I’ve read. But I will be moving at a slower pace than I have in the past.

Enough about me. Now on to the poem:

The Cold

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

-to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.

Poems

October Meme: Some Of My Favorite Poems

This is the Classics Club meme for October: Let’s talk about classic poetry! Have you got a favorite classic poem? Do you read poetry? Why or why not? // You could also feature a poet or a book of poetry, rather than a poem.

I do read poetry. For an eighth grade assignment I was required to create a poetry notebook centered around a theme. I chose farm animals as my theme and spent the summer before school started finding poems that would fit the theme. At around the same time, I fell in love with Roald Dahl’s books. Roald Dahl always included poetry in his children’s books. So did Lewis Carroll. When I first learned about the assignment I thought, “I don’t like poetry.” But by the end of the summer I fell in love with poetry. Not all of it, of course. No one loves every novel or every short story. No one should expect to love every poem. But I fell in love with poetry because that summer I had found, for the first time in my life, poems that I enjoyed reading. I memorized my favorites and recited them to my English teacher before class. I am convinced that people who say they don’t like poetry have not yet found the right poem. When they do find the right one (notice that I didn’t say “if”) they will know. Dissecting a poem to find its hidden meaning certainly has value but the dissection can be taken too far. I suspect that the reasons that some people avoid poetry are similar to the reasons some people avoid reading the classics.

Anyway, I will share some of my favorites below. Some, all, or none of these poems may interest you. But they are near and dear to my heart. If you are interested in hearing my thoughts about any of the poems in this post, you can ask me in the comments.

Let’s start with some fun, children’s poetry.

The Pig

In England once there lived a big
And wonderfully clever pig.
To everybody it was plain
That Piggy had a massive brain.
He worked out sums inside his head,
There was no book he hadn’t read.
He knew what made an airplane fly,
He knew how engines worked and why.
He knew all this, but in the end
One question drove him round the bend:
He simply couldn’t puzzle out
What LIFE was really all about.
What was the reason for his birth?
Why was he placed upon this earth?
His giant brain went round and round.
Alas, no answer could be found.
Till suddenly one wondrous night.
All in a flash he saw the light.
He jumped up like a ballet dancer
And yelled, ‘By gum, I’ve got the answer! ‘
‘They want my bacon slice by slice
‘To sell at a tremendous price!
‘They want my tender juicy chops
‘To put in all the butcher’s shops!
‘They want my pork to make a roast
‘And that’s the part’ll cost the most!
‘They want my sausages in strings!
‘They even want my chitterlings!
‘The butcher’s shop! The carving knife!
‘That is the reason for my life! ‘
Such thoughts as these are not designed
To give a pig great piece of mind.
Next morning, in comes Farmer Bland,
A pail of pigswill in his hand,
And piggy with a mighty roar,
Bashes the farmer to the floor…
Now comes the rather grisly bit
So let’s not make too much of it,
Except that you must understand
That Piggy did eat Farmer Bland,
He ate him up from head to toe,
Chewing the pieces nice and slow.
It took an hour to reach the feet,
Because there was so much to eat,
And when he finished, Pig, of course,
Felt absolutely no remorse.
Slowly he scratched his brainy head
And with a little smile he said,
‘I had a fairly powerful hunch
‘That he might have me for his lunch.
‘And so, because I feared the worst,
‘I thought I’d better eat him first.’

– Roald Dahl

You Are Old, Father William

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door –
Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment – one shilling the box –
Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak –
‑ray how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –
What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs!”

– Lewis Carroll

in Just –

in Just-
spring        when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles        far       and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far       and       wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
it’s
spring
and
      the

           goat-footed                                         

balloonMan      whistles
far
and
wee                 

– E.E. Cummings

And now for the more “mature” poetry:

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love–
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me–
Yes!–that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we–
Of many far wiser than we–
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling–my darling–my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

– Edgar Allan Poe

Where’s the Poet?

Where’s the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him.
‘Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan
Or any other wonderous thing
A man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato;
‘Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The Lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the Tiger’s yell
Come articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.
– John Keats

One I just discovered while reading Baby by Patricia MacLachlan:

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

And finally, three Christian-themed poems by C.S. Lewis. They were mostly (if not all) published posthumously:

Legion

Lord, hear my voice, my present voice I mean,
Not that which may be speaking an hour hence
(For I am Legion) in an opposite sense,
And not by show of hands decide between
The multiple factions which my state has seen
Or will see. Condescend to the pretence
That what speaks now is I; in its defence
Dissolve my parliament and intervene.

Thou wilt not, though we asked it, quite recall
Free will once given. Yet to this moment’s choice
Give unfair weight. Hold me to this. O strain
A point – use legal fictions; for if all
My quarrelling selves must bear an equal voice,
Farewell, thou has created me in vain.

– C.S. Lewis

The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

– C.S. Lewis

After Prayers, Lie Cold

Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush’d mortal, in the sacred night,
– A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness’ and pardon’s watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, and breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.

– C.S. Lewis