Category: poetry

Carl Sandburg



Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,

Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

– – –

Carl Sandburg is one of my favorite poets, and if ever I were pressed to answer definitively who my absolute favorite poet is, I’d probably go with Carl here, although that answer is debatable. While it may be tough to give such a finite answer on that question, it’s clear that Sandburg has, stylistically at least, inspired me more than any other poet. This poem alone (the first poem of his first collection, by the way) has been a singluar inspiration to me; you need only look at the fifth line to see evidence of this.

His words rest and work on the page in no clear style; they run the gamut from single-word lines to breathless prose-like stanzas than come from an even older source, Walt Whitman. The idea is that Mr. Sandburg gives his words enough time and space to work their magic as they need. While this may seem a simple choice of style, to me it reflects Sandburg’s (and Whitman’s, for that matter–but we’ll get to him another week) deeper nature, and the overall aim of his poetry. While so many poets are shrugged off as elitists (oftentimes rightly so), Sandburg is one of the last populist poets, a perpetually dying but not dead breed. He is a middle-class poet, a democratic poet; and if we buy into a certain idea of America as a scrappy, give-’em-hell, hard-working country, well, then Carl Sandburg is our poet laureate, once and always. Take Chicago here. To Sandburg Chicago is the archetypal American city, a Midwestern city built on back-breaking, nasty work. Slaughterer, maker, builder, transporter, thresher. But the Chicagoans seem happy with this work, laughing “under the terrible burden of destiny”; they are satisfied to work every day to the best of their abilities. Because to work is to be alive and be American, and that can’t be taken away. Sandburg’s poetry is filled with proud people working and living in scenes of adversity. Your average poet witnesses a scene and makes it introspective; the poet infers something about himself/herself. As a populist Sandburg turns these scenes not inward but outward. Sandburg sees in the worker in Chicago not something of himself but something of America: “under his ribs the heart of the people.” This worker is emblematic of a whole nation. The same can be seen in his biography of Lincoln; that president’s success was a direct result of his utter Americanness.

Back to his words on the page. He treats language in a democratic fashion. He is unattached to any preconcieved idea of how a poem should run, and he is willing to write in a way that gives each word what it needs to work, as opposed to subjecting his words to arbitrary formalities like rhyme and meter. He writes with an infectious exuberance, a call-to-arms tone. He is fond of adjectives, words of emphasis, words that elevate an noun in stature–and he issues them like punches, little jabs all in a row. He is also fond of repetition as a device to heighten the connection to a poem; he uses some form of “laugh” 8 times in the last half of the poem. An exploration of the rest of his work reveals great usage of another word: “we.” All good Big Lebowski fans recall The Dude’s (quite the populist himself) speech on the “Royal We”, many people speaking through one; here Carl Sandburg gives us something similar, but decidedly less pompous: simply, “We.” As in, of course, “We the people.”

Emily Dickinson


“The feet of people walking home”

The feet of people walking home
With gayer sandals go–
The Crocus–til she rises
The Vassal of the snow–
The lips at Hallelujah
Long years of practice bore
Till bye and bye these Bargemen
Walked singing on the shore.

Pearls are the Diver’s farthings
Extorted from the Sea–
Pinions–the Seraph’s wagon
Pedestrian once–as we–

Night is the morning’s Canvas
Death, but our rapt attention
To Immortality.

My figures fail to tell me
How far the Village lies–
Whose peasants are the Angels–
Whose Cantons dot the skies–
My Classics veil their faces–
My faith that Dark adores–
Which from its solemn abbeys
Such resurrection pours.

– – –

The story of Emily Dickinson is well known; the irony of her hermetic existence is that she has become one of the most well-known and widely read American poets. While she lived most of her adult life alone in Amherst, MA, she was a woman of fancy, imagination, and intense passion, writing over 1,700 poems and thousands of letters to her many friends–most of them she never saw. Simple lyrics like “The feet of people walking home” glow with a language of utter fascination.

Dickinson’s introverted life gave her an utterly unique perspective on poetry. While most major poets are associated with this movement or that style, Dickinson is nothing more than Dickinson. Her use of punctuation, especially the Em Dash (–), is highly irregular, especially for the late 1800s–not until the Beats in the 1950s did any group of poets use the dash so heavily. Yet her use of capitalization carries a Classical sentiment, recalling a time when all nouns were capitalized. Her poetry is beautifully ignorant of the wordniness of her contemporaries, such as Whitman. She writes in a short, terse lyric style that was all but out of fashion in her time, with the exception being the rising star in Ireland, W.B. Yeats.

The em dash reveals her passion and conflict. It’s a symbol of time, and often a symbol of epiphany; a moment when time pauses and the writer loses control, as if writing automatically. The writer enters a state of realization. Dickinson, it seems, spent many of her days in this fashion.

William Carlos Williams


This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

– – –

Well five weeks into my new segment and I’m already messing up. I missed MONSTER Sunday. I’ve had a lot of poetry on the brain (I’ll fill you in later) but I’ll admit, the football playoffs didn’t help much either. Go Bears. So, it seemed fitting to pick a poem of embarrassment from Mr. Williams. On the outset it seems like a simple poem, which was indeed part of the point. The language is clear and concise, there is no meter, nor any rhyme, nor any simile, metaphor, alliteration, or any such poetic nonsense. Yet this poem, along with the early works of H.D., Ford Maddox Ford, D.H. Lawrence, and especially Ezra Pound, formed a serious sea change in the world of poetry: the Imagist movement, generally considred to be the founding movement of Modern poetry. Like so many things in the 20th Century, Imagism was reactionary: it was a reaction to the increasingly copious and melodramatic works of Victorian poetry, a prime example being Lord Tennyson, the Monster of Poetry from two weeks ago. The young Imagist writers found the poems of Tennyson etc. to be dinosaurs, lumbering around excessively, roaring from hillsides. So they decided to work on an extinction plan. Their idea was simple: treat the “thing” directly; use no word that does not contribute directly to the treatment; focus the poem’s tone on music rather than on arcane systems of rhyme and meter. Essentially, let a poem be an image, a single image or an immediate juxtaposition of images, and let it speak for itself with no guiding hand of the poet’s morality. It does sound refreshing, doesn’t it? The irony is that the purveyors of Imagism spent volumes articulating this theory in all of its political and social ramifications, which goes to show that all Art has baggage, and that the less art says, the more it carries. The Japanese write haiku for haiku’s sake; the Europeans do it and add all this extra shit to it.

Now that I’ve thoroughly ruined this glorious poem for you, let’s go back and take another look. Baggage aside, this is a fantastic study on the power of language. First thing is the word “plum,” which must be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. It’s such a round word, the “p” rising to the “l” and dipping down to the soft “u” and the fuzzy “m.” It’s a word that recalls perfectly the object it represents. This poem wouldn’t be the same if it were “guavas.” “Plum” also recalls a color, purple, and connects to “probably” in the next stanza. “Icebox” gives the poem a crisp feel. By the time you get to “so sweet/ and so cold,” by God, you can practically taste those plums in your mouth. I’ve probably read this poem hundreds of times, and it never loses its magic.

Extra MONSTERS OF POETRY Fun! Do your own This Is Just to Say mad-lib!!

Gerard Manley Hopkins


Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

– – –

I want you to read this once more, this time aloud. I want you to sense how your tongue moves about and your lips shape the sounds. Ah! The feel of this poem is so unique. This poem is a physical act. This is language poetry at its finest, this makes other poets either feel inadequate or inspired. Gerard Manley Hopkins, or G-Man as I like to call him, was a strange man. He was a poet his whole life; in fact, he couldn’t help but write poetry. At Oxford he became a Jesuit; subsequently he burned every scrap of poetry he had written up until then, thinking it sinful. For much of the rest of his life he was torn between the joy poetry brought him and the guilt it later caused him. It was only toward the end of his short life that he reconciled the two and was able to write the glorious poems we have from him today. He died in his forties. This is the kind of thing that makes Brit Lit folks weep, thinking of all the what-ifs; what if he hadn’t burned his older works? what if he’d lived to be 90? Up until G-Man came around, most innovations in poetry took the form of subject changes; what was written about and how it was addressed. Gerard was the first to incorporate substantial wordplay into his poetry. And he went largely unnoticed; formal Victorian and Romantic poetry continued around him, leading into Modern poetry at the turn of the century (1900, that is). It’s not until the Beats and other Postmodern movements that we begin to see such a focus on language again. This poem features sprung rhythm, which the G-Man invented. The funny thing about sprung rhythm is that its intent is to mimic the natural speech patterns of the Irish and the English; thus, to read sprung rhythm correctly, you simply read it as normal. Because sprung rhythm is a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables, it reflects this poem’s subject, pied beauty; pied being synonymous with dappled, and both meaning a combination of dark and light colors. Kind of like Hopkins’ life! Oh, how it all comes together!

Issa and Lord Tennyson


hokku by Issa

New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa was a 16th century writer famous in Japan for his haikus, or hokkus, as they should technically be called. The hokku is a short poem, usually a single vertical line in the original Japanese. It’s only through Western translation that we get the familiar three lines. The traditional hokku does follow the 5/7/5 format we all know (and love!), but the units being counted were not syllables but morae, which are related to, but not entirely synonymous with syllables. A traditional hokku was not a stand-alone poem, but actually the opening verse of a longer poem called a renga–although later on, when poets wanted to write hokku and nothing more, they implied a theoretical renga to follow it. It was only in the 19th century that the hokku became haiku and was stripped of its connection to the renga.

Although this poem relates the Japanese New Year, which is in springtime, the sentiment seems just about the same.

And because it’s such a momentous day, here’s another MOSNTER OF POETRY! Alfred, Lord Tennyson–or Al, as I like to call him–is one of England’s most famous and revered poets. Today’s passage from Al comes from one of his most famous works, In Memoriam, written on the death of his closest friend. In Memoriam is a long poem, written in iambic tetrameter (-‘ -‘ -‘ -‘) with an enclosed rhyme (abba). The rhyme and meter are often noted when talking about this work, because there is a general sense that the strict rhythm contributes to the poem’s somber, mourning mood almost as much as the text itself.

However this passage is one of the poem’s most joyous and hopeful; it is from this passage that the phrase “ring out the old, ring in the new” originates. It’s a beautiful poem. Enjoy.

“Ring out, wild bells” from In Memoriam, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Robert Frost


This week’s entry comes from playing a little word association with last week’s poem; “Frost at Midnight” to Robert Frost. I must admit, I never studied Frost much, and I know little about his work. He’s quite famous, of course; one of only a few Modern poets to achieve real fame in his lifetime. Poets used to be famous. These days they’re hard to come by. Most folks would be hard-pressed to name a major poet working today.

This post comes to you on another late snowy night, just a couple nights after the Winter Solstice, which recieves an oblique reference in tonight’s poem. While Coleridge’s poem is a tremendous exercise in complimentary imagery, stacking sights and sounds and ideas right on top of one another, Frost’s poem and his poetry in general tackle the problem of lyrical simplicity: how to pack volumes of information and sentiment into four little stanzas. But this is where Frost excelled. Many would argue that a good lyric is harder to write than a good epic. Even the rhyme scheme of tonight’s poem is deceptively simple, yet quite complex: aaba bbcb ccdc dddd. This is called a Rubaiyat. The lyric asks much of the reader, and yet asks nothing: one could read a simple Frost lyric and see nothing more than beautiful imagery and fine wordplay. But the same reader is greatly rewarded if they decide to delve deeper into the world implied in the poem. This is a beautiful poem, one made for the quiet winter night. Enjoy.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


During my travels I started thinking about doing a weekly post chronicling some of the bigwigs of poetry. You know, those jokers your lit teacher wanted you to read but you never did. I never read them, not until college anyway. So I thought about it…and now here it is. Every Sunday—the day of rest, naturally—I’ll post a poem and whatever biographical info I can rustle up in my brain. Simple enough. No parsing or close reading. Just poems. I’d like to hear what people think, too. Don’t be afraid, it’s only poetry. It doesn’t bite.

Well first up is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge, or “STC” as I like to call him came up in conversation last night (and really, why wouldn’t he?), with both my mom and aunt reciting the first lines from one of his most famous works, Kubla Khan. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…” I don’t recall ever memorizing lines in grade school. STC was a contemporary and friend of Wordworth and Byron, and with those two helped create a new kind of poetry: English Romantic. I hold STC in particularly high regard because his poem Frost at Midnight, which I now present to you, was one of the poems I read in college that kindled my love of poetry in the first place. I hope you enjoy it.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mick study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity, doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.