Tag: poetry

Bill Callahan, “Too Many Birds”


Too many birds in one tree
Too many birds in one tree
And the sky is full of black and screaming leaves
The sky is full of black and screaming

And one more bird
Then one more bird
And one last bird
And another

One last black bird without a place to land
One last black bird without a place to be
Turns around in hopes to find the place it last knew rest
Oh black bird, over black rain burn
This is not where you last knew rest
You fly all night to sleep on stone
The heartless rest that in the morn, we’ll be gone
You fly all night to sleep on stone, to return to the tree with too many birds
Too many birds
Too many birds

If you
If you could
If you could only
If you could only stop
If you could only stop your
If you could only stop your heart
If you could only stop your heart beat
If you could only stop your heart beat for
If you could only stop your heart beat for one
If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart
If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat

~ ~ ~

This song is very beautiful on the page, especially that last section, where each line has this new nuance that carries you along. But – the song must really be heard to be loved.

Seamus Heaney, “The Schoolbag”


My handsewn leather schoolbag. Forty years.
Poet, you were nel mezzo del cammin
When I shouldtered it, half-full of blue-lined jotters,
And saw the classroom charts, the displayed bean,

The wallmap with its spray of shipping lanes
Describing arcs across the blue North Channel…
And in the middle of the road to school,
Ox-eye daisies and wild dandelions.

Learning’s easy carried! The bag is light,
Scuffed and supple and unemptiable
As an itinerant school conjuror’s hat.
So take it, for a word-hoard and a handsel,

As you step out trig and look back all at once
Like a child on his first morning leaving parents.

~ ~ ~

I really have a thing for Heaney’s poetry these days. As a reader he is constantly rewarding; I could flip to any page in any of his books and be perfectly satisfied, and more likely blown away, by the poem I found there. He’s a magician, an alchemist. I look at his poems and think, these are just words. These are simple words I know and use. And yet he shapes them into magic, over and over again. This is true poetry here friends, I hope you’re seeing it.

(from his book Seeing Things)

Seamus Heaney, “From the Frontier of Writing”


The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover,

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration –

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by the quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

And suddenly you’re through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road

past armour-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

~ ~ ~

A beautiful and frightened thought on writing and war. The entire feeling of the work is summed up in a word in the first line of Heaney’s own making: nilness. Nilness. What a perfectly absent, hollow word. Hollow and haunted, filled with this blank blackness that permeates the rest of the poem.

William Shakespeare


Sonnet #18

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

– – –

Monsters of Poetry back again with the Monster of Poetry. This is one of those poems we all think back to from time to time; surely, it’s one of ol’ Bill’s most quotable sonnets. The lines of this poem seem to be a part of our DNA, fused over the centuries by beautiful mutation. What English speaker has never spoken that opening line? What English speaker does not still get a little ticklish feeling when they hear the phrase “the darling buds of May?” Indeed, the poem is so ingrained into our collective unconscious that it has become almost cliche, which is a true tragedy. So I propose to look at this poem with fresh eyes and appreciate it for what it is once more.

Sonnet #18 is thought by many to be one of the world’s most perfect love poems, if not one of the most perfect poems of all time. And with good reason. First off, the poem’s form is impeccable. Or nearly so. It’s a sonnet, clearly: the title “sonnet” simply indicates a rhyming pattern. In this case, abab cdcd efef gg. “Sonnet” also usually, but not always, indicates a certain format. The most traditional of sonnets are broken into three sections. The first eight lines make a statement, and the next four make a counterstatement or an addendum to the first statement. the final couplet is a resolution or conclusion. In #18, we can see this pattern: lines 1-8 tell of the beauty of summer, but also tell that summer’s beauty fades every year when autumn comes. Lines 9-12 state that “you” are not like the summer; you will never fade, because I have immortalized you in song. The couplet offers a romantic conclusion: as long as men live, breathe, and see, they will read this poem, and you will be forever young. Best pick up line ever? I think so.

The real reason for this poem’s immortality lies in its meter. Like nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, #18 is in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a bit magical for poets. An iamb is a “foot” made of one unstressed and one stressed beat: “ta-tum.” The word “compare” in the first line is an iamb. Five iambs together is a pentameter: ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum. Many believe it’s the meter that represents most closely the rise and fall of the English language, and thus is best suited to represent English. Shakespeare knew, however, that drama comes when the meter is broken, if ever so slightly. He uses this technique straight away: say aloud the first line. You don’t say “Shall I”, like normal iambic pentameter, you say “Shall I”. Two stressed beats in a row is called a spondee, and Shakespeare knew that to start this poem off right, he needed more force than an iamb would allow. A lesser poet may not have ever made that leap.

The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that it plays with iambic pentameter; it dances with it. Shakespeare never draws attention to the meter; nowhere in this poem do you feel the meter instead of the words, just like you’d never see the steel beams holding up the building. Nor do the words move flatly along; they are moved by the meter without being controlled by it.

Lastly, this poem is so endearing because it is quietly enigmatic. The person immortalized is, of course, dead. What is immortal is, in fact, the poem itself, which grows with time, as Shakespeare predicted. So the poem is not just about the subject (Actually a young boy, not a woman. Bet you didn’t know that!), but about the poem itself; some would say it’s more about the poem (and the poet’s ego) than anything else. It takes a lot of guts to say your poem will last forever. Funny thing is, he was right.

So there you have it, Sonnet 18, continuing to live on as Shakespeare knew it would.

James Wright


I’m still in such awe of this poem that I don’t really know what to say about it yet. The magic of it has not yet given way to insight. The funny thing is, I always seem to “forget” about this poem until I read it again. However, I’d probably say this is one of my absolute favorite poems. Every time I read it, it still fills me up like a big good meal. A beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing from the late James Wright. Enjoy.

– – –

A Blessing

Just off the Highway to Rochester, Minnesota
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Galway Kinnell


Blackberry Eating

I love to go out in late September
among fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

– – –

The other night in my poetry class, we talked about poems like this. Thick, juicy poems, poems that drip, that fill you up like a meal, that leave you drunk like a bottle of red wine. Poems that leave you woozy and red-faced. Poems so filled with language, when you finish reciting them or hearing them recited, you just feel…lost. Drunk. We talked about William Carlos William’s plums, and the way you can feel them, almost, in your mouth. This is something more…this is a prayer to blackberries. Black tends to get a bad rap as a color. Here, the black is so black it has become something more…black’s ability as a pigment is to absorb, and here I feel absorbed, enveloped by the black of the blackberries. I feel buried in the crevices between the little lumps. “The black art of blackberry making.” Ah…

More than anything this is an example of wordplay in its highest form, and a showing of the power repetition has in language. His words are mostly polysyllabic, or else long monosyllables, like “black” itself, a word that stretches out from its vowel, as absorbent as its namesake. And then words like “September,” “overripe,” “prickly,” “ripest,” “unbidden,” “peculiar,” “startled” and “language.” Big words full of tongue motions. (Compare again to Williams; his poem is far simpler in its language, and that is where its success lies.) Kinnell goes so far as to single out particular words that remind him of blackberry eating, “strengths,” “squinch,” and “broughamed.” What’s unique about these word choices is that none of them have anything to do remotely with eating: “strengths” we understand; “squinch” is similar to squint; “brougham” is a horse-drawn carriage. Here Kinnell has made a separation between a word’s sound and its meaning, a rare feat. He has found sounds that remind him of blackberries, not word-meanings. This is the sort of thing poets try and fail at their whole lives. In this case the success is palpable, and it’s delicious.

Percy Shelley



I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – “two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lips, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” –

– – –

This is a beautifully sublime poem, quiet and powerful. With only few words Shelley brings the scene and the idea to vivid life, walking the line between narrative and lyric poem.

Shelley was a member of the same movement that spawned Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Keats, etc. – the Romantic Movement. Wordsworth’s poem a couple weeks ago illustrated one aspect of Romanticism: reverence toward Nature, and the power of Nature over the human spirit. Shelley’s Ozymandias, in a quick sonnet (with a beautiful interlocking rhyme), takes on another major aspect of Romanticism: the use of History to inform the present. The Romantics loved the Classical Era: they found strong kinship in the ancient Romans and Greeks, races of philosopher/warrior/poets. The Romantics (the word itself containing “Roman”) looked back into history, and found people who were strong, spiritual, loving, and in tune with the world. At the same time they often disdained of non-Greeks and non-Romans, finding them brutish. They were very interested in filling in a direct line of philosophical succession from England to Rome to Athens.

Here Shelley writes of Ozymandias – not a Greek or Roman – and his broken statue, alone and forgotten in the desert – Egypt or some place equally exotic. The statue’s location seems even further away with the use of a proxy to tell the story, a “traveller from an antique land.” Shelley finds in Ozymandias’ statue traces of tyrrany; “Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!” Ozymandias calls to mind a dictator contemporary to Shelley, whose attempt to become the King of Kings through “mighty works” became a “colossal Wreck;” Napoleon. Calling Ozymandias the “King of Kings” may also be a direct insult to Christians, who have used the same title for Jesus. The irony of it is that nothing is left of this King of Kings except his broken statue.

In the end we find that Humanity is trumped by Nature – anything we create can be destroyed, all to quickly washed over by sand and time.

Jack Kerouac


Excerpts from On the Road

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.

What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

– – –

Today is Old Jack’s birthday, so I thought I’d give him the honor of being today’s Monster of Poetry. You’ll notice that today’s selections are not, technically, poetry. But they are. There’s a point where anything crosses a certain line and becomes poetry. Prose, essays, drunk emails, the menu at your favorite restaurant. Even what you eat at the restaurant, or an eyelash on a cheek, or a home run and a cracked bat. Kerouac knew this. Many great writers have gone through life reading and watching and writing great, well-loved things, but never wrote poetry. Jack couldn’t help but be a poet. When you hear how his friends talked about him, they all knew he was something special, a human like no other. He saw the deepest life in anything, and he knew how to pull it to the surface. His way of writing, spontaneous prose, was an attempt to access that deep purity and make it available to everyone. This was his gift. It’s also what poisoned him in the end. Because when he reached down deep, deep, deep, he found that in the heart of things is a great joy, but also a great melancholy. And he said, “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.” He knew this deep joy and sadness permeated us all. He drank himself to death as a way, he thought, to enjoy life; a part of me thinks he really drank to push down the painful feeling of knowledge. The rest of us have only just begun to understand him. Happy Birthday, Jack.

William Wordsworth


The Tables Turned

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

– – –

Spring is a tricky thing here in Minnesota – on days like today the heart and mind are confused. The air is warm and filled with water; the breeze is cool and not stinging; the sun is bright, but not hot; you can hear the sounds of ice melting and icicles breaking and falling. But, on the ground rests a solid foot and a half of snow. Your body doesn’t know what to think.

Wordsworth is the poet of springtime; one would believe fall and winter never found him in the Lake District. Spring is Nature (Wordsworth & Co. loved the capital-N Nature) at its most fertile, at its smelliest and soggiest. Nature is more Natural in Spring. So when I catch whiffs of it in the air, I like to read a little Wordsworth in hopes of nudging the planet forward.

The language of Wordsworth’s poetry is Romanticism at its best – and it should be, he invented it. Bill Wordsworth is prone to exclamations and interruptions – no one loved a “!” like he did. He paints with a great deal of color; his poems are filled with yellows and greens and browns. He is prone to hyperbole – his poems generally start off small and dull but end up in a world that bears only little resemblance to ours. And he loves using big chewy words like “beauteous.” What a great word!

For me, Wordsworth never seems old or dusty, like so many poets do – there’s a freshness to his lyrical style that I just love to soak up. It feels so invigorating, comforting. This is sweatshirt poesy. This poem is perhaps the most self-explanatory of any that I’ve presented so far. It’s message is simple: get off your ass and go outside. He says it a little better, I’ll admit, but that’s about the long and short of it. Looked at a little more closely, this poem advocates a back-to-nature style of living; Wordsworth is saying that a life close to Nature is the life most worth living, and that everything we need to live is already inside us. Science and Art are unnecessary excesses (yet Wordsworth addresses the topic through poetry, an artform). “Our meddling intellect / mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things.” There’s a bit of a pagan bent to the whole thing: linnets and throstles are full of wisdom, and not mean like preachers. “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings.” Wordsworth insisted a number of times that he was not a “Nature worshipper,” but it’s clear here that he advocates some sort fo communion with the world; the more like animals we act, the more like humans we become.

Edna St. Vincent Millay



We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable –
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hilltop underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,
We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

– – –

I don’t know much about Edna Millay. Although she’s quite popular and her name is well known, I never read much of her work in school – at least that I remember. But we’ve read a number of her poems in my weekly poetry class, and this poem, Recuerdo, struck me in particular. I went out and picked up her Selected Poems. Her life in poetry started very quickly; she won a contest in 1917 with the poem Renasence, and a member of the audience to which she read offered to pay Edna’s way through Vassar College. There she studied and wrote, but was never one for academia; apparently Edna was quite a feisty gal. I read a story that the dean wanted to expel her, except the she was such a fine poet. When she left Vassar she moved to Greenwich Village, still under patronage, and was quickly wrapped up in what Fitzgerald called “The Jazz Age.” She went to all the parties and was well loved; indeed, she was quite beautiful, with fiery red hair and a wit to match. She had men practically proposing to her by the ends of her readings. But after years on the circuit she became ill and retired to the country, quietly living and writing the rest of her years.

Back to Recuerdo (which means “I remember” or “I record” in Spanish). It has a very simple rhyme: aabbcc. In fact most of Millay’s poems rhyme, a choice that made her work accessible, popular, and entertaining. (Meanwhile the avant garde was working toward very different goals – remember the Imagists?) Much of her poetry too is metrical – Recuerdo is lightly attached to (forgive me) “dactylic tetrameter,” meaning four sets of three-syllabled “feet.” In this way it makes the poem much like a waltz, – or – the swaying of a ferry. But some of the lines have one syllable too many – the definition of that lovable word “sesquipedalion.”

Recuerdo resonates with that end-of-the-night euphoria, that combination of exhaustion and absolute joy. There is only a slight sense of the actual events of the night – a hilltop, a fire, the moon – the poem focuses on the shaggy feeling of going home. They cross on the ferry eating apples and pears, vivid, crisp fruits, sensory anchors to hold us in the poem as Edna takes us swaying on the water. One can see her and her companion munching away on a basket of apples – it’s such a sensual moment. The most radiant image, though, is the “bucketful of gold.” I picture a big ladle dipping into the ocean. The sun seems at once both warm and crisply-cold like water. The last stanza finds them pouring that bucket out onto the streets of New York, giving their euphoria away as fruit and newspapers and change. A moment of beauty ending with a moment of charity.