Random Thought While Reading Poetry

Reading a book of collected poems (Earth-Shattering Poems edited by Liz Rosenberg) and came across “A Poison Tree” by William Blake.  It’s the one that starts “I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end.”

Wondering if it was quite as cathartic for the friend.

The Forgiving Manager: For National Poetry Month

The Forgiving Manager

In a story Jesus tells, there’s a manager
whose master catches him bleeding
the till– then lets the embezzler
settle the accounts. The manager forgives
great debts that are not his:
makes a thousand bushels of grain
six hundred and a thousand measures
of wine four hundred; tells each creditor
to record this, quickly, on his bill.
And the master applauds the manager’s gall,
his use of his position to ease
the weight of credit on his neighbors.

Forgiveness is a mischief that anyone
can play, releasing one’s cohorts
from the bonds of books– as Jesus
forgives payments never owed to him,
usurping undercover the prerogatives
of God. Any son or daughter of man
can do this. Who are you, he is asked,
to forgive a man’s sins? He evades
the question, proclaiming simply that sins
are forgiven. It’s not about authority.
It’s about who dares to take the pen.

-Brian Day

The Universe is Godding

Today on the blog of the Lake Chalice Church in Gainesville, FL was an article on the language we use to speak about God and how this frames our perception.

It would seem, to carry Wieman to his logical conclusion, that the universe will have attained total, complete and perfect spirituality when everything signifies everything else — or when, we might say, when everything gods and is godded by everything else. Godding, then, would be the activity of building meaning by building interconnection and relationship…

Our grammar itself lures us into assuming that there are separate things, the referents of our nouns. Could we tell the story of life, of creation, in a language without subjects or objects, a language of only verbs, a language that perhaps the Cosmos itself speaks when it whispers to itself — or in your ear?

This, of course, (I say of course as though you have read my book of poetry Where Souls Grow Warm) was the theme of one of the poems in my collection.  So while we’re on the subject, I thought I would share.


The universe is godding.
Rain from the evening
showers from the trees
a powder in the morning sun
like snow in August
large drops and small
then a pause before
poised and still
before the next breeze

The world is godding.
A leaf from the ivy
that grows along the wall
with a single droplet
has become a mirror
shining as a tiny star
in the mid-morning glow

A butterfly gods above
in its halting, jagged flight
The ivy diamond disappears
as a cloud obscures
the rays of the sun,
then moves on
“Let there be light”
The morning is godding.

Beneath the overhang
an arachnid artist
has woven her stunning silver web
zen spider
I brush it away with a broom
and she starts again
The spider is godding.

A persistent squirrel
under the plastic bird feeder
gods as he climbs
the metal pole
and is baffled by a bevel
He will keep trying
The back yard is godding.

I, the guilty poet,
gaze out the window
as a leaf, all burnt umber
dances to the ground
godding in the updrafts

A perfection of messy weeds
peeks through the stones of the walkway
ripe for the picking
another task on my list
My distracted mind gods and wanders
Are there words for all these things?

Nearby an engine revs,
coughs and buzzes
a lawn is being cut to size
suburban fashion
intersecting with the interdependent web of life

In the house
a child is screaming,
“No! It’s mine!” she cries
The neighbor’s house is godding.

The beige cat approaches
slinky and masterful
and purrs as he rubs his head
against my leg
The universe is godding.

And I amen.
I amen.

Things Forgotten and the Personal Lives of Poets

Alas! that Time should war against Distress,
And numb the sweet ache of remembered loss,
And give for sorrow’s gold the indifferent dross
Of calm regret or stark forgetfulness.
I should have worn eternal mourning dress
And nailed my soul to some perennial cross.
And made my thoughts like restless waves that toss
On the wild sea’s intemperate wilderness.


But lo! came Life, and with its painted toys
Lured me to play again like any child.
O pardon me this weak inconstancy.
May my soul die if in all present joys,
Lapped in forgetfulness or sense-beguiled
Yea, in my mirth, if I prefer not thee.


There is a time in the grieving process when you begin to heal.  You return to life and happiness.  Days go by, then a week, when you have not thought about the lost one.  And then, from time to time, you’re pulled back.  You remember that you have forgotten.  You feel a twinge of guilt for feeling so well.  Could it be so easy to survive without someone who had once been so important?  But you go on living, and healing, as nature intended, as it was supposed to be.


Recently I came across a CD of the poems of Lord Alfred Douglas recited by Lord Gawain Douglas, who has been highly active in trying to restore the literary reputation of his great uncle.  He has an uphill battle.  Not because the poems are mediocre, but because of the march of time and things that refuse to be forgotten.


There is, of course, the inherently quixotic nature of trying to restore the reputation of a poet in an era when poets do not have reputations.


There is also the not-so-small question of changing tastes in poetry.  The formal forms that Alfred Douglas championed are not the favorites of young people today.


But these problems pale in comparison to another problem.  The life of Lord Alfred Douglas is just so darned distracting.  He will always be best known as the “intimate friend” of Oscar Wilde.  The addressee of Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis, the character around whom the trial that sent the playwright to jail swirled. Whether you detest Alfred Douglas, as many do, or you are sympathetic to him (probably with certain reservations), chances are you will read his poems with the Wilde affair in mind.


That is not how poetry is meant to be read.  Poems should touch on universal themes.  We don’t read poems in order to discover their authors, but to discover ourselves.


The poem I included at the beginning of this post is about the mourning process, but knowing that it was written by Lord Alfred Douglas after the death of his lover Oscar Wilde means that it inevitably will be read biographically.

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

When I Had No Roof…

Samurai Song by Robert Pinsky

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

via The Writer’s Almanac

The Challenges of Supporting Challenging Arts

An article in The Awl, centered around a lost e. e. cummings poem which was recently discovered buried in a pile of papers, is a reflection on the life of the poet and his friend and supporter Scofield Thayer.  One portion of the article ties into the thoughts I expressed last week about the difference between “entertainment” and “art” and how much easier it is to sell the former than the latter.

While working as an editor at the magazine [The Dial], Thayer had tried to persuade the editorial staff to publish Cummings’ work, but they rejected the unorthodox experiments of the young poet… The poet Amy Lowell, a skeptic of both The Dial and Cummings’ work, bet Thayer $100 that Cummings would not ascend to the pantheon of American poets.

The Dial’s success came at a great cost to Thayer. The magazine never made a profit, and at one point he and Watson were supporting it to the tune of $100,000 a year…

Thayer also quickly found out that being forward thinking in matters of art was not without its dangers. He had to work tirelessly to ensure that the magazine did not fall afoul of John Sumner, the new head of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who was successfully prosecuting and closing magazines deemed to be politically radical or immoral. Modernism itself, being an import from Europe, was often conflated in the public mind with immorality, and the vice societies were as likely to prosecute artists and intellectuals as they were the purveyors of smut…

It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Dial made Cummings’ career.

Non-Suicidal Poets Tend to Live Long Lives

Iris Tree, Amedeo Modigliani, ca. 1916It’s a line from the book The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson that caught my attention.  (It’s about obituaries and a good read.)

“Non-suicidal poets tend to live long lives.”

Do they live particularly long?  Or is it a retirement profession.  Maybe they start old already.

It’s the “non-suicidal” part that gets me in this line.  If you don’t self-destruct…  Poets, we all understand, have a habit of exploding like Spinal Tap drummers.

Suicidal poets (good rock band name, that) are the ones who are too young to have come to peace yet with the challenges of living.  If they can’t express themselves or make their living through their art they have no choice but to die.

Non-suicidal poets tend to live long lives… they’re not skydivers after all… They’re not working on a fishing trawler.  (Non-suicidal coal miners tend to live short lives.)

Here’s a secret about suicidal poets that might bring consolation to those going through a rough patch—especially aspiring writers or artists who can’t seem to find recognition in the world:

Suicidal poets sometimes live long lives too.  They deal with moments of doubt and despair and they chug along.  They stick around long enough to experience the moments of joy, passion and the transcendent experience of writing in flow.

Take the example of Iris Tree.

Wikipedia sums up Iris Tree’s 71-year life this way: “Iris Tree was an English poet, actress and artists’ model, described as a bohemian, an eccentric a wit and an adventuress.”

But if you look up her poems—they’re old enough to be available on Google Books—you encounter vivid descriptions of depression.  One dark poem after another.

This is the opening of one from her 1917 book “Poems.”

THERE are songs enough of love, of joy, of grief:

Roads to the sunset, alleys to the moon;

Poems of the red rose and the golden leaf,

Fantastic faery and gay ballad tune.

The long road unto nothing I will sing,

 Sing on one note, monotonous and dry,

Of sameness, calmness and the years that bring

No more emotion than the fear to die.

 Grey house, grey house and after that grey house,

Another house as grey and steep and still:

An old cat tired of playing with a mouse,

A sick child tired of chasing down the hill.

Shuffle and hurry, idle feet, and slow,

 Grim face and merry face, so ugly all!

Why do you hurry? Where is there to go?

Pretty bleak for an “eccentric, adventuress, bohemian.”

I imagine she felt disappointment and despair in proportion to her hopes for the world.   I envision her as a woman who ached for the grand adventure of life, who wanted to discover something beyond the ordinary, but who came up against limitation, a life that could not be magical each moment.  In short, life.

The most famous speech on suicide in the English language, of course, comes from William Shakespeare.  Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…”

“Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprise of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.”

Hamlet chooses the habit of life over the unknown of death.

Centuries later another playwright, Tony Kushner, put the same question to his character Prior Walter in “Angels in America,” he said:

“Bless me anyway. I want more life.  I can’t help myself. I do. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much, much worse, but…You see them living anyway.  When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live.  Death usually has to take life away.  I don’t know if that’s just the animal.  I don’t know if it’s not braver to die.  But I recognize the habit.  The addiction to being alive.  We live past hope.  If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do.  It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but…Bless me anyway.  I want more life.”

What I like about both of these speeches is the admission that the speaker could be wrong— that life may not be preferable to death— but that he chooses it anyway, without any guarantees.  There is something liberating in this.

It is only with the knowledge of the option of death that you can truly choose to live.  Once you have decided that it is worth “bearing these fardels,” then you can endure what life throws at you.  You have placed a value on your life, beyond circumstances— a value on living itself.

Iris Tree wrote:

HOW often, when the thought of suicide

With ghostly weapon beckons us to die,

The ghosts of many foods alluring glide

On golden dishes, wine in purple tide

To drown our whim. Things danced before the eye

Like tasselled grapes to Tantalus: The sly

Blue of a curling trout, the battened pride

Of ham in frills, complacent quails that lie

Resigned to death like heroes—July peas,

Expectant bottles foaming at the brink—

White bread, and honey of the golden bees—

A peach with velvet coat, some prawns in pink,

A slice of beef carved deftly, Stilton cheese,

And cup where berries float and bubbles wink.

It may not be one of the greatest poems of the English language, but the more I read it, the more I like it.

I like how Tree is distracted from her despair by a simple habit- eating—an experience that offers an opportunity for pleasure and gratitude.  There is no promise of a better future where all her problems will be gone.  There is only the present moment and something to savor, the bounty of the earth.  That makes life worth holding onto for a few moments more, and maybe the next few, and the next until eventually you find that suicidal poets, too, can live long, rewarding lives.