Poetry Sunday: Paul Laurence Dunbar

I'm especially pleased to be able to showcase this new poet in this week's edition of Poetry Sunday. In the past, I've highlighted the lives and the accomplishments of famous African-American freethinkers like W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston, showing that religious skepticism and freethought have always played a lively role in the American black community. Today's post offers another example of that.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Ohio in June 1872 to two ex-slaves from Kentucky. His parents separated when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother, who supported the family by working as a washerwoman. Despite their poverty, she taught him a love of reading and a desire for education, and he began composing his own poems by the age of six and was reciting poetry in public by the age of nine. Though he was the only African-American student in his class at the otherwise all-white Dayton Central High School, he excelled academically and even became class president. He also served briefly as editor of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper published by his classmates Orville and Wilbur Wright.

After graduation, Dunbar launched his literary career with his first collection of poems, Oak and Ivy (1892). His second book, Majors and Minors (1895) was well-received critically and brought him national attention in newspapers and magazines such as Harper's Weekly and the Sunday Evening Post. His work attracted admirers such as the abolitionist hero and ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who called him "the most promising young colored man in America", as well as Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Dunbar wrote superb poetry both in standard English and in African-American dialect, though it was always a source of resentment on his part that the latter tended to be more sought-after by editors. Nevertheless, he was a prolific author throughout his life, turning out poetry, novels, short story collections, lyrics for musicals, and even a play - In Dahomey, the first Broadway musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans - right up until his untimely death in 1906, at the age of 33, from tuberculosis. Some of his work had a strong flavor of freethought, as we can see in today's poem.


I am no priest of crooks nor creeds,
For human wants and human needs
Are more to me than prophets' deeds;
And human tears and human cares
Affect me more than human prayers.

Go, cease your wail, lugubrious saint!
You fret high Heaven with your plaint.
Is this the "Christian's joy" you paint?
Is this the Christian's boasted bliss?
Avails your faith no more than this?

Take up your arms, come out with me,
Let Heav'n alone; humanity
Needs more and Heaven less from thee.
With pity for mankind look 'round;
Help them to rise — and Heaven is found.

Other posts in this series:

October 25, 2009, 8:26 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

Poetry Sunday: Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation

This week's Poetry Sunday features a new author, the American poet Stanley Kunitz. In his long lifetime, he was one of America's most renowned poets, winning, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Medal of Arts, the Robert Frost Medal, and Harvard's Centennial Medal. He served a term as Poet Laureate of the United States, and was still writing and publishing at the age of 100, just prior to his death in 2006.

Stanley Kunitz was born in 1905 in Massachusetts. His father committed suicide just weeks before his birth, and the young Kunitz was raised by his stepfather and his mother, Yetta Helen Jasspon. Kunitz graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in English and served in the military in a noncombat role as a conscientious objector during World War II. After the war, he began a teaching career which took him through a variety of prestigious liberal arts colleges, including Vassar, Brandeis, Rutgers, Yale, and especially Columbia University, where he spent 22 years. During part of this time, he also served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin, a professional journal of librarians, where he took a strong stand against censorship and encouraged others to do the same. A 1938 article of his, "The Myth of Library Impartiality", was the inspiration for the Library Bill of Rights that's still used in American libraries today.

Like many great poets, Stanley Kunitz was a nonbeliever, in his case by way of a secular Jewish tradition that ran through his family. In an interview later in life, he said that his mother, "at the age of twelve... read Spinoza and lost her God", and that in his household, "the stress was on cultural and ethical values rather than on ritual practices". In that same interview, he also said, "The God in whom I believe does not exist."

Today's poem is a lyrical musing on nature, but with a wickedly clever sting embedded within. Written from the viewpoint of a worm hoping to undergo metamorphosis into a moth, it starts out idyllic, even romantic - but then takes a sudden, unexpectedly dark turn, one that cuttingly satirizes the excuses offered by proponents of theodicy. It's also been a revelation to other nonbelievers, as you can see from this reading by a fan - come back and watch it after you've read the poem.

Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation

Since that first morning when I crawled
into the world, a naked grubby thing,
and found the world unkind,
my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial: I shall be changed.
In my imaginings I have already spent
my brooding winter underground,
unfolded silky powdered wings, and climbed
into the air, free as a puff of cloud
to sail over the steaming fields,
alighting anywhere I pleased,
thrusting into deep tubular flowers.

It is not so: there may be nectar
in those cups, but not for me.
All day, all night, I carry on my back
embedded in my flesh, two rows
of little white cocoons,
so neatly stacked
they look like eggs in a crate.
And I am eaten half away.

If I can gather strength enough
I'll try to burrow under a stone
and spin myself a purse
in which to sleep away the cold;
though when the sun kisses the earth
again, I know I won't be there.
Instead, out of my chrysalis
will break, like robbers from a tomb,
a swarm of parasitic flies,
leaving my wasted husk behind.

Sir, you with the red snippers
in your hand, hovering over me,
casting your shadow, I greet you,
whether you come as an angel of death
or of mercy. But tell me,
before you choose to slice me in two:
Who can understand the ways
of the Great Worm in the Sky?

Other posts in this series:

September 20, 2009, 9:58 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments

Poetry Sunday: An Arundel Tomb

Today's edition of Poetry Sunday features a return of the English poet and novelist Philip Larkin. Born in Coventry in 1922, Larkin received a degree in literature from Oxford in 1943. Though he worked for most of his life as a librarian at the University of Hull, he was well-known and widely acclaimed for his poetry and his work as a literary reviewer and jazz critic. He received numerous awards for his writing in his lifetime, including the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, the German Shakespeare Prize, an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and an honorary rank of Commander of the British Empire, one step below knighthood. He was also offered the title of England's Poet Laureate late in life, but declined the honor. Nevertheless, Larkin was recently voted England's best-loved poet of the last 50 years in a popular poll.

Larkin's poetry is skeptical, plainspoken, down-to-earth, occasionally bleak and pessimistic but sometimes idyllic and hopeful. He was a confirmed agnostic, and his work was praised as being "free from both mystical and logical compulsions" and "empirical in its attitude to all that comes".

My choice of poem for today was inspired by the story of Edward and Joan Downes, whom I wrote about last month in "Dignity in Dying: An Atheist's View". In it, the poet describes the tomb of a long-dead husband and wife from the English nobility, and the touching, defiant statement they left sculpted in stone on their sarcophagus. The tomb in question is real: after you read this poem, go see the pictures of it.

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Other posts in this series:

August 16, 2009, 10:02 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

Poetry Sunday: Tor House

This month's Poetry Sunday features another poem by Robinson Jeffers, an American poet of the early twentieth century. Born 1887 in Pennsylvania, Jeffers was the son of a Presbyterian minister who taught his son Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, Jeffers did not follow in his father's footsteps. Rather than theology, he became enthralled at a young age with the natural world, and became an avid outdoorsman and follower of scientific discoveries in biology, astronomy, and other areas.

Jeffers found his voice as a poet in the first decade of the twentieth century when he moved to Carmel, on the California coast. He would live there for the rest of his life with his wife, Una, in a granite home called Tor House which he built himself. Jeffers found in the wildness and isolation of the coast, combined with his scientific background, a potent inspiration for poetry. Most of his poems are about the stark and awe-inspiring glories of nature - the "astonishing beauty of things", as he called it. Jeffers also wrote much about human civilization, which he viewed, Thoreau-like, as decadent and corrupted, compared to the clean, fierce freshness of the wilderness. (The fact that he lived through two world wars seems to have given him a certain cynicism about the destructive tendencies of civilization.) His poetry is well-known in the modern environmental movement. His published works include Californians (1916), The Women at Point Sur (1927), Be Angry at the Sun (1941) and The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (1963).

Jeffers' religious views were pantheistic. Rather than the anthropomorphic, miracle-working god of Christianity, he believed in a god that exists as the sum total of all natural forces - "the wild God of the world", he wrote in his poem "Hurt Hawks". In "Roan Stallion", he mused, "Not in a man's shape / He approves the praise, he that walks lightning-naked on the Pacific, that laces the suns with planets, / The heart of the atom with electrons". Jeffers' deity was "no God of love", "no anthropoid God making commandments", but rather "the God who does not care and will never cease". Like nature itself, he shows no mercy and grants no afterlife, and is often violent and savage, but nevertheless spins out astonishing and luminous beauty to fill the world. (Read more here and here about Jeffers' pantheist views.)

In today's poem, Jeffers writes of his own home, Tor House, and contemplates whether the work of his hands will survive the passage of time. Nature, in its eternal renewal, will survive; and the cosmos will remain - and I'm in awe of his description of the constellation Orion, spanning a nearby valley like a lamplit bridge - but Jeffers predicts that humanity, and our works, will eventually sink like ghosts into the depths of the earth.

Tor House

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn't look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.

Other posts in this series:

July 19, 2009, 4:44 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Poetry Sunday: Evening Without Angels

In a comment on April's Poetry Sunday, Eric suggested another post featuring Wallace Stevens. I wanted to reprint Wilfred Owen's poem last month in honor of Memorial Day, but I'm always open to requests.

Today's post, like my previous selection from Stevens, highlights the poet's naturalistic, humanist views. According to Alan D. Perlis' book Wallace Stevens: A World of Transforming Shapes, this poem "eliminates angels from this world only to elevate the human soul to an angelic height".

Wallace Stevens was born in Pennsylvania in 1879 and attended Harvard University, and after his graduation worked as a lawyer and insurance agent. Unlike many famous 20th century poets, Stevens led a relatively quiet and uneventful life, often composing poems during his commute to and from the office. Despite this, and despite the late flowering of his artistic genius (he did not begin publishing until the age of 35, and many of his greatest works were published after he was 50), he is today recognized as one of the major modernist poets of the 20th century. He also held a firmly non-religious and humanist viewpoint; in his book Opus Posthumous, he wrote, "After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." His published works include Harmonium (1923), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), and The Palm at the End of the Mind (1972). His Collected Poems (1954) won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and late in life he turned down an offer of a professorship from Harvard to remain at his insurance job.

Evening Without Angels

the great interests of man: air and light,
the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness
of looking.
—Mario Rossi

Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
Above the trees? And why the poet as
Eternal chef d'orchestre?

                                Air is air,
Its vacancy glitters round us everywhere.
Its sounds are not angelic syllables
But our unfashioned spirits realized
More sharply in more furious selves.

                                And light
That fosters seraphim and is to them
Coiffeur of haloes, fecund jeweller—
Was the sun concoct for angels or for men?
Sad men made angels of the sun, and of
The moon they made their own attendant ghosts,
Which led them back to angels, after death.

Let this be clear that we are men of sun
And men of day and never of pointed night,
Men that repeat antiquest sounds of air
In an accord of repetitions. Yet,
If we repeat, it is because the wind
Encircling us, speaks always with our speech.

Light, too, encrusts us making visible
The motions of the mind and giving form
To moodiest nothings, as, desire for day
Accomplished in the immensely flashing East,
Desire for rest, in that descending sea
Of dark, which in its very darkening
Is rest and silence spreading into sleep.

...Evening, when the measure skips a beat
And then another, one by one, and all
To a seething minor swiftly modulate.
Bare night is best. Bare earth is best. Bare, bare,
Except for our own houses, huddled low
Beneath the arches and their spangled air,
Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire,
Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.

Other posts in this series:

June 21, 2009, 5:08 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink1 comment

Poetry Sunday: Dulce Et Decorum Est

In honor of Memorial Day, I've chosen this poem for this week's Poetry Sunday, a classic on the horrors of war written by the English soldier Wilfred Owen.

Owen was born in 1893 in Oswestry, England. His parents were evangelical Anglicans, and Owen himself was a devout believer when young. But, according to Joseph Parisi's 100 Essential Modern Poets, he had an early crisis of faith: after studying religion, he found that "he could not reconcile Christianity with the findings of science". He took a job teaching English in Bordeaux instead, and spent a year living with a French poet in the Pyrenees. Then, in 1915, he returned home and decided to enlist in the army.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Owen served on the front lines in World War I and saw fierce combat at the Battle of Mont St. Quentin. Although he escaped serious injury, he was severely traumatized and spent several months in summer 1917 recovering at a military hospital in Edinburgh. Most of his poetry was written during this period. He was discharged in November and spent several months in London, where he met literary lights like H.G. Wells and Robert Graves. He could have stayed out of the army indefinitely, but decided to reenlist in July 1918. Tragically, he was killed in battle on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice. He was only 25 years old.

Owen's Poems was finally published, posthumously, in 1920. In sharp contrast to much other poetry of the day, which was largely jingoistic propaganda, Owen's work drew a vivid picture of the horror and futility of war from a first-hand point of view. (Paradoxically, despite his hatred of bloodshed, he was by all accounts a valiant and respected soldier, and was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action.) That attitude is powerfully expressed in today's poem. The title comes from a famous line written by the Roman poet Horace, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which translates as, "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country".

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!— An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Other posts in this series:

May 24, 2009, 3:02 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments

Poetry Sunday: A.E. Housman

Today's Poetry Sunday introduces another renowned, classic author who was also an atheist: the English poet and scholar A.E. Housman.

Housman was born in Worcestershire in 1859. His personal life was marked by tragedy: his mother died while he was young, as did four of his six siblings, and his father squandered much of the family fortune. A homosexual, he fell in love with a fellow student while attending Oxford, but was rebuffed. The rejection left Housman emotionally scarred for life, and much of his poetry makes veiled allusions to his heartbreak - explicit allusions being impossible, since homosexuality was still a felony in Victorian England. (Read more on Housman's biography here.)

Despite his personal tragedies, Housman was acknowledged as a poet and classical scholar of prodigious talent. From 1911 until his death in 1936, he held the post of Latin professor at Cambridge, and his editions of Roman poets such as Juvenal are still considered authoritative. Ironically, he considered his poetry only an adjunct to his scholarly career, although it was the former that won him the most renown. His works of poetry, most notably A Shropshire Lad (first published in 1896), were nostalgic, evocative depictions of rural life, longing for the simplicity and natural beauty of an idealized childhood. Not surprisingly, given his personal life, many of his poems are gloomy and fatalistic: they praise life and love even while mourning them as transitory. One of his most famous poems, "To An Athlete Dying Young", contains these oft-quoted lines:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Nevertheless, Housman met life's tragedies with stoicism and even flashes of dark humor, such as in the ironically titled "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff", which answers complaints that his work was overly pessimistic:

And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

Housman was also an atheist. In a letter to his sister Katharine, written six months before his own death, he said:

"I abandoned Christianity at thirteen but went on believing in God till I was twenty-one, and towards the end of that time I did a good deal of praying for certain persons and for myself. I cannot help being touched that you do it for me, and feeling rather remorseful, because it must be an expenditure of energy, and I cannot believe in its efficacy."

He described himself as a "High Church atheist", and some of his poems bear startlingly clear and bold references to his freethought allegiance. In "Easter Hymn", he raises a dilemma for Christians: either Jesus is divine and thus has taken no action to stop the bloodshed and sectarianism his teachings created, or he was human and is now deceased and forever oblivious to them. Today's poem also clearly displays its author's atheist sympathies. In it, he imagines all the gods of humankind's past gathering for one final time to observe and mourn their own demise, accepting that their time has passed and that a new secular age is fast overtaking them.

New Year's Eve

The end of the year fell chilly
  Between a moon and a moon;
Through the twilight shrilly
  The bells rang, ringing no tune.

The windows stained with story,
  The walls with miracle scored,
Were hidden for gloom and glory
  Filling the house of the Lord.

Arch and aisle and rafter
  And roof-tree dizzily high
Were full of weeping and laughter
  And song and saying good-bye.

There stood in the holy places
  A multitude none could name,
Ranks of dreadful faces
  Flaming, transfigured in flame.

Crown and tiar and mitre
  Were starry with gold and gem;
Christmas never was whiter
  Than fear on the face of them.

In aisles that emperors vaulted
  For a faith the world confessed,
Abasing the Host exalted,
  They worshipped towards the west.

They brought with laughter oblation;
  They prayed, not bowing the head;
They made without tear lamentation,
  And rendered me answer and said:

"O thou that seest our sorrow,
  It fares with us even thus:
To-day we are gods, to-morrow
  Hell have mercy on us.

"Lo, morning over our border
  From out of the west comes cold;
Down ruins the ancient order
  And empire builded of old.

"Our house at even is queenly
  With psalm and censers alight:
Look thou never so keenly
  Thou shalt not find us to-night.

"We are come to the end appointed
  With sands not many to run;
Divinities disanointed
  And kings whose kingdom is done.

"The peoples knelt down at our portal,
  All kindreds under the sky;
We were gods and implored and immortal
  Once; and to-day we die."

They turned them again to their praying,
  They worshipped and took no rest,
Singing old tunes and saying
  "We have seen his star in the west,"

Old tunes of the sacred psalters,
  Set to wild farewells;
And I left them there at their altars
  Ringing their own dead knells.

Other posts in this series:

April 19, 2009, 10:27 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

Poetry Sunday: Leaves

Today's Poetry Sunday features the American poet Sara Teasdale. Like other female writers of the nineteenth century, she lived a quiet and reclusive life, yet was acclaimed in the wider world for compositions showing far greater skill and beauty than her seemingly limited perspective should have allowed. Unlike her predecessors, however, she lived to see the feminist movement take shape and win some resounding victories. One biographer wrote that she spoke for "women emerging from the humility of subservience into the pride of achievement."

Born 1884 in St. Louis, Missouri, Sarah Trevor Teasdale was the youngest of four children. Due to frequent ill health, she was homeschooled until the age of nine, only rarely coming in contact with her peers. While a teenager, she attended private schools and afterward traveled in Europe and Egypt. At the age of 23 she published her first book, Sonnets to Duse, which was followed by others: Helen of Troy (1911), Rivers to the Sea (1915), Love Songs, a critical and popular success which won the Pulitzer Prize (1917), Flame and Shadow (1920), and Strange Victory (1933). Among her correspondents was the American poet Vachel Lindsay, whom Teasdale loved for much of her life, despite her marrying another man. She died of suicide in 1933, after suffering a long and painful bout of pneumonia.

Despite her inward-looking life, Sara Teasdale's works are startlingly beautiful and moving. In simple, lyrical, but richly emotional verse, her poetry touches on two major topics: the beauty and grandeur of wild nature and the rapture of love. Both are in evidence in this excerpt from her poem "Sappho", written from the viewpoint of the famed Greek poetess:

Here on the rock Zeus lifted from the waves,
I shall await the waking of the dawn,
Lying beneath the weight of dark as one
Lies breathless, till the lover shall awake.
And with the sun the sea shall cover me—
I shall be less than the dissolving foam
Murmuring and melting on the ebbing tide;
I shall be less than spindrift, less than shells;
And yet I shall be greater than the gods,
For destiny no more can bow my soul
As rain bows down the watch-fires on the hills.

By all accounts, Teasdale was a quiet, private person, and biographical information about her is sparse. But having read most of her poetry, I've noticed something that no other biography, to my knowledge, has remarked on: she was at least an agnostic and clearly a freethinker. In her poem "The Lamp", she writes: "If I can find out God, then I shall find Him, / If none can find Him, then I shall sleep soundly". Or consider this poem, titled "Mastery":

I would not have a god come in
To shield me suddenly from sin,
And set my house of life to rights;
Nor angels with bright burning wings
Ordering my earthly thoughts and things;
...Rather be lost than let my soul
Slip vaguely from my own control...

Today's featured poem illustrates Teasdale's identification with nature's beauty, as well as hinting even more strongly at its author's awakening to freethought. It was first published in Rivers to the Sea (1915).


One by one, like leaves from a tree,
All my faiths have forsaken me;
But the stars above my head
Burn in white and delicate red,
And beneath my feet the earth
Brings the sturdy grass to birth.
I who was content to be
But a silken-singing tree,
But a rustle of delight
In the wistful heart of night—
I have lost the leaves that knew
Touch of rain and weight of dew.
Blinded by a leafy crown
I looked neither up nor down—
But the little leaves that die
Have left me room to see the sky;
Now for the first time I know
Stars above and earth below.

Other posts in this series:

March 29, 2009, 10:17 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Poetry Sunday: The Poet in the Desert

Today's Poetry Sunday introduces a new poet: the freethinker, civil libertarian, and Renaissance man extraordinaire, Charles Erskine Scott Wood.

Born in 1852, Wood graduated from West Point in 1874 and served as an infantry officer in western campaigns, including the Nez Perce War. He was present at the surrender of Chief Joseph and transcribed (or possibly embellished) the old chief's famous saying: "My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Following his military service, he became a progressive writer and attorney in Portland, Oregon, where he represented labor unions and "radicals" such as Margaret Sanger. He was a friend of Mark Twain, and served alongside him in the American Anti-Imperialist League, which called for independence for the Philippines and other territories conquered in the Spanish-American War. His anarchist sympathies were visible in his contributions to periodicals such as Liberty, The Masses, and Emma Goldman's journal Mother Earth. But by far his best-known work is Heavenly Discourses, a collection of satirical essays that take the form of dialogues between famous figures of history and myth. Some of the similarities with modern-day news are uncanny, such as this excerpt in which God decides to wage war on Satan:

GABRIEL: I am afraid Heaven won't stand for that. Jesus has preached peace too long.
GOD: ...We must first frighten them, fill them with fear, then with hate. For example, headlines in the Heavenly Herald: "Horrible Atrocities of Satan," "Make the Cosmos Safe for Jesus," "Satan Threatens Your Halos," "Satan Disembowels a Cherub," "Satan Rapes the Ten Foolish Virgins," and so on...
GABRIEL: But none of this will be true.
GOD: True? Of course, it won't. Don't be a fool, Gabriel. You can't work up a war — preparedness, I mean — on the truth. This is war — I mean preparedness — and we simply must lie — the more horrible the lies the better.

In his later years, Wood lived in California, where he befriended another Poetry Sunday laureate, Robinson Jeffers, and won the acclaim of progressive journalists like Upton Sinclair for his fearless opposition to fascism. He died of a heart attack in 1937; his daughter, Nan Wood Honeyman, was the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Oregon. You can read more about Wood's long and extraordinary life at Oregon State University's biographical page.

From "The Poet in the Desert"

I have entered into the Desert, the place of desolation.
The Desert confronts me haughtily and assails me with solitude.
She sits on a throne of light,
Her hands clasped, her eyes solemnly questioning.
I have come into the lean and stricken land
Which fears not God, that I may meet my soul
Face to face, naked, as the Desert is naked;
Bare as the great silence is bare:

I will question the Silent Ones who have gone before and are forgotten,
And the great host which shall come after,
By whom I also shall be forgot.
As the Desert is defiant unto all gods,
So am I defiant of all gods,
Shadows of Man cast upon the fogs of his ignorance.
As a helpless child follows the hand of its mother,
So I put my hand into the hand of the Eternal.

I have come to lose myself in the wide immensity and know my littleness.
I have come to lie in the lap of my mother and be comforted.
I am alone but not alone - I am with myself.
My soul is my companion above all companions.

Behold the signs of the Desert:
A buzzard, afloat on airy seas,
Alone, between the two immensities, as I am alone between two immensities;
A juniper-tree on a rocky hillside;
A dark signal from afar off, where the weary may rest in the shade;
A monastery for the flocks of little birds which by night hurry across the Desert and hide in the heat of the day;
A basaltic-cliff, embroidered with lichens and illuminated by the sun, orange and yellow,
The work of a great painter, careless in the splash of his brush.
In its shadow lie timid antelope, which flit through the sage-brush and are gone;
But easily they become fearless unto love.
The sea of sage-brush, breaking against the purple hills far away.
And white alkali-flats, which shimmer in the mirage as beautiful blue lakes, constantly retreating.
The mirage paints upon the sky, rivers with cool, willowy banks;
You can almost hear the lapping of the water,
But they flee mockingly, leaving the thirsty to perish.
I lie down upon the warm sand of the Desert and it seems to me Life has its mirages, also.
I sift the sand through my fingers.

Behold the signs of the Desert:
The stagnant water-hole, trampled with hoofs;
About it shine the white bones of those who came too late.
The whirling dust-pillar, waltz of Wind and Earth,
The dust carried up to the sky in the hot, furious arms of the wind, as I also am lifted up.
The glistening black wall of obsidian, where the wild tribes came to fashion their arrows, knives, spearheads.
The ground is strewn with the fragments, just as they dropped them, the strokes of the maker undimmed through the desperate years.
But the hunters have gone forever.

The Desert cares no more for the death of the tribes than for the death of the armies of black crawling crickets.
Silence. Invincible. Impregnable. Compelling the soul to stand forth to be questioned.
Dazzling in the sun, whiter than snow, I see the bones
Of those who have existed as I now exist. The bones are here; where are they who lived?
Like a thin veil, I see a crowd of gnats, buzzing their hour.
I know that they are my brethren, I am less than the shadow of this rock,
For the shadow returneth forever.
Night overwhelms me. The coyotes bark to the stars.
Upon the warm midnight sand I lie thoughtfully sifting the earth through my fingers. I am that dust.
I look upon the stars, knowing that to them my life is not more valuable than that of the flowers;
The little, delicate flowers of the Desert,
Which, like a breath, catch at the hem of Spring and are gone.

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February 22, 2009, 11:05 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Poetry Sunday: This Is Just A Place

For today's Poetry Sunday, I'm featuring the American poet A.R. Ammons, who was first showcased last year for his poem "Gravelly Run".

Born in North Carolina in 1926, Ammons grew up on his family's farm during the Great Depression and attended a Pentecostal church, whose hellfire sermons terrified the young man. He first began to write poems while serving on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he pursued a postgraduate education and served in a variety of jobs before beginning to publish in earnest. His first collection, Ommateum, sold poorly, but his later books were critically praised and soon vaulted him from obscurity to fame. His work won him a position on the English faculty at Cornell University, where he was a much-beloved campus figure until his retirement in 1998 and death in 2001 from cancer. Over the course of his career he won countless awards, including the National Book Award, the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Robert Frost Medal, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

As a poet, Ammons stands out for his scientific background, which is clearly visible in many of his poems. His book-length poem Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974) was inspired by a photo of the Earth from space. His verse is free, fluid, often lacking capitals and punctuation. He abhorred rigidity and dogma in all its forms, and in his transcendent view of nature's complexity, he bears a resemblance to Emerson, Whitman and other naturalist poets.

Ammons' religious views are best described as Spinozan, identifying "God" as the sum total of nature and the laws of physics, rather than as a supernatural being with a separate existence. One of his poems is titled "God Is the Sense the World Makes Without God". His freethought sympathies can also be seen in today's poem, which was read at Ammons' own memorial service. It speaks of mortality and transience, reminding us that the Earth is just one place of many in a vast and unfathomable cosmos, and that our lives are small threads in a far more immense pattern of ebb and flow. It was first published in A Coast of Trees (1981).

In Memoriam Mae Noblitt

This is just a place:
we go around, distanced,
yearly in a star's

atmosphere, turning
daily into and out of
direct light and

slanting through the
quadrant seasons: deep
space begins at our

heels, nearly rousing
us loose: we look up
or out so high, sight's

silk almost draws us away:
this is just a place:
currents worry themselves

coiled and free in airs
and oceans: water picks
up mineral shadow and

plasm into billions of
designs, frames: trees,
grains, bacteria: but

is love a reality we
made here ourselves—
and grief—did we design

that—or do these,
like currents, whine
in and out among us merely

as we arrive and go:
this is just a place:
the reality we agree with,

that agrees with us,
outbounding this, arrives
to touch, joining with

us from far away:
our home which defines
us is elsewhere but not

so far away we have
forgotten it:
this is just a place.

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January 11, 2009, 2:58 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments

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