Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 28, William Blake, "Laughing Song"

There are poems about negative outrageous fortune, many and many. Poetry is really good at expressing dismay at the unpleasant surprises that life affords. There are not so many poems about positive fortune - at least, I could not find any (if you know any, please, share!). Instead, here's a silly little bit by the normally gloomy and serious William Blake:

Laughing Song

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

when the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing "Ha, ha he!"

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:
Come live, and be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of "Ha, ha, he!"

Poetry Day 27 (belated), Computer sonnet

I was going to post this yesterday, I swear! From NPR's All Tech Considered, computer written sonnets.

Quake with true fear of just reproach my shame
while her eyes came to me we sweetly sing
hand clasped in her breast her withered hands fling
yet by and claim loves boon nor let the tame
But this affliction sure thy heart inflame
he in silence come and assistance bring
then comes a small bright spark comes wandering
sorrows for him you gave that love once came.

Of doom lest any see the signal hear
that tremble through their incandescent nights
wave must dare if the while himself he cheers
what sudden bird will bring us any cheer
Fled to that audit by advised respects
a sequent day to your world of gain roars.

So, the idea was to have computers write sonnets in an effort to pass the Turing Test (which is to say, a computer which acts sufficiently like a human to fool another human). Poetry is a big step, since human poetry follows certain rules (as in sonnets - a certain number of lines, a particular number of syllables per line, and a cohesive rhyme scheme, often ABBA CDDC and the like, although there are several versions), which computers are good at, but also contain coherent and consistent images and sustained metaphor, which computers are not good at at all. (Having a computer compose blank verse might be more successful - you could convince the judges that the computer was a moody teenager, perhaps). The above was written by a computer, and it's not the worst poem I've read, but it's clear that the computer is still stringing words together to follow a set of programmed rules instead of crafting metaphors.

A green nub pushes up from moist, dark soil.
Three weeks without stirring, now without strife
From the unknown depths of a thumbpot life
In patient rhythm slides forth without turmoil,
A tiny green thing poking through its sheath.
Shall I see the world? Yes, it is bright.
Silent and slow it stretches for the light
And opens, uncurling, above and beneath.
The sun warms it and with a little time
Another slight leaf joins its neighbor,
They crown slowly and birth without labor
Feeding on the air’s breath like a rhyme.
How can we know with body and with brain,
The force that makes the earth suck up the rain.

By contrast, this is a human written sonnet - note the sustained metaphor; every phrase building to a logical image with a message and meaning. So, in a world run by computers, humans will still write poetry (for now...).

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 26, Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"

Today, we are going to the lake, because it is Sunday and it is hot. So, here is a poem about a beach, and also for the Brexit vote, in a certain sort of way.

Dover Beach

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The sea is calm tonight. 
The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light 
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, 
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. 
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! 
Only, from the long line of spray 
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, 
Listen! you hear the grating roar 
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, 
At their return, up the high strand, 
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, 
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring 
The eternal note of sadness in. 

Sophocles long ago 
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought 
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow 
Of human misery; we 
Find also in the sound a thought, 
Hearing it by this distant northern sea. 

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! for the world, which seems 
To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
So various, so beautiful, so new, 
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 
And we are here as on a darkling plain 
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Arnold is, of course, one of those poets you read in school. This has a strong rhyme scheme and a compelling rhythm. He addresses universal issues - love, life, disappointment - and uses some fairly obvious images to do so. The last stanza feels a little depressing - the world has no joy or love or light or anything like that - but think of it as Sir Pratchett suggested - if you ground up the universe into tiny dust, and sifted it, would you find any particles of jo, or love, or light or any of that? And yet... 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 25, Christopher Morley, "To the Little House"

Once again into the Funk and Wagnall's collection.

To the Little House

Dear little house, dear shabby street,
Dear books and beds and food to eat!
How feeble words are to express
The facets of your tenderness.

How white the sun comes through the pane!
In tinkling music drips the rain!
How burning bright the furnace glows!
What paths to shovel when it snows!

O dearly loved Long Island trains!
O well remembered joys and pains.
How near the housetops Beauty leans
Along that little street in Queens!

Let these poor rhymes abide for proof
Joy swells beneath a humble roof;
Heaven is not built of country seats
But little queer suburban streets!


Some delightful oddities in this collection, yes? I mean, first of all, it's interesting to see what the editors considered to be "the best poetry" - they clearly valued rhyme and tight structure. There are also lots of poems about domesticity and such - and some love poetry, true, but even the classical stuff (Plato and Homer feature) tend to be quiet little paeans to domestic bliss. Second, I don't know that I'd consider Queens suburban anymore - but, perhaps I am wrong? Ahhh, but it WAS suburban, in a certain sort of way, before the 1950s suburbanization began - this is a train based suburban setting, when the "urbs" were smaller, and when most of Long Island was still potato farms. Hmmm. I wonder if I can use this in a class? I bet I can!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 24, Robert Francis (by way of Mother Crane), "Summons"

Today, we spent the day at the New York Faerie Festival, which runs all weekend (although we're only going for today). One of the regular performers is Mother Crane, who approaches visitors and reads them a random poem, which she then gives them (on a card). My poem today:


Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me till
I'm half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I'm not too hard persuaded.

Robert Francis

And now I have shared it with you, so it is your poem for today as well.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Poetry Month Day 23, Selections from _Swidden Fields_

So, a million years ago, when I was doing my first degree (BA English/History), I took a class on poetry writing, which was amazing. It was a once a week seminar, where 15 of us met, shared new poems (at least one a week, that was the rule), critiqued each others work, and generally dug deeply and drank fully of each others passion and such. Often, we met off campus, with food and sometimes alcohol. Occasionally, we would leave class (it was an evening class) and go to a bar. It was very very good, exactly the sort of thing everyone tells you college is going to be (except it mostly isn't. Except when it is, and when it is, it sort of makes the rest of it worth the effort). At the end of the semester, we printed a short chapbook to which each of us contributed a poem or two (it's got an ISBN, it counts as a publication credit!). Here are three or four selections from the chap book (not my offerings, other peoples.)

Des Davidge (Des was an older gentleman, somewhat of an anomaly in the class, which was mostly female and mostly younger - college seniors, not senior citizens. His poetry has a lot of nature imagery, and tends towards the narrative or descriptive, which is great.)

Harvest Journey

We climb to the top of the last load of the day
         swaying on that rutted road.

Our bodies mold a bed in rich fresh scent,
the sound of horses' hoofs and metal wheels
               muffled by the evening
you measure the soft white of your hand
          against my callused fingers.

     Seeded heads tickle along my spine
the smell of you mingling with the aroma of hay
                         soft and quiet
        I am full - only my eyes can speak.

Catherine Glass

More than Sex

The salty taste of your skin
Keeps me buoyant
Like a swimmer in the Dead Sea

(We were young, 18, 19, 20. Lots and lots of poems about sex, more or less)

Dianna Graham

wilderness notes

the skin of still-blind mice in winter
the eyelid's gloss

the freshborn flesh of tadpoles
irises flicking

a fiddlehead  cupped gently in my palm
     your body   naked
          furled upon my bed

(See? Also, we did a lot of playing with the position of text on the page; odd line breaks and spacing - and some of us thought we were e.e. cummings, you know?)

M (don't mock - my poems were published under the name Michael Delphinius - we were young and soooo pretentious! But the poetry was pretty good.)

Let us come to some conclusion

Let us come to some conclusion
something to cancel the crease of time
Let us seize the distance between cities
the dept separating silence and slumber
Let us carve the ceiling   paint it blue

              (let us create the sky anew).

Sarah Mayes (I seem to remember Sarah as the youngest of the group?)


my strand
    of hair
on your collar
    is a snake
           to strike

Carolyn Tilley (Carolyn is the only one of the group I've stayed in touch with - I knew her before the class. Carolyn was always a little crazy; I met her because she posted posters with a rant about Miss Piggy all over campus [she was a strong supporter of Miss Piggy, I seem to recall] and included her e-mail address. This was back when e-mail was still kinda new and exciting. A poet all the way down to her combat boots)


A hand on my shoulder
and one on my back...
I wish you wouldn't
but you seem earnest,
so I'll let it pass.

A lean, a whisper, a wink...
You say I have the eyes of an actress,
I say, it takes one to know one.
You tell nice lies,
so I'll let it pass.

Has practice made you convincing?
Or is it thinking that you're the best -
the confidence of an artist?

I wonder at the years that brought you to me,
are you watching this or ... directing?


Ahhhh, the fruits of a mis-spent (or properly spent?) youth.

Poetry Month, Day 22, belated, Mike Timonin, "Goliath's Mother's Lament"

Ack! Yesterday was a little crazy, for reasons, but that's not an excuse. I even had a poem planned to share! Here it is, the response I wrote to Amal's poem from "yesterday." Obviously, I cannot review my own work, but here's the background - I'm working (slowly - so slowly that I'm not sure it counts as "working") on a cycle of poems based on the Old Testament; specifically, stories of people who didn't make it into The Book. So. Here's the backstory on Goliath. (Oh - I like to write narrative poetry, and I also like to write short, epigramatic poems. This is from the first sort!)


Goliath’s Mother’s Lament

I had a son once, you know,
Strong and big and brave – not so smart, but smart is overrated, I think.
I had a son once, and I thought he would live forever,
And he thought he would live forever,
And why not? He was strong, and big, and brave,
And all I had – surely Death would not dare to take him?
I had a son once, and when he was born the midwives said
“he will be strong, and big, and brave, and he will help on the farm,”
And they were right – he grew fast, and could lift two goats when he was just a boy,
He was strong, yes, but gentle:
the cows gave sweeter milk when he tended them, I swear.
He was gentle, yes, but not soft:
When the ox gored his father, my son carried the broken, bleeding body home to me,
And then he killed the ox as a death gift; but gently, one strike to its head:
He carried that body home, too.
I had a son once, strong and brave, big and gentle;
He would not fight with the other boys,
He was too big, he said,
But I saw him bruised and bleeding more than once,
Because he would not back away when someone smaller needed help.
I had a son once, so big and strong that, soon, he did not need to fight,
The sound of his footstep was enough,
The sight of the fist he used to kill the ox sufficed.
I had a son once,
So big and brave,
The men came with bronze armor and a sharp sword,
They said, “your son is big, and strong, and brave, and we need him,
He won’t have to fight – just the sight of him, like a bronze clad tower,
With a sword like God’s own scythe,
Our enemies will flee like insects when you light a lamp,”
And they took my son, so brave, so big, so strong,
And we were wrong,
Death dared to come – not at first, but in time,
Death came in the form of a small boy,
Death came in the form of a small sling,
Death came in the from of a small stone,
And who could carry that body home to me,
Broken and bleeding?
And who could make a death offering of that boy,
With one strike of the fist?
And who will gentle the sweet milk out of my cows now,
And lift the goats, two at a time, into to olive trees?

I had a son once, you know.