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January 23, 2005


I've always enjoyed the McNeil-Lehrer Newhour's poetry segments, but my favorite poem from that show was this one by Miller Williams before Robert Pinsky's tenure as poetry consultant
A Poem for Emily

Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me,
a hand's width and two generations away,
in this still present I am fifty-three.
You are not yet a full day.

When I am sixty-three, when you are ten,
and you are neither closer nor as far,
your arms will fill with what you know by then,
the arithmetic and love we do and are.

When I by blood and luck am eighty-six
and you are someplace else and thirty-three
believing in sex and god and politics
with children who look not at all like me,

sometime I know you will have read them this
so they will know I love them and say so
and love their mother. Child, whatever is
is always or never was. Long ago,

a day I watched awhile beside your bed,
I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept
awhile, to tell you what I would have said
when you were who knows what and I was dead
which is I stood and loved you while you slept.

Miller Williams also did the inaugural
poem for Clinton's second inauguration, which has some interesting points to reflect on today.

This is really much too long, but why not. The italicized lines are from Walt Whitman's poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." The rest is by me.

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry on Foot

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than
you might suppose.

A man leans over the rail of the Catherine Slip ferry,
holding his felt hat onto his head in case the wind picks up.
He is just 37, our “good grey poet”—has only a little white in his beard,
has published only one book from the printshop on Cranberry Street.
1856. Farms on Flatbush, Manhattan empty above 38th Street.
The ferry rides between two separate cities,
making a crossing that cannot be made over land.
It will be another year before Roebling draws the first the sketches
and the war that has not yet begun will end five years
before they break the ground for the foundations.
But Walt Whitman says it doesn’t matter.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.

He is there, he says, watching the engineer walk up and down the shore
and take soundings from a small boat in the shallows.
A quiet man, with fierce, pale eyes and a deliberate step.
They say he is recently widowed. They say he comes from Trenton,
but he must have come there from somewhere further;
there is still a trace of Germany in John Roebling’s voice,
which becomes more pronounced when he is asked foolish questions
or when a politician compares the bridge to the Coliseum,
Mecca, the Parthenon, and the hanging gardens of Babylon in a single sentence.
Whitman sees the accident on the docks, cringes at the sound,
but expects his iron engineer to return in a week or two.

I too many and many a time crossed the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating
their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Looked at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,

Instead he waits a month, sees a coffin loaded onto a ferry to Trenton,
hears Roebling’s young son begin giving the orders
in a voice is less commanding than his father’s, but quicker to laughter.
He sees them sink the caissons ever deeper into the riverbed,
sees the workmen emerge after their shift, legs shaking but still telling jokes.
Sees the stone towers climb slowly, first in the east and then in the west.
Watches the younger Roebling sacrifice himself to the bridge,
but the son survives, and his wife steps patiently across the wooden walkway
to inspect the wires and carry her husband’s whispered instructions.
Watches the slow welding together of two cities. This bridge—it is what he hopes
his poems would look like, if they were fashioned out of rock and metal.

These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same-others who look back on me because I look'd forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)

He is there when the ferries stop running, one by one.
There when the wooden masts are dwarfed by spires of stone,
and when the spires of stone are dwarfed in turn by towers of steel.
There when the towers rise, and there the day they fall.
He sees it happen, and then he cannot see for the smoke.
The paper and the ash cling to his beard.
He has smelled air this foul before, seen this much death before,
on battlefields and in hospitals near the banks of the Potomac.
But the others have not seen it before, the haunted thousands
walking east, covering their mouths, trying not to look backwards.
He can see this from their eyes, and from their shoulders.

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I had supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who knows what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil...

He wishes he could tell them, these silent refugees,
that he has seen such things, and lived, and seen them end.
That for all the thousands of young men screaming in pain,
for all the thousands of bodies piled on Virginia battlefields
or beneath grey blankets outside Union hospital tents,
there are many thousands more who will survive, unwounded
or with wounds that heal, who will ride the train north,
past crowded cities, past lakes and forests
and farmers in their fields, past one last funeral procession,
who will return safely to their wife and children, or their sweetheart,
their mother or brother, or perhaps only to their city,
where there is talk of building a bridge over Brooklyn Ferry.

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me…

That is one day; there are many others.
He is also there on my eighth birthday, the first day
I ever see the gleaming silver spider web of cables.
I don’t believe my mother when she tells me they’re holding it up,
just like the Throg’s Neck, and yes it’s perfectly safe for the cars.
There on my wedding day, a cloudy and humid morning in late July
only nine months after a clear September morning was poisoned,
as my husband and I drive our blue Civic
under the stone arches toward the FDR Drive,
checking the backseat every few minutes to make sure
the tuxedo and veil have not blown out the closed window.

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.
Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

There on the walkway in the evening, any evening,
as the rollerskaters and bicycles weave between
young couples walking slowly and commuters hurrying,
as the gulls circle above, and the traffic rattles on beneath,
and beneath that flows the river that is really an ocean.
He stands under the eastern tower, holding his felt hat on his head,
watching the fading sunlight climb up art deco facades,
then plain brick apartment buildings, then office towers,
until gentle shadow covers all of Manhattan
but the two steel spires of the Chrysler and the Empire State,
and the streetlamps and the blue necklace lights are lit.

Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm'd Manhattan?
River and sunset and scalloped-edg’d waves of flood-tide?
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter?
What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by
my nighest name as I approach?
What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks into my face?

Into the morgue, a truism strode
Nobody turned to note
“You go to war with what you have!”
Eyes stayed closed, hands cold

-- me

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Rev. Martin Niemöller

I like this. Click on the link to listen to Alan Dugan read

Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli

I can't remember the poet. I only recall that he is French:

Be not too hard for life is short
and nothing is given to man.

Be not too hard if he is sold or bought
for he must manage as best he can.

Be not too hard when he tells lies
or if his heart is sometimes like a stone.

Be not too hard if he sometimes kills
fighting for things he doesn't own.

Be not too hard for soon he will die
often no wiser than he began.

Be not too hard for life is short
and nothing is given to man.

I am the wall at the lip of the water
I am the rock that refused to be battered
I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger
And I have been many a wicked grandmother
and I shall be many a wicked daughter.

-Judy Grahn, She Who, 1972


Christopher Logue?

It is much, much too long to post here, but go here:


...for the incomparable John M. Ford's "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station"

A wonderful description of the Round Table knights arriving for Christmas via locotmotive, each individual knight's train a metaphor for that knight's character.

As a devoted Arthurian, I never fail to puddle up at the last two lines.

A good non-wintry poem for a very wintry day:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

-- Robert Frost

Here's a poem by Richard Wilbur.

At Moorditch

"Now," said the voice of lock and window-bar,
"You must confront things as they truly are.
          Open your eyes at last, and see
The desolateness of reality."

"Things have," I said, "a pallid, empty look,
Like pictures in an unused coloring book."

"Now that the scales have fallen from your eyes,"
Said the sad hallways, "you must recognize
          How childishly your former sight
Salted the world with glory and delight."

"This cannot be the world," I said. "Nor will it,
Till the heart's crayon spangle and fulfill it."

My favorite poems are in Dutch, but I think The Warprayer from Mark Twain is a must read.

Mark Twain is very readable in short quotes too though.

The weakest of all weak things is a virtue that has not been tested in the fire.
- quoted in Mark Twain, by Archibald Henderson


I like this one:

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

Mark Twain

The quotes site is one of the sites I could visit for hours and hours ;-)

Concerning Niemöller and the poem. As it notes, the poem may not have been written by Niemöller, and also notes some rather surprising turns (a fervent nationalist, he captained a U-boat in WWI that sank one ship and then attacked another that was going to rescue survivors, he volunteered to join the German Navy while in Sachsenhausen, after the war he called harry Truman the biggest mass murderer after Hitler (concerning the atomic bombings) and during the Vietnam war met with Ho Chi Minh, won the Lenin Peace Prize (a sin for which Chas has lambasted Pablo Neruda)) in his life.

I'm pleased that Stan didn't omit communists from the quotation and I hope it's not snarky to say that I am surprised that Stan would cite him at all. Perhaps there is hope in the world.

Slarti-- I don't think so. Joan Baez sings this poem on one of her old albums. The author had a very French name. Staint-something.

A non-random google say Baez sang lyrics by Logue - more ditto.

The confessional poet John Berryman's not very fashionable anymore (missing a revival like those of his compatriots Lowell and Plath), but the poem below, from his cycle Dream Songs, hints he'd not flinch at describing much of what's discussed on this blog:

There were strange gatherings. A vote would come
that would be no vote. There would come a rope.
Yes. There would come a rope.
Men have their hats down. "Dancing in the Dark"
will see him up, car-radio-wise. So many, some
won't find a rut to park.

It is in the occasions, that—not the fathomless heart—
the thinky death consists;
his chest is pinched. The enemy are sick,
and so is us of. Often, to rising trysts,
like this one, drove he out

and gasps of love, after all, had got him ready.
However things hurt, men hurt worse. He's stark
to be jerked onward?
Yes. In the headlights he got' keep him steady,
leak not, look out over. This' hard work,
boss, wait' for The Word.

Wasn't it Susan Sontag who first compared the Abu Ghraib snaps to the old lynching photos?

Wow, the tricks memory can play. I had no idea that was Phil Ochs and Donovan. Cool.

Manfred Mann did a version of that, too. Which is how I found it in the first place.

There's a quatrain about WWI that I read once, many many years ago, and haven't been able to find since. I remember every line but the first, alas, but I'll try to repeat it here; if anyone can find the poem in question, I'd be eternally grateful.

I'll guess the first line in brackets...

[As I sit beside his bed]
I cannot move, I cannot think
But only stare upon the glass
Of water which he could not drink.

Delurking for this post, even if a bit late to the party.

Waiting For The Barbarians, C.P. Cavafy

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city's main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Translated by Edmund Keeley.

Too late? Yes, probably. But that's OK:

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
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-blanch'd 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 Aegean, 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 furl'd.
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.

- Matthew Arnold

Here is a good blizzard poem:

Along the hard crest of the snowdrift
to my white, mysterious house,
both of us quiet now,
keeping silent as we walk.
And sweeter than any song
this dream we now complete—
the trembling of branches we brush against,
the soft ringing of your spurs.

-- Anna Akhmatova

Be Angry At The Sun

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope
and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people
those warriors
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies,
the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.

You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You
are far
From Dante's feet, but even farther from his dirty
Political hatreds.

Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes
to be duped.

Yours is not theirs.

- Robinson Jeffers

(copied out of this great book)

I love Robinson Jeffers - thanks for that one.

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