Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A poem for my grandpa

I'm trying to revive this blog again, which is difficult when I haven't been reading much poetry. But I do have several poems of my own I've been meaning to post, so I decided to go ahead and subject you to my doggerel.

I wrote this poem when I lost my grandfather last December. It was for the funeral program, so I had very little time to work on it ... but the real reason it's so bad is that I had so much to say. My best poems are when I'm not particular about what the meaning is, so long as it sounds good. Here I ignored a lot of rules just because I couldn't skip certain things I wanted to say about my grandpa.

* * *

I knew a man with gnarled, damaged hands,
Those hands at work without a moment's pause.
Digging in soil, tending his fertile lands,
Sawing a board, feeling for hidden flaws.

I saw him grasp the stick and lift us high
Above the clouds to gaze on earth below.
Sighting through a camera, his admiring eye
Finding beauty to bring to earth and show.

Whether building a treehouse or pulling stubborn weeds,
He didn't rush, but neither did he shirk.
He always had the time for others' needs,
Letting every child "help" him at his work.

"Face to face!" he cried out near his death,
Hoping to see his Savior soon and near
Praising his God until his final breath
Knowing there would be no need for fear.

Now I see his spirit taking flight,
Above the clouds, his soul a glowing spark.
He races to his God, his soul so light.
May we see you again in Heaven, Arnie Clarke.

* * *

I miss him.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dirge Without Music

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

* * *

Sorry about abandoning this blog again. I guess updates are just going to be infrequent these days, but it's not dead yet! I haven't forgotten about it, I'm just sporadic lately.

This poem is in honor of my grandfather, who died a few days ago. He will be very, very much missed. I wasn't ready for this, even though we knew it was coming. I would have liked many more years with this wonderful man.

Here is an article that tells a bit about him. You can see he was a pretty special man.

Friday, October 01, 2010


by Robert Browning

Fear death?---to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form;
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so---one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that Death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
And made me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers,
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.
The black minute's at end,
And the elements' rage, the fiend voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain.
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!

* * *

We've followed the romance of the Brownings before through their different poems. Elizabeth died before Robert did, hence his reference to clasping her again. Of course his fear of death is much diminished considering he hopes to see his beloved wife again!

Right now my grandma is staring death in the face, and with similar courage. Perhaps you could take a moment to pray for her.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In Memoriam LIV

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

* * *

This is a Luna moth I found in the stairwell of our apartment building. It had followed the lights and come inside, but then fell asleep because it thought it was daytime. Moths do this all the time, and call me pathetic, but I think it's sad. I moved this particular moth.

The poem quoted is part of a larger work that Tennyson wrote to process the death of his dear friend, Arthur Hallam. Intellectually, he believes that all things work together for good, that every tragedy has a reason, but despite his rational belief, he doesn't quite get it. He's like a baby crying in the dark (though, as a mother, I'm going to take a wild guess that the baby's not crying for the light, he's crying for his mother!) who doesn't understand what's going on. It's an uncertain poem, stating a moral but then casting doubt on it at the end -- saying, "Yes, I do believe this, but when the rubber hits the road this consolation does not really satisfy me." I like the honesty of it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


by Carl Sandburg

By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and
has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into
it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are
poured out again back to the streets, prairies and
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and
out all day that give the building a soul of dreams
and thoughts and memories.
(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care
for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman
the way to it?)

Elevators slide on their cables and tubes catch letters and
parcels and iron pipes carry gas and water in and
sewage out.
Wires climb with secrets, carry light and carry words,
and tell terrors and profits and loves--curses of men
grappling plans of business and questions of women
in plots of love.

Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the
earth and hold the building to a turning planet.
Hour by hour the girders play as ribs and reach out and
hold together the stone walls and floors.

Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the
mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an
architect voted.
Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust,
and the press of time running into centuries, play
on the building inside and out and use it.

Men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar are laid
in graves where the wind whistles a wild song
without words
And so are men who strung the wires and fixed the pipes
and tubes and those who saw it rise floor by floor.
Souls of them all are here, even the hod carrier begging
at back doors hundreds of miles away and the brick-
layer who went to state's prison for shooting another
man while drunk.
(One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the
end of a straight plunge--he is here--his soul has
gone into the stones of the building.)

On the office doors from tier to tier--hundreds of names
and each name standing for a face written across
with a dead child, a passionate lover, a driving
ambition for a million dollar business or a lobster's
ease of life.

Behind the signs on the doors they work and the walls
tell nothing from room to room.
Ten-dollar-a-week stenographers take letters from
corporation officers, lawyers, efficiency engineers,
and tons of letters go bundled from the building to all
ends of the earth.
Smiles and tears of each office girl go into the soul of
the building just the same as the master-men who
rule the building.

Hands of clocks turn to noon hours and each floor
empties its men and women who go away and eat
and come back to work.
Toward the end of the afternoon all work slackens and
all jobs go slower as the people feel day closing on
One by one the floors are emptied. . . The uniformed
elevator men are gone. Pails clang. . . Scrubbers
work, talking in foreign tongues. Broom and water
and mop clean from the floors human dust and spit,
and machine grime of the day.
Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling
miles of houses and people where to buy a thing for
money. The sign speaks till midnight.

Darkness on the hallways. Voices echo. Silence
holds. . . Watchmen walk slow from floor to floor
and try the doors. Revolvers bulge from their hip
pockets. . . Steel safes stand in corners. Money
is stacked in them.
A young watchman leans at a window and sees the lights
of barges butting their way across a harbor, nets of
red and white lanterns in a railroad yard, and a span
of glooms splashed with lines of white and blurs of
crosses and clusters over the sleeping city.
By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars
and has a soul.

* * *

I just got back from a trip to Chicago, so I was going to post Sandburg's "Chicago," but then I stumbled upon this one and like it much better. Normally, you know, I'm not a big fan of free verse (or even blank verse, much of the time), but I like the ideas in this poem.

Skyscrapers are so full of people you can almost feel it. Sometimes this is a good thing, and I feel friendly toward all those people. Other times, it's a smothering weight and you feel like a drone in a vast human beehive. My mother hates apartment buildings for this reason, and wrote a lovely poem once that began, "Going into the city, you fear you may lose your soul." I should ask her if I may post it; it was a great poem.

I've posted before about the Incarnation and how it makes the cities so much better, even holy. But there's another side -- cities were made by sinful men, and therefore they are sinful. A city is everything mankind is, concentrated as the people are concentrated.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Contest Winner

Remember that contest for poems about unborn babies? Well, I chose the winner (some time ago, in fact). This was a less-popular contest, but I did get two or three good submissions.

The winner is Dr. Thursday!

O Secret Trinity

For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast protected me from my mother's womb. I will praise thee, for thou art fearfully magnified: wonderful are thy works, and my soul knoweth right well. My bone is not hidden from thee, which thou hast made in secret: and my substance in the lower parts of the earth. Thy eyes did see my imperfect being, and in thy book all shall be written... [Ps 138:13-16]

There are three broad classes of the special things in which human wisdom does permit privacy... GKC ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:524

I myself am a mortal man, like all others, and of the race of him, that was first made of the earth, and in the womb of my mother I was fashioned to be flesh. In the time of ten months I was compacted in blood... [Wisdom 7:1-2]

The average time for delivery is ten lunar months, or 280 days.
[Arey, Developmental Anatomy 105]

That hilltop sign, the cross of wood, does teach
In rejection, reality is known.
And, too, it signs a linking part of speech,
In plain addition hides this royal throne:
A yoke of two to plow, seeds to be sown,
A fruitful field where words shall be enclayed,
The good wine poured hints loud of acts unshown...
Our flesh and bone in secrecy was made.

That tree of truth, that truth is one does preach:
How Pi, by love, ascends to Theta's zone,
And Theta, wisely, down to Pi must reach.
From heaven's height a mighty wind has blown:
The sole-begotten from the grave has flown.
Thus we seek those laws which must be obeyed:
The truth uniting seed and star and stone...
Our flesh and bone in secrecy was made.

He Who once glowed like some transcendent bleach,
Emmaus-bound, used a less blinding tone:
He gave his sidekicks clues to fill the breach,
The truth revealed, "how slow" they soon would moan.
The Master chides us too, warns still His own:
Advent will end, the truth will be displayed!
Watch, stay awake, your wits be sure to hone...
Our flesh and bone in secrecy was made.

Oh unborn Lord whose flesh and blood and bone
In secret grew as ten moons glowed and grayed,
Behold us made like you - adrift, alone...
Our flesh and bone in secrecy was made.

* * *

It gets bonus points for being a ballade -- a form I find quite difficult.

Then there's mine, which I am still not a huge fan of, but never did revise. Listen for the sentiment, not the scansion! I wrote it while driving home from work one day, very sore, with the baby kicking the guts out of me. (I must say, it is REALLY nice not to be pregnant! Babies are much more fun on the outside!) It uses a lot of allusion and sometimes straight-out quotes ... but T. S. Eliot did that too, so I don't think it (quite) counts as plagiarism. If you want I can cite my sources.

For Mark, before his birthday
I bear you with a thousand natural shocks;
I wrap you in a silent inner ocean.
I hold you closer than the Spartan child’s fox:
You tear my vitals with your every motion.
I will bear the marks you give me all my days.
I contain you in a mystery beyond speech.
I suffer the scars that only love repays;
The doppler hears two hearts beating, each to each.
That heart will pull on mine for all my years;
I do not grudge you all this passing trouble.
There is a love that’s deeper than my tears.
I walk the earth with pulses that beat double.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Someone does not want me to bring this blog back. As soon as I wrote the title, I kid you not, the baby woke up. But he is snoozing again, and here I go.

My last post was six months ago. I write that in some shock. I knew posting was going to get less frequent, and maybe take a bit of a break, but I never meant to let this space lie fallow for so long. Lately I have been doing things much deeper than poetry, but I still need that "moment of peace" that poetry provides. And I'm sure you, my gentle readers, do too. So I apologize for leaving you poetry-less for so long.

Of course you are always welcome to read my other blog, but perhaps you've seen it and said to yourself, "But I don't have a kid and am not really interested in the play-by-play of baby life! I want POETRY!" And of course I don't want to be a case in point of how women always drop their intellectual life at the side of the road when they have kids.

Part of what's delayed me so long is that I have a contest open. I've picked the winner, but I also promised to post my own entry, and I hate my own entry. I kept saying I was going to revise it and then post it, but it's unfair to leave my blog on hold just because I'm stuck on this one poem. So I'll post it as-is, and perhaps revise it later.

I leave you with an excerpt from Yeats' "A Prayer for My Daughter":

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,

And have no business but dispensing round

Their magnanimities of sound,

Nor but in merriment begin a chase,

Nor but in merriment begin a quarrel.

O may she live like some green laurel,

Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

Those of you who have children -- what are your prayers for them?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Song for a Fifth Child

by Ruth Hulburt Hamilton

Mother, oh Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing and butter the bread,
Sew on a button and make up a bed.

Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.
Oh, I’ve grown shiftless as Little Boy Blue(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due(Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo).

The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo.
Look! Aren’t her eyes the most wonderful hue?(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).

The cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
For children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.

* * *

This is the kind of mother I expect to be. Housework has never been a hobby of mine, except for cooking. Taking care of children, on the other hand, is something I love. I'll have a clean house when I'm old -- maybe!

You haven't forgotten the poetry contest, have you? I'm still waiting for more entries (including my entry!) before I close it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Wreck: Stanzas 13-16

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Into the snows she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind,
The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky she keeps,
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivell├Ęd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

The first two lines are nicely descriptive of a ship sweeping out into the snowy ocean. She is leaving the safe haven behind her—what ships do, and yet it would have been so much better if she had stayed. I like the description of the sea spray as “the sea flint-flake”—it’s as black as a flake of flint, and also stingingly hard like flint. You can almost see the waves streaking black beneath the snowy sky.

“Cursed quarter,” to me, suggests yet again the hint that Hopkins makes that God is not the author of the storm, as He is not the author of evil. Instead, the storm is part of the “curse”—one of the ways sin has broken the created world.

The last four lines all use alliteration and other Hopkins-favored sound techniques to show us the harshness of the sea. The snow is like wires, like white fire, but those repeated w’s also force our lips to echo something of the sound of the wind. And “widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps” is a strong description of the mercilessness of the sea—how it takes husbands, children, fathers, and leaves the survivors of these relationships mourning their untimely loss.

She dove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
And canvas and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

Again Hopkins shows us the detail he possesses about the wreck: it was at night, the ship struck a sandbar, it was pulled toward the Kentish Knock. (Wikipedia tells me this is an area of the ocean off the coast of Kent and Essex.) But, though he reports these details with a journalistic accuracy and compactness in the first four lines, he expands on them with the insight of an eyewitness in the last four. The ship is beating on the sand now, as if to conquer it, but the rolling of the breakers are destroying the ship: they will win. The apparatus of the ship—sails, compass, coils of rope, the wheel—are not necessarily destroyed, but they are useless here. The line gives me an instant image of the wheel turning idly with no one standing by it, because steering is pointless when the ship has run aground.

Hope had grown grey hairs,
Hope had mourning on,
Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

Skip ahead twelve hours (or perhaps twenty-four? We have gone from night, to day, to night again) and hope is beginning to fade. It’s too late for hope; hope is getting old. Day was bad, but night is much worse. The lights the survivors see in the darkness are only their own flares. Up to now there hasn’t been much death—apparently the ship was sufficiently undamaged for people to survive on it—but after all this time they are dying of cold. The icy wind is still blowing and the waves are still washing over the ship.

One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild womankind below,
With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece; what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

Ah, a hero! A sailor is coming down from the rigging to help the panicked women passengers in the hold. For a moment we are excited and proud—something is being done. But he is thrown down into the sea by the wild motion of the ship. His courage and strong sinewy arms are useless here. The worst of it is in the sixth line: that rope that he had tied around himself to keep from falling has kept him attached to the ship. The survivors have to see his body bobbing through the waves for hours. The hero is no good against the forces of nature.
* * *
All right, I'm trying to resurrect this old series. Hunting through my site meter and blog email, I've discovered it's my most popular series. Tons of people come here because they are searching for some help with this poem, which is hard to understand and has little written about it. One person even wrote me to beg me to finish it. I promised I'd try to get back to it, so -- here I am. I'll try to keep it going. Meanwhile, don't forget my contest below!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Chesterton on Holidays

The Christmas celebrations will certainly remain, and will certainly survive any attempt by modern artists, idealists, or neo-pagans to substitute anything else for them. For the truth is that there is an alliance between religion and real fun, of which the modern thinkers have never got the key, and which they are quite unable to criticize or to destroy.

All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises, promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified. [...] But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation. [...] Religion is much nearer to riotous happiness than it is to the detached and temperate types of happiness in which gentlemen and philosophers find their peace. Religion and riot are very near, as the history of all religions proves.

Riot means being a rotter; and religion means knowing you are a rotter. Somebody said, and it has often been quoted: 'Be good and you will be happy; but you will not have a jolly time.' The epigram is witty, but it is profoundly mistaken in its estimate of the truth of human nature. I should be inclined to say that the truth is exactly the reverse. Be good and you will have a jolly time; but you will not be happy. If you have a good heart you will always have some lightness of heart; you will always have the power of enjoying special human feasts, and positive human good news. But the heart which is there to be lightened will also be there to be hurt; and really if you only want to be happy, to be steadily and stupidly happy like the animals, it may be well worth your while not to have a heart at all.

Fortunately, however, being happy is not so important as having a jolly time. Philosophers are happy; saints have a jolly time. The important thing in life is not to keep a steady system of pleasure and composure (which can be done quite well by hardening one's heart or thickening one's head), but to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter, and a kind of young reverence. This is why religion always insists on special days like Christmas, while philosophy always tends to despise them.

Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he is tickled. That is the best of Christmas, that it is a startling and disturbing happiness; it is an uncomfortable comfort. The Christmas customs destroy the human habits.

And while customs are generally unselfish, habits are nearly always selfish. The object of a religious festival is, as I have said, to find out if a happy man is still alive. A man can smile when he is dead. Composure, resignation, and the most exquisite good manners are, so to speak, the strong points of corpses. There is only one way in which you can test his real vitality, and that is by a special festival. Explode crackers in his ear, and see if he jumps. Prick him with holly, and see if he feels it. If not, he is dead, or, as he would put it, is 'living the higher life.'

--G.K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, 11 January 1908.