I am proud to have been included back in August on the pages of The Blue Hour Magazine, along with friends like Jeremy Nathan Marks. Here is some Sunday free verse for you from the pages of the Blue Hour. The poet Ivan Jenson is one new to me, and I’m happy to find his work! The music of the lines, the internal rhymes and the play with words reminds me of Peter Meinke.
[Links added after the initial reblog]
In my last post when I talked a bit about live music and local performances I mentioned that on Sunday Brian would be playing piano at the Joseph Priestly Memorial Chapel for their First Sunday program of music and the spoken word. I have some more video editing to do and if the volume is good enough I’ll later post some poetry by our friend Raymond Cummings who read several of his works yesterday as the guest poet.
Next month I’ll have the honor of being the guest poet for National Poetry Month’s service, and I find myself already gathering together material. Perhaps some poems of spring! Lord knows our winter-weary residents of Penn’s Woods are ready.
One of the three pieces Brian played yesterday was a song by Loreena McKennitt, based on the poem “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats. My old mentor George Phister, god rest his cranky old soul, was a metrical magician who practically worshiped Yeats, the Irish poet who lives on through his poems now seventy-five years past his death. When I asked George who his favorite modern poet was he instantly and gruffly replied, “Yeats!” When I pressed that Yeats was not exactly modern, he said, “I’m doing the best that I can.”
While George was not exactly a religiously observant man, he was none the less spiritual in his own way, a worship of love and human kindness belied his sometimes stern exterior. I am curious what George would have said about the spiritual ideas of his old poetic patron saint had I only asked him. There is Cabbala (as Yeats spelled it) as well as Celtic mysticism in his poetry, widening gyres, winding stairs, and the Tree of Life. I’ll have to do some more studying myself before writing more on the topic.
An interesting essay regarding this symbolism in the poems of Yeats can be found on a blog called The Hermetic Garden. If you find this intriguing and what to read more, I encourage you to check it out, as it’s a well documented and interesting read.
“The Two Trees” was apparently one of many poems written for Maud Gonne, the woman he long-loved and agonized over. You’ll find more about their story in this article from The New York Times about this exhibition which you can meander through virtually from the National Library of Ireland.
In 1994 singer, song-writer and lover of all things Celtic, Loreena McKennitt set the poem to music for her album The Mask and the Mirror. The video below is the love-of-my-life at the piano playing his arrangement of the song. The words are printed below, and I encourage you to read aloud them while you listen.
THE TWO TREES
by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
I live in a community that treasures live music. Perhaps that makes sense here in the middle of Penn’s Woods where we have lots of natural beauty but only a few movie theaters and rare and scattered nightclubs. I’ll never understand what some people mean when they say, “There is nothing to do around here.” And it’s not only young people. Sure, there is no beach, and sand with bikini-clad beauties sunbathing, but there are country girls and boys and miles of rivers and mountain water streams to play in. There is not the excitement of crowded city streets, but there is the excitement of a forest full of sounds and colors and the tracks of wilderness residents in the mud.
And even in the winter, if you are properly clothed there are snowshoe trails, ski slopes, snowmobiles. In the fall and early spring there is the glory of bird migration, various songs filling up the night into the summer. And summer there are the fireflies, the crickets by a fire at night. So much to enjoy here.
But of course we don’t live in wilderness huts. There are so many universities with opportunities to explore the arts. Heck, you can even take a class in repelling. There are small Victorian towns and shops, wonderful restaurants, art and history museums, all for reasonable costs. And at many of these locations you’ll find one of the most important things in life, music.
Bands, trios, duets, jazz jams, hair bands, classical quartets, there are places where all of these can be heard. My sweetheart Brian plays piano and keyboard and will be playing at the Priestly Chapel tomorrow morning for their monthly community service of poetry and music. Raymond Cummings will be reading his poems. It’s not a religious gathering really, but it certainly is spiritual and good for the soul. Brian has played for weddings and parties and with various groups. I am lucky to have his music in my house, along with my sons playing guitar, singing, producing videos and writing poems.
Our friend Steve Mitchell leads a little house band of local players who invite others to join in and play every Monday night at a bar in Lewisburg. Maybe these influences are why I find myself more and more listening to bands with a variety of instruments, or even just a few who harmonize and play so well together that you cannot listen and find yourself saying that there is “nothing to do” around here.”
For this week’s Saturday Song segment I give you a duet whose harmonies and acoustic sounds remind me of growing up listening to Simon and Garfunkel. The duo from Norway call themselves “The Kings of Convenience.” The video below is from a live performance at what appears to be a little old church-turned-music-venue in Iceland from 2009. If you have trouble playing the video, just click on the HD logo to reduce the quality. Sadly it slows down this old laptop of mine. The studio version can be heard by clicking here.
And if you like this, you may enjoy their song “Mrs. Cold,” and perhaps “Peacetime Resistance.” I’ve compared them to Simon and Garfunkel, but I have to confess something. I think I like them better, maybe because S&G are legends untouchable from my past, and these guys are more personal, approachable. Perhaps there is no song like “Sound of Silence” or “The Boxer” that can be ever matched, but there is something more intimate and lovely here, at least for me.
This song is called “Rule My World,” and my favorite lines ring with an honesty that is hard to find in a world of posers and pretenders.
I speak before I think.
You shoot before you know
Who’s in your line of fire.
So somehow we’re the same.
We’re causing people pain.
I stand and take the blame;
You scramble to the night.
Dear Poet Friends,
A couple of days off from the restaurant means work time for the poet. I’ve been reading and researching, preparing for my next bout of submission campaigns. I read a lot. I read constantly, but I haven’t been reading enough current poetry and literary journals. Recently I’ve been trying to fix that. Obviously it’s a tad expensive to subscribe to all the ones I want to, so I fish and find what I can.
Some excellent insight on submitting was given to me by poet Rachel Bunting who said to submit to journals I enjoy reading. Most likely those will be publications whose style more closely matches what I do. Recently Trace Peterson gave the wise advice of hanging out, metaphorically, with poets I like.
And since there are many of you whom I follow and who follow me it seems natural to ask what poetry journals and literary magazines do you like to read? Where do you enjoy submitting and why?
I’ve read some marvelous stuff the last couple of days, and honestly, some depressingly soulless constructions as well. I like both craft and soul, otherwise it’s not art to me. If you’ve read The Dad Poet for long you already get that. But in an apparent effort to eschew over-sentimentality it seems that a lot of contemporary poets have opted for emotional distance and mere cleverness.
I like clever. I do. I love it in fact. But when I read a novel I cannot finish the thing, no matter how masterfully done, if I cannot find characters whom I care about. It’s the same with poetry. If you choose to not show yourself, or any heart or humanity at all in your writing, how can I be interested enough to read to the last line? So many poems I have read in my digging yesterday and today might as well have been Sudoku puzzles, substituting the alphabet for numbers. That’s interesting, but it isn’t poetry to me; it also requires some gut and soul to make a poem. It takes some risk, some balancing, some danger.
I may not go so far as Emily Dickinson who said, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I want to keep my head, and I love reading by the fire, well, okay the radiator, but I do like to know there’s hope of being warmed up again after a good shocking read. Seriously though if I don’t gasp, or sigh, or something doesn’t stir my gut, I wonder why the hell I am even bothering to read whatever it is that fails to move me. A cowboy poet I know once called it a punch in the gut with a velvet glove. I want to be hit where it counts, and like it. I am not merely looking to be impressed by your use of a thesaurus or your unfathomable depth of intellect.
Use words masterfully, but put the human in the humanities or find another field to write in. Or at least don’t be surprised if I have no interest in reading more of your work. Harsh? So be it. There is craft and there is soul. Where the two meet we find art. That’s my take.
So how about you? Knowing this, where would you suggest I read and possibly submit my own work? Let me know in the comments, please.
Thanks for taking the time to respond. I really appreciate your input.
Isn’t it funny how we write things like that after someone is long gone? I think Vincent (she liked to be called Vincent) would quip that it’s a tad late now for birthday greetings, don’t you think? Well, it’s a little past midnight now, but that’s not really what I mean. Her birthday is February 22, but she passed away in 1950. And since I took the time for a birthday acknowledgment for W.H. Auden yesterday, I didn’t want to leave her out. She is after all one of my very favorites.
I read an article a while back (which I will not link to because it was awful, opinionated, and false) in which a prudish and jealous young poet wrote that Vincent was “an important American poet, but not a great one.” I wholeheartedly disagree. Her skill, wit, irony, and humor, along with her heartbreaking honesty persuade me that we can put that other writer’s assessment aside as nonsense.
I encourage you to read her Poetry Foundation biography page which insists “Pulitzer Prize-winner Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most successful and respected poets in America.” I did a rather thorough write-up on her birthday weekend last year which I would just love for you to read again by clicking here. There are plenty of poems and links for you to peruse, including the entire online text of her book A Few Figs from Thistles.
There are also some great audio files from SoundCloud, including one of Vincent reading “I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear,” and me reading “I Think I Should Have Loved You Presently.” Unfortunately the audio from the Millay Tapes, twelve beautiful songs set to her poetry by Katie Barbado, have disappeared from SoundCloud. You can still find a sample on Katie’s old Kickspy page. Since they are now gone I will be purchasing the CD myself. If you are a Millay lover and a music lover, you’ll want to check into it too.
The first time one of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems made a significant impression on me was probably over a decade and a half ago, shortly after I came out. I was at a little bar on a Tuesday night in the university town of State College, Pennsylvania. The bartender and I were discussing poetry. She was quoting Shakespeare and I was quoting William Stafford. Someone in the place joked that they didn’t know Tuesday was poetry night at Chumley’s, and that’s when the handsome young man with blue eyes and dark hair on the bar stool to my right turned to me and began saying these words:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply. . .
He continued, and beautifully, quietly delivered all the lines of Millay’s “Sonnet 42,” said it was the only poem he knew by heart. It was enough. I suppose I don’t have to tell you how successful that performance was for him, or what a lovely evening it became after that.
Anyway, with all the birds and sunshine here in my neck of Penn’s Woods today I am thinking of the soon-coming spring, and this poem by Millay named after the season those birds are trying to usher in. The following recording of the poem is by Parallel Octave, a Baltimore-based improvising Chorus. There is a delightful collection of these spring-ish poems which they recorded in April of last year entitled Twisted Spring. You can enjoy the whole lot on their web page. It includes poems by Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, Millay and others. Please give them a visit. You can thank me later.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
It’s been a busy week in my part of Penn’s Woods–busy, snowy, icy. And while I’ve had a lot to catch up on I thought it would be a shame to miss the chance at a Friday Flashback on W. H. Auden’s birthday. Auden was a technician, my old mentor would say, a master of meter and form.
He’s honestly not been one of my favorite poets, but I’ve been studying him more and more recently, especially since a friend posted on Facebook a rather racy poem called “A Platonic Blow,” attributed to him. There’s a lot of evidence that it really was written by him, although I admit that a few of the lines strike me as rather too cliché for a poet of his caliber. But further investigation seems to point to the fact that the version printed may have been lifted from one of his notebooks, and might have been an unfinished draft. At the very least it was written only for close friends, and I would guess by its randy nature, for the sheer fun of it. He publicly denied authorship.
Friends if you do that to me I will come back and haunt and possibly seriously harm you. It’s not that I think he would be, especially now, ashamed of the homosexual content of the poem. It’s not the only one, just maybe the sauciest one. It’s just that if a poet’s work is unfinished, and possibly unpolished, or at least not meant for public view, it seems unfair to expose (pardon the pun) the piece to the world where it may be judged alongside other works that were much more finely crafted. Ah well, such is the risk of being a writer, diaries and letters and all seem fair game for publication.
I’ve got at least one very close friend who will probably disagree with my current assesment, but that’s okay. I’m open to discussion. In fact in the future after I’ve given the thing a bit more study we may talk more about it and Auden here.
But for now I want to flashback to almost two years ago during National Poetry Month of 2012 where I shared this reading of Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen.” I think there are better readings of it than mine online, but I found it so eerily up-to-date socially and politically that I felt compelled to record it.
The next day I posted a reading that really gets to me. It was originally written as something of a cabaret piece, but this scene from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” brought it to people’s attention as something beautifully raw and heartbreaking. “Funeral Blues” was first introduced to me on one of my visits to Northern Ireland when a dear friend of mine, also named David, read it to me one tipsy night in his kitchen over gin and cigarettes. I think we cried. That’s how I will remember it anyway.
And so here it is for Flashback Friday and W. H. Auden’s birthday (okay, about twenty minutes late), recited by actor John Hannah.
So the yearly spike in page views, from folks who sadly only Google love poems for Valentine’s Day, has come to an end. You want to say that Valentine’s Day is over? I’ve got news for you, love poems, love songs, turkey, and candy canes are just as delicious on President’s Day, or even Thursday. Love is not relegated to a holiday, my friend, and if I want to listen to Christmas music on a Wednesday in August I will. So there!
I’m all for holidays and celebration, but what’s with all the strict rules about how and which days? When are we going to quit letting the advertising industry tell us when to send flowers, when to read love poems to each other, when it’s okay to eat fruitcake? Okay, okay, so maybe there is no time that’s good to eat fruit cake, but then again, I suspect that’s another bill of goods we’ve been sold. Surely there are people out there who make a smashing, moist and tasty loaf of the stuff.
It’s sad that we are nowhere near as free-spirited and unencumbered by societal expectations as we pretend to be. Sure, traditions are nice. They give some stability to our lives, but not when we are weighed down so much by them that we cannot move freely on our own. I had to work last night, serving amazing food and desserts, opening bottles of wine for lovers of all ages and kinds. So we decided that since I have the weekend off we’d celebrate our love feast today.
Ingredients are ready to make the sauce; strawberries are waiting to dip. Valentine cards have not even been given yet. Later, after dinner, that’s our tradition. It’s Valentine’s’ Day here at our house and I don’t give a flying fruitcake what the calendar says.
So my brother Jeff, in another forum, played a request for Brian and I. It’s a song originally recorded by the Beetles, and I love their little happy ditty, with just a touch of nostalgic melancholy. It’s a classic. But it’s Bette Midler’s version with its slow and sexy tones that I want to dance with my husband to at my wedding. So like Jeff did, I give you both versions. Happy Valentine’s Day. Go read a love poem to someone, even if it’s the cat.