Five Favorite Poems

It’s that time of the week!  I’m linking up again with Heather of Mama Knows, Honeychild to bring you five of my favorites.  This week I’m sharing five of my favorite poems, which may be intensely boring to many (most?) of you, but I’m an English major so you are just going to have to put up with me.  (Alternatively, if you are a literary snob, you will probably sneer at my choices for being too conventional.)
In no particular order:
1.  The Daffodils by William Wordsworth

Daffodils growing by the side of the Pellissippi Parkway earlier this year
Daffodils growing by the side of the Pellissippi Parkway earlier this year

Daffodils are my favorite flower and always have been.  Thanks to the beautification efforts of Lady Bird Johnson, our nation’s capital is covered in them in season.  My roommate and I decided to memorize this poem while one of our long walks, inspired by sights like this:
lincold daffodils
I still know it by heart and could copy it out here for you, but instead I will give you a link.
2.  The Master Speed by Robert Frost
You’ve probably never heard of this one.  I looked it up after seeing a phrase from it used to title a book on marriage (Frost wrote it on the occasion of a wedding).  And later it inspired me to write this story.
No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still-
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar 
3.  The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
This one really needs no explanation.  I used to know it almost by heart, because Jake and Teddy loved me to read it aloud to them when they were little.  I love the rhyme and rhythm (“and the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain . . .”), and the depiction of endless depression makes my heart ache: “and my soul from out that shadow . . . shall be lifted–nevermore.”  Read the whole thing here.
4.  Remember by Christina Rossetti
Here’s another one I know by heart.  I can’t remember how I discovered it, but I find it to be a lovely reflection on grief and healing.  It’s repeated in full in this post.
5.  Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This is much less sentimental than my other choices, but I just love the way it sounds.  I don’t know the whole thing by heart, but I wish I did.  We had to write a paper analyzing this poem in my Sophomore Honors English class.  This led to one of my most embarrassing moments ever in school when one of my friends told the professor that I had a very interesting interpretation, and I had to explain in front of everyone the sexual imagery I found in the poem.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
   A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

What’s your favorite poem?  Tell me in the comments! And don’t forget to check out the rest of the Five Favorites here.

The Future Is in Her Hands

I recently wrote about how cool it is when your kid is good at something that you aren’t able to do at all.  But how about when your kid is BETTER than you at something you are pretty good at? 🙂
My family are writers from way back.  My mother has a journalism degree; a former journalist for the Catholic press, she’s tried her hand at everything from children’s books to plays to feature articles on a variety of topics.  Her great-grandfather was the founder of the Kentucky Irish-American newspaper.    I know there are more and if she’s reading this she will probably chime in!
I like to think I am a good writer.  I’ve been making up stories before I could write them down.  I was co-editor of my high school paper and won awards back in the day.  I churned out A papers throughout college and got an Honors degree in English.  I was a reporter and columnist for the Catholic press for many years.  I wrote some pretty good X-Files fanfiction a few years back.  And of course there is this blog.
But my daughter Emily is the real writer.  She writes all the time–it’s necessary to her.  She fills up notebooks with partial stories, lists of names for characters, character sketches, story ideas.  She’s written two entire short novels.  She’s majoring in Creative Writing and plans to go to graduate school to continue studying writing.  All she wants to do is write.  I have no doubt that she will be a published author some day.  She is amazing.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so, because last week she was awarded the Rev. Andrew C. Smith, S.J. Poetry Prize at the Honors Convocation at Spring Hill College, where she is a Junior.
I cried when I read the poem, which hit pretty close to home (you’ll see) especially considering what I had just written myself the day before.  But Emily doesn’t think it’s that great, and I had to beg her to let me publish it here.  If you disagree with her, please leave some love in the comments.

The Future is Out of Reach When I am Holding the Past in My Hands
Nothing turns my stomach like the acrid odor
Of charred photo albums
And the five waterlogged childhoods
Lying smeared and ashy within.
The leather of the albums cracks
Like a battered body,
Housing secret pain.
What the flames did not get to,
The hoses made short work of.
Scorched snapshots
Bleed ink and memories
That my mother cannot face.
Twenty-two years of marriage
A life
A family
And a history
Leak into the whorls of my fingerprints;
My newborn face
Grandmother’s blouse
The green of the hospital walls
Swirl together and muddy the waters
And stain the skin on my hands
Coloring my calluses
Losing this picture feels like losing her twice.
There is mildew on my first birthday card
And I could drown in all this roasted ink;
These charbroiled mementos
Of a time when we had no idea
what real suffering was.
I salvage the past two decades that no one else will touch.
Great-grandmothers grandfathers friends cats Christmas trees rocking horses china dolls wedding gowns school uniforms jack o’lanterns baptisms
Form a fine layer of ash beneath my fingernails.
My hands are black with what we’ve lost.

A Sorrow Shared

Friends from school and church have been bringing us several meals each week since the house burned, and even though we have a house now it is still a blessing.  I have not had time for a big trip to the store yet, and we don’t have any of the staples you need to have on hand.  Plus we are still so busy trying to organize the house, and now trying to catch up in the office, that not having to worry about dinner makes a big difference.
A few nights ago, our church friends brought a poem to share along with the macaroni casserole and spinach salad.  I had read Anne Bradstreet before, first as a sophomore at KCHS in my American Lit class.  I don’t think I ever read this particular poem, though, and if I did I doubt it would have resonated with me the way it does now.  I wanted to share it with you.
VERSES UPON THE BURNING OF OUR HOUSE (1666)
In silent night when rest I took, 
For sorrow neer I did not look, 
I waken’d was with thundring nois 
And Piteous shreiks of dreadfull voice. 
That fearfull sound of fire and fire, 
Let no man know is my Desire. 
I, starting up, the light did spye, 
And to my God my heart did cry 
To strengthen me in my Distresse 
And not to leave me succourlesse. 
Then coming out beheld a space, 
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And, when I could no longer look, 
I blest his Name that gave and took, 
That layd my goods now in the dust: 
Yea so it was, and so ’twas just. 
It was his own: it was not mine; 
Far be it that I should repine.
He might of All justly bereft, 
But yet sufficient for us left. 
When by the Ruines oft I past, 
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast, 
And here and there the places spye 
Where oft I sate, and long did lye.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest; 
There lay that store I counted best: 
My pleasant things in ashes lye, 
And them behold no more shall I. 
Under thy roof no guest shall sitt, 
Nor at thy Table eat a bitt.
No pleasant tale shall ‘ere be told, 
Nor things recounted done of old. 
No Candle ‘ere shall shine in Thee, 
Nor bridegroom’s voice ere heard shall bee. 
In silence ever shalt thou lye; 
Adieu, Adeiu; All’s vanity.
Then streight I gin my heart to chide, 
And didst thy wealth on earth abide? 
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust, 
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust? 
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye 
That dunghill mists away may flie.
Thou hast an house on high erect 
Fram’d by that mighty Architect, 
With glory richly furnished, 
Stands permanent tho’ this bee fled. 
It’s purchased, and paid for too 
By him who hath enough to doe.
A Prise so vast as is unknown, 
Yet, by his Gift, is made thine own. 
Ther’s wealth enough, I need no more; 
Farewell my Pelf, farewell my Store. 
The world no longer let me Love, 
My hope and Treasure lyes Above.
And I just read in the Wikipedia article about her that “her personal library of books was said to have numbered over 800, before many were destroyed when her home burned down.”

Songs of Innocence and of Experience


When I was in college, I opted to pursue an Honors degree in English.  Part of the requirement for this was to write a sort of mini-thesis that incorporated some concept that one could trace through several different works and then defend before two professors and a peer.
In the Liberal Arts Seminar that consumed most of my freshman year, I had been introduced to the pre-Romantic poet William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, books of poetry that he illustrated with his own woodcuts.  The idea that we all start out life innocent (think Adam and Eve in Paradise) but then inevitably have to pass through the fires of experience seemed to keep turning up over and over in the books I read throughout college.  Blake’s vision wasn’t entirely bleak, thankfully, since he implied that if one learned from the experience, “organized innocence” –wisdom–would result.
So in my paper I talked about innocence, experience, and wisdom in Blake’s poetry, in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.  I defended it successfully, and I got that Honors degree.  Did I understand what I was writing about?  Probably not.
But most people who have made it to (ahem!) middle age would understand, and they wouldn’t need an Honors degree to do it, either.  Because by now all of us have passed through the inescapable fires of experience, and we hope that we are at least a little wiser.
Last night I attended a production of  The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical EVER, put on by the KCHS Theatre Department.  My son Jake played El Gallo.  Twenty-seven years ago, my husband played Amos Babcock Bellamy.  He admits that he and his friends didn’t really understand the play then, and Jake admits that he and his friends don’t really understand it now.  Our younger kids attended with us last night, and they enjoyed it, but they didn’t comprehend it.
How could they, when it is an extended metaphor about innocence, experience, and wisdom, and when you are in high school you don’t know or believe any of that.  Who doesn’t want to believe that first love will last forever?  Who wants to think that being buffeted and scarred by the world not only confers benefits but is actually necessary to growth?  Who wouldn’t rather stay in the garden forever, with no need for eventual redemption?
I started crying last night as soon as Jake appeared onstage singing  Try to Remember at the opening of the play.  Part of that had to do with parental pride and my feelings about my son, but part of it sprang from the sadness of knowing (as the song says) that “without a hurt the heart is hollow.”  The play has a happy ending of sorts, but still I saw my husband wiping his eyes at the end.  Because even though we both know that innocence comes to an end, that experience is unavoidable, that the wisdom we’ve gained since we were in high school is valuable, irreplaceable–we wish it didn’t have to be that way.


Thank you to Palo for the beautiful featured image.

Thoughts of Spring

Back in the dreadful heat of summer I promised that I would never complain about cold this winter.  And mostly I haven’t.  I have enjoyed being cold!  I love the snow and I hope we get some more.  I am in no way ready for winter to end.
However, I do hate grey, depressing days like this one.  It’s hard for me to concentrate or really to get anything accomplished at all when the view from my office window is so bleak.  So I felt like indulging in a little springtime fantasy and sharing my very favorite poem with you:

“The Daffodils”

by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I have so many pleasurable associations with this particular poem, which I am sure is very familiar to my readers.  In my freshman year at Georgetown University, I participated in a class called the Liberal Arts Seminar, a team-taught, multi-disciplinary, life-absorbing experience that met for nine hours a week for both semesters.  Our English professor was Dr. Paul F. Betz, a pre-eminent Wordsworth scholar.  His enthusiasm for Wordsworth and William Blake was contagious.  Daffodils have always been my favorite flower and I quickly memorized this poem.  One day I called home and started quoting the poem to my eight-year-old sister–only to have her join in, as she had just memorized it too!
As part of her Beautification Campaign, Lady Bird Johnson caused thousands of daffodils to be planted in our nation’s capital.  These delighted me on the long walks to the monuments that my roommate and I used to take every springtime.  Today, a framed photograph of the Lincoln Memorial with daffodils in the foreground hangs on my dining room wall next to a picture of Georgetown. [edit: not anymore. sigh.]
When I had my first house I determined to make my own daffodil field.  I planted more and more each year with the plan of eventually covering the whole hillside.  We moved, but the daffodils are still there.  Oftentimes, in the Smokies, patches of daffodils are the only remaining indications of homesites.  The cabins are long gone, but the bulbs continue to thrive, mute reminders of the women who once tended house and garden there.

Poetry Blogging: The New Colossus

I only have part of this one by heart.  Reading the whole thing brings tears to my eyes.  Not just because of the moving lines, either, but because I don’t think most Americans today share these sentiments.
The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Poetry Blogging: Equipment

I’m sharing the following poetry excerpt today which I borrowed from my friend Ikisha’s Facebook.  She says an elementary teacher had her class memorize it years ago.  Entitled “Equipment,” and composed by Edgar A. Guest, it was George Washington Carver’s favorite poem and if you ever visit his museum you can hear him reading it aloud.  I like this one because it is simple and short enough to memorize, yet profound and inspirational too!

Figure it out for yourself, my lad,
You’ve all that the greatest of men have had;
Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes,
And a brain to use if you would be wise,
With this equipment they all began–
…So start from the top and say, I CAN.

 

I’ve known Ikisha, by the way, since she was seven years old and I was a freshman at Georgetown involved in a tutoring program where we would travel to our kids’ homes each week to help with homework or more often just play with them.  I tutored Ikisha and her sister, Shamica, for four years, and have stayed in touch with them–mostly through Ikisha’s efforts–ever since.  Ikisha has two [edit: three now!] handsome–and bright–young sons and is an incredibly impressive woman who inspires me every day with her wisdom and positivity (is that even a word?).

Poetry Blogging : To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train

A couple of years ago one of my children was studying poetry in middle school English class, learning different types of rhyme/rhythm schemes.  The following poem was given as an example of a triolet (a form I had never heard of before).
TO A FAT LADY SEEN FROM A TRAIN
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
This poem was written by Frances Darwin Cornford.  Yes, she was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, and although she wrote other poems as well, this much-hated one is her present claim to fame.  G.K. Chesterton so loathed it that he penned this scathing reply:
THE FAT WHITE WOMAN SPEAKS
Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?
If you read the above link which explains what a triolet is, you will learn that Cornford’s poem is a perfect example, which is one reason it is quoted and remembered; another is that it makes people angry.  And I’m not really sure why that is.  Are people angry that the poet would make an assumption about someone based on what she observed in such a brief instant in time?  But isn’t it the poet’s–or any writer’s–prerogative to apply her imagination to whatever raw material she encounters? It’s not like she found out the woman’s name and told the world that she knows for a fact that no one loves this woman!
Maybe they are angry because the poem calls the woman fat, and they assume that the poet has decided it is her fatness that makes her unlovable.  Myself, I read “fat” as nothing more than a descriptor.  Plenty of fat women are loved, after all, both now and in Cornford’s time.
I read it differently, seeing the gloves as a metaphor for the woman’s refusal to engage with the messiness of life, which causes her to miss out on sensual experiences and therefore on love.  Gloves are too formal for a walk through the fields and suggest that this woman sees herself as separate from or above nature, perhaps someone who doesn’t wish to “get her hands dirty” by experiencing life and love.
What do you think?  Do you like the poem?  Or do you agree with Chesterton?

Poetry Blogging: Nancy Hanks

From time to time I would like to share some memorable poetry in this space, as I have already done here and here.   I say memorable because I am only going to post ones I know by heart, or almost by heart.
Very rarely have I actually set out to memorize a poem for any reason other than that a teacher required it.  Most of the ones I can recite I found myself picking up spontaneously, some from repeated reading, others because they touched me in some way.
I read today’s selection many, many years ago in an elementary school reading book–probably in the third or fourth grade.  And that is where I found it again, too, a few years ago–in one of the old Catholic textbooks I had purchased through ebay to use for homeschooling.
2355
Nancy Hanks
by Rosemary Benet
If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Seeking news
Of what she loved most,
She’d ask first
“Where’s my son?
What’s happened to Abe?
What’s he done?”

“Poor little Abe,
Left all alone
Except for Tom,
Who’s a rolling stone;
He was only nine
The year I died.
I remember still
How hard he cried.”

“Scraping along
In a little shack,
With hardly a shirt
To cover his back,
And a prairie wind
To blow him down,
Or pinching times
If he went to town.”

“You wouldn’t know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?”

It’s not great poetry, but it stayed with me, almost all of it for years, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe because I was around the same age Abe was when he lost his mother the year I first read it, and for me as for, I imagine, most children, the idea of losing my mother was unimaginably dreadful.  Reading it now, of course, my focus is different, and  I picture my own little nine-year-old, my baby boy, and think of how he would feel if I died.
I do know why it’s on my mind right now, though–it’s because of the book I just finished reading.  Even though large portions of this book were fiction, the love between son and mother and the depth of Abraham Lincoln’s loss rang true.
2383

Remember

This is a favorite poem of mine–I have it almost by heart; but I did Google it to make sure and found it on a wonderful website with a collection of quotations and other resources for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Remember me when I am gone away,
gone far away into the silent land;
when you can no more hold me by the hand,
nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
you tell me of our future that you planned:
only remember me; you understand
it will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
and afterwards remember, do not grieve:
for if the darkness and corruption leave
a vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
better by far you should forget and smile
than that you should remember and be sad.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)