In October of 2011, Tracy Wuster took a chance and brought me on as poetry editor, even though I don’t have the academic credentials of my HIA colleagues.
Drafting seventy blog posts on a subject I’m passionate about has been a privilege and a great learning experience.
As my monthly participation in this collaborative writing project comes to an end, and tumultuous 2017 becomes a memory, I’m feeling a bit wistful. The only American Poem that mirrors my emotions and feels apropos is aimed at the heart instead of the funny bone. It was penned by anthologist, translator, critic and poet, Louis Untermeyer, who was born in New York City in 1885, and died forty years ago today.
End of the Comedy
Eleven o’clock, and the curtain falls.
The cold wind tears the strands of illusion;
The delicate music is lost
In the blare of home-going crowds
And a midnight paper.
The night has grown martial;
It meets us with blows and disaster.
Even the stars have turned shrapnel,
Fixed in silent explosions.
And here at our door
The moonlight is laid
Like a drawn sword.
— Louis Untermeyer
Warmest wishes for the coming year and beyond. Thank you for your readership. Keep reading and writing poetry!
Inspired by the outcome of the recent presidential election, I decided to devote this blog post to an ersatz poet instead of a real one. Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan” was a poetaster. Stinking with sentiment, and fouled by forced rhyme, her work was unintentionally amusing and thereby gained a cult following. “Literary,” she explained, “is a work very difficult to do.”
Her most poetized topics were the joys of sobriety, the sudden deaths of small children, and fallen soldiers. Mark Twain is said to have counted her among his favorite poets because she made him laugh. Twain alluded to her work in Following the Equator, and is thought to have based the character of Emmeline Grangerford in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on her as well.
In addition to being maudlin, she was also prolific. Two of her poems are below. If you haven’t had enough, you can read more by clicking here.
AIR — “Gypsy’s Warning”
Andrew was a little infant,
And his life was two years old;
He was his parents’ eldest boy,
And he was drowned, I was told.
His parents never more can see him
In this world of grief and pain,
And Oh! they will not forget him
While on earth they do remain.
On one bright and pleasant morning
His uncle thought it would be nice
To take his dear little nephew
Down to play upon a raft,
Where he was to work upon it,
An this little child would company be —
The raft the water rushed around it,
Yet he the danger did not see.
This little child knew no danger —
Its little soul was free from sin —
He was looking in the water,
When, alas, this child fell in.
Beneath the raft the water took him,
For the current was so strong,
And before they could rescue him
He was drowned and was gone.
Oh! how sad were his kind parents
When they saw their drowned child,
As they brought him from the water,
It almost made their hearts grow wild.
Oh! how mournful was the parting
From that little infant son.
Friends, I pray you, all take warning,
Be careful of your little ones.
— Julia A. Moore
THE TEMPERANCE ARMY
Come all ye friends, and citizens,
Where-ever you may be,
Come listen to a few kind words
A friend will say to thee,
Although going to speak to you
I mean you all no harm,
Tho’ I wish you’d join the army
Of the temperance reform.
Come join the glorious army
Of the temperance reform,
And every man that joins the ranks,
Will find it is no harm,
To wear Red Ribbon on his breast,
To show to this rare world,
There is one that joined the army
And his colors has unfurled.
Come all men in our nation,
Come join this happy band,
And make your homes an eden,
Throughout our happy land.
Your homes will then be happy,
Your friends will all be kind;
And in the domestic circle
True happiness will find.
Ah, from this temperance army,
Your feet shall never stray.
Your mind will then be balmy
If you keep the shining way.
Your paths are strewn with flowers,
And your homes are rosy light,
And God will watch the hours,
For He’s ever on the right.
Come all ye merry happy lads,
And listen to my rhyme.
Don’t be afraid to join the pledge
And let be the cursed wine.
Ah, lay the flowing bowl aside,
And pass saloons if you can,
And let the people see that you
Can be a sober man.
Go join the temperance army,
And battle for the right,
And fight against the enemy
With all your main and might.
For it is a glorious army
This temperance reform,
And the badge Red Ribbon
Will do you all no harm.
— Julia A. Moore
. . . Here’s to the next four years. Let’s laugh to keep from crying.
Sardonic, startling, dark and direct. This accessible, yet often existential poet writes incisive, meaningful poems. His cutting wit, dark humor and haunting irony are his trademarks.
With the debates in full swing, I thought it apt to share two of his protest poems. Enjoy!
The People of the Other Village
hate the people of this village
and would nail our hats
to our heads for refusing in their presence to remove them
or staple our hands to our foreheads
for refusing to salute them
if we did not hurt them first: mail them packages of rats,
mix their flour at night with broken glass.
We do this, they do that.
They peel the larynx from one of our brothers’ throats.
We devein one of their sisters.
The quicksand pits they built were good.
Our amputation teams were better.
We trained some birds to steal their wheat.
They sent to us exploding ambassadors of peace.
They do this, we do that.
We canceled our sheep imports.
They no longer bought our blankets.
We mocked their greatest poet
and when that had no effect
we parodied the way they dance
which did cause pain, so they, in turn, said our God
was leprous, hairless.
We do this, they do that.
Ten thousand (10,000) years, ten thousand
(10,000) brutal, beautiful years.
— Thomas Lux, 1994
Plague Victims Catapulted Over Walls into Besieged City
warfare. The dead
hurled this way look like wheels
in the sky. Look: there goes
Larry the Shoemaker, barefoot, over the wall,
and Mary Sausage Stuffer, see how she flies,
and the Hatter twins, both at once, soar
over the parapet, little Tommy’s elbow bent
as if in a salute,
and his sister, Mathilde, she follows him,
arms outstretched, through the air,
just as she did
— Thomas Lux, 1999
If I were asked to name an unofficial Patron Saint of Hard Living, Charles Bukowski would come to mind.
This prolific writer was unabashed about his drinking, turbulent love affairs with woman, and unconventional lifestyle. To his mind, those who met the status quo were the depraved ones. Read him for a while and you may decide he was right.
Out of his thousands of poems, most weren’t humorous. Here are three that are:
Van Gogh cut off his ear
gave it to a
who flung it away in
Van, whores don’t want
I guess that’s why you were
such a great
when you’re young
a pair of
in the closet
can fire your
when you’re old
a pair of shoes
the other day we were in a
bookstore in the mall
and my woman said, “look, there’s
“I don’t know him,” I said.
“we had dinner with him
not too long ago,” she said.
“all right,” I said, “let’s get
out of here.”
Bob was a clerk in the store
and his back was to us.
my woman yelled, “hello, Bob!”
Bob turned and smiled, waved.
my woman waved back.
I nodded at Bob, a very
delicate blushing fellow.
(Bob, that is.)
outside my woman asked, “don’t you remember him?”
“he came over with Ella. re- member Ella?”
my woman remembers everything.
I don’t understand it, although
I suppose it’s polite
to remember names and faces
I just can’t do it
I don’t want to carry all those
Bobs and Ellas and Jacks and Marions
and Darlenes around in my mind. eating and
drinking with them is difficult en- ough.
to attempt to recall them at will
is an affront to my well-
that they remember me is
It wasn’t until 1972––58 years after President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day official––that Father’s Day become a nationwide holiday. On Sunday, June 19, 2016, Americans will again honor and celebrate paternal bonds.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the passing of Ogden Nash. During his long career, he wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse. His subject matter, unconventional rhymes and accessibility made him a national favorite. His poetry is often tempered with gentle wisdom. Most readers can relate to his work in certain special ways. In my case, it is because Nash had two daughters. So do I. This particular poem, inspired by one of his daughters, also reminds me of myself over-reacting to own 30th birthday long ago. Rest in peace, Ogden Nash. We’ll always love you.
To enjoy a larger collection of his works, please click here.
A Lady Who Thinks She Is Thirty
Unwillingly, Miranda wakes,
Feels the sun with terror,
One unwilling step she takes,
Shuddering to the mirror.
Miranda in Miranda’s sight
Is old and gray and dirty;
Twenty-nine she was last night;
This morning she is thirty.
Shining like the morning star,
Like the twilight shining,
Haunted by a calendar,
Miranda is a-pining.
Silly girl, silver girl,
Draw the mirror toward you;
Time who makes the years to whirl
Adorned as he adored you.
Time is timelessness for you;
Calendars for the human;
What a year, or thirty, to
Loveliness made woman?
Oh, Night he will not see thirty again,
Yet soft her wing, Miranda;
Pick up your glass and tell me, then–
How old is Spring, Miranda?
Yesterday (April 20, 2016) marked the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. This annual event, created by The Academy of American Poets, has become the largest literary celebration in the world. Click here to discover what poetic events are happening near you.
In that spirit of celebration, today’s piece is by a most celebrated poet. John Ashbery has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and just about everything else I can think of.
Ashbery approaches the blank page the way a modern artist might approach a blank canvas. The words from his broad palette are applied with a bold hand. He’s incisive about human nature, sometimes poking fun at himself in a way that shows us our own funny human frailties as well.
This meandering stream-of-consciousness piece from the sixties is one of my favorites. Enjoy!
My Philosophy of Life Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough for another thought in my head, I had this great idea-- call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly, it involved living the way philosophers live, according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones? That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like. Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests, would be affected, or more precisely, inflected by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy, or worry about children and old people, except in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe. Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back, revealing a winding staircase with greenish light somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions. At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender, but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the fineness, the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone. It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore. There are lots of little trips to be made. A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well, messages to the world, as they sat and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles, and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort? I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought-- something’s blocking it. Something I’m not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared. What was the matter with how I acted before? But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I’ll let things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies and preserves, against the winter cold and futility, and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well. I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks, or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part, as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea of two people near him talking together. Well he’s got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him-- this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas. That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too. They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one... -- John Ashbery
. . . At least that’s what baseball legend Joe Garagiola said in his book of the same title. Garagiola passed away yesterday at the age of 90. It’s only fitting that today’s poetry post be in his honor.
“Casey at the Bat” is not only the most famous baseball poem ever written, but it may also be our nation’s best known piece of comic verse. Certainly it is pure Americana. Originally attributed to “Phin” when it was published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, it was actually penned by writer Earnest Thayer.
The beloved ballad has since seen a geat many reprisals and homages, not only in print, but also on stage and screen. There is so much conjecture about the real life inspirations for Casey and Mudville that I’m leaving that can of worms alone. Nine days ’til baseball season. Let’s revisit that poem. Rest in Peace, Joe.
Casey at the Bat
A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888
The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.—
Fifteen years ago today, America lost one of its greatest modern poets. A. R. Ammons, a humble man from rural North Carolina, started writing poetry while serving aboard a Navy Destroyer in the South Pacific in WWII.
His level, conversational style and wry sensibility make his poems accessible and contemporary. His subject matter varies, and to my delight, he often poetizes the mundane.
The night before last, I found myself in a beer joint conversation with some writer friends––one a Fitbit devotee, another about to embark on an austere Dr. Oz regime. (I was on my humdrum soapbox for moderation.) Had A.R. Ammons been with us, he might have thrown in a stanza of Aubade. (Bosh and Flapdoodle, 2006).
Here’s to A.R. Ammons, harbingers of swimsuit season, and everyday life!
They say, lose weight, change your lifestyle:
that’s, take the life out of your style and
the style out of your life: give up fats,
give up sweets, chew rabbit greens, raw: and
how about carrots: raw: also, wear your
hipbones out walking. We were designed for
times when breakfast was not always there, and
you had to walk a mile, maybe, for your first
berry or you had to chip off a flint before
you could dig up a root: and there were
times when like going off to a weight reduction
center you had a belly full of nothing: easy
to be skinny digesting bark: but here now at
the breakfast buffet or lavish brunch you’re
trapped between resistance and getting your
money’s worth and the net gain from that
transaction is about one pound more: hunting
and gathering is a better lifestyle than
resisting: resisting works up your nerves
not your appetite (already substantial in the
wild) and burns up fewer calories than the
activity arising from hunger pangs: all in
all this is a praise for modern life––who
wants to pick the subrealities from his teeth
every minute––but all this is just not what
we were designed for, bad as it was: any way
I go now I feel I’m going against nature, when
I feel so free with the ways and means, the
dynamics, the essentialities honed out clearly
from millions of years: sometimes when I say
“you” in my poems and appear to be addressing
the lord above, I’m personifying the contours
of the onhigh, the ways by which the world
works, however hard to see: for the onhigh
is every time the on low, too, and in the
middle: one lifts up one’s voice to the
lineations of singing and sings, in effect,
you, you are the one, the center, it is around
you that the comings and goings gather, you
are the before and after, the around and
through: in all your motions you are ever
still, constant as motion itself: there with
you we abide, abide the changes, abide the
dissolutions and recommencement
of our very selves, abide in your abiding: but, of course
I don’t mean “you” as anyone in particular
but I mean the center of motions millions of
years have taught us to seek: now, with
space travel and gene therapy that “you” has
moved out of the woods and rocks and streams
and traveled on out so far in space that it
rounds the whole and is, in a way, nowhere to
be found or congratulated, and so what is out
there dwells in our heads now as a bit of
yearning, maybe vestigial, and it is a yearning
like painful sweetness, a nearly reachable
presence that nearly feels like love, something
we can put aside as we get up to rustle up a
little breakfast or contemplate a little
weight loss, or gladden the morning by getting
off to work . . .
— A. R. Ammons
This Saturday (January 29th) would be his 89th birthday if he were still with us. Sadly, he took his own life with a handgun in 1984. He was 49 years old.
Brautigan’s poems are terse, highly conceptual (some of his abstract metaphors border on synesthesia), and often marked by his famously quirky gallows humor.
His unconventional verses resonate with me, but not with everyone. Here are a few. Decide for yourself:
The Mortuary Bush
Mr. William Lewis is an undertaker
and he hasn’t been feeling very good
lately because not enough people are
Mr. Lewis is buying a new house
and a new car and many appliances
on the installment plan and he needs
all the money he can get.
Mr. Lewis has headaches and can’t
sleep at night and his wife says,
“Bill, what’s wrong?” and he says,
“Oh, nothing, honey,” but at night
he can’t sleep.
He lies awake in bed and wishes
that more people would die.
— Richard Brautigan
Romeo and Juliet
If you will die for me,
I will die for you
and our graves will
be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
in a Laundromat.
If you will bring the soap,
I will bring the bleach.
— Richard Brautigan
The Donner Party
Forsaken, fucking in the cold,
eating each other, lost, runny noses,
complaining all the time like so
many people that we know.
— Richard Brautigan
15 Stories in One Poem
I hate to bother you,
but I just dropped
a baby out the window
and it fell 15 stories
and splattered against
May I borrow a mop?
— Richard Brautigan
A Cigarette Butt
A cigarette butt is not a pretty
It is not like the towering trees,
the green meadows, or the for-
It is not like a gentle fawn, a
singing bird, or a hopping
But these are all gone now,
And in the forest’s place is a
Blackened world of charred trees
and rotting flesh—
The remnants of another forrest
A cigarette but is not a pretty
— Richard Brautigan
Critical Can Opener
There is something wrong
with this poem. Can you find it?
— Richard Brautigan
She tries to get things out of men
that she can’t get because she’s not
— Richard Brautigan
Potatoes await like edible shadows
under the ground. They wait in
their darkness for the light of
— Richard Brautigan
He wants to build you a house
out of your own bones, but
that’s where you’re living
The next time he calls
you answer the telephone with the
sound of your grandmother being
born. It was a twenty-three-hour
labor in 1894. He hangs
— Richard Brautigan
This poem was found written on a paper bag by Richard Brautigan in a laundromat in San Francisco. The author is unknown.
By accident, you put
Your money in my
By accident, I put
My money in another
On purpose, I put
Your clothes in the
Empty machine full
Of water and no
It was lonely.