Friday, November 16, 2018

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~


Words of a poem should be glass
But glass so simple-subtle its shape
Is nothing but the shape of what it holds.

A glass spun for itself is empty,
Brittle, at best Venetian trinket.
Embossed glass hides the poem of its absence.

Words should be looked through, should be windows.
The best word were invisible.
The poem is the thing the poet thinks.

If the impossible were not,
And if the glass, only the glass,
Could be removed, the poem would remain.

– By Robert Francis (1901-1987)

I might just as easily have labelled this one 'I Wish I'd Written This' or 'Thought Provokers', or even made it the subject of some 'Moonlight Musings'. I love what it says, which is also my own idea – or lofty ideal – of what constitutes the most excellent writing, whether poetry or prose. But I imagine many writers might disagree. They might prefer words that startle their readers, shock them awake, or make them rapturous with delight at their music or the visual images they conjure.

All those are good things to do with words too. But as a reader I love best those rare times when they are clear, transparent glass you can look straight through to the essence of what is being told. The first time I consciously became aware of this – belatedly, as in the moment one doesn't even notice that there is glass – was when I read I Can Jump Puddles, the Australian classic by Alan Marshall, first published in 1955. It's the autobiographical story of his childhood, when he contracted polio soon after starting school. A good story well told – but my point here is that Marshall's writing was so clear and transparent that it seemed to disappear, letting us see straight through. The very thing Robert Francis describes in this poem.

The poem itself is not an example of what it talks about. Perhaps it can't be, being a poem of ideas. It has to be opaque enough to engage us in thought. So perhaps not every poem 'should' be glass – and after all, I dislike 'should' in most contexts. Perhaps we may be content to get an extra-special treat when some poems are. Meanwhile this one gets its idea across very well.

Until I stumbled across it I had never heard of Robert Francis. It turns out that he was an award-winning American poet, described by Robert Frost (a strong influence) as 'of all the great neglected poets, the greatest'. Poetry Foundation, where you can find some of his poems, tells us they are 'often charmingly whimsical, presenting conundrums and mysteries with a light, lyrical touch'. He was also very much a nature poet.

Even Wikipedia doesn't tell us much more about him. He was a graduate of Harvard, and lived most of his life  – alone, one gathers – in Amherst, Massachusetts in a small house he built himself. He was committed to poetry, declaring it his 'most central, intense and inwardly rewarding experience'.

His Collected Poems are on Amazon, along with a 'new and uncollected' called Late Fire, Late Snow – 
just a couple of second-hand copies left of each book. There is also a biographical-critical study called The Man Who Is and Is Not There. The blurb accompanying this book describes Francis as 'devoting himself to Yankee simplicity and self-renunciation derived from his reading of Thoreau' and adds that 'His preference for solitude and disinclination to write about or promote himself account for the elusiveness of his persona in his prose and poetry.' It speaks of 'poems that both reveal and conceal the self of the poet' and those 'where the speaker is both subject and object.' It goes on to describe him as 'a craftsman of intricate precisions whose work speaks to contemporary political and global concerns'.

I've included him among our 'living dead', but I wonder how long his work will live, when it is already so hard to get hold of. But there are the few at Poetry Foundation (see link above) and there are 22 at PoemHunter. They overlap a bit but are not all the same ones.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright). The photo of Robert Francis used here is in the Public Domain.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Poets United Midweek Motif ~ Ode To Age

“….O! sweet to me the laughing hours,
When earth seemed gay, and heaven was fair;
When fancy culled her thornless flowers,
And pleasure reigned unknown to care....” — William B. Tappan


      “Why so scrawny, cat?
Starving for fat fish or mice….
Or backyard love?” — Basho

    Midweek Motif ~ Ode To Age

We are paying homage to Age.

In his essay “Of Youth and Age Francis Bacon says,A man that is young in years may be old in hours, if he have lost no time. But that happeneth rarely. Generally, youth is like the first cogitations, not so wise as the second.”

You may write about youth, old age or even about a distinct period of history or literature.

An eminent literary or historical figure in your poem is also most welcome.

Here is an ode to Age by Pablo Neruda:

Ode To Age

by Pablo Neruda

I don't believe in age.
All old people
in their eyes,
a child,
and children,
at times
observe us with the
eyes of wise ancients.
Shall we measure
in meters or kilometers
or months?

How far since you were born?
How long
must you wander
like all men
instead of walking on its surface
we rest below the earth?
To the man, to the woman
who utilized their
energies, goodness, strength,
anger, love, tenderness,
to those who truly
and in their sensuality matured,
let us not apply
the measure
of a time
that may be
something else, a mineral
mantle, a solar
bird, a flower,
something, maybe,
but not a measure.
Time, metal
or bird, long
petiolate flower,
man's life,
shower him
with blossoms
and with
or with hidden sun.
I proclaim you
not shroud,
a pristine
with treads
of air,
a suit lovingly
through springtimes
around the world.
time, I roll you up,
I deposit you in my
bait box
and I am off to fish
with your long line
the fishes of the dawn!

translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden 

The Charge of the Light Brigade
by Alfred Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.


“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

                       (The rest is here

London, 1802
by William Wordsworth

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Please share your new poem using Mr. Linky below and visit others in the spirit of the community—
                (Next week Susan’s Midweek Motif will be ~ Prayer.)

Monday, November 12, 2018


Friends, today we have poems penned by three maestros of online poetry: Brendan MacOdrum, of Oran's Well, Shay Simmons, known to us as Fireblossom, of Shay's Word Garden  and Black Mamba, and Susie Clevenger, who blogs at Confessions of a Laundry Goddess and Black Ink Howl. You will be familiar with them from this site, as well as from their regular participation at our sister site, Imaginary Garden With Real Toads. Today's poems demonstrate just how much impact a poem can have. Each of these poems stayed with me for days after reading them, and I knew I wanted to share them with you. Let's jump right in.

Vanishing gods, with you
go our heat and heart,
the tamp of descents
no lamp can reach.

But that is not prayer.
May your extinction
ring the long bell of the sea;

May the crash and bellow
of your diving thrash
make our hearing of it
a halving beyond night.

Make vast this foundering
into the unfound,
church without vicarage,
cry without cross.

We have taken your last child.
May our oil burn that low.

Wrap this prayer
around your ghost rib

that we may harrow
what only death
now can whale.

Your lost song
deepens our sorrow
into abyss—:

The lonely sanctus
of tomorrows upending,
your much amiss.
Tomb Jonah and Ahab
in your mouth’s scrimshaw.

Drown our amen
in your whalefall.


Sherry: "Your lost song deepens our sorrow", indeed, Brendan. I am thinking of Talequah, carrying her dead calf on her nose for seventeen days, grieving. What a sorrowful world we have made for the creatures.

Brendan: Whales--perhaps all cetaceans--are a totem animal for me. On my father's family crest, a naked man rides a sea-beast; my avatar St. Brendan celebrated Easter for seven years on the back of the whale Jasconius, Moby Dick is a dark Bible in my reading. Search "whale" or "seal" or "dolphin" on my blog and you'll see.

But the oceans are changing faster than the land due to human activity, we just don't notice it (the surface of the sea is the same every day). We may be the last generation to see whales in oceans.

I had been reading about a nunnery in Japan where two elderly nuns continue to pray for the souls of whales killed by their fishing village--even a century after the traditional practice came to an end. As the Anthropocene brings about the Sixth Extnction event, I wondered what on Earth we, the complicit, could pray for the last vanishing whales.

Sherry: I wonder, too. We don't deserve forgiveness. I am glad of the nuns praying, though. And for your poem, which speaks to our shared plight so eloquently. Thank you, Brendan.

Shay's poem struck my heart so forcefully, I am still thinking about it. Let's dive in.

Ask anybody at a bus stop or down by the river--
there aren't any whales in Detroit.

It's lies.

I hear them all the time.
On Woodward Avenue, whales.
At John King books, whales down every row of shelves.
At the Old Mariners' Church, whales in the bells.

You are so thin, so sad.
I look at the great scarred heads of the whales and think of you.
In the aging overhanging trees beside the crack houses, whales. 
Under the 8 Mile Road overpass, whole pods of whales.
In your eyes, the sea
and the coiled rope of our pasts which holds the harpoon. 

There are whales in Detroit.
There is me, with my long hair tucked inside the collar of my pea coat.
From my hair I hear the waves.
There is you, outside a pawn shop between Hubbell and Greenfield,
giving the monkey a Nantucket sleigh ride. 
There is salt spray on my face,
and you, far out on the horizon, spyhopping,
then nodding for the deeps like all the rest--the whales of Detroit.


Sherry: That coiled rope of the past, with its harpoon. The whale, spyhopping, looking for a safe place to be. The thought of their ancient wildness, as we walk grey city streets, a wildness we miss and long for, that is fast disappearing. This poem hurts to read. And I am so glad you wrote it!

Shay: I was feeling distressed when I wrote "Whales of Detroit". About the whole political situation, and also i wanted to write something about my poor city, which has undergone such hard times. While the poem has nothing to do with the Kavanaugh hearings per se, it IS about the elephant --or whale-- in the room; that is to say, the thing that is too big to not be seen. And what i see is at once sad and brave and criminal and heartbreaking. And so i wrote that poem. I cried when I wrote it, so it really came from the heart.

May I say how happy I am to appear with two such marvelous poets. Thanks for thinking of me.

Sherry: Thanks for sharing your heartrending poem, Shay.

I knew I needed a third poem that would match the power of these two, so when Susie posted the following poem, I lost no time asking her if I might include it.

I hear the water cry,
“I am your safety”,
but drowning sings
its dirge across my chest.

Hope urges faith
can walk across the sea…
My wounds burn in brine’s no
as I bleed another tear into the tempest.

Memory’s mutiny has unleashed suppressed,
and I feel the anchor of ghosts freed
from Davy Jones’ locker.

I am a fish forced to once again
swim a dead sea I thought I’d conquered.
I pray the demon’s spear will pierce the last revelation
so I will no longer fear a shadow will come to snuff my candle.


Sherry: I feel like that fish, forced to swim a dead sea she thought she had conquered, as we watch fifty years of hard-won human rights and protections being rolled back or tossed out. We are indeed bleeding tears into the tempest.

Susie: My poem Match to Water was written from hearing the news and reading social media comments relating to why women won’t report sexual violence, and if they do, why it takes years for them to speak about it. It is a very personal topic for me. I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor. It took me fifteen years to tell anyone about it. Because of the current conversations new details I had suppressed in my own horror have begun to surface.

I have often gone to sit along the water to find peace and comfort, but having lived through several hurricanes I also know the terror of it. Just like those massive, destructive storms form in heated water my mind began to churn with current events and opinions from those who have never lived the nightmare of sexual trauma. The poem became the vehicle that made me realize I needed help. I am currently seeing a therapist to guide me through revelations I can’t manage alone.

Sherry: Thank you for the impact of this poem, and for speaking about it. The issues raised in these three poems are  made so much worse by recognising that those in power care nothing about their constituents, women or the environment.

I imagine millions of women have been distressed by the message of recent weeks. I’m glad you have sought support. I sought help myself over the grief I carry for what is happening to the planet I love so much, and for Pup, who has always represented wilderness to me. But the grief is so raw I couldn’t even speak, only cry. It hurts too much to talk about.

Thank you, Brendan, Shay and Susie, for this exceptional trio of powerful poems. You put voice so well to the bleak lens we are looking through these days. 

These poems certainly show us the impact a poem can have, do they not, my friends? Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!