Friday, January 25, 2008

First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

This week's poem is a small, perfect one from Millay that recently made the news. Heath Ledger's father mentioned it (thinking it was Tennyson's), reflecting on his son's life. It seems a fitting tribute.

First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, ME in 1892. Her fourth book of poetry, The Harp Weaver, earned her the Pulitzer Prize. She was openly bisexual, which sheds some light on the otherwise mysterious title here.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter by Li Po

This gentle, moving translation by Ezra Pound is a good example of Imagism, a movement Pound helped put forward based on traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry. Imagism stresses clarity, precision, and economy of language.

The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter

WHILE my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
Played I about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you,
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into fat Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noises overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early in autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

The Chinese poet Li Po lived during the 8th Century. He wandered throughout the country during his lifetime and legend has it he composed his poems at an astonishing speed.

Ezra Pound is considered the poet most responsible for defining and promoting a modernist aesthetic in poetry. In the early teens of the twentieth century, he opened a seminal exchange of work and ideas between British and American writers, and was famous for the generosity with which he advanced the work of many major contemporaries, most notably T. S. Eliot.

Friday, January 11, 2008

O sweet spontaneous by E.E. Cummings

In this week's poem, E.E. Cummings offers some perspective on humanity's angst and curiosity. He is playful and stylized as per usual.

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

beauty .how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy
thou answerest

them only with


E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) discovered an original way of describing the chaotic immediacy of sensuous experience. He played games with language and form and put forth a deliberately simplistic view of the world, giving his poems a gleeful and precocious tone. He was born in Cambridge, Mass., attended Harvard and studied Art in Paris.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson

This week's poem is a hopeful one from Emily Dickinson to start off the New Year. Her voice, which I usually find ethereal and unsettling, is grounded here.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I ’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. She is known for her solitary lifestyle--she rarely left her house or hosted visitors. Along with Walt Whitman, she helped engender a uniquely American poetic voice. She died in 1886.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Wanderer by Antonio Machado

Your editor is taking a trip to Spain this week, so here's a poem by the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado (translated by Betty Jean Craige)

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road--
Only wakes upon the sea.

Born in Seville in 1875, Antonio Machado is considered one of the great Spanish poets.  In 1939, he died of an illness he contracted while fleeing from the armies of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.