Friday, February 29, 2008

Paradise Motel by Charles Simic

Simic's poems generally rely more on image and perspective than on music and rhythm. He wants you to feel off-balance reading his work. His language is straightforward--you won't see a glistening vocabulary. I read Paradise Motel as a brutally honest commentary on how we relate to war and suffering.

Paradise Motel

Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice-canceled postage stamp.

I lived well, but life was awful.
there were so many soldiers that day,
So many refugees crowding the roads.
Naturally, they all vanished
With a touch of the hand.
History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.

On the pay channel, a man and a woman
Were trading hungry kisses and tearing off
Each other's clothes while I looked on
With the sound off and the room dark
Except for the screen where the color
Had too much red in it, too much pink.

Charles Simic was born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he had a traumatic childhood during World War II. In 1953 he emigrated from Yugoslavia with his mother and brother to join his father in the United States. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House by Billy Collins

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. He served as the Poet Laureate in 2001 and is the author of several books of poetry.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye's Valentine is a clever and moving explication of poetry. She takes a strong stance in the age old debate on whether poems are like tacos.

Valentine for Ernest Mann

You can't order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two"
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, "Here's my address,
write me a poem," deserves something in reply.
So I'll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn't understand why she was crying.
"I thought they had such beautiful eyes."
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952 to a Palestinian father and an American mother. A good deal of her poetry focuses on her life as an Arab American. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A Drinking Song by William Butler Yeats

Since Valentine's Day is coming up this week, here's a love poem by William Butler Yeats.

Yeats spent much of his life pining (unrequited) for a woman named Maud Gonne. He wrote a lot of poems about her, proposed to her four times, and got to be very, very good at pining:

A Drinking Song

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That's all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1865. He is remembered as an important cultural leader, a major playwright (he was one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and as one of the very greatest poets—in any language—of the century. W. B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 and died in 1939 at the age of 73.

Friday, February 01, 2008

from Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson

This week's post is an excerpt from Tennyson's great poem Ulysses. The Greek hero and his crew are in their twilight years, and the poem is a rally call for one last heroic action. It's Tennyson at his most grand and inspirational. This was John F. Kennedy's favorite poem, and it reads like the best of Churchill's speeches.

For the full effect, the entire poem is here.

from Ulysses

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me,--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,-- you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Lord Alfred Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire England in 1809, one of 12 children. He was one of the most popular poets of his era, and amassed considerable wealth publishing his poems. His best-known work includes In Memoriam and Idylls of the King.