If I have the time, I will try to rhyme

There are people in this world who, though very gifted — brilliant, even — in useful ways, still want to be poets. My dad — a gifted mathematician — wanted to be a poet. I knew this about him, but until I cleaned out the garage this past spring, I didn’t realize how MUCH he wanted to be a poet.

There was a lot of (bad) poetry. Great poetry because my dad wrote it, but… One of his treasures was a rhyming dictionary. I treasured it for years and years and years — since I was 10 and he discovered I might be a REAL poet someday. My dad sometimes lectured me on vers libre, poetry with no rhyme or rhythm (often no rhyme or reason) and he wrote poetry in this style.

I did really want to be a poet. I personally (and somewhat secretly) love poetry. Poetry can make my emotions catch their breath. Last fall I was in Taos with a friend and met Pierre DeLattre, a painter and writer. It was an intense encounter because it involved paintings (beautiful paintings!) and Yeats.

Though the study of it enhanced my ability to love it, studying literature and loving poetry are not always the same thing. In my Critical Writing class (a great class with a fine professor) as an undergraduate we were tasked to write 10 different essays about ONE poem by Yeats. I learned more about academic writing in that class than any other I took. The poem I chose was “The Double-Vision of Michael Robartes” which honestly made no sense to me at all until I began writing about it and then it became more than just a poem (“just” a poem?) It does rhyme. The rhymes are somewhat agonized at times, but it all works to a beautiful effect at the end where the final rhyme is broken; close, but not quite there.

These days rhyme often gets a bad rap ( ha ha ). In my opinion, rhyme is a pretty cool thing. It helps people remember. It creates music, something often missing from my dad’s beloved vers libre. End rhymes and rhythm are part of nature. Inside each seed is the coded destination of the flower and the fruit.

For what but eye and ear silence the mind
With the minute particulars of mankind?

“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” William Butler Yeats


By Heart

In OLDEN days the poets were less writers of poetry than they were reciters of poetry. People would gather round them in the firelight — even if it was Athens it was firelight — and listen to them recite the stories of the heroic deeds of Achilles and Odysseus, the beauty of Helen of Troy, the sad death of Njal. Even the poets believed that the stories were told to them by the Gods. The poetry was there, waiting for a voice. Poetry is easier to learn when it rhymes, is alliterative and has a beat. The muses who gave the poems to the bards knew this. 🙂

In the eras before mine, kids learned poetry in school and they had to be able to recite it “by heart.” My grandfather could recite LONG poems and my mom could, too. I think the old man had all his kids learning poetry from a young age. Anyway, it was always a part of our house when I was growing up. My dad, too. He could recite Robert Service’ “The Ice Worm Cocktail” by heart. My mom could recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I like those poems but the Robert Service poem I like best is “The Call of the Wild” and I can recite most of it by heart.

The few poems I can recite (part or all) I actually feel they are part of my heart, more than words on paper. Some of them I was forced to learn in school and they evoke my school days when I think of them (“Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — the beginning of it). Others I learned because they meant a lot to me. Some of the poems are deep, some are silly, some are doggerel, some changed my life, my way of thinking. You see, I love poetry. ❤

In the summer of 2000 I taught Intro to Lit and the first day a student said, “Are we going to do poetry? I hate poetry. I don’t get it.”

I said, “We kind of have to. This is an intro to lit class.” I taught a poem every day, usually one of those I know “by heart.” And usually I recited them wrote them on the board — possible because most of those are short, almost epigrams. She ended up loving it.

“You know all those poems by heart, Teacher?”

“Yeah,” I said.

I’ve even written some poetry. I think some of it’s good, but the one I’m going to ‘recite’ (copy and paste) here is from my Pulitzer Prize winning book of catteral, Cats I’ve Known. It’s dedicated to all the great cats out there and the humans they own.

God Makes the First Cat

God made the world in just one week,
And every creature he made unique
He made the rabbit, horse and frog,
He made the loyal loving dog.

He made the fish, he made the spider,
A hippo to make the rivers wider.
He worked on butterflies and hens,
Then he sat down to think again.

“In all of my menagerie
There’s something missing. Let me see.
A world needs horses to pull plows,
A world needs chickens, dogs and cows.”

“But when the daily work is done,
A world must find some time for fun.
Some time to frolic and to play
Some time to sit in the sun all day.”

“Time to relax when work allows
I must make something to show them how!
Someone fluffy, someone funny,
But more intelligent than a bunny.”

God decided to make up cats,
To give them work, he made some rats.
When he was done, he picked one out
And started to throw the cat about!

The cat was cute, the cat was fluffy
But he didn’t like to be treated roughly.
The cat scratched God on the back of the hand,
And God said, “If you scratch a man,

“Like you scratched me,
You won’t be forgiven so easily.”
God watched the cat for signs of remorse,
But the cat didn’t feel remorse, of course.

The cat just cleaned his ears and hair
And ignored God as if He weren’t there.
“This will not do,” said God to the cat.
“You won’t succeed if you act like that!”

“You must learn to apologize
Or you won’t be fed and that won’t be nice!”
“Now, please, a penitent meow
and you can have a bowl of cat chow.”

The cat stood up and stretched one leg,
He absolutely refused to beg.
Well, God respects integrity,
In small animals you and me.

“You’re right,” sighed God, “I was too rough,
Don’t you think we’ve argued enough?”
God reached down and stroked the cat,
Behind his ears, and down his back.

He was rubbing his hand on the cat’s soft fur
When the cat began to purr.
“What a soft and soothing sound,”
Said tired old God as he sat down.

The cat curled up in God’s lap and stayed
And so God rested that seventh day.


Is Life a Poem?

One of the skills at which I excelled in school was finding the “hidden meaning” in a poem and answering the question, “What is the poet trying to tell us?”

Now I know that was largely because of all the practice I had gotten at home trying to decipher the real meaning behind my mom’s words. It was also because my mom and dad both loved poetry making it a big part of my life as long as I can remember.

It’s a strangely useless and yet useful skill. I had to learn (as an adult) to resist looking for the hidden meaning because sometimes it just wasn’t that helpful. At the same time, if I did not examine reality, I was lost.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my place in life at this moment in time. I’ve had a hard time figuring that out. What am I supposed to be doing right now? I’m not going to teach anyone. I don’t want to write anything. Painting — uh, shudder. I can’t see doing volunteer work (I already taught for 35 years at slave wages), I’ve seen the seamy side of life and it’s over-rated. What am I here for NOW? It seems like things involving the house and chores take up too much time and are never finished. I don’t like yard work, though I kind of like my garden. It’s a big mystery to me. I like to travel, I like to walk and look at stuff. I love natural phenomenon. I like my dogs and friends. Is there a hidden meaning to all this, or is it right there in front of me and I can’t see it?

Then, last evening — troubled by this problem — I went for a walk with my dogs. This is what I got just by going out the back gate.

Just walked the dogs. It was raining. I got to the high school. Hard claps of thunder. Dusty doesn’t mind it if we’re outside together. I don’t know why, but that’s how he is.

Bear looks for messages. In vain? I don’t know.

Little girls riding bikes in the rain, “Hi!”



They keep riding, I look to the east, there is a rainbow, faint and half, but it’s there.
Rain falls just the way a gardener likes it, evenly, straight down. The sun comes out even more. The rainbow is now very intense and double. I look at it for a while. The rain keeps falling. I turn toward home.

The little girls are riding their bikes in the rain through the sprinklers, back-lit and every bit as beautiful as the rainbow behind me.

I don’t know where to turn. I watch the rainbow, I watch the girls.

I decide to go home for reals and the little girls decide to go home at the same time. They ride away like dragon flies in the rain and sunshine.

It’s a special men’s evening at the golf course and the rain isn’t stopping the play. Two guys are standing in the rain looking at the rainbow.


“Hi! Beautiful rain,” I say then think that maybe my take on the rain and rainbow might be different from that of guys playing golf.

And after all of that wonder the alley wasn’t even muddy.

The moment lasted only as long as my walk. When we stepped outside the gate, there was only a desultory, half-hearted sprinkle. The sky was gray. In the distance, were rumbles of thunder and the sky was flat and obscure. When we stepped out of the alley, the magic began. On our return, turning into the alley, the sky was again obscure and gray, the rain fell in half-hearted sprinkles and the show was over.

I think that was a message…

Archibald MacLeish wrote a poem in defense of symbolist poetry entitled “Ars Poetica.” It’s kind of didactic, but it impressed me a lot when I was in high school. This morning the last line(s) seem to sum up the point of life at this moment of mine.

A poem should not mean
but be.



What’s Art, Anyway?

Last week I had lunch with new friends here in Heaven. They are all artists. We talked about — or expressed ourselves — about what makes art. Some cried out against landscapes. Some cried out against something else. Some expressed the opinion that certain photographs and certain kinds of paintings were steps in the “progress” one makes to become a real artist. Some cried out against painting from photographs. One of them and I agreed that if an artist isn’t pushing themselves, it’s boring.

I came home inhibited. I paint landscapes. I paint other things, but I do paint landscapes and I thought they were art because they’re not easy for me. I also paint from photographs — I consider many of the photos I take to be sketches from which I’ll paint at some point. I don’t see why anyone should sit in a mosquito infested field with a sketch pad and go home and paint from it when they could just take a photo. I do other paintings, too, but painting landscapes and painting from photos improve my technique with the brush and with color.

The great thing of painting, for me, has been freedom, but now I feel less free. As I listened, I also thought, ” These guys have been to school and gotten advanced degrees in art. I didn’t do that.”

As far as getting along with my art teachers, I’m 2 for 2. My experience of “studying” art can be distilled into Stephen Crane’s poem.

“Think as I think,” said a man,
“Or you are abominably wicked; you are
a toad.”
And after I thought of it, I said, “I will, then, be a toad.”

My artistic heroes are the guys who painted day in and day out whatever someone told them to paint because they needed to earn a living. Those guys would have mastered the craft in ways most modern artists never need to. When I was wandering around in Verona, I went to the cathedral and went through the oldest part of the church. The cathedral was an architectural concretion. There were workmen restoring frescoes that were more than 1000 years old. A canvas tarp hung between the passageway and their work to help keep their work clean. I sat down outside the tarp and listened to them talk.

They weren’t talking about the meaning of art or if they were or were not artists. They were talking a bit about the materials they were using (native ochres, mostly), but for the most part they were planning their weekends.

I envied them their skills and training, but, as Goethe wrote, through our lives — especially in our youth — we look ahead down myriad pathways. We go a little way on one and then the other before we find the one that fits us best. He was in his late 30s when he turned away forever from the possibility of being an artist. He was in Italy when he made this determination about himself. He’d lost interest in writing. He was weighed down by Sorrows of Young Werther and the resultant fame and the numerous copy-cat suicides. He wanted to write something else. He wondered if he could. Some months in Italy, and he found his way back to unfinished projects — Tasso and Iphegenia among others. The drawings he’d imagined he would do as a record of his Italian journey became the job of a young German artist, Christoph Heinrich Kniep.

I have a beautiful little book of Goethe’s watercolor sketches of places in Italy and Switzerland, some of which I have seen in real life, too. My favorite is his sketch of the Rheinfall. I have seen the Reinfall several times and it makes me happy to be able to look at the vision Goethe had while he was there.

He wrote about it, too, in Faust II, and I recognized it right away in his words — it is also my very favorite passage in all that Goethe wrote — and it is a painting in its way.

The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the Ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing,
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder, rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many hued reflection we have life.

A landscape.

A photo of the Rheinfalls -- there is very often a rainbow.

A photo of the Rheinfalls — there is very often a rainbow.

Water…a Miracle

Writing Challenge Ice, Water, Steam For this week’s writing challenge, take on the theme of H2O. What does it mean to be the same thing, in different forms?

Water is a miraculous compound, but I doubt it indulges in self-reflection. Like all things in nature, it simply IS. At this moment, crystalline bits of it are drifting very slowly past my window. Behind them is a dormant alder tree with its pine-cone like seed pods. On the ground is more water, crunchy, cold, broken, melted and recrystallized.

Identity — for water and for the self — exists in response to conditions in the external world. In the last 30 years the “idea” of an “external” world has been pushed aside in favor of subjectivism, the “personal” vision of reality. What this implies is that there is NOTHING but the self. As a result of the prevailing idea in the world in which I reached maturity, I worried a lot about who I am. It wasn’t until 1998 when I “met” Goethe, and read Italian Journey, that I understood that the varied iterations of our sacred fucking selves are — like water — defined by the conditions of our being. We ARE in relation to the world, the universe, each other. Our intrinsic nature is what it is, but not as unique and unexpected as we may like to believe. At the same time, it’s impossible for us — or anything in nature — to behave in opposition to our nature.

I am a creative person and, measurably, intelligent. Not my fault. An accident or result of genetics. I am also short. I have a droopy left eye-lid. My mom said, “All Kennedys have that. Look at JFK.” Well, this past summer I saw a photo of my paternal great-grandmother (not a Kennedy, a Mackay) and low and behold, there was my left eye looking out of her face, once more illustrating the fact that the truth might not be what we think it is. It’s not a Kennedy trait at all…

The way others perceive me is often quite different from who I really am. Over and over I’ve found myself standing up for my being; yes, I’m creative, but I’m not messy or disorganized or irresponsible. I am neat, organized and I meet (met 😉 ) deadlines. After a while I learned that much of who we are to other people is not us at all; it’s a projection of THEM. My intelligence doesn’t mean anything other than that and it has limits. I don’t feel — as some people do — that I need to prove anything to anyone. I’d rather get to know people than intimidate them, but there are a lot of smart people in this world who really like the game of intellectual domination.

So, if a person keeps their eyes open they can see themselves in life’s moments, especially in new and unfamiliar ones, they will learn a lot about the substance they are. This past week I spent with very good friends and found myself in a couple of situations that were not “usual” for me. One was returning to an environment I escaped when my mom died, proximity to a very intelligent and competitively facetious woman whose notion of conversation was to “win.” I felt myself backing into a corner where once, long ago, in order to “protect” myself, I would have played. I don’t play that any more. I don’t want to do that, be that. Later, I had the chance to change the rules to rules I feel are more valid than “winning.” I was able to offer a sincere compliment on something I was sure this woman both cared about and was insecure about. I watched her melt, turn human and relax, seeing there was no need to “win,” she was liberated. I know myself well enough NOW that I can choose the “iteration” of self that will act in a given situation — but choice is limited by who I am, fundamentally. That would be integrity which is part of every natural thing.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about this beautifully in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” As a Jesuit, his perception of nature’s law is the word God. His point is that nothing in nature can act in opposition to itself and that is inexpressibly lovely.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:            
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;    
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,    
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.    
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


Sometimes we have friends who see us as we are. I have several such friends (aren’t they the true friends?) One of them recently told me how he sees me. “…you are an artist, a mountain woman, an athlete, a friend.” Really that’s a perfect summary of who I hope I am, the person I want to be.



Last Class — Despairing Rant Against Test-based Curricula

Intro to Lit is over and my teaching career is over, too. It seems very anti-climactic to me that my 35 years teaching ended not with a bang, but a whimper. 20 grocery store cupcakes and a packet of napkins. On the other hand, a Bang can be a gun or a bomb and that would be worse than sharing cupcakes and sending everyone home after 30 minutes because the movie I’d planned to show (no, not Stand and Deliver) wouldn’t play because I did not have permission to install Silverlight on the college computer. $10 down the drain, but now I can watch Sidney Poitier in Raisin in the Sun any time I want. That has been exactly once in my life… so…

The parade of sad ignorance lasted until the end. We read poetry by Langston Hughes (“A Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Harlem”) and once again the basic historical background was lacking for them to get the jist of the poems. If this were high school, I’d figure on teaching that first, but at college? They all know that Martin Luther King was a great man, but I learned yesterday that they do not really know why. They did not know of the riots and the deaths around the Civil Rights Amendment. They did not know that white supporters of Black rights were killed alongside their Black brothers. In their minds it was ALL the Blacks vs. ALL the Whites.They did not know about the burning of Watts or the “pray in” in Selma or the murderous demonstrations on the streets of Harlem where blacks and whites marched and died.


I gave them a worksheet they would be able to do for extra points. One of the questions asked about the significance of the rivers Hughes mentions in his poem. Several of my students had no idea where these rivers are — the Congo, the Nile, the Euphrates. Thankfully, they were OK with the Mississippi.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers By Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The worksheet (which I wrote) asked them how the poem “Harlem” was prophetic and asked if it was a warning or a call to action. Warning of what? Call to what action? They looked at me as if I’d asked something completely impossible. Please understand we’ve spend time on the history of blacks in the US from WW I on. They had context, but I realized that  I was wrong in assuming they’d learned about American history of the 50s and 60s in their relentless diversity training.

Harlem by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

It was another absolutely dispiriting day except for the fact that some of the students are happy to be learning. Since that’s the whole point of teaching, I left the class with my spirit buoyed that at least by 5 pm, the Iraqi girl knew that the Euphrates runs through her native land and it is the cradle of civilization.

Any of you who read this who are public school teachers, I’ll be straight with you. I lay this at the doorstep of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I know teachers are somewhat forced to teach what and how they do. I know their lives are assessment and evaluation driven. But this is creating a nation of ignorant people who mistake a quick answer from Wikipedia accessed on their cell phone for knowledge. I don’t know who but teachers themselves can stop this. Who else can? Parents? I think parents are as test and evaluation driven as our school systems and I know that parents are more (irritatingly) involved in their kid’s school life than ever. To what purpose? I, too, have been descended upon by helicopter parents who think interfering with the work of the teacher is OK. It’s not OK. Teachers are already trapped between districts and administrations with certain demands and students who need to learn.

Teaching must be a horrible job, these days, because of these pressures. Or are our teachers, too, so poorly educated and so ignorant that this is actually the BEST they can do? I’m seriously asking. I know at the university where I have taught for 15 years, the GPA needed to get into Liberal Studies (teaching) is very low; a C. It’s well known that the lower paying professions do NOT attract the most intelligent students. This has gone on for a while, that teaching has paid poorly. Has it evolved to a situation in which very ignorant people  of average or below average intelligence are now teachers? Has the politicization of education exacerbated this? I seriously want to know; are teachers today even intelligent enough to challenge our most intelligent students? Or is there validity to NCLB BECAUSE our teachers are just not that bright? Are parents interfering because they must? In my soul I cannot believe this, but more and more I’ve been wondering what’s actually been going on. My summer class has truly frightened me.

I have been giving my books to my students over this past week. Today I decided to give the three books I’ve kept from my senior English class in high school to a student who wants to be a high school English teacher. She was not in class today, but she could not manage those books, anyway. They are three tragedies by Sophocles, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology. Those were my high school texts — Advanced Placement English, true but that’s supposed to be college freshman English.

I’ve watched the tide of ignorance engulf my students in the past ten years. I can almost pinpoint a year — sometime in 2009 my students (university level) were no longer able to identify facts in a business problem that involved prices on merchandise. The prices would be facts (just one example). “How do you know that’s a fact, Professor? Isn’t it all subjective?”
“Sure it’s subjective if you can prove to me that when you go into a store you can choose any price you want to pay for a shirt, then the price is subjective. So IS it?”
“Why are you tricking us? We want As!”

That’s been my life for the past 7 or 8 years, worse and worse each year.

As a teacher I believe in the John Dewey idea of meeting a student as his/her point of need. That’s usually been a pretty reasonable point. It also establishes my job description for a class. “Where are they NOW? What do they need to get HERE by the end of the semester?” That has always been my map. Find that the first week or two of class and then bring them along, whatever it takes, to the place they need to be. As NCLB has become more pervasive (longer in a student’s academic life) I have had to take them farther and farther along a road that interests them less and less. Why? Because any test-focused curriculum is BORING — mechanical, rote and mind numbing; I’ve had students say to me, “This is the first time I have liked school.” I’ve had students write, “Thank you for changing me.”

I feel at times that the current educational system has forgotten that a fundamental human joy is learning. We love it. It is in our biological imperative to learn, discover, try, test, question; it is our nature. Few of my students feel joy — that is something I also have had to teach them — so they can be excited by a challenge, thrilled by a discovery, moved by ideas, touched by beauty. No test-based curriculum can do ANY of that. It seems to me as if our current school system is stealing from our young people a vital element of their humanity.

Well, this is my song now:

Intro to Lit, part two, fourth day of class

Intro to lit today — intense again. Taught the sonnet. I was a bit intimidated by the idea of teaching them the “form” of the sonnet and all that dry, technical stuff. I wanted to give them the context. Strange class. I ended up teaching the history leading up to the sonnet form FIRST and talking about how historical cataclysms often end up in people finding new art forms. They loved it. They got everything from St. Columbanus in the 800s to Picasso’s Guernica through a discussion of the tragic, world-changing, major events of 14th century Europe, the plague and the 100 years war compared to events in the 20th century that led to new ways of writing and painting and thinking. Then they were very interested in the sonnet, the once new and exciting “little song.”

We read three sonnets together and they loved them. I talked briefly about the “form” but mostly about history. I want them to LIKE the people who made art in the past. I want my students to feel the lives and questions behind the dead stuff in their English book. I want them to know PEOPLE did this.

They have NO background for understanding most of this. Their idea of history is Martin Luther King. That is really IT for most of them. One girl came up after class and said, “Is there intermediate literature after this one?” I thought I’d cry. “I love this,” she said. In fact, I am crying. Literature is a key to the world. I’d like to be able to give them that. “Here. Use it. Open time and see what everyone has done and learned and all the mistakes as well as the beautiful achievements and moments of the past.”

Intro to Lit

I NEVER get to teach literature — well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve taught it three times. This is my third time. It’s essentially a six week course in literature appreciation. I’ve met them three times. I have never been HAPPIER. My students have little to no background; they are culturally pretty ignorant. They are terrified of failure, but we’ve read 12 poems so far and they’re DOING it. I work with them, sit with them in the class, lecture little, just encourage and show and read and share my love of poetry. Today I wanted to introduce the idea of literal and figurative meaning. I gave them the following three little poems and told them to look for the literal meaning and then try to figure out the figurative meaning. It was hard for most of them because they were afraid of failure, but…

I got to see three kids go “Ah!” and get huge smiles and electricity in their eyes. One for each poem! The last one threw them — there IS no “figurative” meaning and yet it’s absolutely poetry. Then, in talking over the Goethe poem with a small group of students I watched a girl get it. She looked at me and said, “That’s the most beautiful thing I ever read.” Her eyes were filled with tears. Of course, I had goosebumps. 

“I saw a man pursuing the horizon”

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

“We Never Know How High We Are”
Emily Dickinson

WE never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.

The heroism we recite 5
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the cubits warp
For fear to be a king.

All Is Given
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

All is given by the gods, the eternal ones,
To those they love, whole.
All joy, unending
All sorrow, unending, whole.

The Pity of Ages Yet Unborn

Time for Poetry: This week, we invite you to write a post — in verse or in prose — inspired by poetry.

Poetry has always been a huge part of my life. I don’t just love it; I think I need it. Three poems separated by centuries, from different cultures, say the same thing — a message for me as a writer (and teacher) who sometimes wonders, “What’s the point?”

The first, “Visiting Han-Tan; the Dancers at the Southern Pavilion is by Li Bai, poet of Tang Dynasty China. Li Bai’s poetry is well known by Chinese even though Li Bai lived thousands of years ago. There is in Chinese culture a beautiful thing; poetry is a thread linking generation to generation. Whole Chinese holidays are based on old poems and the adventures of ancient poets. Poets in Chinese culture were not dallying dilettantes separate from ordinary life; many were leaders, warriors and heroes, in fact, the ability to write good poetry was considered a necessary attribute of a leader — Chairman Mao was even a decent poet.

“Visiting Han-tan: The Dancers at the Southern Pavilion”

They sang to me and drummed, the boys of Yen and Chao,
Lovely girls plucked the sounding string.
Their painted cheeks shone like dazzling suns;
The dancer’s sleeves shook out like blossoming boughs.
Bringing her wine I approached a handsome girl
And made her sing me songs of Han-tan.
Then lutes were played, and coiling away and away
The tune fell earthward, dropping from the grey clouds.
Where is the Prince of Chao, what has he left
But an old castle-moat where tadpoles breed?
Those thousand knights that sat at his board,
Is there one among them whose name is still known?
Let us make merry, get something in our own day
To set against the pity of ages still unborn.

Thousands of years later, in a world about as far away as anyone could get, William Butler Yeats wrote “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” — in many respects, the same poem as “Visiting Han-Tan.” Here is part of it:

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;
Yet still she turns her restless head:
But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.
Where are now the warring kings,
Word be-mockers? – By the Rood,
Where are now the watring kings?
An idle word is now their glory,
By the stammering schoolboy said,
Reading some entangled story:
The kings of the old time are dead;
The wandering earth herself may be
Only a sudden flaming word,
In clanging space a moment heard,
Troubling the endless reverie….

So there it is — along with Whitman’s “O Me! O Life” — voices through time, all saying nothing matters more than words. That the verses of these men have trickled through time’s filter it into my life, my mind, and now this blog, proves it.

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.


Poem a Day, “O Me, O Life” W. Whitman

In a little conversation today I responded twice to the same person using snippets of poetry that just came to mind. She said she could use an inspiring poem-a-day.

I don’t normally write poetry. Only abnormally (what?). I have written poetry, but I really like other peoples’ poetry better, so this won’t probably be my work (unless the Muse of poetry takes up winter residence here in the snow part of far Southern California).

O Me! O Life!
Walt Whitman (1819–1892).  Leaves of Grass.  1900.

O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.