Category Archives: Poetry

The Send-off

New Recruits, c. 1917

The Send-off
By Wilfred Owen

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

___________________

“The Send-off” describes a group of new soldiers departing for the trenches of the Great War by train, ‘The Send-Off’ was not one of Wilfred Owen’s poems that I was familiar with until I came across it yesterday. Wilfred Owen is most often remembered as one of the more passionate and eloquent voices of the First World War poets. Most of the poems for which he is now famous were written in a period of intense creativity between 1917 and 1918. The poem I am most familiar with is “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which he wrote at Craiglockhart hospital near Edinburgh where he had been sent to recover from neurasthenia, better known as shellshock. While at the hospital, he would meet the poet and novelist, Siegfried Sassoon, who had a major impact upon his life and work and played a crucial role in publishing Owen’s poetry following Owen’s untimely death in 1918, aged 25. Only five of Owen’s poems were published in his lifetime. Owen wrote a number of his most famous poems at Craiglockhart.

“The Send-off” was written at Ripon, where there was a huge army camp. The poem describes a group of soldiers leaving for the Western Front by train. They had just come from a sending-off ceremony—cheering crowds, bells, drums, flowers given by strangers—and they were being packed into trains for an unknown destination. Note the effect of the early use of an oxymoron: the men are said to be “grimly gay.” They sang as they marched gayly from the upland camp to the siding shed, but the use of “grimly” suggests that they know enough about what lies ahead of them to feel somber and anxious. 

The poem suggests that they may have been given flowers to celebrate the bravery of their commitment to the cause, but Owen emphatically compares the “wreath and spray” to flowers for the “dead.” Traditionally flowers have a double significance – colorful flowers for a celebration, white flowers for mourning. So, the women who stuck flowers on their breasts thought they were expressing support but were actually garlanding them for the slaughter of the Western Front. One of the things which make “The Send-Off” a masterful piece of poetry is the way in which Owen suggests the cracks already showing beneath the supposedly joyous and celebratory event of a group of soldiers being cheered on as they depart their homes and head for the Western Front. 

“The Send-Off” correctly predicts that those soldiers who are lucky enough to return home alive will find their hometowns and villages to be very different (“half-known”) from the ones they left: there will be no crowds of girls to greet them and cheer them as there was to see them off, and no great celebration of their heroism. And many who returned would never be the same again, mentally scarred by shellshock, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the horrors witnessed. During and after the First World War, many people could not bear to watch a train moving away because this reminded them of a last meeting. His work is full of compassion and outrage and technically highly skillful. Perhaps more than any other poet of the First World War he was able to show the reality and horror of war.

Sadly, Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918, during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells in Shrewsbury were ringing out in celebration. Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery, Ors, in northern France. The inscription on his gravestone, chosen by his mother Susan, is based on a quote from his poetry: “SHALL LIFE RENEW THESE BODIES? OF A TRUTH ALL DEATH WILL HE ANNUL” W.O.


A Prayer in Spring

A Prayer in Spring
By Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

Robert Frost’s “A Prayer in Spring” is a prayer in poetic form giving thanks and gratitude to God for the blessing of spring. The poem shows how spring is an expression of God’s love. The poet reminds us to give a prayer of thanks for receiving the happiness and pleasure that we experience in springtime because we are given spring as a gift from God. We should remember the present beauty and indulgence of spring and not think of the unpredictability of the future because the future is God’s secret. 

The overall theme of “A Prayer in Spring” is an expression of God’s love. Frost wants us to trust in God completely even during spring or times of change. God brings us the beauty of spring, and He has given us everything to reach Him and to ask for His guidance. Frost offers an uncomplicated prayer to God in this poem, focusing on love and gratitude that is traditionally on display during the season of Thanksgiving. As the poet prays to God, he is also inviting his audience to become as delighted in “the springing of the year” as they do in the later harvest which happens in autumn—two seasons away from spring.


Wind

Wind
By Gwendolyn Bennett

The wind was a care-free soul
  That broke the chains of earth,
And strode for a moment across the land
  With the wild halloo of his mirth.
He little cared that he ripped up trees,
  That houses fell at his hand,
That his step broke calm on the breast of seas,
  That his feet stirred clouds of sand.

But when he had had his little joke,
  Had shouted and laughed and sung,
When the trees were scarred, their branches broke,
  And their foliage aching hung,
He crept to his cave with a stealthy tread,
  With rain-filled eyes and low-bowed head.

Gwendolyn Bennett, a teacher, artist, and writer, was born in Giddings, Texas in 1902. She never published her collected work, but her poems, short stories, and nonfiction columns appeared in literary journals, among them Opportunity, Fire!! and Palms. Bennett was connected to the Harlem Renaissance and a dedicated supporter of African American writers and artists through support groups, community centers, and schools. She died in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1981.


Dear March – Come in – (1320)

Dear March – Come in – (1320)
By Emily Dickinson – 1830-1886

Dear March – Come in –
How glad I am –
I hoped for you before –
Put down your Hat –
You must have walked –
How out of Breath you are –
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –
Did you leave Nature well –
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell –

I got your Letter, and the Birds –
The Maples never knew that you were coming –
I declare – how Red their Faces grew –
But March, forgive me –
And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –
There was no Purple suitable –
You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April –
Lock the Door –
I will not be pursued –
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied –
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come

That blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame –

____________________

About this Poem

“Dear March, Come In” is Emily Dickinson’s eloquent greeting to the season of Spring during the month of March. By personifying the season, Dickinson reminds us that we have anticipated spring each day of the long and infinite winter we have just experienced. She reminds the reader that Spring is on its way and will likely be out of breath when it arrives. 

The beginning of spring means the blossoming of life anew. Dickinson describes the renewed life that comes with spring. Dickinson for many years lived as a recluse withdrawing from the society. Like her Transcendentalists contemporaries, she shows us that she does not need to leave her seclusion to understand the meaning and the elements of life. Through her garden, Dickinson realized her need to stay in contact with nature. The poem discusses her feeling of welcoming nature in her front doors. However, like life nature can arrive without any signs or warnings, and it can disappear just as easily. 

At the end of the poem, Dickinson describes how she does not want April to arrive. Although she never give the reason of having such feelings, we can infer that she does not want to lose the contact between herself and the beginning of life. Sooner or later, May will arrive and after a few months, winter will creep back up and the nature of the world will return to the dreariness and cold of the winter months. Time marches on, but Dickinson doesn’t want the renewal of March to end.


Because we love each other

Because we love each other
By Rickey Laurentiis

The weather is rude today, too full of good
color and cheer, and makes me want to be out
of here, out of the interior time pandemic time
trauma has made me. I would sing as the canary
passes gently thru the break of my vision; I would
listen as the cat’s ear stings patiently at its Lord;
I would gorge deeply on my own fruit’s womb;
I would entomb blind joy in its spell: et benedictus
fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Iesus is us, and he isn’t,
anymore than Byzantine raised halos and bronze
disease is us, and they are—though most I enjoy
these hiccups come also witty with the breast, with
the breath, in the idea disease, ease, and that we
might just be metal too close together that will infect
each other, brother, brother, sister, sister, sister,
brother, comma, comma, trans—with revision then,
reglistening, which is love, becaused.

About the Poem

“Still early in the pandemic, around May 2020, I had a phone conversation with my friend, Sanchita Balachandran, associate director at John Hopkins Archaeological Museum, who taught me about ‘bronze disease,’ a term borne out of a belief earlier conservators had that certain corrosion products in bronze were the result of ‘a communicable biological contagion spread from object to object’ kept ‘too close together.’ It’s an idea, now disproved, that still struck me, knowing that for the conservator corrosion is enemy, but what if the corrosion was love?” —Rickey Laurentiis

Rickey Laurentiis (b. 1989, February 7) was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, to love the dark. Their writing has been supported by several foundations and fellowships. In 2016, they traveled to Palestine as an invited reader for the Palestine Festival of Literature. Laurentiis received an MFA in Writing from Washington University in St Louis, where they were a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow, and a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College, where they read literature and queer theory.

They are the trans author of Boy with Thorn, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the Levis Reading Prize, and a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry and a Lambda Literary Award. Boy with Thorn was also named one of the top ten debuts of 2015 by Poets & Writers Magazine and a top 16 best poetry book by Buzzfeed, among other distinctions.


Wild Geese

Wild Geese
By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

About the Poem

The American poet Mary Oliver published “Wild Geese” in her seventh collection, Dream Work, which came out in 1986. The poem’s speaker urges readers to open themselves up to the beauty of nature. While people focus on their own struggles, the speaker points out, the natural world moves along effortlessly, free as a flock of geese passing overhead. The poem celebrates nature’s grandeur—and its ability to remind people that, after all, they’re part of something vast and meaningful.

The poem tells readers that they don’t have to be perfect, nor do they have to beat themselves up by wandering the desert as if paying for their sins. Instead, people only have to treat their bodies like the vulnerable animals that they are, simply letting them love whatever they want to love. Oliver offers to commiserate with readers about their suffering and unhappiness, but adds that while they talk about this, the world will continue like normal—sunshine and rain will move over the earth’s wide-open plains, tall trees, mountains, and rivers. No matter who you are or how lonely you are you can always lose yourself in the wonders of nature, since these wonders call out like the urgent squawks of wild geese—a sound that, again and again, puts people back in touch with their surroundings and makes them feel at home in the world.

The poem acknowledges that human beings are soft, vulnerable creatures prone to suffering and despair. At the same time, it frames the vast, awe-inspiring beauty of nature as a soothing and comforting force—something that reminds people that they’re part of something bigger and more meaningful than their everyday problems. “Wild Geese” seeks to put the pressures and difficulties of everyday life into perspective. The speaker acknowledges the burden people feel to be “good” and also notes that everyone inevitably experiences “despair” or loneliness from time to time. Beating yourself up for perceived mistakes or failings, the speaker implies, is a fruitless endeavor that drains people’s happiness.

About the Poet

Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) was an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is inspired by nature, rather than the human world, stemming from her lifelong passion for solitary walks in the wild. It is characterized by a sincere wonderment at the impact of natural imagery, conveyed in unadorned language.

On a visit to Austerlitz in the late 1950s, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who became her partner for over forty years. In Our World, a book of Cook’s photos and journal excerpts Oliver compiled after Cook’s death, Oliver writes, “I took one look [at Cook] and fell, hook and tumble.” Cook was Oliver’s literary agent. They made their home largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005, and where Oliver continued to live until relocating to Florida. Of Provincetown she recalled, “I too fell in love with the town, that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers. […] M. and I decided to stay.”

Mary Oliver Reading Her Poem “Wild Geese”

The World Is Too Much With Us

The World Is Too Much With Us
By William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Roderick posted this poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth. The poem is an Italian (Petrarchan)sonnet, which is one of my favorite forms of poetry. I love how sonnets, whether Italian, Shakespearean, Spenserian, etc., conforms to a set of strict conventions. The structure adds a particular beauty to the poetic form.

“The World Is Too Much With Us” lends itself to yesterday’s post on the theme of niksen or doing nothing. In the early 19th century, Wordsworth wrote several sonnets criticizing what he perceived as “the decadent material cynicism of the time.” This 1802 poem is one of those works. It reflects his view that humanity must get in touch with nature to progress spiritually.

The metaphor “we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon” is also an oxymoron. Sordid suggests the worst aspects of human nature such as immorality, selfishness, and greed, while a boon is something that functions as a blessing or benefit. The contradiction between the meanings of the two words suggests that materialism is a destructive and corrupt blessing which the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) has produced. They use of the oxymoron emphasizes the tension between the good exterior (material goods bring pleasure and are a symbol of man’s progress) and the sordid truth (feeding on the worst aspects of humanity) behind materialism.

While the Industrial Revolution made many advances for civilization, it was also detrimental to the health of the planet. Today’s global warming and the danger that an industrialized world has on the environment makes Wordsworth poem even more meaningful today. We saw the effects of overpopulation and industrialization during this pandemic. If you remember when Italy was in a near complete lockdown, dolphins returned to the canals of Venice that had become remarkably clear with no traffic on their waterways, and wild animals walked through the streets of Florence and Milan. It showed just how much we have sacrificed nature for “progress.” Wordsworth saw the beginnings of this over 200 years ago, and he knew the detriment society has on the environment will proceed unchecked and relentless like the “winds that will be howling at all hours.”

Wordsworth gave a fatalistic view of the world: past and future. The words “late and soon” in the opening verse describe how the past and future are included in his characterization of mankind. The poet knew the potential of humanity’s “powers,” but feared it was clouded by the mentality of “getting and spending.” The “sordid boon” we have “given our hearts” is the materialistic progress of mankind. Wordsworth complains that “the world” is too overwhelming for us to appreciate it, and that people are so concerned about time and money that we use up all our energy. People want to accumulate material goods, so they see nothing in Nature that they can “own.” Humanity has sold its soul for material gain.

The verse “I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn,” reveals Wordsworth’s perception of himself in society: a visionary romantic more in touch with nature than his contemporaries. he would rather be a pagan who worships an outdated religion so that when he gazes out on the ocean (as he’s doing now), he might feel less sad. If he were a pagan, he would have glimpses of the great green meadows that would make him less dejected. He’d see wild mythological gods like a Proteus, who can take many shapes, and Triton, who can soothe the howling sea waves.


Touch

Touch
by Thom Gunn

You are already
asleep. I lower
myself in next to
you, my skin slightly
numb with the restraint
of habits, the patina of
self, the black frost
of outsideness, so that even
unclothed it is
a resilient chilly
hardness, a superficially
malleable, dead
rubbery texture.

You are a mound
of bedclothes, where the cat
in sleep braces
its paws against your
calf through the blankets,
and kneads each paw in turn.

Meanwhile and slowly
I feel a is it
my own warmth surfacing or
the ferment of your whole
body that in darkness beneath
the cover is stealing
bit by bit to break
down that chill.

You turn and
hold me tightly, do
you know who
I am or am I
your mother or
the nearest human being to
hold on to in a
dreamed pogrom.

What I, now loosened,
sink into is an old
big place, it is
there already, for
you are already
there, and the cat
got there before you, yet
it is hard to locate.
What is more, the place is
not found but seeps
from our touch in
continuous creation, dark
enclosing cocoon round
ourselves alone, dark
wide realm where we
walk with everyone.

Valentine’s Day is coming up on Sunday, and in 2012, The Guardian asked poets for their favorite love poem. English poet Blake Morrison chose “Touch” by Thom Gunn. Here is what he said:

Love poems may be addressed to someone in particular but the “you” invariably remains unidentified or is represented only by a body part or item of dress – a sleeping head, a naked foot, an air-blue gown. Thom Gunn’s “Touch” is an extreme example of this. His lover is no more than a mound of bedclothes and embraces him in sleepy oblivion.

      do
      you know who
      I am or am I
      your mother or
      the nearest human being

This feeling of anonymity is important: it links the two lovers to the rest of us: they’re part of a “realm where we walk with everyone.” But the poem is also intimate and domestic: here are two people (plus their cat) in their own bed – naked, cocooned, “ourselves alone.” Gunn was gay but his lover’s gender isn’t specified, since the theme is the inclusiveness of touch: the way it breaks down the “resilient chilly hardness” we all adopt to function in the outside world. The syllabic form enacts this dissolution or slippage, as the words seep gently from line to line, without the hardness of end stops. The word “love” isn’t used; the words “dark” and “darkness” recur three times. But the poem exudes warmth, familiarity and how it feels to lie naked with a fellow creature, whoever he or she may be.


In the Bleak Midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter
By Christina Rossetti

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

About the Poem

In verse one, Rossetti describes the physical circumstances of the Incarnation in Bethlehem, which refers to the birth of Jesus, when God became flesh and assumed a human nature. In verse two, Rossetti contrasts Christ’s first and second coming. The third verse dwells on Christ’s birth and describes the simple surroundings, in a humble stable and watched by beasts of burden. Rossetti achieves another contrast in the fourth verse, this time between the angels who were attending Christ at his birth and Mary’s ability to show Jesus physical affection, a kiss. The final verse shifts the description to a more introspective thought process.

While this is a Christmas poem, and was originally published, under the title “A Christmas Carol”, in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly, Midwinter itself has two meanings: the Winter Solstice or the actual midpoint of winter. Many people think the midpoint of winter is today, Groundhog Day, but it actually varies. The 2021 Farmers’ Almanac says that it is Wednesday, February 3rd at 4:49 p.m. EST—the exact halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Either way, we have reached midwinter, so I thought this was an appropriate poem for today.

We are supposed to get hit pretty bad by a nor’easter today. It is the same storm that came through northern New Jersey, New York City, and Boston yesterday. I’m hoping it won’t be as bad here. Our local weather has said that while the prediction is 6”-12”, they believe it will be on the lower end of that scale.


Bible Belt

Bible Belt
By D. A. Powell

if you didn’t mind the bible
you’d surely mind the belt

This may be the shortest poem I have ever posted. I was looking at D. A. Powell’s poems and originally came across “The Fluffer Talks of Eternity.” While it is an interesting poem, I decided it just wasn’t what I was looking for in today’s poem. Then I came across “Bible Belt.” I was so intrigued by the simplicity of the poem but also its deep meaning. Considering that I was born in the buckle of the Bible Belt where in cities there is a church on nearly every street corner or in rural areas where you can hardly drive a mile without passing a church.

In a chat with the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, Powell talked about being born in the Bible Belt. In the interview he said, “I was born in the Bible Belt. My father’s family were all Bible belters. They belted us with the Bible. But despite their abuse of it, it’s a Good Book.” I think there are several ways you can take this poem, whether the second line means “They belted us with the Bible” or if the belt was used for corporal punishment, is up to the reader. You can hear Powell read the poem here.

About D. A. Powell

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and Cocktails was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. His next two books were Chronic(2009), which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award;and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (2012) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.

Noting Powell’s “open-secret sexiness, his confident collage effects and his grave subjects” in CocktailsNew York Times critic and Harvard professor Stephen Burt says, “No accessible poet of his generation is half as original, and no poet as original is this accessible.” As a teacher at Sonoma State, he noticed that most of his students’ poems were written to fit the demands of the page. His experiments with his students in writing on unexpected surfaces (such as candlesticks or rolls of toilet paper) led to his own breakthrough in “subverting the page:” he turned a legal pad sideways and wrote the first poem for Tea. Powell explains that “by pulling the line longer, stretching it into a longer breath, I was giving a little bit more life to some people who had very short lives.” Powell has also taught at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of San Francisco.