“Because I Could Not Stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), One of America’s Greatest Poets

It has been a while since I’ve presented a poem by Emily Dickinson. Along with Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, she is one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced. This one is called “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

A tippet is a narrow piece of cloth worn over the shoulders, and tulle is a kind of netting, which could be made from any of several fibers.

“This Be the Verse”

Is This Why the Poet Never Married?

I can’t believe that I’ve ignored Philip Larkin’s poetry for so long. I guess that’s what happens when you have too many damned books. This is one of my favorites by Larkin. It’s called:

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Apparently, the poet took these words to heart, as he never married or had children.

The Houses of Poets

The Robert Frost House in Franconia, NH

When traveling, I like to visit the houses in which poets I admire lived. When I was in Chile in 2015, I made a point of visiting all three of Pablo Neruda’s houses: Isla Negra, La Sebastiana, and La Chascona. In Paris, I visited the flat in which Victor Hugo had lived. And, in Franconia, New Hampshire, I visited the farmhouse which Robert Frost occupied beginning in 1915 after he published his collection A Boy’s Will and afterwards as a summer house through most of the 1930s.

Frost remains one of my favorite American poets, along with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. If you look through the same window a great poet has looked through, you begin to understand something about his work.

Mailbox at the Franconia House

Before he died in 1963, I attended a poetry reading by Frost at the newly opened Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. Frost had attended Dartmouth for a while, but dropped out. He also attended Harvard, but he never graduated college. As old as he was, Frost was in complete command of his mind at the age of 87. And I have been moved by his poetry ever since. I got the feeling that Frost was not the bumbling old poet who read his poem “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961: Hearing him speak, I had a feeling that Frost knew exactly what he was doing, and had no trouble handling an auditorium filled with sharp college undergraduates.

 

“Dinosauria, We”

L.A. Poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

Today I watched a DVD about the life and career of Charles Bukowski, the greatest poet to come from Los Angeles (though by way of Andernach, Germany). The more I read Bukowski, the more I think he is the true successor to Walt Whitman. He may not be a great stylist, but his poems cut to the quick. By the way, the film is called Bukowski: Born Into This (2003), and that’s where I got the idea to present that poem here. The name of the poem is “Dinosauria, We”:

Dinosauria, We

Born like this
Into this
As the chalk faces smile
As Mrs. Death laughs
As the elevators break
As political landscapes dissolve
As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
As the oily fish spit out their oily prey
As the sun is masked
We are
Born like this
Into this
Into these carefully mad wars
Into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
Into bars where people no longer speak to each other
Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this
Dying because of this
Muted because of this
Castrated
Debauched
Disinherited
Because of this
Fooled by this
Used by this
Pissed on by this
Made crazy and sick by this
Made violent
Made inhuman
By this
The heart is blackened
The fingers reach for the throat
The gun
The knife
The bomb
The fingers reach toward an unresponsive god
The fingers reach for the bottle
The pill
The powder
We are born into this sorrowful deadliness
We are born into a government 60 years in debt
That soon will be unable to even pay the interest on that debt
And the banks will burn
Money will be useless
There will be open and unpunished murder in the streets
It will be guns and roving mobs
Land will be useless
Food will become a diminishing return
Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
Explosions will continually shake the earth
Radiated robot men will stalk each other
The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
Dante’s Inferno will be made to look like a children’s playground
The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
Trees will die
All vegetation will die
Radiated men will eat the flesh of radiated men
The sea will be poisoned
The lakes and rivers will vanish
Rain will be the new gold
The rotting bodies of men and animals will stink in the dark wind
The last few survivors will be overtaken by new and hideous diseases
And the space platforms will be destroyed by attrition
The petering out of supplies
The natural effect of general decay
And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
Born out of that.
The sun still hidden there
Awaiting the next chapter.

Two Poems

Liu Xiaobo and His Widow Liu Xia

On July 13 of last year, Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in Shenyang after years of persecution by the monolithic Communist Party he dared to oppose. Here are two poems, first by his widow Liu Xia dedicated to her husband:

Road to Darkness

For Xiaobo

Sooner or later you will leave
me, one day
and take the road to darkness
alone.

I pray for the moment to reappear
so I can see it better,
as if from memory.
I wish that I, astonished, would glow, my body
in full bloom of light for you.

But I can’t make it except
clenching my fists, not letting
the strength,
not even a little bit of it, slip
through my fingers.

The following is a poem by Liu Xiaobo dedicated to his wife:

Morning

For Xia

Between the gray walls
and a burst of chopping sounds,
morning comes, bundled and sliced,
and vanishes with the paralyzed souls
of the chopped vegetables.

Light and darkness pass through my pupils.
How do I know the difference?
Sitting in the rust, I can’t tell
if it’s the shine on the shackles in the jail
or the natural light of Nature
from outside the walls.
Daylight betrays everything, the splendid sun
stunned.

Morning stretches and stretches in vain.
You are far away—
but not too far to collect the love
of my night.

Both poems appeared in the September 28, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books.

 

Capitale de la Douleur

The Poet Paul Éluard’s Most Famous Collection of Poetry

Yesterday, I wrote about Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville (1965), one of my favorites. In it, Eddie Constantine carries with him a 1926 collection of poems by Paul Éluard called Capitale de la douleur. In several of his scenes with Anna Karina, he quotes from it to remind her of concepts about love and tenderness that are forbidden in her society in Alphaville. Here is one of my favorite poems from this collection entitled “The Word”:

I am fortunate: mine is an easy beauty
I slide over the roof of the winds
I slide over the roof of the seas
I’m sentimental these days
I no longer know who’s in charge
I no longer move silk over ice
I am ill laughter and pebbles
I nakedly love whatever is most Chinese
I love what’s most naked the darting of birds
I am old but here I’m beautiful
And the shadow coming down from the depths of the windows
Every evening spares the dark heart of my eyes

Here is the same poem in the original French, where it is called “La parole”:

J’ai la beauté facile et c’est heureux
Je glisse sur les toits des vents
Je glisse sur le toit des mers
Je suis devenue sentimentale
Je ne connais plus le conducteur
Je ne bouge plus soie sur les glaces
Je suis malade fleurs et cailloux
J’aime le plus chinois aux nues
J’aime la plus nue aux écarts d’oiseau
Je suis vieille mais ici je suis belle
Et l’ombre qui descend des fenêtres profondes
Épargne chaque soir le cœur noir de mes yeux.

 

 

“The Gods Need Me To Entertain Them”

The Campus at Yale University

Here’s a poem from Charles Bukowski entitled “This Kind of Fire.” It is in his poetry collection entitled The Continual Condition.

sometimes I think the gods
deliberately keep pushing me
into the fire
just to hear me
yelp
a few good
lines.

they just aren’t going to
let me retire
silk scarf about neck
giving lectures at
Yale.

the gods need me to
entertain them.

they must be terribly
bored with all
the others

and I am too.

and now my cigarette lighter
has gone dry.
I sit here
hopelessly
flicking it.

this kind of fire
they can’t give
me.