My First Poet

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) As He Looked When I Met Him

It was my freshman year at Dartmouth College. When I heard that beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was going to visit the campus, give a poetry reading from his recently published collection A Coney Island of the Mind, and answer questions, I decided to show up. In all, there were about twenty-five students in the audience, plus a few professors.

I really enjoyed the poems, such as this one, which is called “I Am Waiting”:

I am waiting for my case to come up  
and I am waiting 
for a rebirth of wonder  
and I am waiting          
          for someone to really discover America  
and wail 
and I am waiting  
for the discovery 
of a new symbolic western frontier  
and I am waiting 
for the American Eagle  
to really spread its wings  
and straighten up and fly right  
and I am waiting 
for the Age of Anxiety  
to drop dead  
and I am waiting  
for the war to be fought 
which will make the world safe  
for anarchy 
and I am waiting  
for the final withering away  
of all governments  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Second Coming  
and I am waiting 
for a religious revival 
to sweep through the state of Arizona  
and I am waiting 
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored  
and I am waiting 
for them to prove  
that God is really American  
and I am waiting 
to see God on television  
piped’ onto church altars  
if only they can find  
the right channel  
to tune in on  
and I am waiting 
for the Last Supper to be served again  
with a strange new appetizer  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for my number to be called  
and I am waiting 
for the Salvation Army to take over  
and I am waiting 
for the meek to be blessed 
and inherit the earth  
without taxes and I am waiting  
for forests and animals  
to reclaim the earth as theirs  
and I am waiting  
for a way to be devised  
to destroy all nationalisms  
without killing anybody 
and I am waiting 
for linnets and planets to fall like rain  
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers  
to lie down together again 
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Great Divide to ‘be crossed  
and I am anxiously waiting 
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered  
by an obscure general practitioner  
and I am waiting 
for the storms of life  
to be over  
and I am waiting  
to set sail for happiness  
and I am waiting  
for a reconstructed Mayflower  
to reach America  
with its picture story and tv rights  
sold in advance to the natives  
and I am waiting  
for the lost music to sound again  
in the Lost Continent  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the day  
that maketh all things clear  
and I am awaiting retribution  
for what America did 
to Tom Sawyer  
and I am waiting  
for the American Boy  
to take off Beauty’s clothes  
and get on top of her  
and I am waiting  
for Alice in Wonderland  
to retransmit to me  
her total dream of innocence  
and I am waiting  
for Childe Roland to come  
to the final darkest tower  
and I am waiting  
for Aphrodite 
to grow live arms  
at a final disarmament conference  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting  
to get some intimations  
of immortality  
by recollecting my early childhood  
and I am waiting  
for the green mornings to come again  
youth’s dumb green fields come back again  
and I am waiting  
for some strains of unpremeditated art  
to shake my typewriter  
and I am waiting to write 
the great indelible poem 
and I am waiting 
for the last long careless rapture  
and I am perpetually waiting  
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  
to catch each other up at last  
and embrace 
and I am waiting  
perpetually and forever  
a renaissance of wonder            

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday, February 22, which is Washington’s birthday, at the ripe old age of 101, just a month shy of his 102nd.

I was too shy to ask the poet any questions, being a detested freshman. But I did enjoy seeing him handle the know-it-alls that asked questions only to make themselves look good. Ferlinghetti may have been a poet, but he knew how to handle wise asses.

A Poem About Donkeys

“With Monstrous Head and Sickening Cry”

Having just finished re-reading G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, my mind is still reeling with his view of life. Here is one of his funniest poems, entitled, simply, “The Donkey”:

 When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

The last quatrain refers to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday, mounted on a donkey.

“This Fals World Is But Transitory”

Statue of William Dunbar in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

William Dunbar (ca 1460-1530) was a great Scottish poet who is not much read these days—probably because the language has changed too much since his day. Still, there is power in his verse. Following is his “Lament for the Makers” (Makers meaning Poets):

I THAT in heill was and gladness
 Am trublit now with great sickness
 And feblit with infirmitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Our plesance here is all vain glory,
 This fals world is but transitory,
 The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 The state of man does change and vary,
 Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
 Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 No state in Erd here standis sicker;
 As with the wynd wavis the wicker
 So wannis this world's vanitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
 Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
 Baith rich and poor of all degree:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He takis the knichtis in to the field
 Enarmit under helm and scheild;
 Victor he is at all mellie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 That strong unmerciful tyrand
 Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
 The babe full of benignitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He takis the campion in the stour,
 The captain closit in the tour,
 The lady in bour full of bewtie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He spairis no lord for his piscence,
 Na clerk for his intelligence;
 His awful straik may no man flee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
 Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
 Them helpis no conclusionis slee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 In medecine the most practicianis,
 Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
 Themself from Death may not supplee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 I see that makaris amang the lave
 Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
 Sparit is nocht their facultie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has done petuously devour
 The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
 The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 The good Sir Hew of Eglintoun,
 Ettrick, Heriot, and Wintoun,
 He has tane out of this cuntrie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 That scorpion fell has done infeck
 Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
 Fra ballat-making and tragedie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
 Alas! that he not with us levit
 Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Clerk of Tranent eke he has tane,
 That made the anteris of Gawaine;
 Sir Gilbert Hay endit has he:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
 Slain with his schour of mortal hail,
 Quhilk Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has reft Merseir his endite,
 That did in luve so lively write,
 So short, so quick, of sentence hie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
 And gentill Rowll of Corstorphine;
 Two better fallowis did no man see:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 In Dunfermline he has tane Broun
 With Maister Robert Henrysoun;
 Sir John the Ross enbrast has he:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 And he has now tane, last of a,
 Good gentil Stobo and Quintin Shaw,
 Of quhom all wichtis hes pitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Good Maister Walter Kennedy
 In point of Death lies verily;
 Great ruth it were that so suld be:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Sen he has all my brether tane,
 He will naught let me live alane;
 Of force I man his next prey be:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Since for the Death remeid is none,
 Best is that we for Death dispone,
 After our death that live may we:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

The Latin refrain means “Fear of death disturbs me.” Sorry to spring something so tricky on you, but however much the language has changed, the greatness shines through.

Wild Nights

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

There is probably no woman in the history of our country’s literature who is worthy to touch the hem of Emily Dickinson’s garb. In our obsession with the “Great American Novel,” we have quite forgotten that we have no other real claimants to the title of “Great American Poetess.” And by “Poetess,” I do not mean to belittle her excellence. She stands side by side with Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ezra Pound—and not so much as a half step behind any of them. She is, in sum, a national treasure.

Here is one of her short, savage poems which will leave you gasping:

Wild Nights—Wild Nights
Wild nights - Wild nights!
 Were I with thee
 Wild nights should be
 Our luxury!

 Futile - the winds -
 To a Heart in port -
 Done with the Compass -
 Done with the Chart!

 Rowing in Eden -
 Ah - the Sea!
 Might I but moor - tonight -
 In thee!

Timon’s Rage: “Let Confusion Live”

Timon Grubbing for Roots After He Has Fled Athens

No doubt you are familiar with the rage of King Lear after two of his daughters ave betrayed him. That is almost nothing compared to the rage of Timon, who has given all his wealth to his friends, but is deserted by them when he himself is broke. These are the opening lines of Act IV:

Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall,
That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth,
And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,
And minister in their steads! to general filths
Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,
Do ’t in your parents’ eyes! bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives,
And cut your trusters’ throats! bound servants, steal!
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,
And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed;
Thy mistress is o’ the brothel! Son of sixteen,
pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,
With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live! Plagues, incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ’gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,
Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
at their society, as their friendship, may
merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee,
But nakedness, thou detestable town!
Take thou that too, with multiplying bans!
Timon will to the woods; where he shall find
The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound—hear me, you good gods all—
The Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen.

Even Shakespeare’s minor plays can pack a punch. Timon of Athens is worth a read, especially when you are feeling unkindly toward your fellow man.

“You Have To Give It Up”

Hungarian Poet Kukorelly Endre

To begin with, Hungarian is like Chinese in that the last name comes first. So what would be Endre Kukorelly in English is Kukorelly Endre in the Magyar tongue. I found this poem in the Hungarian Literature Online website—very sobering thoughts considering the season:

You Have To Give It Up

Soon you have to give it up. The body
and the heart and things, and the soul, too.
The soul flies up. Up, where. Soon you have
to give it up. The body leaves you.
Aches, falls, loosens. Aches, burns, burns
comes to an end, bone, the body flows away. How
easy it is. It leaves you.
You leave it, easier than you leave the street, a
bench, a glove, the sight of
pouring rain, the sobbing of it. The flowing rain.
Finally, the pain leaves, steps away. It won’t be worse.
It’s not worse, that’s it. Or it’s not cruel.
It rather might be sad—what isn’t?
The fallen fruit. Fragment.
For example, the sound doesn’t emerge. It sits far in
the back. Sat in the back. It sat in the back of a bus.
Sat back. To grieve. Or to run down. Thinking
it will run you down easier. Or
why. Why.
Soon you
have to give that up too.

The translation is by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics (or, in Hungarian, Gyukics Gabor).

“It’s All in the Wrist”

Author Nelson Algren (1909-1981)

The following poem is how novelist Nelson Algren ends his best-known novel, The Man with the Golden Arm (1949). It is a tale of lowlifes, mostly of Polish ancestry, trying to eke out a living in postwar Chicago with no money and a hankering for drink, drugs, and gambling. It is perhaps the most compassionate novel ever written about the lower strata of American urban society. Its hero is Frankie Machine, a war vet who is a card dealer in a gambling club who has an unfortunate addiction to morphine.

Epitaph: The Man with the Golden Arm

It’s all in the wrist, with a deck or a cue,
And Frankie Machine had the touch.
He had the touch—and a golden arm—
“Hold up, Arm,” he would plead,
Kissing his rosary once for help
With the faders sweating it out and—
Zing!—there it was—Little Joe or Eighter from Decatur,
Double trey the hard way, dice be nice,
When you get a hunch bet a bunch,
It don’t mean a thing if it don’t cross that string,
Make me five to keep me alive,
Tell ’em where you got it ’n how easy it was—
We remember Frankie Machine
And the arm that always held up.

We remember in the morning light
When the cards are boxed and the long cues racked
Straight up and down like the all-night hours
With the hot rush hours past.

For it’s all in the wrist with a deck or a cue
And if he crapped out when we thought he was due
It must have been that the dice were rolled,
For he had the touch, and his arm was gold;
Rack up his cue, leave the steerer his hat,
The arm that held up has failed at last.

Yet why does the light down the dealer’s slot
Sift soft as light in a troubled dream?
(A dream, they say, of a golden arm
That belonged to the dealer we called Machine.)

A steerer is a person hired to lure customers into a gambling den.

Seize the Day

Roman Poet and Muses

Princeton University Press has come out with an interesting series of books under the general heading Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers. A few months ago, I read the volume on Epictetus. Just now, I have finished the one on Horace’s poetry, entitled How To Be Content: An Ancient Poet’s Guide for an Age of Excess.

Sadly, I have not tried yet in any sustained way to tackle the Odes, Epodes, Epistles, and Satires, what with their reams of footnotes and textual controversies. This volume, on the other hand, makes it easier to understand what Horace is about:

May I have what I have now, less even,
      and may I live for myself
 What remains of my days, if the gods
      grant any remainder:
 May I have a good supply of books and
      corn planted for the year,
 And never hang and float in waiting for
      an uncertain hour.

And:

To be daunted by nothing is the one and
      only thing,
 Numicius, that can make and keep you
      happy.

It is a sobering thought that we have created such complicated lives for ourselves, whereas more than two thousand years ago, there were certain extraordinary poets and philosophers whose advice is as current as today’s news. It was Horace, after all, who advised us all to carpe diem (seize the day).

Horace was as philosophical in dealing with the end of days:

Order wine and perfume and the too-brief
 Flower of the rose to be brought,
 While circumstances, time of life
 And the dark threads of the three sisters
      allow it.

The three sisters, of course, are the Three Fates of ancient mythology: Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who measures the thread of life; and Atropos, who cuts the thread of life.

Who Moves the Pieces?

Chess Pieces

Here is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s sonnets about chess. Except, as you can imagine, it is about more—a whole lot more.

Chess

Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
over the checkered black and white terrain
they seek out and begin their armed campaign

They do not know it is the player’s hand
that dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(the words are Omar’s) on another ground
where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

The translation is by Alastair Reid. Having just finished a cup of hot yerba mate at 9:30 in the evening, after having read a collection of Argentinean short stories by César Aira, I find myself, once again, drawn toward the land of the Sol de Mayo.

The Spiral Road

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

Here is another poem by Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Nation (Este Mvskokvlke), belonging to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). Considering all that has happened to her people, she is curiously optimistic “for earth’s grandsons.” And that is the title of her poem.

For Earth’s Grandsons

Stand tall, no matter your height, how dark your skin
Your spirit is all colors within
You are made of the finest woven light
From the iridescent love that formed your mothers, fathers
Your grandparents all the way back on the spiral road—
There is no end to this love
It has formed your bodies
Feeds your bright spirits
And no matter what happens in these times of breaking—
No matter dictators, the heartless, and liars
No matter—you are born of those
Who kept ceremonial embers burning in their hands
All through the miles of relentless exile
Those who sang the path through massacre
All the way to sunrise
You will make it through—

Pictograph at Chaco Canyon Showing the Spiral Road

I liked the way the poem ends with a dash: All this is still happening. I posted another poem by Joy Harjo on October 20 here. Both poems are taken from her recent book An American Sunrise (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019).