Ferlinghetti in Mexico

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

Ever since I saw him speak at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s, I have admired Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I loved his poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind. And I am fond of the books he has published under his City Lights Books imprint. I am currently reading his Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010, which also contains some poetry written during his travels, such as the following untitled piece:

La puerta escondida
	no está escondida
La puerta al invisible
	no está invisibile
The door to the invisible
	is visible
The hidden door
	is not hidden
I continually walk through it
	not seeing it
And I am what I am
And will be what I will be
Sobre las playas perdidas
	del Sur ....

The first four lines are translated in the poem. The last two lines read “On the lost beaches/Of the South.”

London Circa 1700

Detail from ‘The Tête à Tête,’ a painting from William Hogarth’s series ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’ (1743-45)

I have always had a love for Eighteenth Century Literature. It stems from the time I had a course in the novel of the period taught by my favorite professor at Dartmouth, the late Chauncey Chester Loomis. Swift not only wrote great prose, as vouched by Gulliver’s Travels and a slew of essays, but he was a formidable poet as well. The following poem gives us a feeling for the period in much the same way that James Boswell’s London Journal does.

A Description of the Morning

Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
Appearing, show'd the ruddy morn's approach.
Now Betty from her master's bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.
The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door
Had par'd the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor.
Now Moll had whirl'd her mop with dext'rous airs,
Prepar'd to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place.
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep;
Till drown'd in shriller notes of “chimney-sweep.”
Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet;
And brickdust Moll had scream'd through half a street.
The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees.
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands;
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands. 

Kennel is a gutter or drain
Brickdust Moll is a street vendor selling powdered brick, used for cleaning knives

“Wessex”

Here is one of my favorite dog poems. It is by Thomas Hardy, who is better known for his novels than his poetry. Wessex was the name of Hardy’s dog, and it is also the scene of his novels, such as Return of the Native and Tess of the Durbervilles.

A Popular Personage at Home

'I live here: "Wessex" is my name:
I am a dog known rather well:
I guard the house but how that came
To be my whim I cannot tell.

'With a leap and a heart elate I go
At the end of an hour's expectancy
To take a walk of a mile or so
With the folk I let live here with me.

'Along the path, amid the grass
I sniff, and find out rarest smells
For rolling over as I pass
The open fields toward the dells.

'No doubt I shall always cross this sill,
And turn the corner, and stand steady,
Gazing back for my Mistress till
She reaches where I have run already,

'And that this meadow with its brook,
And bulrush, even as it appears
As I plunge by with hasty look,
Will stay the same a thousand years.'

Thus 'Wessex.' But a dubious ray
At times informs his steadfast eye,
Just for a trice, as though to say,
'Yet, will this pass, and pass shall I?' 

New Year’s Resolutions?

At this time when we are supposedly making up New Year’s resolutions, I am reminded of this poem by Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian poet who died not long after his poem “Instants” was written.

Instants

If I could live again my life,
In the next - I'll try,
- to make more mistakes,
I won't try to be so perfect,
I'll be more relaxed,
I'll be more full - than I am now,
In fact, I'll take fewer things seriously,
I'll be less hygenic,
I'll take more risks,
I'll take more trips,
I'll watch more sunsets,
I'll climb more mountains,
I'll swim more rivers,
I'll go to more places - I've never been,
I'll eat more ice creams and less (lime) beans,
I'll have more real problems - and less imaginary ones,
I was one of those people who live
prudent and prolific lives -
each minute of his life,
Of course that I had moments of joy - but,
if I could go back I'll try to have only good moments,

If you don't know - that's what life is made of,
Don't lose the now!

I was one of those who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer,
without a hot-water bottle,
and without an umbrella and without a parachute,

If I could live again - I will travel light,
If I could live again - I'll try to work bare feet
at the beginning of spring till
the end of autumn,
I'll ride more carts,
I'll watch more sunrises and play with more children,
If I have the life to live - but now I am 85,
- and I know that I am dying . . .  

“Apostle Town”

Canadian Poet Anne Carson (Born 1950)

My favorite Canadian poet, who I think is equal to the best current U.S. poets, is Anne Carson. A classical r as well as a poet, she did a great translation of three Euripides plays that was published by New York Review as Grief Lessons (2006).

Apostle Town

After your death.
It was windy every day.
Every day.
Opposed us like a wall.
We went.
Shouting sideways at one another.
Along the road.
It was useless.
The spaces between us.
Got hard.
They are empty spaces.
And yet they are solid.
And black and grievous.
As gaps between the teeth.
Of an old woman.
You knew years ago.
When she was.
Beautiful the nerves pouring around in her like palace fire.

“Wind, Water, Stone”

Mexican Poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998)

As I grow older, I am drawn more and more toward poetry as the most profound literary medium. There is something utterly simple about “Wind, Water, Stone” by Mexican Nobel-Prize winning poet Octavio Paz, yet that simplicity is merely a pathway to wide vistas that keep drawing one in.

Wind, Water, Stone

For Roger Caillois

Water hollows stone,
wind scatters water,
stone stops the wind.
Water, wind, stone.

Wind carves stone,
stone's a cup of water,
water escapes and is wind.
Stone, wind, water.

Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.

Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.

“View with a Grain of Sand”

View from a Window

Here is a marvellous poem by the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. It is called “View with a Grain of Sand.” Never before have I seen a poem about things written from the decidedly non-human stance of the things themselves. See what you think:

View with a Grain of Sand

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.

Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn’t feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is no different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it is finished falling
or that it is falling still.

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn’t view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.

The lake’s floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
Its water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural.
They splash deaf to their own noise
On pebbles neither large nor small.

And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.

A second passes.
A second second.
A third.
But they’re three seconds only for us.

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.
But that’s just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,
his news inhuman.

“Light Shining Out of Darkness”

William Cowper (1731-1800)

This is perhaps the most famous poem by William Cowper (his last name is pronounced as if it were “Cooper”). It is simple, perhaps a touch too pious for our time. But it is a magnificent statement of a faith that is rare in the 21st century.

Light Shining Out of Darkness

1
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

2
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sov'reign will.

3
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

4
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

5
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev'ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.

6
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain. 

“At a Certain Age”

As Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz shows us, the urge to confess can be a problem. Sometimes you just have to bottle it all up and hope it doesn’t burst.

At a Certain Age

We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”

El Dorado

John Wayne and James Caan in Howard Hawks’s El Dorado

Today’s poem was actually a part of one of my favorite Westerns: Howard Hawks’s El Dorado (1966), which is a remake of the same director’s Rio Bravo (1959) starring the same actor, John Wayne. The lines are spoken by James Caan, in his first major role. Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote it, spelled it as one word: Eldorado—and that’s the name he gave to the poem.

Unlike Poe’s knight, I have found El Dorado to be in many places: Iceland, Scotland, Mexico, the Andes in South America, and even—appropriately—parts of the American Southwest.

Eldorado

Gaily bedight, 
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long, 
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado. 

But he grew old – 
This knight so bold – 
And o’er his heart a shadow 
Fell, as he found 
No spot of ground 
That looked like Eldorado. 

And, as his strength 
Failed him at length, 
He met a pilgrim shadow – 
‘Shadow,’ said he, 
‘Where can it be – 
This land of Eldorado?‘

‘Over the Mountains 
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow, 
Ride, boldly ride,‘
The shade replied, 
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’