While perusing for books in the library, I spotted a large volume entitled The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. In the few moments I took to scan the 700-plus-page book, I felt like I peered into the troubled soul of the confessional poet and author of the novel The Bell Jar. Plath struggled with depression much of her life and committed suicide in 1963.
The intensity of the language in one of the passages from a section dated 22 November 1955 – 18 April 1956 captivated me, and I thought if you rearranged the sentences in verse form, they would construct a splendid poem. I had no sense of context from where Plath’s agitated emotions sprang, and standing in the library stacks, I felt a great sense of loss about Plath’s life and sadness that she took her unique voice with her to the grave.
Here’s an image of the passage I read:
Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
I recently stumbled upon a short collection of poems by D.H. Lawrence when I went to Syracuse University’s Bird Library to borrow his famous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Amid the works penned by Lawrence, I found the slim volume of verse and pulled it off the shelf.
I thought the worn book might disintegrate as I held it in my hands and turned the pages, and with an original copyright of 1918, its title amused me: New Poems by D.H. Lawrence. The last stamp on the checkout slip is dated December of 1999, so it appears no one else has picked up the book in nearly 20 years.
Lawrence’s poems display sophisticated language with an “Old English” quality to them, and as I read the book, I had to stop several times to write down words that I would later look up on Dictionary.com. Many of the poems were short and possessed a timelessness, as they focused on nature and emotions, which cannot be bracketed by date or era.
Here are a few selections I liked:
I, the man with the red scarf,
Will give thee what I have, this last week’s earnings.
Take them, and buy thee a silver ring
And wed me, to ease my yearnings.
For the rest, when thou art wedded
I’ll wet my brow for thee
With sweat, I’ll enter a house for thy sake,
Thou shalt shut doors on me.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
These final two poems are ideal for summer reading, and I needed to look up the definitions of the two “p” words that stand out in the verses—primula and palimpsest. According to Dictionary.com, primula is a primrose, while palimpsest is a noun, meaning “a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.” The reference to twilight as a palimpsest suggests night overtaking day.
WHEN I woke, the lake-lights were quivering on the wall,
The sunshine swam in a shoal across and across,
And a hairy, big bee hung over the primulas
In the window, his body black fur, and the sound of him cross.
There was something I ought to remember: and yet
I did not remember. Why should I? The running lights
And the airy primulas, oblivious
Of the impending bee—they were fair enough sights.
Palimpsest of Twilight
Darkness comes out of the earth
And swallows dip into the pallor of the west;
From the hay comes the clamour of children’s mirth;
Wanes the old palimpsest.
The night-stock oozes scent,
And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:
All that the worldly day has meant
Wastes like a lie.
The children have forsaken their play;
A single star in a veil of light
Glimmers: litter of day
Is gone from sight.
Lawrence, D.H. (David Herbert), New Poems. London: Martin Seeker, 1918.
Just a quick post to share some information about my latest poetry book, Sidewalk Stories, published by Kelsay Books. I have set up two giveaways: one on Amazon and one on Goodreads. No purchase is necessary. Best of luck if you decide to enter!
The autobiographical novel, published in 1940, two years after Wolfe’s death in 1938, gets bogged down with scenes that could have been edited out with no loss of narrative structure.
However, I enjoyed embarking on a journey of self-discovery with the protagonist, a lonely young writer named George Webber, who pens a famous novel about his hometown, Libya Hill (a fictional setting that could be considered a stand-in for Wolfe’s native Asheville, North Carolina), and then is reviled by his friends and neighbors because the book uncovers the dark secrets of the town.
And although I found myself skipping over sections of the book—descriptions and digressions that slowed down the story—Wolfe’s lyrical voice and ability to construct stunning passages of prose can make a reader stop skimming pages and pay attention to each sentence.
Here are some beautiful paragraphs where Wolfe seemed to capture some central truths about life and humanity.
“So, then, to every man his chance—to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity—to every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him—this, seeker, is the promise of America.”
“For four years George Webber lived and wrote in Brooklyn, and during all this time his life was about as solitary as any that a modern man can know. Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious circumstance, is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man. Not only has this been true of the greatest poets, as evidenced by the huge unhappiness of their published grief, but now it seemed to George to apply with equal force to all the nameless ciphers who swarmed about him in the streets.”
“All things belonging to the earth will never change—the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth … they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again. New York: Scribner (A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), 2011 (first published in 1940). Print.
Parker, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers who met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in the 1920s, was noted for her acerbic wit, cosmopolitan-themed short stories that rely on dialogue to carry the plot and poetry punctuated by both humor and pathos.
The Portable Dorothy Parker serves as a good introduction to the author’s work, as it contains a mix of poems, short stories, book reviews and theater criticism. The stories feel dated to the time period Parker lived, but two stories, Big Blonde and A Telephone Call, are worth checking out.
I also felt a pang of sadness when reading this line in Parker’s New York Timesobituary: “Miss Parker left no survivors.” No human survivors—but she did leave behind a lot of written material to explore.
In both collections, Parker and Dickinson give us little gems in verse form focusing on weighty themes like life, death and love, along with observations on a myriad of other subjects.
These brief poems—gleaming verbal diamonds—carry an authentic voice and pack emotional truth, and both women knew how to play with language in such a way as to delight readers.
I picked through both volumes and selected some short poems worth sharing. They can be consumed in small bites, such as while riding public transportation or waiting in the grocery store checkout aisle.
From The Portable Dorothy Parker:
The Small Hours
No more my little song comes back;
And now of nights I lay
My head on down, to watch the black
And wait the unfailing gray.
Oh, sad are winter nights, and slow;
And sad’s a song that’s dumb;
And sad it is to lie and know
Another dawn will come.
Oh, seek, my love, your newer way;
I’ll not be left in sorrow.
So long as I have yesterday,
Go take your damned tomorrow!
The Thin Edge
With you, my heart is quiet here,
And all my thoughts are cool as rain.
I sit and let the shifting year
Go by before the windowpane,
And reach my hand to yours, my dear . . .
I wonder what it’s like in Spain.
Some men break your heart in two,
Some men fawn and flatter,
Some men never look at you;
And that cleans up the matter.
Then let them point my every tear,
And let them mock and moan;
Another week, another year,
And I’ll be with my own
Who slumber now by night and day
In fields of level brown;
Whose hearts within their breasts were clay
Before they laid them down.
The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.
Rhyme Against Living
If wild my breast and sore my pride,
I bask in dreams of suicide;
If cool my heart and high my head,
I think, “How lucky are the dead!”
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
And lastly, the following is one of my all-time favorite poems (right up there with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask and Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson), and Parker’s piece could be considered a companion poem or a bookend to Langston Hughes’ Suicide’s Note.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Parker, Dorothy. The Portable Dorothy Parker (Revised and Enlarged Edition). New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.
And here are the selections from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete:
The Mystery of Pain
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
With a Flower
I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.
I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
A fitting a despair.
’Tis harder knowing it is due,
Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.
To lose one’s faith surpasses
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Replenished, — faith cannot.
Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being’s beggary.
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
Love is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.
Dickinson, Emily. Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete. Kindle Edition.
Ithaca, New York-area poet and playwright Kathleen Kramer has published a new full-length collection of poems, entitled Planting Wild Grapes(Yesteryear Publishing).
I became acquainted with Kathleen through our mutual connection with the Syracuse writing group Armory Square Playwrights, and I consider her a friend and a writing confidant.
I was honored when she asked me to write a “blurb” for the back of her book, and I read the collection in galley form via PDF. Holding the hard copy now, I am looking forward to taking my time in reading the printed version; I want to sift through each line of text and let the words and their meanings linger in my mind.
Kramer is the author of a poetry chapbook, Inside the Stone (Ithaca Writers’ Association/JK Publications), and a previous full-length collection, Boiled Potato Blues (Vista Periodista). Her poems have appeared in The Comstock Review, Passager, Avocet, a Journal of Nature Poems, The Healing Muse and other publications. And her plays have been presented regionally in central New York, as well as in the Midwest and in Canada.
Here is her biography from the interior of the book:
Growing up in Pennsylvania’s coalmining and farming region, Kathleen Kramer’s early life was influenced by the solidity of the earth and the rhythm of seasons.
At 19, she left for the city and spent five years working in Washington, DC for the Department of Defense. There followed a stint in Maine where subsistence farming took her back to the land. A second marriage brought her to Long Island, where she and her husband Jack reared their three sons in Northport, a small town on Long Island Sound. During that time and over a period of 10 years of balancing classes, family and work, Kathy earned a BA at Empire State College and an MLS at C.W. Post.
Now, following retirement from the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell, Kathy lives with her husband in New York’s Finger Lakes area where she writes poetry and plays. Again, the natural world and changing seasons have assumed center stage. It’s these foundational elements and the strength of generational ties which largely inform Kathy’s poems.
And in this interview, Kramer talks about her book and discusses the motivations that propel her writing. I hope you come to appreciate this artist and her work as much as I do.
Can you give a brief description of this collection of poems?
These poems were written over a period of years and each represents a moment in time when something that seemed important was recognized. Most often, however, the actual moment was, on the surface, quite ordinary. It’s the extraordinariness of the ordinary that moves me. I’ve tried to capture that in these poems.
Not all of these poems address this directly, but I view each one as I might a handcrafted bead: each has its own shape and color and when strung together, they create a necklace that, for me, speaks of wonder and meaning, embracing both good times and hard times.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
This collection tries to do a few different things. It explores the enigmatic title, Planting Wild Grapes, which was given to me in a vivid dream. It seeks to illustrate what I think is required of us as finite beings—to engage in our lives as deeply and meaningfully as we can and then, when the times comes, to release them with thanksgiving and grace. It is my hope that the reader will come away from reading this book with a sense of the wonder and meaning in his or her own life.
What do you enjoy most about writing poetry?
For me, writing poetry has been a connection not only to my inner self and to the natural world, but also to something beyond myself. At the risk of sounding grandiose or pious, I believe creativity and the divine are interwoven. When I can touch that moment as I write a poem, I feel exceptionally blessed.
I’m sure it varies with each poem, but can you describe your typical process for constructing poems—from the moment you get an idea for a work until the final revision?
First of all, who knows where the idea for a poem comes from? Sometimes it’s a snatch of overheard conversation. Sometimes it’s a word or line from someone else’s poem or a flash of memory. Often it’s an experience of being with another person and knowing the tie between you is precious. It’s being outdoors and sensing the wholeness. Regardless of where it comes from, there’s a little “thrill,” like a tiny, soundless bell that rings and says, “Follow this one.”
Then I start to write. I write by hand and I almost always go out of my house to write; I especially like to write in cemeteries. (Very quiet and no one interrupts!) When I have a rough sketch of the poem, I go home and type it into my computer, where it’s easier to shape it on the page.
I’m fortunate to be a member of a poetry group, The High Noon Poets. We meet twice a month and it’s there that we each have our poems critiqued. We’re free to accept the suggestions made or to reject them. Often, even if I feel resistant at first, by the time I’m home again, I’m seeing the wisdom of those suggestions.
How does writing poetry compare to writing plays? Do you have a preference?
What strikes me most are the similarities. In my opinion, both demand an economy of language. Every word must carry its own weight. Sometimes, a word might be there simply because it is beautiful, and if that isn’t overdone, it adds to the whole and, indeed, carries its own weight.
I like writing both poetry and plays. One of the pleasures of playwriting is the characters one can create. They become real and will often tell me what they will or won’t say or do.
However, I think I have a slight preference for writing poetry. There’s satisfaction in writing a single, well-crafted poem. It can stand on its own. There’s no need to sustain a long narrative, yet if the poet creates a number of poems, giving each a shape and color of its own, together, they can tell the story of a life or a time.
What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?
I’ll continue to write poems and, occasionally, plays—I must, in order to be happy—but for a time now, my main focus will be on doing readings and trying in whatever ways I can to share my pleasure in this new book, Planting Wild Grapes.
Here are two excerpts from Planting Wild Grapes (reprinted with the permission of the author and Yesteryear Publishing).
Planting Wild Grapes
Every day at dawn I go down to the river,
fill my bucket to the brim and wash stones.
Big or small, I take all that come to hand,
dip them in my pail, rub them between my palms
and drop them back into the river. I listen
for the satisfying sound—the watery thunk—
as they settle among their fellows.
At mid-day I wade the waves of goldenrod
to the center of the sunny field behind the barn.
Beneath my feet, my shadow crouches,
small and black. The candle in my hand
stands tall, like me, its wick waiting for
the match, prepared to be proud of a flame
invisible in the noonday light.
Sunset finds me again at river’s edge, a teacup
cradled in my hands. It holds rainwater caught
in the downpour at dinnertime. I lift it up
to the sinking sun, see the rim turn gold,
then tip the cup, spilling rain into the river.
Tomorrow, if I keep to my course,
there will be time to plant wild grapes.
When we noticed lunchtime voices
in the hall, the ding of a call button,
squeak of rubber soles on tile floors,
we knew the sound of her breathing
had ceased. For long moments,
her shoulder, under my hand,
remained warm. Then a stillness,
profound and deep, came upon her—
not of worldly sleep but
of rest unbounded by time.
All her ailments, her frailties,
fell away and the wholeness…
the holiness… which remained
I discovered a gem of a short poetry book while roaming through Syracuse University’s Bird Library in search of a Nick Hornby novel (which I was unable to find).
The book,A Sense of Being by John Horder, was published in 1968 as part of the Phoenix Living Poet Series. The book runs 40 pages and I was able to read the entire work during my lunch hour.
I couldn’t find any biographical information about Horder online, but I consider his spare, philosophical poems very moving. They made me stop and reflect on my own life and ponder the points Horder raised in his text. And that to me seems like the purpose of good poetry—to remind the reader that time is passing and our existence is fleeting.
Here are a few of my favorite selections from the book.
A Sense of Being
There is nothing in me to assure me of my being.
That is why I so often think
About my heart beating.
Nothing to do with the fear of it stopping.
It’s just it’s so hard to imagine it – beating –
Just as it’s so hard to imagine that I derive from something
That actually works. Something that lives and breathes.
Something that has a sense of its own being.
Oh, it’s so very hard to imagine these things,
And I’ve always been told I was imaginative by nature.
Imagine: a tree has roots: it knows where it springs from.
We have parents. But the orphan and the murderer have one
thing in common.
Something vital in each of them has been wiped out.
It’s hard to explain exactly what. It’s something
A word or a glance from a parent may have set in motion
Or not. It’s not that this gives a child a sense of itself
Just like that. Nothing as simple as that.
But it can be the basis. Something to start from, something
And will eventually determine who and what he’s to be
Or not to be, as the case may be. Whether he is, or is not.
In A Time When I Was Nothing
In a time when I was nothing
I was strangely surprised to see
My name in The Times Literary Supplement.
In a time when I was nothing
There was an emptiness both inside and outside of me
And I felt no thing substantially.
In a time when I was nothing
It was most difficult to separate past from present
And the present moment held no sway.
In a time when I was nothing
There seemed no end to this state of non-being
The bottom had been kicked away from everything.
After a long time being nothing
There came at long last a dim realization
That one day I might eventually become something.
In the time when I was no one
There was simply nothing left to give anyone
And I found myself cut off from everyone.
In the time when I was no one
I knew no man, no woman
And that was when my sense of self began.
Our whole lives are designed as a means of escape
From the psychic forces that are deep down within.
We do anything rather than reckon with them.
Rather naively, we make call after call
Upon the telephone, in order to try exorcise them.
These forces which if submerged, first malinger, spit out
then wear our selves thin.
We cram our lives full to the brim with work.
We come home late, too tired even to speak to our wives.
We get drunk, which only makes our ulcers more peptic,
And still these forces won’t leave us alone.
Still they will never allow us a moment of rest.
Still we give them no real means of expression.
We don’t reckon with these forces.
They are demons.
They will run us to the grave
Unless we turn them to the good.
We underestimate their power.
Most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that
More fool us.
Not Far Of
Eternity is not far off:
On a clear day
I feel it to be
Just out of sight.
The folly of men
Is there purposefully ignoring
What is so painfully obvious
On a clear day.
Horder, John. A Sense of Being. Phoenix Living Poet Series. London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1968. Print.
I have too many unread books still kicking around the house, but I thought 534 pages of verse for only a dollar was too good a deal to pass up.
I’ve read some of Wallace’s work before and found him to be a challenging read because of his vocabulary and his precision with language. But I think he’s worth investing the time, and as a writer who works full time in another profession, I am inspired by the fact that Stevens spent his career as an insurance lawyer and wrote poetry on the side. You can find out more about him here.
I haven’t started reading Wallace’s book yet, as I am working through the doorstopper of a novel The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, but I flipped through the volume and found a poem that seems suitable for mid-January when subzero temperatures reign. Here it is:
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1982. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1954.