Category Archives: Poem

Like a tendril growing toward the sun

A House of Readers

At 9:42 on this May morning
the children’s rooms are concentrating too.
Like a tendril growing toward the sun, Ruth
moves her book into a wedge of light
that settles on the floor like a butterfly.
She turns a page.
Fred is immersed in magic, cool
as a Black Angus belly-deep in a farm pond.

The only sounds: pages turning softly.
This is the quietness
of bottomland where you can hear only the young corn
growing, where a little breeze stirs the blades
and then breathes in again.

I mark my place.
I listen like a farmer in the rows.

Jim Wayne Miller

I love the analogy that a parent is like a farmer helping their children go grow (although I don’t think I’d ever compare one of my children to a cow). And I love the idea that books are one of the best ways to do that. Books were a huge part of my childhood. I want a home like this some day with my own children.

I’ve never heard of this poet before, but I just found the above poem this morning on Tumblr. You can click on his name to visit a little website someone made about him.

The value and significance of flesh

One of my favorite groups of poems is Men and Women by Robert Browning. Each of these long poems is a monologue by a different person, and the ones I’ve read are fascinating. One of my favorites is Fra Lippo Lippi, about a (medieval?) monk who paints art in churches and monestaries.

In the poem, Lippi meets some men (city watchmen, I think) and tells them his story. He was homeless, living on the street at 8 years old, when the church took him in. He can’t read much Latin, he says, but he’s a shrewd judge of people and can paint them as they are. The trouble is, the head monks think his paintings are too realistic, saying:

Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men—
Give us no more of body than shows soul!

Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!

Lippi disagrees, of course. Here are my favorite parts of his response:

Why can’t a painter lift each foot in turn,
Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
Both in their order?

Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flash,
And then add soul and heighten them three-fold?

And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,

For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.

You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
However, you’re my man, you’ve seen the world
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
—For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at?

We’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.

This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

You can read the whole thing here. It’s long, but it’s worth it.

From our fears and sins release us

Saturday of the Second Week of Advent

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king;
Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.

By thin own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.

I have not plummeted

I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it
The “everlasting arms” my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.

– Denise Levertov

I have felt this way many times, and I’m thankful for this poem, because it put my feeling into words.

With Silver Liquid Drops

Boy have I been a slacker lately. I can’t honesty claim that I’ve been unusually busy, but I’ve been winding down from the stress in past months — reading, doing crafts, etc. — and it’s been terrific. But I’m back, hopefully more regularly now. And I also have some new cards to post on Etsy: starting Saturday I hope to do 4-5/week for the rest of the month. We shall see.

It’s raining very hard here right now, as it has many times in the last two weeks, and here’s how I feel about that.

April Rain Song

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night—

And I love the rain.

– Langston Hughes

Compare with Me

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can in no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love lets so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

– Anne Bradstreet

Little breezes dusk and shiver

I was introduced to this poem through an excellent song version by Loreena McKennitt on her album The Visit. Unlike Anne Shirley, I find the story more confusing than romantic. But I love the sounds of the words. This poem is best read aloud, or sung.

The Lady of Shalott

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early,
In among the bearded barley
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly;
Down to tower’d Camelot;
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, ” ‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.”

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot;
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad
Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two.
She hath no loyal Knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armor rung
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, burning bright,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining.
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And around about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right —
The leaves upon her falling light —
Thro’ the noises of the night,
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and Burgher, Lord and Dame,
And around the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? And what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

When we read this in a literature class, the teacher said one possible interpretation was that the poem is a metaphor of the artist’s life: away from the world, making beautiful things, but not able to have a normal life with other people or the art will somehow be destroyed. I don’t agree with that definition of “artist,” but it’s a plausible theory. Still, I’m not sold. Has anyone else out there heard a better interpretation?

I suppose it could just be a story without any sort of metaphor, but if so, it’s a story missing some very crucial plot details, specifically who put that strange curse on her, and why. Even fairy tales usually have those.

A Sudden Line of Poetry

Two girls discover the secret of life
   in a sudden line of poetry.
I who don’t know the secret wrote
   the line. They told me
(through third person) they had found it
   but not what it was, not even
what line it was. No doubt by now, more than a week
   later, they have forgotten the secret,
the line, the name of the poem. I love them
   for finding what I can’t find,
and for loving me for the line I wrote:
   and for forgetting to so that
a thousand times, till death finds them, they may
   discover it again, in other lines,
in other happenings. And for
   wanting to know it, for
assuming that these is such a secret, yet,
   for that most of all.

– Denise Levertov

{There’s an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to defining “art.”  I’d say that something can be described as art when there’s more there than the author put into it – when it’s beautiful/expressive/??? enough that people can enjoy and learn from it in ways the author never imagined.

{I’m not advocating the style of criticism that ignores what the author intended and says that only the text matters, and you can pull out of it what you want. But a good book or symphony or painting can speak to you in ways the author wouldn’t have imagined, or give you comfort in a situation they never thought to address. Art takes on a life of its own.}