Sunday, October 29, 2006

The All Time Top Ten Greatest Poems of Scotland

In their article called Jeelie Piece Song is among our best poems, The Sunday Times of Scotland reports that "listeners of BBC Radio Scotland" have chosen Scotland's favorite all time top 20 poems.

These are included in the new book, edited by Stewart Conn, titled 100 Favourite Scottish Poems: The Nation's Favourites Including The Top 20 As Voted By BBC Scotland Listeners.

Presented below are the top ten as listed in the Sunday Times article, either the poems or links to them--all but number 10, which I could not find online. As with The Top 20 Greatest Banjo Paterson Poems of All Time from early last month, they are listed bottom to top.



by Liz Lochhead (b. 1947)

View of Scotland/Love Poem

(not available, here is an audio selection of her work)



from Vailima, Samoa

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

To S. R. Crockett (On receiving a Dedication)

        Blows the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,
        Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
        Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
        My heart remembers how!

        Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
        Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
        Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
        And winds, austere and pure:

        Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
        Hills of home! and to hear again the call;
        Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
        And hear no more at all.



by Marion Angus (1866-1946)

Mary's Song

        I wad ha'e gi'en him my lips tae kiss,
        Had I been his, had I been his;
        Barley breid and elder wine,
        Had I been his as he is mine.

        The wanderin' bee it seeks the rose;
        Tae the lochan's bosom the burnie goes;
        The grey bird cries at evenin's fa',
        'My luve, my fair one, come awa'.'

        My beloved sall ha'e this he'rt tae break,
        Reid, reid wine and the barley cake;
        A he'rt tae break, an' a mou' tae kiss,
        Tho' he be nae mine, as I am his.

(song in mp3, sheet music in pdf)



translated from the Scotts Gaelic version (just below) by Hugh MacDiarmid

by Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

The Watergaw

        One wet, early evening in the sheep-shearing season
        I saw that occasional, rare thing--
        A broken shaft of a rainbow with its trembling light
        Beyond the downpour of the rain
        And I thought of the last, wild look you gave
        Before you died.

        The skylark's nest was dark and desolate,
        My heart was too
        But I have thought of that foolish light
        Ever since then
        And I think that perhaps at last I know
        What your look meant then.


#7 (cont)

in the original Scottish vernacular

by Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

The Watergaw

        Ae weet forenicht i' the yow-trummle
        I saw yon antrin thing,
        A watergaw wi' its chitterin' licht
        Ayont the on-ding;
        An' I thocht o' the last wild look ye gied
        Afore ye deed!

        There was nae reek i' the laverock's hoose
        That nicht--an' nane i' mine;
        But I hae thocht o' that foolish licht
        Ever sin' syne;
        An' I think that mebbe at last I ken
        What your look meant then.



by Alastair Reid (b. 1926)


        It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
        when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
        and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
        Greenness entered the body. The grasses
        shivered with presences, and sunlight
        stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
        Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
        the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'
        cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
        And what did she have to say for it?
        Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
        and she spoke with their ancient misery:
        'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it.'



an off-concrete Scottish fantasia

by Edwin Morgan (b. 1920)


(click picture for poem)



translated from the Scotts Gaelic version (just below) by Sorley Maclean

by Sorley Maclean (1911-1996), a.k.a Somhairle MacGill-Eain


        'Time, the deer, is in the Wood of Hallaig.'

        The window is nailed and boarded
        through which I saw the West
        and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
        a birch tree, and she has always been

        between Inver and Milk Hollow,
        here and there about Baile-chuirn:
        she is a birch , a hazel,
        a straight slender young rowan.

        In Screapadal of my people,
        where Norman and Big Hector were,
        their daughters and their sons are a wood
        going up beside the stream.

        Proud tonight the pine cocks
        crowing on the top of Cnoc an Ra,
        straight their backs in the moonlight--
        they are not the wood I love.

        I will wait for the birch wood
        until it comes up by the Cairn,
        until the whole ridge from Beinn na Lice
        will be under its shade.

        If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
        to the sabbath of the dead,
        where the people are frequenting,
        every single generation gone.

        They are still in Hallaig,
        Macleans and Macleods,
        All who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
        the dead have been seen alive--

        'Time, the deer, is in the Wood of Hallaig.'

        the men lying on the green
        at the end of every house that was,
        the girls a wood of birches,
        straight their backs, bent their heads.

        Between the Leac and Fearns
        the road is under mild moss
        and the girls in silent bands
        go to Clachan as in the beginning.

        And return from Clachan,
        from Suisnish and the land of the living;
        Each one young and light stepping,
        without the heartbreak of the tale.

        From the Burn of Fearns to the raised beach
        that is clear in the mystery of the hills,
        there is only the congregation of the girls
        keeping up the endless walk,

        coming back to Hallaig in the evening,
        in the dumb living twilight,
        filling the steep slopes,
        their laughter in my ears a mist,

        and their beauty a film on my heart
        before the dimness comes on the kyles,
        and when the sun goes down behind Dun Cana
        a vehement bullet will come from the gun of Love;

        and will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
        sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
        his eye will freeze in the wood;
        his blood will not be traced while I live.


#4 (cont.)

in the original Scotts Gaelic

by Sorley Maclean (1911-1996), a.k.a Somhairle MacGill-Eain


        'Tha tìm, am fiadh, an Coille Hallaig'

        Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig
        trom faca mi an Aird an Iar
        's tha mo ghaol aig Allt Hallaig
        'na craoibh bheithe, 's bha i riamh

        eadar an t-Inbhir 's Poll a' Bhainne,
        thall 's a-bhos mu Bhaile Chùirn:
        tha i 'na beithe, 'na calltainn,
        'na caorann dhìreach sheang ùr.

        Ann an Sgreapadal mo chinnidh,
        far robh Tarmad 's Eachann Mòr,
        tha 'n nigheanan 's am mic 'nan coille
        a' gabhail suas ri taobh an lòin.

        Uaibhreach a-nochd na coilich ghiuthais
        a' gairm air mullach Cnoc an Rà,
        dìreach an druim ris a' ghealaich--
        chan iadsan coille mo ghràidh.

        Fuirichidh mi ris a' bheithe
        gus an tig i mach an Càrn,
        gus am bi am bearradh uile
        o Bheinn na Lice fa sgàil.

        Mura tig 's ann theàrnas mi a Hallaig,
        a dh'ionnsaigh sàbaid nam marbh,
        far a bheil an sluagh a' tathaich,
        gach aon ghinealach a dh'fhalbh.

        Tha iad fhathast ann a Hallaig,
        Clann Ghill-Eain 's Clann MhicLeòid,
        na bh' ann ri linn Mhic Ghille Chaluim:
        chunnacas na mairbh beò--

        'Tha tìm, am fiadh, an Coille Hallaig'

        na fir 'nan laighe air an lèanaig
        aig ceann gach taighe a bh' ann,
        na h-igheanan 'nan coille bheithe,
        dìreach an druim, crom an ceann.

        Eadar an Leac is na Feàrnaibh
        tha 'n rathad mòr fo chòinnich chiùin,
        's na h-igheanan 'nam badan sàmhach
        a' dol a Chlachan mar o thus.

        Agus a' tilleadh às a' Chlachan,
        à Suidhisnis 's à tìr nam beò;
        a chuile tè òg uallach,
        gun bhristeadh cridhe an sgeòil.

        O Allt na Feàrnaibh gus an fhaoilinn
        tha soilleir an dìomhaireachd nam beann
        chan eil ach coimhthional nan nighean
        a' cumail na coiseachd gun cheann.

        a' tilleadh a Hallaig anns an fheasgar,
        anns a' chamhanaich bhalbh bheò,
        a' lìonadh nan leathadan casa,
        an gàireachdaich 'nam chluais 'na ceò,

        's am bòidhche 'na sgleò air mo chridhe
        mun tig an ciaradh air na caoil,
        's nuair theàrnas grian air cùl Dhùn Cana
        thig peileir dian à gunna Ghaoil;

        's buailear am fiadh a tha 'na thuaineal
        a' snòtach nan làraichean feòir;
        thig reothadh air a shùl sa choille:
        chan fhaighear lorg air fhuil rim bheò.



by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Is There, for Honest Poverty

(or the song A Man's a Man for A'That)


        Is there, for honest poverty,
            That hangs his head, and a' that?
        The coward-slave, we pass him by,
            We dare be poor for a' that!
        For a' that, and a' that,
            Our toils obscure, and a' that;
        The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
            The man's the gowd for a' that!


        What tho' on hamely fare we dine,
            Wear hoddin gray, and a' that;
        Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
            A man's a man, for a' that!
        For a' that, and a' that,
            Their tinsel show, and a' that;
        The honest man, though e'er sae poor,
            Is king o' men for a' that!


        Ye see yon birkie, ca'd--a lord,
            Wha struts, and stares, and a' that;
        Though hundreds worship at his word,
            He's but a coof for a' that:
        For a' that, and a' that,
            His riband, star, and a' that,
        The man of independent mind,
            He looks and laughs at a' that.


        A king can make a belted knight,
            A marquis, duke, and a' that,
        But an honest man's aboon his might,
            Guid faith, he maunna fa' that!
        For a' that, and a' that,
            Their dignities, and a' that,
        The pith o' sense, and pride o' worth,
            Are higher ranks than a' that.


        Then let us pray that come it may--
            As come it will for a' that--
        That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth,
            May bear the gree, and a' that;
        For a' that, and a' that,
            It's comin' yet for a' that,
        That man to man, the warld o'er,
            Shall brothers be for a' that!



by Violet Jacob (1863-1846)

The Wild Geese

(or the song Norland Wind)

        "O tell me what was on yer road, ye roarin' norlan' Wind,
        As ye cam' blawin' frae the land that's niver frae my mind?
        My feet they traivel England, but I'm dee'in for the north."
        "My man, I heard the siller tides rin up the Firth o' Forth."

        "Aye, Wind, I ken them weel eneuch, and fine they fa' an' rise,
        And fain I'd feel the creepin' mist on yonder shore that lies,
        But tell me, ere ye passed them by, what saw ye on the way?"
        "My man, I rocked the rovin' gulls that sail abune the Tay."

        "But saw ye naething, leein' Wind, afore ye cam' to Fife?
        There's muckle lyin' 'yont the Tay that's mair to me nor life."
        "My man, I swept the Angus braes ye hae'na trod for years."
        "O Wind, forgi'e a hameless loon that canna see for tears!"

        "And far abune the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
        A lang, lang skein o' beatin' wings, wi' their heids towards the sea,
        And aye their cryin' voices trailed ahint them on the air--"
        "O Wind, hae maircy, haud yer whisht, for I daurna listen mair!"



"Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke." --Gawin Douglas.

A Tale

by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Tam O'Shanter

        When chapman billies leave the street,
        And drouthy neebors neebors meet,
        As market-days are wearing late,
        An' folk begin to tak' the gate;
        While we sit bousing at the nappy,
        An' gettin' fou and unco happy,
        We think na on the lang Scots miles,
        The mosses, waters, slaps, and stiles,
        That lie between us and our hame,
        Where sits our sulky sullen dame,
        Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
        Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

        This truth fand honest Tam O' Shanter,
        As he frae Ayr ae night did canter,
        (Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses,
        For honest men and bonny lasses.)
        O Tam! hadst thou but been sae wise,
        As ta'en thy ain wife Kate's advice!
        She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
        A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
        That frae November till October,
        Ae market-day thou wasna sober;
        That ilka melder, wi' the miller,
        Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
        That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on,
        The smith and thee gat roaring fou on;
        That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday,
        Thou drank wi' Kirton Jean till Monday.
        She prophesy'd, that late or soon,
        Thou would be found deep drown'd in Doon;
        Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,
        By Alloway's auld haunted kirk.

        Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
        To think how mony counsels sweet,
        How mony lengthen'd sage advices,
        The husband frae the wife despises!
        But to our tale:--Ae market night,
        Tam had got planted unco right;
        Fast by an ingle bleezing finely,
        Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely;
        And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
        His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
        Tam lo'ed him like a vera brither;
        They had been fou' for weeks thegither!
        The night drave on wi' sangs an' clatter;
        And ay the ale was growing better:
        The landlady and Tam grew gracious;
        Wi' favors secret, sweet, and precious;
        The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
        The landlord's laugh was ready chorus:
        The storm without might rair and rustle--
        Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

        Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
        E'en drown'd himself amang the nappy!
        As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
        The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure:
        Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,
        O'er a' the ills o' life victorious.

        But pleasures are like poppies spread,
        You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
        Or like the snow falls in the river,
        A moment white--then melts for ever;
        Or like the borealis race,
        That flit ere you can point their place;
        Or like the rainbow's lovely form
        Evanishing amid the storm.
        Nae man can tether time or tide;
        The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
        That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane,
        That dreary hour he mounts his beast in;
        And sic a night he taks the road in
        As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.

        The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last;
        The rattling show'rs rose on the blast;
        The speedy gleams the darkness swallow'd;
        Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellow'd:
        That night, a child might understand,
        The de'il had business on his hand.

        Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg,
        A better never lifted leg,
        Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire,
        Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
        Whiles holding fast his guid blue bonnet;
        Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet;
        Whiles glow'ring round wi' prudent cares,
        Lest bogles catch him unawares;
        Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
        Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.--

        By this time he was cross the foord,
        Whare in the snaw the chapman smoor'd;
        And past the birks and meikle stane,
        Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane;
        And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
        Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn;
        And near the thorn, aboon the well,
        Where Mungo's mither hang'd hersel'.
        Before him Doon pours all his floods;
        The doubling storm roars thro' the woods;
        The lightnings flash from pole to pole;
        Near and more the thunders roll;
        When, glimmering thro' the groaning trees,
        Kirk-Alloway seem'd in a bleeze;
        Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing;
        And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

        Inspiring, bold John Barleycorn!
        What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
        Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;
        Wi' usquabae we'll face the devil!
        The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle,
        Fair play, he car'd nae deils a boddle.
        But Maggie stood right sair astonish'd,
        'Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd,
        She ventur'd forward on the light;
        And wow! Tam saw an unco sight!
        Warlocks and witches in a dance;
        Nae cotillion brent new frae France,
        But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
        Put life and mettle in their heels:
        A winnock-bunker in the east,
        There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast;
        A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
        To gie them music was his charge;
        He screw'd the pipes and gart them skirl,
        Till roof and rafters a' did dirl.--
        Coffins stood round, like open presses;
        That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
        And by some devilish cantrip slight
        Each in its cauld hand held a light--
        By which heroic Tam was able
        To note upon the haly table,
        A murderer's banes in gibbet airns;
        Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen'd bairns;
        A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
        Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape;
        Five tomahawks, wi' bluid red-rusted;
        Five scimitars, wi' murder crusted;
        A garter, which a babe had strangled;
        A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
        Whom his ain son o' life bereft,
        The gray hairs yet stack to the heft:
        Wi' mair o' horrible and awfu',
        Which ev'n to name would be unlawfu'.

        As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious,
        The mirth and fun grew fast and furious:
        The piper loud and louder blew;
        The dancers quick and quicker flew;
        They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
        'Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
        And coost her duddies to the wark,
        And linket at it in her sark!

        Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans
        A' plump and strapping, in their teens;
        Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen,
        Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen,
        Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
        That ance were plush, o' guid blue hair,
        I wad hae gi'en them off my hurdies,
        For ae blink o' the bonnie burdies!

        But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
        Rigwoodie hags, wad spean a foal,
        Lowping an' flinging on a cummock,
        I wonder didna turn thy stomach.

        But Tam kenn'd what was what fu' brawlie,
        There was a winsome wench and walie,
        That night enlisted in the core,
        (Lang after kenn'd on Carrick shore;
        For mony a beast to dead she shot,
        And perish'd mony a bonnie boat,
        And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
        And kept the country-side in fear.)
        Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn,
        That, while a lassie, she had worn,
        In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
        It was her best, and she was vauntie--

        Ah! little kenn'd the reverend grannie,
        That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
        Wi' twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches),
        Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!
        But here my muse her wing maun cour;
        Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r;
        To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
        (A souple jade she was and strung,)
        And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch'd;
        And thought his very een enrich'd;
        Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
        And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main:
        'Till first ae caper, syne anither,
        Tam tint his reason a' thegither,
        And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!"
        And in an instant all was dark:
        And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
        When out the hellish legion sallied.

        As bees bizz out wi' angry fyke,
        When plundering herds assail their byke;
        As open pussie's mortal foes,
        When, pop! she starts before their nose;
        As eager runs the market-crowd,
        When "Catch the thief!" resounds aloud;
        So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
        Wi' mony an eldritch screech and hollow.

        Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin'!
        In hell they'll roast thee like a herrin'!
        In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin'!
        Kate soon will be a woefu' woman!
        Now do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
        And win the key-stane of the brig;
        There at them thou thy tail may toss,
        A running stream they darena cross!
        But ere the key-stane she could make,
        The fient a tail she had to shake!
        For Nannie, far before the rest,
        Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
        And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle;
        But little wist she Maggie's mettle--
        Ae spring brought off her master hale,
        But left behind her ain gray tail:
        The carlin claught her by the rump,
        And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

        Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
        Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:
        Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
        Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
        Think! ye may buy the joys o'er dear--
        Remember Tam O' Shanter's mare.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Daniel Webster: Great American Orator on Poetry

Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury or Franklin, New Hampshire in 1782, and died in Marshfield Massachusetts in 1852. He was a constitutional attorney, a US Senator, and a great orator. He opposed war, and sought compromise. Some say it is because of his compromising that he did not attain the presidency. It would have been remarkable for this man to have stood his ground firmly as an abolitionist opposed to slavery, and not compromise this position, for instance. A century after his death, in 1957, the Senate voted him as one of the top 5 Senators in US history. We may also vote him in some top 10 or 5 group of all-time US orators, somewhere in the close numbers that lead up to Martin Luther King through John F. Kennedy.

So what does Daniel Webster have to do with poetry? In the course of a life of speeches filled with stirring remarks and quotable quotes, come some thoughts on poetry, worth pondering 170 or so years later. Below are four excerpts from The Great Speeches and Orations of Daniel Webster.


Poetry is found to have few stronger conceptions, by which it would affect or overwhelm the mind, than those in which it presents the moving and speaking image of the departed dead to the senses of the living. This belongs to poetry, only because it is congenial to our nature. Poetry is, in this respect, but the handmaid of true philosophy and morality; it deals with us as human beings, naturally reverencing those whose visible connection with this state of existence is severed, and who may yet exercise we know not what sympathy with ourselves; and when it carries us forward, also, and shows us the long continued result of all the good we do, in the prosperity of those who follow us, till it bears us from ourselves, and absorbs us in an intense interest for what shall happen to the generations after us, it speaks only in the language of our nature, and affects us with sentiments which belong to us as human beings.

at Plymouth Rock, Dec 22, 1820


An aged man, without an enemy in the world, in his own house, and in his own bed, is made the victim of a butcherly murder, for mere pay. Truly, here is a new lesson for painters and poets. Whoever shall hereafter draw the portrait of murder, if he will show it as it has been exhibited, where such example was last to have been looked for, in the very bosom of our New England society, let him not give it the grim visage of Moloch, the brow knitted by revenge, the face black with settled hate, and the bloodshot eye emitting livid fires of malice. Let him draw, rather, a decorous, smooth-faced, bloodless demon; a picture in repose, rather than in action; not so much an example of human nature in its depravity, and in its paroxysms of crime, as an infernal being, a fiend, in the ordinary display and development of his character.

at the trial of John Francis Knapp, Essex County MA, April 6, 1830


A true lover of the virtue of patriotism delights to contemplate its purest models; and that love of country may be well suspected which affects to soar so high into the regions of sentiment as to be lost and absorbed in the abstract feeling, and becomes too elevated or too refined to glow with fervor in the commendation or the love of individual benefactors. All this is unnatural. It is as if one should be so enthusiastic a lover of poetry, as to care nothing for Homer or Milton; so passionately attached to eloquence as to be indifferent to Tully and Chatham; or such a devotee to the arts, in such an ecstasy with the elements of beauty, proportion, and expression, as to regard the masterpieces of Raphael and Michael Angelo with coldness or contempt. We may be assured, Gentlemen, that he who really loves the thing itself, loves its finest exhibitions.

at a centennial birthday celebration for George Washington, Washington DC, Feb 22, 1832


In the early part of the second century of our history, Bishop Berkeley, who, it will be remembered, had resided for some time in Newport, in Rhode Island, wrote his well-known "Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America." The last stanza of this little poem seems to have been produced by a high poetical inspiration:--

        "Westward the course of empire takes its way;
            The four first acts already past,
        A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
            Time's noblest offspring is the last."

This extraordinary prophecy may be considered only as the result of long foresight and uncommon sagacity; of a foresight and sagacity stimulated, nevertheless, by excited feeling and high enthusiasm. So clear a vision of what America would become was not founded on square miles, or on existing numbers, or on any common laws of statistics. It was an intuitive glance into futurity; it was a grand conception, strong, ardent, glowing, embracing all time since the creation of the world, and all regions of which that world is composed, and judging of the future by just analogy with the past. And the inimitable imagery and beauty with which the thought is expressed, joined to the conception itself, render it one of the most striking passages in our language.

                        "A muse of fire, . . .
        A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
        And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!"

The Muse inspiring our fathers was the Genius of Liberty, all on fire with a sense of oppression, and a resolution to throw it off; the whole world was the stage, and higher characters than princes trod it; and, instead of monarchs, countries and nations and the age beheld the swelling scene. How well the characters were cast, and how well each acted his part, and what emotions the whole performance excited, let history, now and hereafter, tell.

at the laying of the cornerstone of the addition to the Capitol, July 4, 1851



by George Berkeley (1685-1753)

On the Prospect of Planting Arts
and Learning in America

        The Muse, disgusted at an age and clime
            Barren of every glorious theme,
        In distant lands now waits a better time,
            Producing subjects worthy fame:

        In happy climes, where from the genial sun
            And virgin earth such scenes ensue,
        The force of art by nature seems outdone,
            And fancied beauties by the true;

        In happy climes, the seat of innocence,
            Where nature guides and virtue rules,
        Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
            The pedantry of courts and schools:

        There shall be sung another golden age,
            The rise of empire and of arts,
        The good and great inspiring epic rage,
            The wisest heads and noblest hearts.

        Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
            Such as she bred when fresh and young,
        When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
            By future poets shall be sung.

        Westward the course of empire takes its way;
            The four first Acts already past,
        A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
            Time's noblest offspring is the last.


by William Shakespeare

The Life of King Henry the Fifth:


        [Enter Chorus.]


        O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
        The brightest heaven of invention,
        A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
        And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
        Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
        Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
        Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
        Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
        The flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd
        On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
        So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
        The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
        Within this wooden O the very casques
        That did affright the air at Agincourt?
        O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
        Attest in little place a million;
        And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
        On your imaginary forces work.
        Suppose within the girdle of these walls
        Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
        Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
        The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder;
        Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
        Into a thousand parts divide one man,
        And make imaginary puissance;
        Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
        Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth.
        For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
        Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times,
        Turning the accomplishment of many years
        Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
        Admit me Chorus to this history;
        Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray,
        Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.




Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Gifts of Donald Hall: "Retriever"

by Donald Hall


        Two days after Jane died
        I walked with our dog Gus
        on New Canada Road
        under birchy green
        April shadows, talking
        urgently, trying
        to make him understand.
        A quick mink scooted past
        into fern, and Gus
        disappeared in pursuit.
        The damp air grew chill
        as I whistled and called
        until twilight. I thought
        he tried to follow her
        into the dark. After an hour
        I gave up and walked home
        to find him on the porch,
        alert, pleased to see me,
        curious over my absence.
        But Gus hadn't found her
        deep in the woods; he hadn't
        brought her back
        as a branch in his teeth.

his poem brought to you through the poet laureate's gracious consent


Donald Hall, our United States Poet Laureate, read from his book White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006 for an hour this afternoon at the First Congregational Church in Pelham New Hampshire. He sat at a table as he does now, and read his poems of love, death, New Hampshire, and more, without great animation in body language, but with his kind and aging New England voice. The focus in listening, then, goes onto his words, being sure to make them out, but also on his intonations.

Eric Clapton noted that when Aretha Franklin sings, never is a note simply sung and held for its time. The soul of her singing comes through in how she bends and gives character and feeling to each note, such import to each. In this sense too, Donald Hall is a soul poet. Never is a stressed syllable simply read as a stressed syllable. Each is spoken to hold the accentuated note and meaning out into the room as a gift to the listener, presented with such suspense imparting the emotion and character of his words in their contexts.

With the first poems Hall read, the chant of the song within the poem could be heard, the soul of each stressed syllable revealing the meter of his freest verse poems. It was during these first minutes that he read the poem "White Apple" which contains the line, "white apples and the taste of stone", the title of his latest book. That line came to him years after he first had the dream of the poem, and brought the poem together and to completion. In this and other senses, he is also a mystic poet, and thus the chant of his song-poems. But then, shouldn't a poet who writes at once in a word about love, death, and his home, be naturally rooted in the mystic?

For the next minutes, it was as if he warmed to the occasion, and he read poems to make the audience laugh and feel at home with him. His delivery became more animated in his facial expression and tone of voice. The chant receded to the yarn of conversation, and yet the soul still alive within each stressed syllable. It was during this time, that he read his poem "Mount Kearsage" that begins:

        Great blue mountain! Ghost.
        I look at you
        from the front porch of the farmhouse
        where I watched you all summer
        as a boy.

and the poem "Great Day on the Cows' House" with the first-stanza lines

        Now she stretches her wrinkly neck, her turnip eye
        rolls in her skull, she sucks up breath,
        and stretching her long mouth mid-chew she expels:


Mid-poem there he interjected that friends tell him that last line is his best line of poetry.

The soulful singing of his poetry, the down home mysticism, the friendship with the audience well-established, all came to bear as he directed his audience's hearts to his Jane Kenyon poems, of which "Retriever" above is one. The moments were naturally riveting, a great time in literature. Donald Hall's Jane poems are as important to the poetry canon as Chopin's Nocturnes are to piano music. There is a wholesome life, yet very mortal captivation to them.

After the reading, came the questions from the audience, and in response to one, he mentioned Thomas Hardy. In Claire Tomalin's biography of Hardy, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, to be published by Viking on October 19, she writes of his wife Emma dying:

She did not complain or ask for the doctor to be sent for, but she did ask Dolly to fetch her husband. Dolly ran down to the master in his study, where he was making an early start on his day's work. He told her to straighten her collar--she wore a blue dress with a white collar when she was working--then he climbed the narrow stairs to his wife's room and went up to the bed. He spoke her name: "Em, Em--don't you know me?" But she was already unconscious, and within minutes she had stopped breathing. Emma Hardy was dead.

This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet.

And then:

Filled with sorrow and remorse for their estrangement, he had her body brought down and placed in the coffin at the foot of his bed, where it remained for three days and nights until the funeral. The gesture would have been remarkable in a lover who could not bear to be parted from the body of his mistress, but for an elderly husband who had for years been on bad terms with his wife it seems almost monstrously unconventional, until you realise that he was thinking of his situation quite differently. He had become a lover in mourning.

The parallel between Hall and Hardy is unmistakable in the great poetry that followed their wives' deaths. Furthermore, Hall noted that he was born following the winds the same year Hardy died in January (and here I note almost nine months later on September 20, 1928). Indeed, he looked to Hardy's Emma poems in writing his own Jane poems.

The differences are striking, however. Whereas Thomas Hardy was estranged from Emma Hardy while in the same house, Donald Hall was in a loving and close relationship with Jane Kenyon. Jane had great love poetry written about her by a soulful poet, who loved her as she lived, and gave tribute to this love after her death.

Hall's and Kenyon's separation was in that their offices were as far apart as they could physically be in that same house: poetic solitude, distance for the sake of the creativity they had in their separate rooms--a creativity they could then share when not writing. Hall noted that where there were two in solitude, now there is one, and that being one in solitude is the worse. He spends his days writing letters, trying to write poetry, and taking walks and naps from time to time.


Using your RealPlayer, here is Donald Hall at the 2005 National Book Festival:

Donald Hall: Book Fest 05 Web Cast
(Duration 36:35)

Also at The Library of Congress site, is an excellent webography of Hall, with links to readings and interviews:

Donald Hall: Online Resources


Click on the picture of the book, to see a list of Donald Hall's works at the Houghtin Mifflin Books site:


The history of one's poetry is the history of gifts.
(Donald Hall, October 15, 2006)


Friday, October 13, 2006

David Kirby: his poetry, Kirbyisms, & video

by David Kirby

The Search for Baby Combover

        In Paris one night the doorbell rings,
        and there's this little guy, shaking like a leaf
        and going "uh-uh-uh-UNH-ah!" and his eyes get big
        and he raises his hands like a gospel singer
        and goes "UNH-ah-uh-uh-uh-UNH-uh-ah!"

        and for just a fraction of a second I think
        he's doing the first part of Wilson Pickett's
        "Land of a Thousand Dances" and he wants me
        to join him in some kind of weird welcome
        to the neighborhood, so I raise my hands a little

        and begin to sort of hum along, though
        not very loudly in case I'm wrong about this,
        and I'm smiling the way old people smile
        when they can't hear you but want you to know
        that everything's okay as far as they're concerned

        or a poet smiles in a roomful of scientists,
        as if to say, "Hey! I'm just a poet!
        But your data's great, really! Even if
        I don't understand it!" And by the time
        I start to half-wonder if this gentleman wants me

        to take the you-got-to-know-how-to-pony part
        or means to launch into it himself, he gives
        a little hop and slaps his hands down to his sides
        and says, "PLEASE! YOU MUST NOT MOVE

        so I lower my own hands and say, "Whaaaa...?"
        And he says, "ALWAYS YOU ARE MOVING IT WHEN
        And now that he's feeling a little bolder,
        he steps in closer, where the light's better,

        and I see he's got something on his head,
        like strands of oily seaweed, something
        you'd expect to find on a rock after one of
        those big tanker spills in the Channel,
        so I lean a little bit and realize it's what

        stylists call a "combover," not a bad idea
        on the tall fellows but definitely a grooming no-no
        for your vertically-challenged caballeros,
        of which Monsieur here is certainly one,
        especially if they are yelling at you.

        But I'd read an article about AA that said
        when your loved ones stage an intervention
        and go off on you for getting drunk
        and busting up the furniture and running out
        into traffic and threatening to kill the President,

        it's better to just let them wind down
        and then say, "You're probably right,"
        because if you're combative, they will be, too,
        and then your problems will just start over again,
        so I wait till Mr. Combover--it's not nice, I know,

        but it's the first name that comes to mind--stops shaking,
        and I say, "You're probably right," and he raises
        a finger and opens his mouth as if to say something
        but then snaps his jaw shut and whirls around
        and marches downstairs, skidding a little

        and windmilling his arms and almost falling
        but catching himself, though not without
        that indignant backward glance we all give
        the stupid step that some stupid idiot would have
        attended to long ago if he hadn't been so stupid.

        The next day, I ask Nadine the gardienne
        qu'est-ce que c'est the deal avec the monsieur
        qui lives under moi, and Nadine says his femme
        is toujours busting his chops, but il est afraid
        of her, so il takes out his rage on the rest of nous.

        There's something else, though: a few days later,
        Barbara and I see Mr. and Mrs. Combover
        crossing the Pont Marie, and she is a virtual giantess
        compared to him! Now I remember once hearing Barbara
        give boyfriend advice to this niece of mine,

        and Barbara said (1) he's got to have a job,
        (2) he's got to tell you you're beautiful all the time,
        and (3) he's got to be taller than you are,
        so when I see Mrs. Combover looming over her hubby,
        I think, Well, that explains the busted chops.

        Not only that, Mrs. Combover looks cheap.
        She looks rich, sure--Nadine had told me Monsieur
        is some sorte de diplomat avec the Chilean delegation--
        but also like one of those professional ladies
        offering her services up around the Rue St. Denis.

        But who are they, really? "Combover" is one
        of those names from a fifties black-and-white movie;
        he's the kind of guy neighborhood kids call "Mr. C."
        and who has a boss who says things like, "Now see here,
        Combover, this sort of thing just won't do!"

        He's like one of Dagwood's unnamed colleagues--
        he's not even Dagwood, who at least excites
        Mr. Dithers enough to be fired a couple
        of times a week, not to mention severely beaten.
        Only Dagwood is really in charge. Everything goes his way!

        Despite cronic incompetence, ol' Dag keeps
        the job that allows him his fabulous home life:
        long naps, towering sandwiches, affectionate
        and well-behaved teenaged children, a loyal dog,
        and, best of all, the love of Blondie.

        Blondie! The name says it all: glamorous but fun.
        Big Trashy Mrs. Combover is not glamorous,
        although she thinks she is, and no fun at all.
        She is the anti-Blondie. Her job seems to be
        to stay home and smoke, since we're always smelling

        the cigarette fumes that seep up though the floor
        into our apartment day and night. And he says
        we're keeping Baby Combover awake when we move
        the furniture, which we've never done, but then
        we've never seen Baby Combover, either. Or heard him.

        Baby Combover: the world's first silent baby.
        Barbara has this theory that, after a life
        of prostitution, Mrs. Combover has not only repented but
        undergone a false pregnancy and imaginary birth.
        Therefore, the reason why Baby Combover is silent

        is that he is not a real baby who fusses and eats and
        wets and poops but is instead a pillowcase with knots
        for ears and a smiley-face drawn with a Magic Marker and
        a hole for its mouth so Mrs. Combover can teach it
        to smoke when it's older, like eight, say.

        Now I know what they fight about: "You never spend
        any time with the babyl" hisses Mrs. Combover.
        "I will--when he's older and can talk!" says Mr. Combover.
        "Here I am stuck with this baby all day long!
        And those horrible people upstairs!"

        And he says, "Oh, be silent, you... prostitute!"
        And she says, "Quiet, you horrible man--
        not in front of the child!" Maybe it's time
        for a call to the police. Or the newspapers.
        I can see the headlines: OU EST LE PETIT ENFANT COMBOVER?

        I feel sorry for him. With parents like this,
        it would be better if someone were to kidnap him.
        Or I could take him back to America with me,
        I who have a wife who loves me and two grown sons.
        Why not? We've got all this extra room now.

        We'll feed him a lot and tickle him;
        there's nothing funnier than a fat, happy baby.
        And when the boys come home to visit,
        they'll take him out with them in their sports cars:
        "It's my little brother!" they'll say. "He's French!"

        The neighborhood kids, once a band of sullen mendicants,
        will beg us to let him play with them,
        even though he doesn't speak their language.
        Look! There they go toward the baseball field,
        with Baby Combover under their arm!

        I love you, Baby Combover! You are Joseph Campbell's
        classic mythical hero, i.e., "an agent of change
        who relinquishes self-interest and breaks down
        the established social order." But you're so pale!
        You've stayed out too long and caught cold.

        Barbara and the boys gather around his bed;
        they hug each other, and we try not to cry.
        Baby Combover is smiling--he always smiled, that kid.
        His little mouth begins to move, and we lean in
        and think we hear him say, "Be bwave fo' me."

        Back in Paris, Mr. Combover grows a full head of hair.
        Mrs. Combover reaches up to touch it.
        He puts down his attaché case and caresses her cheek.
        "How beautiful you are!" he says. It's so quiet now.
        Then they hear it: in the next room, a child is crying.

        brought to you with the poet's gracious consent


David Kirby, who grew up in Baton Rouge, is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. The latest news on his work is that, for the third time a poem by him, "Seventeen Ways from Tuesday", has made the pages of Best American Poetry. He is also currently judging for the InterBoard Poetry Community.

For more profile on him, see this page of The Chelsea Forum:

        David Kirby;

where Andy Brumer is quoted in a New York Times item, saying:

The stream-of-consciousness and jazz-based rhythms of Kerouac and Ginsberg meet the surreal, philosophical musings of Wallace Stevens, with an occasional dose of cathartic confessionalism à la Robert Lowell.

A current profile, with a webography that includes links to his poetry, is at About Poetry:

        David Kirby;

where we find:

He has two books forthcoming in 2007, The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems (also by LSU Press) and an essay collection entitled Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, The Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa Of Avila, And 17 Other Colossal Topics Of Conversation (University of Georgia Press).

To visit his web site, click his logo:



He is also a writer for the New York Times. You can find his articles here:

        NYT Archive: "By David Kirby"

In those articles, we find what may be called Kirbyisms, sayings about poetry and life, said at just the right time, in only the way David Kirby can, or would as the good professor in him comes to the fore. Here are some:


In poetry, the first-person pronoun is simply more reader-friendly. It’s like a knock on an office door that’s already open. You didn’t have to knock, but if you had just started talking, it might have been awkward, and your listener might not have responded.

from Dreams, Trees, Grief, August 20, 2006


There is a brash, exuberant poetry being written in America these days, a long-lined, many-paged, pyrotechnic verse that would have its daddy, Walt Whitman, slapping his slouch hat against his leg and chortling with unbridled glee.

from The Biggest Little Poems, December 18, 2005


But of course there is no real competition between the Whitman who boasted "I am large, I contain multitudes" and the Dickinson whose niece Martha reported that her aunt once pretended to lock the door to her bedroom and pocket an imaginary key, saying, "Mattie, here's freedom."

from The Biggest Little Poems, December 18, 2005


You're having a cup of coffee, and bang! It's your neighbor, putting his car in the garage. Unfortunately, it's your garage and the door was down. This could be the beginning of a lawsuit--or a poem.

from 'Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos' and 'Into It': The Double, September 25, 2005


Undergraduate writing programs probably send as many students to law schools as they do to M.F.A. programs. Makes sense: whether you're writing a brief or a sonnet, you're gathering material, thinking about the order you're putting it in, adjusting tone to make the right impact.

from 'Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos' and 'Into It': The Double, September 25, 2005


"Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet," Clarence Darrow said, but in recent times there have been efforts to encourage the two professions to coexist peacefully.

from 'Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos' and 'Into It': The Double, September 25, 2005


The lawyers can't stop the doomsday machine, even if they want to. And the poets can only write about it.

from 'Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos' and 'Into It': The Double, September 25, 2005


Yes, the world is one big banana peel, and if we don't know that we've got one foot on it, it's because we're not looking down: the goat (actually, it's a heifer) on Keats's immortal urn is being led to slaughter, wildflowers nourish killer bees, the South's sylvan meadows were once battlefields soaked in blood.

from 'Luck Is Luck': Intimations of Mortality, April 10, 2005


Our parents go through all this before we do; the man who used to take us on his back is bent and gray now, and the woman our friends thought sexy spends her days in a chair. We're following a curriculum that, if we're lucky, leads us to accept our lives, and that consists in part of observing our parents as they learn to accept theirs.

from 'Luck Is Luck': Intimations of Mortality, April 10, 2005


If poetry is as much a state of mind as it is an assortment of black marks on white pages, then it resides in that intimate space between the world and those who observe it.

from 'Danger on Peaks': Ars Longa, Vita Longa, November 21, 2004


Yesterday's hippies are now gray-haired and prosperous and probably not reading much poetry.

from 'Danger on Peaks': Ars Longa, Vita Longa, November 21, 2004


The adage "when in Rome" has always been good advice for foreign travelers. But finding out what, exactly, the Romans do--let alone how to emulate them without making a fool of yourself--is not always easy.

from For Social Slips, Anti-Skid Books, October 3, 2004


If you want to make friends, a smile will always be understood.

from For Social Slips, Anti-Skid Books, October 3, 2004


Poetry can't fix everything, and maybe it can't even fix anything. Yet it lets us see and sometimes even understand.

from Moe, Larry and Bertolucci, May 2, 2004


Pound and Monroe were the Lennon and McCartney of their shared enterprise, the one skirting the shoreline of art as the other steered toward the stream's middle; the impresario and the editor were bound to part, and not happily.

from Poets Behaving Badly, December 1, 2002


All writers think of themselves as superior to the competition, and so it is with a certain amount of malicious glee that one encounters the thunderings of poets who today are more or less nobodies, the John G. Neihardts and John Gould Fletchers who howl with fury at having to appear alongside those they consider their inferiors.

from Poets Behaving Badly, December 1, 2002


Kirby Audio/Video

Listen to David Kirby read his poetry, and his love of travel becomes evident. In fact, as I write, this Southern American is on sabbatical leave in France. Through the sounds of his poetry, he gives us the world to travel, with its accents and lingo, but also the vocalizations from--for a different example--young hip hop artists. In this sense, his is an audio world for poetry.

Below are two poetry readings by him available on the web that will use your RealPlayer. The first is close to a half hour in length, and is from from the Library of Congress's web pages of the 2005 National Book Festival. The fourth of the four poems he read there, "The Search for Baby Combover" feature above, from his book The Ha-Ha, is a favorite among the young men of high schools, to read for, and win, Poetry Out Loud competitions across America. Click on his picture to view this webcast:

Duration 28:25

Click the picture of his Big-Leg Music book, to get a RealAudio presentation from his web site, with graphics, of David reading his poem "Your Momma Says Omnia Vincit Amor", wherein music overlays the world of language, this world travelled through poetry.

Duration 2:15


David Kirby Books

Books by him are available here:

BestPrices.Com: David Kirby Books


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ko Un

Born in 1933, Ko Un is a former Zen monk, a former prisoner, and a poet. Here we sample from, his web site:

Ko Un

There, on the page called "Ko Un on Ko Un", he writes:

For instance, who today would contradict someone who insists that the death of codes brings life to a poem, as in the case of the different numbers on freight trains waiting in line at Daejeon Station, whose numbers are no longer a code but a poem.

It is in this context that I reject the recent trend of interpreting a poem as text. There is no such thing as a poem that can simply be seen as a text. No poem can stay on a desk or an Internet screen. Poems do not exist in material anthologies.

The universe and space, the imensities of time are the stage for poems. Even a very short love song or elegy is a poem of the universe. That explains why poems should faithfully fulfill their public obligations to the world.

On the page "Who is Ko Un?", Robert Hass has written:

Ko Un is a remarkable poet and one of the heroes of human freedom in this half century, a religious poet who got tangled by accident in the terrible accidents of modern history. But he is somebody who has been equal to the task, a feat rare among human beings.

On the "Chronology" page, after a section on Ko Un's former lives, we find this for the year 1942:

By the time he was eight, he had already studied classical Chinese texts that even much older children usually had difficulty in mastering. In 1942 when he was in grade three, his Japanese headmaster asked him what he hoped to become in the future and got the answer, 'The Emperor of Japan.' Ko Un was severely punished for this effrontery.

And this for the year 1952:

Before the war was over, in 1952, he joined the Buddhist clergy and became the recognized disciple of the great monk Hyobong. For the next ten years he lived a life of Zen meditation, always on the move. He traveled the whole country, living by alms.

From his page "What They Say About Ko Un", we are linked here to discover three of his poems:

Words Without Borders: Ko Un

and find a link to this, copied from Korean Culture Magazine from Spring 1999:

and this, copied from The Washington Post's "Poet's Choice" of January 4, 1998; which contains the poem "The woman from Sonjae" by Ko Un, translated by Brother Anthony of Taiza and Young Moo-Kim, and with discussion by Robert Hass:

He has several more sections, but the one I especially want to note is "Works in Translation" where at each translated compilation's page, there are poems that pop up with a click into windows that perfectly fit the poem on its nicely done background. For instance, from Beyond Self--108 Korean Zen Poems pops


and from Morning Dew pops



Here are his most recent poetry volumes, translated into English:

Flowers of a Moment (2006)

The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems (2006)

Ten Thousand Lives (2005)


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