Book Report: Harvest Poems 1910-1960 by Carl Sandburg (1960)

I read this collection of poems at my son. I say “at” instead of “to” because he’s getting mobile and is no longer a captive audience. Still, I pick the book up and read it at him as he plays so he can hear my voice.

Wow, I’ve read McKuen, Cohen, Dickinson, and L’Engle in the last couple of years. I’ve also worked on a small survey of John Donne (yet to be completed). In doing so, I’ve really missed out on good poetry with rhythm. These poems by Sandburg direct your cadence and really are fun to read. The turns of phrases make me pause and remember them so I can say them aloud and sound smart. As a matter of fact, I’ve used several lines from Sandburg as IM statuses, so that indicates how clever and insightful I think they are.

As its title suggests, this book collects poems from over 50 years, but most of them come from before the depression, when the poet lamenting war was still referring to World War I. Sandburg’s themes include a sort of homily to the common man in the Midwest, a distaste for war, and a belief in God. The charged themes are handled lightly enough that they’re observations and not proselytization. So they’re palatable where we differ.

As I said, this is a collection taken from several books, so it’s a step up from the poems from an author you’d find in an anthology (Yes, “Grass” is in here as is “Fog”). So if you’ve liked Sandburg from the anthologies, check this book out and see if you like the rest. Me, I liked this work so much that I’m going to look for the complete collections from which these poems were selected, and I’m also almost inspired to actually write more poetry.

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Wooing With Insect-Based Love Poetry

John Donne, “The Flea”:

    MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
    How little that which thou deniest me is;
    It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
    And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
    Thou know’st that this cannot be said
    A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
        Yet this enjoys before it woo,
        And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;
        And this, alas! is more than we would do.

    O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
    Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
    This flea is you and I, and this
    Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
    Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
    And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
        Though use make you apt to kill me,
        Let not to that self-murder added be,
        And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

    Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
    Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
    Wherein could this flea guilty be,
    Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
    Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
    Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
    ‘Tis true ; then learn how false fears be;
    Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Yeah, calling a woman flea-bitten has always worked for me.

(More John Donne here.)

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Fifth Floor Eyes

A compatriot and I at work often stand at the window and look down at Washington Avenue, five stories below, to take a break from our work. Once, when I was a young man, I wrote the following sonnet about a similar situation, watching the kids (women to me then, but we were all kids) walking along the college malls:

Fifth Floor Eyes

With bouncy strides of legs just lightly tanned,
you walk below my watching third floor eyes.
A gentle wind moves silently and dies;
you brush some wayward hair with careless hand.
Your lips, marooned with hasty morning care,
are framing hinted teeth in sudden joy
and move in greeting of some passing boy,
the words sweet notes unheard in summer air.
Your dark sunglasses never flash my way,
and you continue on toward a class,
or maybe to your dorm–I’ll never know.
For sixty stairs is much too far away,
so silently I let you swiftly pass,
invisibly about my way I go.

Whoa, we’ve got subtle allusions to Shelley and Blake in there, don’t we? I am a far distance away from reading those authors in my Romantic Poets classes and whatnot. I published that poem in my 1995 chapbook Deep Blue Shadows. My second chapbook came a year after the first (Unrequited, 1994), and altough I started mocking one up in the late 1990s (Flipside Id), I have yet to finish it.

Flipping through the chapbook, I note that it’s a hastily-composed bit designed when I was restless and worried that I wasn’t going anywhere as a poet. With its contents, I can see why, although in the period of 1996-1997 I would write some of my best work, yet unpublished.

Also, regardless of my merit in structured poetry, much of my free verse is crap. Which is par for that form.

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Book Report: Come to Me in Silence by Rod McKuen (1973)

With each one of these books, his About the Author section gets longer and more full of world-beating achievements. Too bad I’m the only one bothering to read him 35 years later.

But this book is better than Fields of Wonder, probably because it deals with burying people under those fields instead of burying bits of McKuen in women he’s known.

Would I recommend it? No.

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Book Report: Fields of Wonder by Rod McKuen (1971)

Man, no one can make the quest for sex true love seem as banal as Rod McKuen over the course of several books. I had nice things to say about In Someone’s Shadow; I endured Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows. But this book? Blech.

I started reading this to my poor son, but his mother heard the first couple of lines of the first poem:

I began by loving nobody.

Then nobody’s face
became the face of many
as I traveled not to Tiburon or Tuscany
but battled back and forth between the breasts and thighs
of those who fancied for a time
my forelock and my foreskin.

Well, I guess that is a bit graphic. But it’s not sexy; it’s the banal wanderings of a poet narrator beginning the 1970s hangover to the era of free love. Worse, it’s the pseudo-stylings of a longing romantic who seems to be longing for a collection of faceless body parts in his quest for real love or real feeling.

The clever turns of phrase I thought were present in In Someone’s Shadow? Nothing. Sure, these poems are as accessible as regular prose without the line breaks, but I didn’t want to.

Worst of all, I have a couple more of these books left.

Oddly enough, the course of these books makes me more tolerant of Emily Dickinson’s misfires. Over the course of the 1,775 poems collected in the volume I’ve been wading through for over a decade, Dickinson’s pieces run the gamut from simplistic to inscrutable to wow, but her average seems slightly better than McKuen at this point.

Which is why she was taught, almost, in college in the early 1990s, some 130 years after she wrote most of her poems, and Rod McKuen was not, some 20 years after he became an industry unto himself.

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Book Report: Robert Frost by Lawrance Thompson (1959, 1963)

Well, this book has certainly held up its cover price well. Sold in the middle nineteen sixties for a cover price of 65 cents, I bought it last weekend at a small book fair in the gymnasium of a small local Catholic church/school for fifty cents because it’s a paperback (hardbacks were a whole dollar). Aside from cars and homes from 1959, there’s probably not much that would have retained resale value like this volume.

Did I say volume? I meant pamphlet. This particular item represents #2 in a series by University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers. Its chapbook (5.5″ by 8″) format comprises 41 pages of text, saddle-stapled. So don’t think I labored over it for weeks. A couple of nights at 20 pages per night. I probably spent more time on Robert Frost’s In the Clearing when I read it (Two years ago? Already?).

Essentially, this volume presents one critical essay that includes some of Frost’s life and an interpretation of his work through 1959 (which did not include In The Clearing) in terms of its inherent contradictions between a heretic and his Puritanical upbringing who believes in the design of an angry God. Or at least a God whose workings are limited and inconsistent to the understanding of Man.

A good pick up for fifty cents, particularly if you like or read Frost. As any bit of criticism, it’s a level removed from what you get if you directly read the poetry, but if you’re like me, you encounter the poetry amongst the maelstrom of daily life and daily stresses–two years ago sometimes. A brief critical interlude, from someone who’s only life’s work was to read Frost’s material in its obra and to comment on it, can provide some additional food for thought. Not that I think it should replace your reading of the original or supplant your interpretations thereof. But it’s grist for the mill, or some other metaphor more relevant to the twenty-first century.

Apparently, this Thompson guy (the author) is the real deal, too. A quick perusal on Amazon of his works indicates a large body of work in covering Frost. Most came after this work, but it’s the same guy.

It’s only this particular volume that came out during the Eisenhower administration and was reprinted until Kennedy got shot. A later edition came out in the Johnson years. Sorry, sometimes I measure these books in their historical context for my own amusement.

Worth fifty cents? Why not? I’m a special sort of consumer for used books, and I don’t think I wasted my time or energy on this book. I bought three others in the series, so time will tell what I think of them. But this book did not discourage me.

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Like the Man Said

Robert Frost:

SOME say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

As Robert Frost was from New England, of course he wouldn’t initially think that ice and snow were threatening enough to end the world. But he never lived in Missouri.

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Book Report: Mine the Harvest by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1954)

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister Norma published this book after Ms. Millay died, so its works contain a gamut of the good to the filler material selected from the poet’s incomplete or unpublished work. Oddly, the linked Amazon listing says that the first edition is 1949; however, the stated first edition I have has a 1954 copyright. Perhaps Norma was just planning ahead.

I paid $10 for this stated first edition at Hooked on Books in Springfield, and it’s a former library book. That said, perhaps it’s only worth ten bucks to me, but I’ve enjoyed Ms. Millay’s work since college. Actually, in college I read a great deal of her work and her biographies and whatnot. Early in our relationship, I gave Heather a collection of Millay’s sonnets. So let’s just establish that I am somewhat biased.

In this volume, Millay’s thoughts muse more on death than on love, partially accountable to her advancing age and partially accountable, I would expect, to her sister’s selection for poignancy. But Millay can still turn a phrase, and the poems within this volume which are not incisive nor insightful are tolerable, which puts her in an upper league on merely that account. A couple of memorable lines in decent poems scream for quotation, and I’ll reread the book in the future and will enjoy it then, too.

So it’s probably worth the ten dollars even though I never attended Albernathy High School nor used its library. It’s mine now.

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Book Report: The Weather of the Heart by Madeleine L’Engle (1978)

I bought this book from the local library’s discard pile for a quarter because I recognized the name and because I recognize that I don’t get enough poetry in my reading diet. Reading this book didn’t really change that anemia.

The first poems in the book, including “Within This Quickened Dust”, “To a Long Loved Love” (1-7), and “Lovers Apart”, dealt with concrete images dealing with common themes in poetry. Their language was descriptive and evocative.

Unfortunately, she too soon declines to abstractions meant to evoke abstractions, particularly her love of God. She even evokes Emily Dickinson about three poems after I unfavorably compared the two. L’Engle’s poems deal with similar subjects and have similar layers of abstractions twisting upon themselves, but when the poems start out bad, they end bad; with Emily Dickinson, they might be unfathomable, but sometimes a turn of phrase embedded within the poem can redeem the poems. Not so with L’Engle. Which made them easier to read, or more to the point, easier to scan and forget.

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A Carved Tree

Perhaps it’s the end of the year and time to just dump old DOC files that I converted from WPS files which I converted from the original LotusWorks files I created in my prolific college period, but since I saw Edmund Spenser’s “One day I wrote her name upon the strand” over at Pejmanesque, I thought it only fitting to present my responses:

A Carved Tree (I)
Copyright 1991 Brian J. Noggle, you illegal poem-sharing rabble

One day I carved her name into a tree
with mine inside a Cupid-arrowed heart.
When I had closed my knife, she checked my art,
and shook her head, and then she looked at me.
“Now why’d you come and maim this oak?” asked she.
“Here in the woods, it lived its life apart,
but now the awful manly meddlings start.
This tree will never have its privacy.”
“I maimed this oak so everyone could see
our names as linked for all Eternity,
and I must admit to you, my deified,
I like our love like this, objectified,
so that it’s not another petty ‘love’,
but like a natural law passed from above.”

A Carved Tree (II)
Also Copyright 1991 Brian J. Noggle,
so don’t repost without permission, Harvey

This quiet spot, beneath this ancient oak,
is where I come to think on brooding days.
The open sky is blue and mocks the strays
that cower underneath the leafy cloak.
I sit and sip my slowly warming Coke,
and stumble through my memory, a maze
of many cul-de-sacs of yesterdays.
I remember how, beneath this tree, we spoke….
Above my head, carved by my careful hand,
the heart and letters of a “Brian and ….”
I remember once, the reckless words I said,
in love’s embrace of sweetly muddled head.
With human eyes, a truth is now revealed:
That higher laws can also be repealed.

UPDATE: This poem, and many others, are available in my 2018 collection Coffee House Memories.

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Okauchee Light

Wandering into the dark kitchen, I saw that a neighbor had left its back porch light on, and it reminded me of a poem I had written when I was younger:

    Okauchee Light

    Across the dark Okauchee lake, a light,
    the marker for the end of someone’s dock,
    is strangely lit at nearly twelve o’clock
    and breaks the solid black that is the night.
    From here, across the chilling April lake,
    through busy bar room glass I see that glow,
    but life or rooms beyond I’ll never know.
    One light does not a utopia make.
    Quite like your smile, that single man-made star:
    Up there, on stage, you flash a smile at me,
    and crinkle eyes to give the gesture weight,
    but like the dock-end light, you are too far;
    your glow is there for someone else to see,
    and now, for me at least, it is too late.

I wrote about the keyboardist in the band my friends and I followed around Milwaukee as they played the fairs and bars. Acourse, as an English major, I felt damn proud to mirror The Great Gatsby with the whole bit. Man, I was the little sonnet slut then, casting off fourteen liners at the slightest provocation.

Remember, friends, this piece is copyright 1991(?) Brian J. Noggle, and you’ve got to click that little Contact link below and beg offer me scads of money ask for permission to repost.

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Thank Goodness for Concealed Carry

Emily Dickinson, Poem 551:

There is a Shame of Nobleness —
Confronting Sudden Pelf —
A finer Shame of Ecstasy —
Convicted of Itself —

A best Disgrace — a Brave Man feels —
Acknowledged — of the Brave —
One More — “Ye Blessed” — to be told —
But that’s — Behind the Grave —

Crikey on a cracker, if ever there’s a time for footnotes, explaining to this forelorn and slightly half-baked poetical sojourner what the devil Pelf means is it.

I have but one vow: if I’m ever confronted by a sudden Pelf, the damn Pelf will get the worst of it.

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Brian Misses Hockey

Emily Dickinson, Poem 544, circa 1862:

The Martyr Poets — did not tell —
But wrought their Pang in syllable —
That when their mortal name be numb —
Their mortal fate — encourage Some —

The Martyr Painters — never spoke —
Bequeathing — rather — to their Work —
That when their conscious fingers cease —
Some seek in Art — the Art of Peace —

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I Came Not To Fisk Whitman; It Just Happened

The world-famous DC from Brainstorming, who also appeared on the Hugh Hewitt show this evening (even if Instapundit overlooks it, we know), asks why I didn’t want to be associated with Walt Whitman.

The backstory: I took a Quizilla quiz that asked what poet I was. I wasn’t Walt Whitman, and I said I was glad I wasn’t. DC took the same quiz and was. And she wondered why I said I didn’t like Walt Whitman.

I don’t find his poetry very vivid. Certainly, most of it seems to have a point, which Whitman doesn’t hide. As a matter of fact, he pretty much delivers a non-rhyming lecture with line breaks. Let’s take DC’s favorite Whitman piece, and let’s color code it. Blue is show, which means an image or other sensory material; green is tell, which is discussing abstractions:

O Me! O Life!

O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless–of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light?of the objects mean?of the struggle ever renew?d;
Of the poor results of all–of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest–with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring–What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here?that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

You see, I am reduced to coloring the blooming concrete nouns to find images and turns of phrase. The rest, chatter.

Personally, when it comes to poetry, I prefer structured poetry to free verse. So let’s take a quick gander at something from my personal favorite poet (aside from my beautiful wife and, well, me, of course), Edna St. Vincent Millay:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

The concrete images resonate at a lower level than abstractions, and the reader makes the connections and draws the higher meaning for himself, which resonates more deeply than a series of things we know, but cannot see or feel.

(Thanks to Lex Libertas, another conservative poetry lover, who led posted a pile of Millay’s poetry.)

As I said, I like structured poetry better than free verse (although not exclusively). I prefer to see a poet struggle against the bonds of tradition, and make the poem worthwhile. So it’s no surprise that I work in the sonnet form like my patron saint:

It’s always more than sex to sleep with you.
Don’t get me wrong; I like to tangle sheets
and hungry scents and taste the salty dew
of glistening sweat where heavy brow meets
soft eyelids closed, relaxed. I’ll kiss them, too,
and sample other slow seduction sweets.
But I run out of juice, won’t thump my chest
and say I don’t, and so I like the rest:
I like to lie, arms wrapped around you, deep
in comfortable darkness where the moon projects
odd patterns on the walls. I want to keep
you safe and warm as winter licks our necks.
You mumble love and slowly fall asleep;
these moments worth much more than simple sex.

You can mentally add your own blue or green highlighting to it. But keep in mind, it’s not public domain, and I better not Google it and find other hits, or I will kick your ass (don’t worry; if you don’t own a donkey, one will be provided for you).

To make a short story long, I don’t like Whitman because his poems don’t contain the things I value in poetry. Imagery, concrete sensational phrases, and/or structure.

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