Monthly Archives: May 2018


Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

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The Guitar

Federico García Lorca, 1898 – 1936

The GuitarThe weeping of the guitar
The goblets of dawn
are smashed.
The weeping of the guitar
to silence it.
to silence it.
It weeps monotonously
as water weeps
as the wind weeps
over snowfields.
to silence it.
It weeps for distant
Hot southern sands
yearning for white camellias.
Weeps arrow without target
evening without morning
and the first dead bird
on the branch.
Oh, guitar!
Heart mortally wounded
by five swords.
On June 28 we will read and discuss poetry inspired by music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.

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Danse Macabre (Memento Mori)

Danse MacabreThe above image is an anonymous German engraving from 1635. An hourglass rests by the back foot of the smiling skeleton. A broken arrow sits beside it and there is another one in the quiver. It was a piece of art designed to hang at eye level so that the arrow—the one locked and loaded into the crossbow—was pointing directly at the viewer. In very old French, the inscription reads:

“Ma flesche (asseure toy) n’espargnera personne

Vous danserez trestout ce balet, que je sonnne”

( “My arrow (I promise you) spares no one

You will all dance the ballet of which I sing”)

Danse Macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra, written in 1874 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It started out in 1872 as an art song for voice and piano with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis, which is based on an old French superstition. The text comes from the poem “Égalité, Fraternité…”, part of Jean Lahor’s (a pseudonym of Henri Cazalis) “l’Illusion”. An English translation of the poem follows:
Danse Macabre

Zig and zig and zig, Death rhythmically

Taps upon a tomb with his heel;

Death at midnight plays a dance air,

Zig and zig and zig on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is gloomy,

Groaning comes from the lime trees;

White skeletons move through the shadows,

Running and jumping under their large shrouds.
Zig and zig and zig, everyone is moving,

We hear the bones of the dancers banging,

A lascivious couple sits upon the moss

As if to taste ancient pleasures again.
Zig and zig and zag, Death continues,

Scraping without end his harsh-sounding violin.

A veil has fallen! The dancer is nude!

Her partner squeezes her amorously.
The lady is said to be a marchioness or baroness,

And the crude gallant a poor cartwright —

Horrors! And look, she gives herself to him

As though the churl were a baron!
Zig and zig and zig, what a saraband!

What circles of the dead, all holding hands!

Zig and zig and zag, we see in the crowd

King frolicking with peasant!
But shh! Suddenly the dance is over,

one pushes, one takes flight: the rooster has crowed;

Oh! A beautiful night for the poor world!

And long live Death and Equality!
Listen to Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà play Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by a piece of music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.


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NYT Magazine’s Rita Dove on what poetry might grant unsuspecting news readers

By Brendan Fitzgerald, CJR

Rita DoveThe New York Times Magazine recently appointed Dove—the author of numerous poetry collections and the recipient of many national awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Humanities Medal, and a National Medal of Arts—to the position of poetry editor. Dove is the fourth poet to hold the position, which was created after Jake Silverstein became the magazine’s editor in 2014. She will succeed Terrance Hayes in July, at which time her poetry selections will begin to run alongside the magazine’s journalism. “I’m already beginning to be inundated with books from publishers,” says Dove. “But I can choose whatever I want.”
Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her poem “Testimonial,” from the collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks, is painted in full on a brick wall near the University of Virginia, where she has taught since 1989. A line from the poem runs across a larger, adjacent mural: “the world called, and I answered.”

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The First Epic Poem: The Descent of Inanna

Dr Oliver Tearle

The First Epic PoemWhat’s the oldest epic poem in the world? Did it all begin with Homer’s Iliad? In one sense, we can grant this as an acceptable proposition, but if we wish to trace the true origins of ‘the epic’ as a literary form, we need to go back considerably further into the very hazy early years of literary history.
For the epic began in the Middle East with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of a Sumerian king who possesses seemingly inhuman strength and who meets his match in the mysterious figure of Enkidu; this poem also, notably, features the Flood motif we also find in the Book of Genesis. But even Gilgamesh wasn’t the first epic. That honour should probably go to The Descent of Inanna.
The Descent of Inanna describes, as the title suggests, the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld – Inanna being the daughter of Nanna, and the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and wisdom, among other things. Although The Descent of Inanna is a short work (it runs to little over 400 lines, making it a little shorter than a poem like The Waste Land), it contains many of the elements we associate with epic poetry (such as the descent into the underworld), and elements of the story are found in the later myths of the descent of Ishtar and the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. You can read a modern English translation of The Descent of Inanna here.
Read the complete excerpt from The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.

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by Robert Lowell

FOR SHERIDANWe only live between

before we are and what we were.
In the lost negative

you exist,

a smile, a cypher

on old-fashioned face

in an old-fashioned hat.
Three ages in a flash:

the same child in the same picture,

he, I, you,

chockablock, one stamp

like mother’s wedding silver—
gnome, fish, brute cherubic force.
We could see clearly

and all the same things

before the glass was hurt.
Past fifty, we learn with surprise and a sense

of suicidal absolution

that what we intended and failed

could never have happened—

and must be done better.

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Miles WeepingTo hear Miles weep

  for the first time, the notes bent

  back into his spent frame to keep

  them from soaring away-

I had to click the phonograph off

  and hug myself to stop the shaking.

  I’d recognized a human cry

  beyond any longing given a name.

If ever he let go that grief

  he might not touch his horn again.

  That cry rose in another country,

  full-throated in awkward English.

I still have the envelope, unstamped,

  addressed to “Mother/Father,” its oily

  scrap of paper torn from a primer,

  the characters like the inky

root-hairs scrawling the washed-out soil.

  Lek-every boy’s nickname-

  wrote he was “to be up against,”

  meaning, I guess, that his future

was end-stopped, one unbroken line

  of tabletops waiting to be wiped.

  He’d walked miles along the coast

  to find us combing the beach, then

stood, little Buddhist, with bowed head

  while we read his letter, composed

  with the help of the schoolmaster.

  How could we deny the yearning

ambition to abandon the impossible

  land of his fathers, to begin again?

  We could only refuse in a silent way.

  When someone asked Miles Davis

why he wouldn’t play ballads anymore,

  he replied, “Because I love them too much.”

  All that we never say to each other.

  The intimacies we can’t complete.

Those ineluctable fragments. To be up against.
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by a piece of music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.
Listen to Miles Davis play Milestones

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Ian Hamilton’s collected poems are a source of wonder

Ian Hamilton influenced a generation of writers, including McEwan and Amis. Christopher Tayler admires a collection of his poetry.

Ian Hamilton's collected poemsIan Hamilton’s Collected Poems, published in paperback this month, is what the poet, who died at the age of 63 in 2001, sometimes called a “slim vol”. The meat of it – the poems he put between hard covers in his lifetime – takes up 62 pages; only one poem, a part-pastiche called “Larkinesque”, runs to more than a page. For Hamilton as a “creative” writer, narrowly defined, that was it. “Not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think,” he wrote in 1988. “And, in certain moods, I would agree.”
Yet these sorrowing, hard-bitten poems about dying fathers, mad wives and the rigours of the writing life, darkly impressive and moving as they are, get added force from a wider myth around Hamilton, a myth in which their scarcity is the point. That myth – a skein of Grub Street lore involving booze, women, football, bailiffs and high-handed interactions with figures ranging from Stephen Spender to Ian McEwan – is also brooded over, sometimes covertly, sometimes less so, in his writings in prose, which are extensive, clever and very funny. Combined with his activities as the editor of, among other things, the best serious magazine of the Seventies, it all adds up to a body of work that makes him, it seems to me in certain moods, one of the most interesting figures in British cultural life in the second half of the 20th century.

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15 Wonderful Songs Inspired by Poets

By Nicole Rallis

15 Wonderful Songs Inspired by PoetsUnder the spell of verse, alliteration, rhyming and rhythm, musicians have long been enchanted by the masterminds behind poetry. Whether it be the mention of a poet’s name, appropriation of lines from their works, or some other tribute, literary references pervade many bands’ lyrics. It’s always inspiring to hear how one artist’s work can open the doors to creativity across other art forms, so throw on your headphones and dig out those poetry anthologies as we recount some killer music that was influenced by the likes of Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, and John Donne.
See the list and listen to the music
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.

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A Final Reminder About “Murder in the Cathedral”

Murder in the CathedralA final reminder that on this Thursday, May 24, Bill Ellis will lead a reading and discussion of T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.
Click here for the full text of Murder in the Cathedral
Click here to listen to an 11-episode radio play edition of Murder in the Cathedral. (other versions are also available on YouTube).
See also:

Cinema and Poetry: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral
Common Liberation – The Idea Of Salvation In The Plays Of T.S. Eliot

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