Category: Poetry

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A stylized shot of Hart Crane, author of "At Melville's Tomb".

The World and Its Overwhelm: Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb”

The world is not a painless place, especially if one is an artist. On one hand, artists are often inundated with rejection, and so they regularly feel misunderstood. Of course, this difficulty is in no way limited to artists, but for the sake of brevity, I will be focusing solely on the artistic mind. My initial intention was to write a distillation on Hart Crane, but I found myself distracted. Such vision requires a sharp set of eyes. And so, as result, I diverted my focus to where it wished to go. Hart Crane is good for discussion, since he is not only known for his so-called ‘difficult’ verse, but for his suicide, wherein he jumped off the side of a ship and plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico at age 32.

In many respects, this is a cliché—the tortured artist who dies young, but in the case of Hart Crane, it goes further. After all, 1932 was well in midst of the Great Depression, and many were struggling to find work. Bread lines, soup lines, foods were scarce. In addition, Crane was an alcoholic, his father’s business was failing, he was continually overwhelmed by his mother’s emotional needs, his homosexuality was a battle in a time more discriminatory, and would he have a job upon his return to the States? Amid such uncertainty, one can ascertain that all this grew into too much, and so Crane ended his life just before noon on April 26, 1932. He was tumultuous, troubled. Yet most accounts from those who knew him portray a gentle, albeit struggling soul who took on the burdens of others. Yet, despite his enormous talent, still this was not enough, as talent doesn’t guarantee love. People will still come and go, and for someone like Crane, the feeling of abandonment proved more than he could take. […]

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A painting of Hiawatha in silhouette by Thomas Eakins. The native chieftain was made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in "The Song of Hiawatha".

“The Song of Hiawatha”: Simplistic Folklore?

he peace-loving side of me greatly appreciates The Song of Hiawatha, written in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for the beautiful language and its conciliatory message by Hiawatha to his Native American brethren to accept the white man and his religion. My truthful side tells me that this poem has little to do with truth. Folklorist, Stith Thompson, said, “it is non-Indian in its totality,” and “the episodes (of Hiawatha) are but superficial.” So, I think what we have here is simplistic folklore for whatever it’s worth.

The poem was immediately a success for Longfellow when he published it. He sold 50,000 copies right off. The popularity of the piece with the public was there. Scholars had questions and doubts. Although Longfellow did have connections and input from Natives, it is important to note that even Longfellow admitted that Hiawatha was a fictional character. One of Longfellow’s main sources, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, has been criticized for mismanaging Native legend to suit his own tastes.

Do we have a white-acting Native in the person of Hiawatha? If we do, does that ruin any chance for redemption of The Song of Hiawatha? That depends on what you’re trying to get out of it. To take it as historical, is probably not a good bet. However, to take it as a beautiful and skillfully written piece of fiction, you might be able to pass muster. […]

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A winter castle, ostensibly where Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of his best poems.

Rilke’s Late Winter

Earlier this year, exactly one century ago, holed up in his tower at Muzot, Rainer Maria Rilke was besieged by an onrush of creativity that resulted in all fifty-five Sonnets to Orpheus as well as the long-sought-after completion of the Duino Elegies. An auspicious season for the poet, certainly, and one immortalized in poetic legendry – and I use that word on purpose, for while its historical occurrence is undeniable, Rilke’s constant invocation of the seemingly divine presence that inspired him (who first arrived to him in Duino Castle twelve years before, whispering that unforgettable opening line) wreaths this vital period in semi-mythic air.

Of the 20th century Great Poets, surely Rilke is one of, if not the most, beloved. His poetry is an outpouring of spiritual open-ness, rendering it generously receptive to believers of all creeds, although Rilke had rejected the religiosity of his childhood in favor of a mystical awareness or sensitivity to all things. […]

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A stylized photo of Chicago, as immortalized by Carl Sandburg.

Carl Sandburg: The Love of Chicago

When Carl Sandburg’s Chicago was written in 1914, labor unions were growing at a fast pace, and it’s not too surprising to find a poem with such a labor feel. We can safely say the poem would not have been written today. It is a trip back to WWI days when things were, well, different. Chicago was always the biggest city in the Midwest, but the economics were industry and not finance as today.

The images in the poem speak to this somewhat slowed down state of hard-working men. The poem introduces Chicago as the “Hog Butcher of the World” which at once captures a rough and almost severe city. We get to know Chicago as a “Stormy, husky, brawling,/ City of Big Shoulders”. Clearly the writer characterizes Chicago as masculine. This is probably indicative of the times. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920 was yet to pass when Carl Sandburg was writing. The city was run, at least in business, by the men giving Chicago a very macho kind of feel. The women who are mentioned are painted and standing on corners to lure men. Testosterone oozes.

The element of crime is also prevalent. “And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.” There is a sense of lawlessness and lack of order or justice. That is what Sandburg focuses on. The poem precedes Al Capone but we can see him coming. […]

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A stylized photo of Arseny Tarkovsky smoking a cigarette.

An Initiation: On “I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky”

As someone with an affection for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, I was eager to finally meet his father. I met him momentarily within Andrei’s 1975 film Mirror, but we barely got acquainted. Arseny Tarkovsky (1907-1989) held a huge place in his son’s life. And like with Jean Pierre Renoir, here we have another father-son dynamic wherein both are artists. Andrei admitted that his father’s work had a huge influence upon him, and how fortunate is that? To have a father who not only encourages the arts but also is an artist himself? In watching many interviews with Andrei, it is clear that he was a very sensitive soul. He loved his father and because his father’s work held such impact in his life, and he chose to honor him by using his work within his films. As example, take this poem from I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev), which is set against one of the more famous scenes within Mirror. […]

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Dylan Thomas, author of "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", used this shed as a writing room.

Today’s Anthem: Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Dylan Thomas’s poem to a dying father could be well to be heard by the world today. The world may not be gentle and plenty of people are not having a good night, yet there is a discerned darkness over the land. The poet calls out for action and light. It is a spiritual matter.

In a previous essay on this site, I discussed how a namesake of Thomas, Bob Dylan, wrote “Blowing in the Wind” which became a national battle cry. Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” could have similar possibilities if the poet hadn’t died ¾ of a century ago. Without the marketing allure, the poem could most likely not be resurrected on a grand scale.

It could just be the plea to a dying man, or else a plea to all generations of today’s world. We’re talking fire here. And a good fire. Old age could be synonymous with old patterns in politics which perpetuate tired wars. Admittedly, wars are not gentle to most ways of thinking, but they are predictable and go down trodden paths. I don’t believe Dylan Thomas is telling us to take up arms; it is a metamorphosis of the soul he’s talking about. Traditionally gun battles are not of the soul. The fight should be within. Battles of the soul are not always gentle. Even Jesus overturned the money tables in the temple. […]

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Chardin's painting, Le philosophe lisant, which may have served as inspiration for Wallace Stevens's poem, Large Red Man Reading

The Spirits Drawn Down: On Wallace Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”

The above painting is by Chardin, and it is titled Le Philosophe lisant. I first came across it not in a gallery, but in an essay. It was written by George Steiner, and in it he attempts to unpack its meaning via the symbols Chardin assembles on the canvas and make larger commentary on the act of reading: its history, its presentation in the painting, and its state in contemporary society. It’s not a bad essay, and Steiner is clearly learned, but the main and immediate impression I got from it was how, after looking the painting up on the Internet, it may have been the inspiration for Wallace Stevens’s great poem “Large Red Man Reading”. Stevens seemed to have an abiding interest in French culture (sprinkling words and phrases of the language in his own poetry) and it would not surprise me if the poem was an ekphrastic one, based on Chardin’s famous painting. Anyway, that’s just a little curio, to start things off. Steiner focuses intensely on the silence of the painting (and silence’s importance in concentrated engagement with a text) but Wallace Stevens’s poem veers away from silence, philosophizing even further than Steiner’s rather staid scholarship. […]

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A stylized photograph of a woman standing in a fork in the road, reminiscent of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

Only Two Roads? On Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” hearkens back to a simpler time when someone may have faced only two choices at any one time in his life. The narrator is presented with two roads and must choose only one if he is going to continue his walk. It is a simple fork in the road. The walker is not facing multiple choices; only two. Written in 1915, a contemporary reader may think: how quaint, two roads. In today’s world choices seem to be multi-dimensional. The question arises, does the poem have any relevance today?

In a world almost governed by social media we get the notion that choices are nearly infinite and fleeting. Many of our lives are filled with fast change where nothing is permanent and choices are not set in stone. There is a feeling of chaos on some level with some people clinging to science and others dependent on emotions. You hear the comment, we have too many choices.

Was there really a time when people had fewer choices, maybe only two? Robert Frost’s poem seems to indicate maybe so. Has the technology outburst created a world out of control? Do we regret this and yearn to go back? Well, we can’t go back. Like the walker, we are pushed to move forward. […]