Thursday, April 24, 2014

National Poetry Month—Poetry from the End of the Plains



I must be homesick today for the wide open spaces—“Way out west where the states are square,” as Thomas Wolfe said.  I grew up, as some of you might know, in Wyoming.  That’s Lenape word meaning roughly “where the plains end.”  And so they do, running smack to range upon rugged range from the Snowy Range in the southeast to the Grand Tetons in the northwest.  Beautiful country, uncluttered by many people.  So I thought I might dig out some Wyoming poetry.
All native peoples had their own oral poetry traditions.  Not much was preserved as they were conquered and government policy encouraged the eradication of traditional language and culture.  But some survives, of at least is passed off as traditional—there is sometimes doubt about what is authentic and what is the flight of fancy of white writers passed off as traditional.  Some of both exist.  The Shoshone were once a powerful people who ranged along both slopes of the Rocky Mountains.  The main bands occupy the Wind River Reservation.  This poem is widely attributed to them.
Shoshone Love Song

Fair is the white star of twilight, and the sky clearer
At the day’s end; but she is fairer, and she is dearer,
She, my heart’s friend.
Far stars and fair in the night blending,
Low stars of hearth fires and wood smoke ascending,
The meadow larks nested,
The night hawk is winging,
Home through the star-shine the hunter comes singing
Fair is the white star of twilight, and the moon roving
To the sky’s end; but she is fairer, better worth loving,
She, my heart’s friend.

Peggy Simson Curry was born in Scotland in 1911 and migrated to the U.S. with her family as a child.  Her father was employed by the Big Horn Cattle Company in Colorado for his expertise with Herefords and Angus cattle then relatively new to the range.  By the age of 12, she learned to drive a hay rake and helped her mother cook for a 20-man haying crew.  After marriage she moved to a home on Casper Mountain and her husband became a teacher at the local community college and served in the Legislature.  She became a prolific writer of short stories, young adult fiction, and poetry.  Two of her stories won Spur Awards for western fiction.  Before her death in 1987 she was named Wyoming’s first Poet Lauriat.  She was inducted posthumously into the Western Writers Hall of Fame.

Lupine Ridge

Long after we are gone,
Summer will stroke this ridge in blue;
The hawk still flies above the flowers,
Thinking, perhaps, the sky has fallen
And back and forth forever he may trace
His shadow on its azure face.

Long after we are gone,
Evening wind will languish here
Between the lupine and the sage
To die a little death upon the earth,
As though over the sundown prairies fell
A requiem from a bronze-tongued bell.

Long after we are gone,
This ridge will shape the night,
Lifting the wine-streaked west,
Shouldering the stars.  And always here
Lovers will walk under the summer skies
Through flowers the color of your eyes.

—Peggy Simson Curry
Wyoming can foster unexpected voices.  Take Lee Ann Roripaugh who was born and raised in Laramie in a Japanese-American home.  She was muti-talented and received degrees in Piano performance and creative writing from Indiana University.  Her highly acclaimed first book of poetry, Heart Mountain, 1943 dealt with World War II internment camps in Wyoming.  She has published two more collections and is a professor of English at the University of South Dakota.

Kimono Ozawa from Heart Mountain, 1943

Oka-san keeps stuffing rags under
the barracks door, around cracks
in the window, to keep out smells
of snow, sage and cattle,
families pressed around us.
My feet, my mind, become numb
from standing in line all day --
lines to eat, shower, shit
in the dirty outdoor benjos.
Evenings I sweep my anger
off the barracks floor,
but the next morning it’s coated
with dust, corners filled again.
Shikata ga nai, my parents keep
chanting. There is nothing
to be done. I watch
my father grow thin. Nights
he plays his shakuhachi flute,
the sound not unlike the cries
outside the barracks. The wind,
he says, takes everything.
I think this must be true.
I have taken walks inside
the barbed-wire fences,
and all the words
are pulled from my mouth.
My brothers, too, scattered
like dust. Ken fights
in the all-Nisei combat unit,
and Toji, who said No once,
No again, taken to Tule Lake.
My scalp itches and flakes, my lips,
my hand, chapped and cracked.
Sometimes I use a drop of cooking oil
to keep from blowing away. 

—Lee Ann Roripaugh
Robert Penn Warren, first Poet Lauriat of the United States, is remembered as a Southern writer.  And so he was through several outstanding poetry collections and his memorable novel All the King’s Men.  He spent much of his later life, however in New England during which his poetic style changed and his views morphed from southern conservatism to liberalism.  He traveled widely in the country and was always eager to share his experiences, like this one from Wyoming.

Mortal Limit

I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the lazy purity of snow-snags.

There—west—were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constellations.  Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?

Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore

The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch.

—Robert Penn Warren


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

National Poetry Month—The Bard



We are taking advantage of the anniversary of the William Shakespeare’s death back home in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23 1616 at the age of almost exactly 52.  I say almost exactly because his birthday is lost, but we know he was Baptized on April 26, 1584.  Since baptisms in such rural villages usually occurred within days of birth, lots of folk think he may have been born on the 23rd as well which would make for a tidy story indeed.  That would make this also his 450th birthday.  To make matters even more interesting this is also the Feast of St. George—a Greek dragon slayer who morphed into a shining knight on horseback and became the Patron Saint of England.  If Will had written a play about that, it would have been perfect.

Amazingly little is known about Shakespeare’s life.  Which means you will be spared another tedious blow-by-blow of his career.  We do know he was born into a prosperous provincial family.  His father was a successful glover, a career which in the days when both men and women of the better classes wore gauntlets or dancing gloves year around was evidently was quite profitable.  His mother’s family was landowning farmers.  They had a handsome, half-timbered home in the village and his father was an alderman.

Will was the third of eight children and the oldest son.  Although no records confirm it, he was almost surely given an education at Kings New School in the village.  Such Grammar Schools offered a rigorous course in Latin grammar and studied from classic Latin texts.  While well short of what the son of a nobleman or prosperous London merchant might receive or the instruction at Oxford or Cambridge, this still would have been a better education than 80 % of the boys in England.

Any chances for further education were squashed when he was 18 and had to enter a rushed marriage with 26 year old Anne Hathaway, who we can assume looked nothing like her modern movie star namesake.  We know it was rushed because the local Vicar read only the first of the three required bans and because six months later daughter Susana was born.  A couple of years later there were twins, Hammet and Judith.  The children were born in February 1585 and their baptism is the last record of Shakespeare’s life in the Village until he returned there in retirement.

No one is clear on what he did, or how he made a living.  Some surmised that he clerked for his father or tutored the children of the local gentry yet no trace is left behind.

We do know he had a roving eye.  The evidence lies in his Sonnets which include ardent praises of “his coy mistress” and raptures on the beauty of a black haired girl.  Likely this made home life less than idyllic for all concerned.

For whatever reason—an apocryphal  but oft told tale has it that we was escaping a Sheriff’s warrant for poaching a deer on a local gentleman’s estate—sometime between 1685 and 1592 Shakespeare decamped for London.

The latter years finds reference to him as an already established writer dabbling in play writing.  It seems an astonishing career choice with no hint of it is his background.  He was a member and minority owner of a troop of actors known as The Lord Chamberlin’s Men.  Based largely on the success of Shakespeare’s early plays, mostly those known as the Histories, the troop prospered enough that they were able to erect the Globe Theater on the banks of the Thames in 1699.  With three tiers of box seats in circle under a thatched roof and an open, uncovered pit surrounding a thrust stage for the rabble, up to 3000 customers could view a production.  In the winter months the company performed more intimately at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, converted from a part of a priory, in 1608.

After Elizabeth I died in 1603 theater loving James I gave the company a Royal Patent and afterwards they were known at The King’s Men.

With Shakespeare as their primary playwright the company thrived even bettering companies featuring the work of established, university educated writers like Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nash.  Some of them, Greene in particular did not take well to completion from a cloddish upstart. 

Like Shakespeare, these men began as actors themselves.  But as they met with success they retired from the boards.   Not Shakespeare.  He evidently never stopped acting until he retired from London altogether.  In fact, evidence suggests that he may always have considered himself to be, first and foremost, an actor.  What roles he played is not clear except for surviving cast lists of a couple of plays by the company not written by him.  He is thought to have played the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  There is passing reference to him playing “kingly roles.”

In all, Shakespeare is thought to have written about 38 plays, the last few probably in collaboration.  They included the Histories, comedies, tragedies, and the latter romances.  A few of his plays were published in his life time, but probably without his consent.  These were probably loosely transcribed from the audience as there are considerable differences with the canonical versions.  An early form of video piracy, you might say.

From time to time plays, or fragments of plays, pop up that are suggested to be the unknown work of the master.  Just as frequently his claim to this or that play is challenged.  But by far the biggest game in the world of Shakespeare scholarship is denying that he wrote the plays at all.  Several candidates have been suggested and new ones seem to pop up every few years.  Among the suspects have been Francis Bacon, Marlowe who would have had to be so prolific that he could keep two theater companies provided with fodder, and assorted noblemen up to and including members of the Royal family.

I for one don’t buy any of it.  It is all rooted in the deep class bias of the English upper classes, who could never admit that a commoner with a rude education could have the widest vocabulary of any Englishman ever; an encyclopedic knowledge of classic literature, myth, and folklore; a firm grasp on English history and the political sense to write about it in ways that kept his head attached to his torso; plus an unparalleled fluidity of style.  They discount native genius as impossible.  But such great genius, exploding from unexpected sources erupts from time to time in history in all of the arts and sciences.  I, for one, prefer to think that the son of a glover could lay quill to parchment and create say Macbeth.

The success of his plays and the troop made Shakespeare a moderately wealthy man.  He purchased property in London and sent money back home to buy the second grandest house in Stratford, New House.  He ostentatiously generously subscribed to the tithes of the local parish where wagging tongues had probably once gossiped about his sexual offenses.

The original Globe burned down when cannon fired in a production of Henry VII in 1613 ignited the thatched roof.  Although the company rebuilt the theater on the old foundations, the fire may have hastened Shakespeare’s retirement.  So might ill health.

At any rate, he returned to Stratford and the perhaps not so loving arms of his wife not long after.  He died of unknown causes in 1616 leaving the bulk of his estate to his daughter Susanna.  His wife, Anne, was automatically under English law, entitled to a third of the estate, so it might not have been quite as mean as it looked when the bard left her only “his second best bed” in his will.

After his death two of his comrades in the King’s Men arranged for the publication of the famous First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623.  It contained all but two of the plays now commonly attributed to him.  It also featured a cover woodcut of a balding man with a moustache and soul patch which, in the absence of any verifiable contemporary image, is how we picture him today.

Of course Shakespeare is best remembered for his plays, which are perpetually in production in theaters large and small around the world.  But this is National Poetry Month so today we salute his verse.  Of course there is plenty of memorable and highly quotable poetry in the plays themselves.  But most folks think of the Sonnets, 154 poems written over most of his adult life.  But he had earlier published, with some success two long erotic poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece while London theaters were closed down during the plague years of 1593 and’94.  Another long poem, The Lover’s Complaint was added as a kind of bonus to the first edition of the Sonnets.
A Fairy Song

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire!
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green;
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

—William Shakespeare

Carpe Diem

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love's coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journey's end in lovers' meeting—
Every wise man's son doth know.

What is love? ‘tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;—    
Then come kiss me, Sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

—William Shakespeare


From you have I been absent in the spring...

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

—William Shakespeare




Tuesday, April 22, 2014

National Poetry Month—Four for Earth Day



Today is Earth Day.  It seemed like a very big deal when it was introduced in 1970 when the Environmental Movement as we know it was still in its relative infancy having grown out the earlier Conservation Movement that emphasized the husbanding of natural resources for human use.  It seems in those early years when hundreds of thousands responded to calls to march or participate in some way that real change was possible.
And, of course, much was accomplished—the EPA and increased regulation of pollution, the hands-on movement to re-cycle and re-use, the on-going involvement of children which critics charge has become a virtual secular religion.  But despite it all, the Planet is in more desperate shape today than it was then.  The Cassandra warnings about climate change have come true in spades, faster than anyone really expected.  Yet resistance to real change to address the root causes has never been more fierce—or more successful—as it is fueled by billionaire exploiters and exploited by rabid right wing movements.  If liberals love the Planet, conservatives MUST attack it wrapping themselves in an ideology of unfettered capitalism on one hand and apocalyptic Evangelical claims that the End of Days is a hand so humans can and should squeeze every ounce of value from the Earth that will be thrown away anyway on the other.
Meanwhile the Earth Day celebration has been tamed, made nice worth all of five minutes mention on the Nightly News and some grade school art projects.  We are told that “we must not make it political, because everyone loves the Earth”—a lie on the face of it.
So much for my annual rant.  Time for some poetry.
The Transcendentalists in this country and their cousin German and English Romantics introduced a whole new way of conceiving and appreciating Nature, which had traditionally been viewed a hostile force which Man must conquer, tame, and exploit to survive.  They were the first—in the “civilized” world to value Nature on its own terms and even to exalt it for the lessons it could teach.  Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is often considered the first major environmental text. Thoreau’s buddy and Walden Pond landlord Ralph Waldo Emerson chipped in with his break through essay Nature which made him a household name.  He also had some poetry on the subject.
Song of Nature

Mine are the night and morning,
The pits of air, the gulf of space,
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days.

I hid in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.

No numbers have counted my tallies,
No tribes my house can fill,
I sit by the shining Fount of Life,
And pour the deluge still;

And ever by delicate powers
Gathering along the centuries
From race on race the rarest flowers,
My wreath shall nothing miss.

And many a thousand summers
My apples ripened well,
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.

I wrote the past in characters
Of rock and fire the scroll,
The building in the coral sea,
The planting of the coal.

And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew;

What time the gods kept carnival,
Tricked out in star and flower,
And in cramp elf and saurian forms
They swathed their too much power.

Time and Thought were my surveyors,
They laid their courses well,
They boiled the sea, and baked the layers
Or granite, marl, and shell.

But he, the man-child glorious,--
Where tarries he the while?
The rainbow shines his harbinger,
The sunset gleams his smile.

My boreal lights leap upward,
Forthright my planets roll,
And still the man-child is not born,
The summit of the whole.

Must time and tide forever run?
Will never my winds go sleep in the west?
Will never my wheels which whirl the sun
And satellites have rest?

Too much of donning and doffing,
Too slow the rainbow fades,
I weary of my robe of snow,
My leaves and my cascades;

I tire of globes and races,
Too long the game is played;
What without him is summer’s pomp,
Or winter's frozen shade?

I travail in pain for him,
My creatures travail and wait;
His couriers come by squadrons,
He comes not to the gate.

Twice I have moulded an image,
And thrice outstretched my hand,
Made one of day, and one of night,
And one of the salt sea-sand.

One in a Judaean manger,
And one by Avon stream,
One over against the mouths of Nile,
And one in the Academe.

I moulded kings and saviours,
And bards o’er kings to rule;—a  
But fell the starry influence short,
The cup was never full.

Yet whirl the glowing wheels once more,
And mix the bowl again;
Seethe, fate! the ancient elements,
Heat, cold, wet, dry, and peace, and pain.

Let war and trade and creeds and song
Blend, ripen race on race,
The sunburnt world a man shall breed
Of all the zones, and countless days.

No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn
Gives back the bending heavens in dew.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Beat Buddhist Gary Snyder was read and cherished by many in the Environmental movement for work like this.
Burning Island

O Wave God      who broke through me today   
    Sea Bream
    massive pink and silver
    cool swimming down with me watching   
                      staying away from the spear

Volcano belly Keeper who lifted this island
    for our own beaded bodies adornment
    and sprinkles us all with his laugh—
                      ash in the eve
    mist, or smoke,
    on the bare high limits—
               underwater lava flows easing to coral
                      holes filled with striped feeding swimmers

O Sky Gods      cartwheeling
    out of   Pacific
    turning rainsqualls over like lids on us   
    then shine on our sodden—
               (scanned out a rainbow today at the   
                      cow drinking trough   
                            sluicing off
            LAKHS of crystal Buddha Fields   
            right on the hair of the arm!)

Who wavers right now in the bamboo:   
   a half-gone waning moon.
                  drank down a bowlful of shochu   
                           in praise of Antares
                  gazing far up the lanes of Sagittarius
                           richest stream of our sky—
   a cup to the center of the galaxy!   
                  and let the eyes stray
   right-angling the pitch of the Milky Way:   
                  horse-heads   rings
                  clouds      too distant to be
                  slide free.
                              on the crest of the wave.

Each night
O Earth Mother
   I have wrappt my hand
   over the jut of your cobra-hood
                               sleeping;   
   left my ear
All night long by your mouth.

O   All
Gods   tides   capes   currents   
Flows and spirals of
      pool and powers—

As we hoe the field
   let sweet potato grow.
And as sit us all down when we may   
To consider the Dharma
   bring with a flower and a glimmer.   
Let us all sleep in peace    together.

Bless Masa and me as we marry   
   at new moon         on the crater   
This summer.

—Gary Snyder

Mary Oliver is one of the most popular American poets still working.  So popular that folks who are not in the English departments of struggling liberal arts college not only read her work—they buy her books.  Astonishing!  The environment is one of her recurring themes.

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

—Mary Oliver

But Earth Day really needs some indignation and some action.  For many, Judy Bari became a martyr and a symbol for a militant environmental movement.  To the government and Northern California lumber barons, that made her and the movement she hammered together terrorists.
Bari was a young IWW organizer working with loggers, mostly “independent contractors” on workplace safety and other issues.  She was also an environmentalist who was eager to preserve the old growth forests, including stands of redwoods from clear cut logging.  She wove her way between labor and environmental causes often seen as mutually hostile.  Bari and her associates launched the Redwood Summer using direct action tactics including blocking logging roads, chaining themselves to threatened trees, and other actions.  She was accused of driving large spikes into threatened trees at a level that would cause chainsaws to shatter with potentially lethal threat to the logger.  Bari and her folks always denied that, and it would have been at odds with her philosophy.  Spike found in trees were likely planted there by the companies or their agents.  At any rate, the government began investigating the movement as terrorists.
Bari was nearly killed in an on May 24, 1990, when a motion-triggered pipe bomb wrapped with nails exploded directly under her driver’s seat as she and Darryl Cherney were driving through Oakland, California. They were on a concert and speaking tour to recruit college students for Redwood Summer at the time.
Bari was maimed and disabled by the bombing, while Cherney received lesser injuries. In the previous two months, both had received numerous death threats from timber industry supporters and had reported them to local police.
Authorities, however, announced that the “only suspects” in the bombing were the two victims supposedly on the way to use the bomb in a terrorist attack of their own when it exploded pre-maturely.  No evidence was ever found to corroborate that wild theory, and eventually neither were prosecutors able to bring them to trial on the charges.  But authorities refused to pursue other leads, lost or hid evidence, and continued to accuse the pair.
More than ten years later a Federal Jury, after Bari’s death from breast cancer in 1997, she and Cherney were awarded $4.4 million from three FBI agents and three Oakland police officers for violating their civil rights and essentially trying to frame the pair.
Cherney, like Bari a singing organizer composed song which is still sung and recited as a poem in radical environmental circles.

Who Bombed Judi Bari?

Now Judi Bari is a Wobbly organizer
A Mother Jones at the Georgia Pacific Mill
She fought for the sawmill workers
Hit by that PCB spill  
T. Marshall Hahn’s calling G-P‘s shots from Atlanta
Don Nelson sold him the union long ago
Now they weren’t gonna have no Wobbly
Running their logging show
And they spewed out their hatred
And they laid out their scam
Jerry Philbrick called for violence
Was no secret what they planned so I ask you now...
Who bombed Judi Bari?
I know you’re out there still
Have you seen her broken body
Or the spirit you can’t kill?
Now Judi Bari is a feminist organizer
Ain’t no man gonna keep that woman down
She defended the abortion clinic
In fascist Ukiah town
Calvary Baptist Church called for its masses
Camo buddies lined up in the pews
You can see all of their faces
In the Ukiah Daily News
And they spewed out their hatred
As Reverend Broyles laid out the scam
Bill Staley called for violence
Was no secret what they planned
So I ask you now
Who bombed Judi Bari?
I know you’re out there still
Have you seen her broken body
Or the spirit you can’t kill?
Now Judi Bari is an Earth First! organizer
The California redwoods are her home
She called for Redwood Summer
Where the owl and the black bear roam
Charlie Hurwitz he runs MAXXAM out of Houston
Harry Merlo runs L-P from Portland town
They’re the men they call King Timber
They know how to cut you down
And Don Nolan spewed their hatred
As Candy Boak laid out the scam
John Campbell called for violence
Was no secret what they planned
So I ask you now
Who bombed Judi Bari?
I know you’re out there still
Have you seen her broken body
Or the spirit you can’t kill?
Now Judi Bari is the mother of two children
A pipe bomb went ripping through her womb
She cries in pain at nighttime
In a Willits cabin room
FBI is back again with Cointelpro
Richard Held is the man they know they trust
With Lieutenant Sims his henchman
It’s a world of boom and bust
But we’ll answer with non-violence
‘Cause seeking justice is our plan
And we’ll avenge our wounded comrade
As we defend the ravaged land
So I ask you now
Who bombed Judi Bari?
I know you’re out there still
Have you seen her broken body
Or the spirit you can’t kill?

—Darryl Cherney