“kitchenette building” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Yes, I’m very late, and this time, I missed a special occasion: last Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gwendolyn Brooks. I had been taught Brooks’s poetry since elementary school, but it’s only just recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate her and her work. One of my favorites from her is 1945’s “kitchenette building”:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

There are a lot of things poetry is expected to do. At one time, the primary goal of most poets was to remind people of their history and heritage, to ensure that these things were not forgotten. Today, many people consider poetry to be a voice for the voiceless, speaking out against the injustices in a society. At all times, though poets have been there to speak truth to certain fundamental human experiences, experiences that we all have regardless of our place in time or space. What I love about Gwendolyn Brooks is how she’s able to do all three at once.

For instance, in 1945, this poem would have borne witness to the deprivations suffered by poor blacks at the hands of their landlords in city centers such as Chicago, where Brooks spent most of her life. It gives us not only the sensory details of the place—the sights and smells of it—but also an idea of what it felt like to live in one of these overcrowded tenement buildings, of how it feels to be trapped in one.

And how does she create that feeling of entrapment? Start with the shape of the poem: there are two stanzas dedicated to life in the kitchenette building itself and two dedicated to the speaker’s “dream.” Those dream stanzas, though, are contained within a sort of pen made up by the other two. These two things–tenement life and the dream of better things–are equally a part of the speaker’s reality, but one, sadly, is boxed in by the other. The poem loops back around to where it began, leaving us missing the beauty that went in between.

Anyway, that’s those are my thoughts on it. Do let me know in the comments what your favorite Gwendolyn Brooks poems are.

“Dream Song 14” by John Berryman

Marking the birthday of a poet whom I’ve just recently discovered, here’s Berryman’s famous reading of “Dream Song 14,” recorded in a pub in Dublin in 1967. (Full text here.)

“Postscript” by Seamus Heaney

Here at BGA, we’re in the habit of celebrating the birthdays of dead authors. And while I’m sure that Samuel Beckett (110 today) and Eudora Welty (107) are both worthy objects of such admiration, this April 13 is going to be spent on Seamus Heaney and his exquisite poem Postscript.”

In some ways, this poem reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s idea of sehnsucht, and especially of the way in which that idea relates to beauty. In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis writes:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

It is a difficult idea to put into words, but I think Heaney gets about as close as anyone will with this poem.

You can read it here, and you can also listen to a reading of it by the man himself:

And a Happy Birthday to John Donne

John Donne miniature by Isaac Oliver
Portrait by Isaac Oliver. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Today is the 444th birthday of John Donne, who—sharing the title with Seamus Heaney and W. B. Yeats—is my favorite poet. And while I could talk about my love of “Holy Sonnet XIV” or what a shame it is that more of The Oxford Book of English Verse isn’t devoted to Donne’s work, I think it’s better to let the man speak for himself.

                “Hymn to God the Father”

                           by John Donne

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.

Poem of the Week: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

La Belle Dame sans Merci by JW Waterhouse
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John William Waterhouse (inspired by Keats’s poem, FYI). Image via Art Renewal Center.

Today, October 31, happens to be the 220th birthday of one of the most celebrated poets in English literature, Mr. John Keats. So today, I post one of my favorite poems of his:

“La Belle Dame sans Merci”

by John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.



Poem of the Week: “If Only We Had Taller Been”

In honor of the ninety-fifth birthday of the wonderful, beautiful, talented, exuberant, incandescent Ray Bradbury, I’m posting this video of him reciting his poem “If Only We Had Taller Been.” How fortunate that his birthday would fall on a Saturday. 🙂

Poem of the Week: “Adam’s Curse”

Sketch of WB Yeats by John Singer Sargent
Sketch of Yeats by John Singer Sargent. {PD-1923}

In honor of Yeats’s 150th birthday, which happens to be today:

“Adam’s Curse”

by William Butler Yeats

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’

And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.


A Small Smattering of Shakespeare

The rest of the internet celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday a few days ago, but I had been told that Shakespeare was born on April 26. Apparently, the exact day of Shakespeare’s birth is unknown, but the day of his christening–April 26–is. So, I choose to mark the Bard’s birthday today, but really, any day is good for reveling in Shakespeare. 🙂

First, how Shakespeare is supposed to sound:

From the BBC’s The Hollow Crown: Richard II:

From Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Henry V:

At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about having Doctor Who play Hamlet (and in a bright orange T-shirt, no less!), but I actually quite enjoyed this soliloquy:

Here, we see Jonjo O’Neill, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, giving an incredibly creepy rendition of King Richard’s opening monologue from Richard III. Watch at your own peril.

I saved the best for last. Here’s Orson Welles’s stupendous interpretation of The Merchant of Venice‘s Shylock, captured on his home movie camera:


Happy Birthday, Auden

I realized yesterday that today is February 21, the birthday of my favorite poet, W. H. Auden (I know it’s silly to mark the birthdays of dead people, but I like to do it anyway.). Since I’ve been wanting to write something about Auden for a while now, I figured today would be the perfect day to do it.

I hasn’t been long since I started reading Auden’s works, and to be honest, much of it still goes straight over my head, but what I understand of it, I love. Below are the six poems of his that I recommend most highly.

1. “The Unknown Citizen”

This is the poem that first introduced me to Auden. I read it in eleventh grade after it was assigned to me in English class (Coincidentally, that was the same year I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. Eleventh grade was fun.). Published in the latter years of the Great Depression, while Franklin Roosevelt was busy growing the government at an unprecedented rate, this poem is, rather obviously, a piece of satire against the idea of “the Nanny State.” Some believe this poem might have even influenced George Orwell in writing his novel 1984. Certainly like 1984, it reads like prophecy now. I’ve always had a penchant for stories about Dystopia, so this became one of my favorite poems, not just by Auden, but by any poet.

2. “O, Tell Me the Truth About Love”

Prior to reading this poem, nearly everything I had read from Auden had been straight and serious, if not dark and somber. So this poem, which reminds me more than a little of that other luminary of English poetry Edward Lear, took me by surprise. I understand what Auden did here: love is a very important, usually very solemn, topic for poets, so he thought he would underline its importance by speaking of it in ridiculous terms. But nevertheless, it’s hard to regard this as a serious poem when it rhymes “Pajamas” with “Llamas.” It’s a good thing, then, that I like ridiculous poems too.

3. “Refugee Blues”

This is a beautiful poem, but heartbreaking as well, for it has its roots in some terrible history. During the 1930’s, German Jews poured into the United States and other countries trying to escape the persecution of the Nazi regime. However, U.S. immigration quotas leftover from the 1920’s meant that thousands of Jews made the trip across the Atlantic only to be told that America wouldn’t accept them. This poem is about one such Jewish couple who is denied entry to the United States on a technicality. The way Auden handles this poem shows one of the many reasons why I like him: he’s able to keep the focus where it belongs, on the victims and their plight, while at the same time subtly showing contempt for those in power.

4. “Epitaph on an Unknown Soldier”

A two-line punch in the gut. My fellow book blogger Suzannah Rowntree once wrote that “The real beauty of poetry lies in saying volumes in just a few brief words . . . .” Auden more than does that here.

5. “September 1, 1939”

Auden himself said he didn’t care much for this one, but I enjoyed it immensely. As you probably gathered from the title, this poem is about the beginning of World War II. I find sometimes when poets try to address contemporary issues directly, it comes out rather clumsy–not like poetry at all. This, on the other hand, is different: there’s no doubt that it’s about a current event (It’s right there in the title, for goodness sake.), and yet it still has the ambiguity and the imagery of a good old-fashioned poem.

6. “‘O Where Are You Going?’ Said Reader to Rider”

Have you ever read something that made you feel as though the author stole a glance inside your head before he wrote it? That’s how reading this poem felt. As far as I can tell, it’s about the fears that plague writers, about failing, about not being good enough, etc. All things that I have dealt with quite often as of late. W. H. Auden apparently felt much the same, because this poem expressed those same sentiments that had been floating around in my head exactly.

Honorable Mention: “The Shield of Achilles”

Auden wrote this poem in the years after World War II, during which he served in an outfit that surveyed the damage caused by U. S. bombing raids in Germany. This is the poetic equivalent of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Next in Line”: I can’t agree completely with the message, but the form makes it one of the most amazing things I have ever read in my life. Good for study if for nothing else.

6 Interesting Things about C. S. Lewis (for His Birthday)

In honor of the father of Narnia on his 116th, birthday, here are six things you might not have known about ol’ Jack.

1: He Wrote All of His Books by Hand

Lewis despised typewriters. He liked to give his prose an almost musical rhythm, like poetry. The noise of the typewriters, he said, made it more difficult for him to hear the rhythm in his head. He wrote all of his books out completely in longhand with a dip pen and then gave the manuscripts to his secretary Warren Lewis (who happened to be his brother). Warren would then transcribe the manuscripts on his typewriter and send them to the publisher. Unfortunately, Lewis didn’t have the room to store all of these handwritten manuscripts, so he burned them.*


2: He Was Named After His Dog (Not Really)

The story goes that when Lewis, whose full name was Clive Staples Lewis, was about five years old, his dog Jacksie was hit by a car. Shortly afterward, Lewis took up the name left vacant by his dog and refused to answer to any name other than Jacksie, which was later shortened to his life-long nickname Jack. It’s a cute story, but Lewis’s brother Warren claims it isn’t true.


3: One of the Greatest Christian Apologists of the Twentieth Century Was a Former Atheist

Lewis’s parents brought him to church when he was a little boy, but their interest in religion seldom lasted past Sunday. The abuse Lewis experienced as a preteen in boarding school, compounded with his mother’s death from cancer, had him questioning the existence of a just, loving God; by the age of fifteen, Lewis concluded that the universe was meaningless and there was no God.** He continued in this belief for nearly twenty years, until his friends—among them the devotedly Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien—convinced Lewis of the existence of God. Lewis himself admitted that he did not want to believe that it was true, but two years later, Lewis officially became a Christian. Just two years after that, Lewis published The Pilgrim’s Regress, the first of many novels interwoven with Christian themes.

4: He Died on a Very Important Day

C. S. Lewis passed away on November 22, 1963. If you’re an avid history nerd, you’ll probably recognize that as the same day that President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. For this reason, Lewis went largely unheralded at his death. On another interesting note, science fiction author Aldous Huxley died on that same day as well, prompting one author to write a novel describing an imaginary conversation between the three men in the hereafter.

5: He Based the Pevensies on Real Children

During World War II, Lewis did his part for the war effort by taking in several children from bomb-eaten London. One of the boys living with Lewis at his home the Kilns became fascinated with a large wardrobe Lewis owned. He often pretended that the wardrobe had a secret door in the back, thus inspiring Lewis with the idea for a novel about a group of London refugees who find a magic wardrobe in the home of an old professor.

6: He Was Very Considerate of His Fans
After Lewis published the Narnia books, letters came pouring in from young fans of the series . . . and he tried to respond to every single one, not with some silly canned answer, but with a real, honest-to-goodness letter. For instance, he wrote this very charming letter to a girl who drew some pictures of Narnia and asked to know what Aslan’s other name is, as mentioned in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He also wrote this to one Joan Lancaster, complimenting her on her writing and offering some (very good) writerly advice.

* To all of my fellow writing nerds and C. S. Lewis fans, let us please have a moment of silence for all those poor lost manuscripts.

** From Jack: a Life of C. S. Lewis by George Sayer, published by Crossway.

Ray Bradbury Is the Coolest

Rejoice, book geeks! It’s the birthday of one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury!

It’s a shame, I know, but I never really paid attention to Bradbury until I began seeing his obituary on the internet. I was never a big sci-fi fan (I’m still not a big sci-fi fan), so I never saw any use for him until about two years ago when, in one of those obituaries, I read that he was the author of Fahrenheit 451, a novel about a bleak dystopian future where fireman are paid to burn books. At the time, the novel sounded mildly interesting, so eventually, I went to the library and checked it out (because I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to spend money on it). But after being so skeptical of Bradbury, I soon found out that he is one of the best and smartest writers to ever put ink to paper. Fahrenheit 451 was great in and of itself, but I wound up loving the author even more than his book: the way he thought about the world, the way he charted his own path, and the passion he showed for writing all blew me away. The longer I go on, the more it seems as if God is yanking my sleeve and telling me to be a writer; in that case, I hope I can be one like Ray Bradbury, a writer who wasn’t afraid to say what needed to be said, who was completely in love with his job, and who could inspire the whole world with his ideas.

Today is also the perfect opportunity to show you this video I found a while ago of a lecture Bradbury gave at a university back in 2001. In the lecture, he talks about his favorite authors, how one should go about learning to write, and all sorts of fun, nerdy stuff like that. Go ahead and take a listen.

And just because I’m nosy . . .

Happy Birthday, George Orwell!

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Well a happy 111th birthday to everyone’s favorite sci-fi prophet, Eric Arthur Blair! (You know him  by his pen name, George Orwell.)

This time last year, a pair of enterprising artists in the Netherlands came up with a creative way to mark Orwell’s birthday: they put a party hat on each of the surveillance cameras in their hometown! You can see those pictures here. Enjoy the irony. 😉