Poems for Valentine’s Day

Image by Joanna Kosinska.
Image by Joanna Kosinska.

Around this time last year, I published a list of 10 of my favorite love poems. That post got such a good response from you guys that I decided I’d do another list this year. Without my really planning it that way, last year’s list skewed a little more heavily toward older poetry, whereas this one skews a little more toward modern poetry. Hopefully, they’ll make good complements to each other.

1: “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti

A classic of classics: short, sweet, and beautiful as only Christina Rossetti can do.

2: “I am in love, hence free to live” by Vera Pavlova

My metaphorical hat is off to Suzannah Rowntree for introducing me to this poet and this poem. In case you’ve never heard of her, Vera Pavlova is a contemporary Russian poet and one of the bestselling authors in Russia. Her poems tend to follow a pattern similar to this one: brief but passionate, and often dealing with love or relationships.

3: “To Hold” by Li-Young Lee

Lee is another of my favorite contemporary poets. Here, he does what all the good poets do: takes something very ordinary and mundane—in this case, the ritual of making a bed—and lets us see it in a new and beautiful way.

4: “The Good Morrow” by John Donne

And speaking of looking at things in a new way, Donne—in true Metaphysical fashion—here appeals to the worlds of history, science, and global exploration to communicate the depths of his love.

5: “The Underground” by Seamus Heaney

Inspired by a honeymoon trip, a Greek myth, and his wife’s ruined coat, this has quickly become one of my favorite poems from my favorite poet.

6: “Variation on the Word Sleep” by Margaret Atwood

Christopher Adamson mentioned this one in the comments of my last Valentine’s Day post and I’m so glad he did. I think it pairs especially well with the Heaney poem because, while it doesn’t reference any specific myth, it does take on the atmosphere of a mythical underworld, similar to “The Underground.”

7: “Poetry” by Don Paterson

As the (largely) self-taught owner of a middling book blog, I’m usually not inclined to make dogmatic statements about literature. But I will be dogmatic and say that Don Paterson is one of the greatest living poets in the world. This sonnet—a love poem about writing love poetry—helps prove it, I think.

8: “Adam’s Curse” by W. B. Yeats

I tried to keep the tone of this list relatively light, but it’s actually quite difficult to find love poems that aren’t sad. This one, for instance, has a mournful attitude, but Yeats wears it so well I thought I’d include this poem anyway.

9: “Near the Wall of a House” by Yehuda Amichai

One of the reasons why I love Amichai’s work is because much of it is so beautiful and profound while using simple, unadorned language. “Near the Wall of a House” is one of those poems, talking about love and transcendence while still giving us a grounding in what’s familiar.

10: “Marriage of Many Years” by Dana Gioia

Another poet who knows how to make words count is Dana Gioia. Here, he writes about how love progresses past the limits of language.

That’s all for now. Let me know what you think of any or all of these in the comments and feel free to chime in with your favorite love poems.

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Poem: “The House of Christmas”

Merry Christmas, all you darling people.

“The House of Christmas”

by G. K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Read by Neil Gaiman

As Christmas looms nearer still, I thought I’d dig up this old gem. This time last year, Neil Gaiman was asked to give a reading of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at the New York City Public Library, using the selfsame manuscript from which Dickens himself gave readings back when. Below is a recording of that performance, courtesy of Maria Popova of the delightful site Brain Pickings.

(P. S. If you aren’t interested in the introductions, the story starts at the 3:17 mark.)

Poem of the Week: “Good Friday in My Heart”

“Good Friday in My Heart”

by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge

Good Friday in my heart! Fear and affright!
My thoughts are the Disciples when they fled,
My words the words that priest and soldier said,
My deed the spear to desecrate the dead.
And day, Thy death therein, is changed to night.

Then Easter in my heart sends up the sun.
My thoughts are Mary, when she turned to see.
My words are Peter, answering, ‘Lov’st thou Me?’
My deeds are all Thine own drawn close to Thee,
And night and day, since Thou dost rise, are one.

Source.

“A Voice, a Chime, a Chant Sublime”

If you don’t have presents to wrap/buy or lights to string right now, I thought I’d show you this little poem someone wrote about Christmas many years ago. It’s “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s been a favorite of mine for a while just because the words are so beautiful (the title of this post, for example), but it means even more when you know where it comes from.

Despite being a poem about Christmas, “Christmas Bells” was born out of great sorrow. It began in 1861, with the beginning of the Civil War. That same year, Longfellow’s wife Fanny died after her dress caught on fire. Not only did she die, but Longfellow also suffered terrible burns on his arms and face as he tried to put out the flames. Two years later, he learned that his son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union army, had been shot. Charles survived, but his spinal column was severely injured.

Finally, in 1864, things began to look up. The war was nearly over, President Lincoln was about to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and on December 25, 1864, Longfellow penned this famous poem.

I suppose what I love about the poem is that it captures both a very deep, very real sorrow, but at the same time, a triumphant sort of joy. “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.” What could be better than that?

I’ll let Mr. Longfellow take the stage now:

“Christmas Bells”

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

As I’m sure you know, this poem has been adapted into a Christmas carol by many, many artists, but if you ask me, the best version by far is this one by Casting Crowns:

Merry Christmas, all you lovely geeks.

Poem of the Week: “Love Came Down at Christmas”

“Love Came Down at Christmas”

by Christina Rossetti

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

And besides being a really cool poem, it also became one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, Jars of Clay

Because It’s the Fourth

Image by Petr Kratochvil at PublicDomainPictures.net.
Image by Petr Kratochvil at PublicDomainPictures.net.

Happy Independence Day, all you lovely readers! (Unless you live in India, England, Romania, or a plethora of other countries, in which case, happy Friday.)

I tried to embed the below video from the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy on the page, but WordPress isn’t cooperating. :-/ In that case, here’s the link:

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/238963/Yankee-Doodle-Dandy-Movie-Clip–Yankee-Doodle-Boy.html

 

Red, White, and Blue Reading

Flag
Image by Peter Griffin at PublicDomainPictures.net.

With the 4th just around the corner, I’ve made up a list of my favorite patriotic books. So when you are sitting in your car on Friday waiting for the fireworks to start, flashlight in hand, you’ll have something to kill the time. 😉

4: John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams gets no respect. We see pictures like this

"John Adams" by Gilbert Stuart. Via Wikimedia Commons
“John Adams” by Gilbert Stuart. Via Wikimedia Commons.

and think that he was nothing more than a dour old Puritan. But he was so much more interesting than that! He was passionate, dynamic, and outspoken and every bit of that fire comes across in David McCullough’s biography. Few history writers these days seem to be able to stick to fact without editorializing and even fewer can stick to facts without being dry. McCullough, however, not only stays honest, but keeps you interested too. OK, so the chapters on Adams’s stint as an ambassador to France can be rather dry and I’m still annoyed with McCullough for not including a pronunciation guide (sooooo many French names), but overall, John Adams was a fantastic biography.

3: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This is one of those books that I would tell everyone to read if I could. So what if it has nothing to do with America’s founding? It’s still a great Fourth of July book because it’s about FREEDOM, about rising above everyone and everything that tries to keep you down. Not only is Frederick Douglass utterly amazing in his own right, but he was a heck of a writer too, making his autobiography one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

2: The Real George Washington by Andrew Allison

George Washington, like Mr. Adams, is another person that I don’t think Americans know all that well. We know that he chopped down a cherry tree (untrue), that he wore wooden dentures (also untrue), and that he was at the front of the boat when his troops crossed the Delaware River (finally got one right!). But we know very little about the struggles he faced as the leader of a barefoot and half-starved army; how his life was saved by the hand of God on several occasions; how he gave and gave and gave to his country until he was spent. In this book, you can read plenty about that and more. Perfect for the Fourth of July, or any day, for that matter.

1: The Declaration of Independence

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

What what else does one read on the birthday of America’s freedom? I think we could all stand to be reminded of what our Declaration actually says (and what it doesn’t) and now is a perfect time for that reminder. And what’s really great about this document is that it is not very long at all. Back then, government documents were designed to be as concise and clear as possible (what a novel idea!), so it won’t take you more than a few minutes to get through it. If the American Revolution is your thing, you might also want to check out Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration, the one that was rejected by the Second Continental Congress. It’s much wordier, but also more poetic, more over-the-top, and rather interesting to compare to the Declaration as we know it.

The 3 Best Fictional Dads

happy-fathers-day
Image by Dawn Hudson at PublicDomainPictures.Net

Good evening, folks, and Happy Father’s Day a day early! I knew I had to write something bookish about Father’s Day, so why not gush about some of my favorite characters? I’m afraid this isn’t a very complete list; I haven’t read nearly as many novels as I wish to have read, so my judgments of who are the “best” of a certain fictional characters are a little off. But based on the books I have read so far, these are the people I think are the best dads in fiction.

1: Atticus Finch
To Kill a Mockingbird
Well there is really no contest here, now is there? Even if I had read more novels, there would still be no contest! The vast majority of people, whether they met Atticus through the book or the movie, will say he is a model father, and for good reason. In the first place, he treats his children as he would want to be treated, a rarity in the 1930’s, when the cardinal rule of parenting was “Children should be seen and not heard.” Another popular rule of parenting, “Do as I say, not as I do,” also goes completely unacknowledged by Mr. Finch. Rather than just telling Scout and Jem how he expects them to behave and doing as he pleases in his own life, Atticus teaches by example. And what a good example it is too! He doesn’t want his children to respect him solely because he is their father, he wants to be the kind of person who deserves respect. Combine that with his deep devotion to and concern for his children (see Chapter 31) and you have one of the best, if not the best, father in literature.

2: Matthew Cuthbert
Anne of Green Gables
I know he isn’t really Anne’s father, but he is still a wonderful father figure. He made an indelible mark on Anne the day he picked her up from the train station, simply because he was the first person who treated her kindly, who was friendly to her and showed concern for her. It was because he didn’t have the heart to send her back to the orphanage that she got to stay at Green Gables and be brought up by a real family. It was also Matthew’s efforts to understand her, where she was coming from and what she was feeling, that made her feel like she did have a family. Matthew was simply a wonderful human being (even if he wasn’t real).
3: Joe Gargery
Great Expectations
Again, not anyone’s real father, but he is the closest thing poor Pip has to a dad. Though he is timid and accommodating to a fault, he has a good heart and tries his best to make a good home for Pip. Joe is right: a lot of men would have been reluctant to take in a little baby that wasn’t theirs, but Joe welcomes his brother-in-law with open arms (I nearly cried when I read that part). Besides his merits as a father figure, he is kindhearted, generous, and down-to-earth.

Honorable Mention:
Mr. [Does he have a first name?] Bennet
Pride and Prejudice
Sometimes, I talk so much about the characters of Pride and Prejudice I forget that I’ve never actually read the book cover to cover. Yes, take my woman card away! I’ve never read a whole Jane Austen novel. I only know P&P because I’ve seen three adaptations of it an untold number of times (the 1940, 1995, and 2005 versions. By the way, Laurence Olivier is my favorite Mr. Darcy. 😉 ). But that’s no reason not to let this character have his turn in the spotlight. Granted, he picks on his girls a lot and his financial planning skills stink, but he’s still one of my favorite literary dads. His sarcastic sense of humor might have something to do with that. Take for example this line from Chapter 23 (I did read that far into the book!):

“Indeed, Mr. Bennet,” said [Mrs. Bennet], “it is very hard to think that Charlotte Lucas should ever be mistress of this house, that I should be forced to make way for her, and live to see her take her place in it!”

“My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.”

Quite a fellow, that Mr. Bennet, and definitely deserving of honorable mention.

Happy Memorial Day!

Memorial DayI certainly hope you’ve all had a good Memorial Day and that everyone has enjoyed their day off! Memorial Day has largely become a day for picnics and parties, barbequing chicken and buying discounted mattresses. But it’s also a day for remembrance, a day to stop for a moment and think about the men and women who have given their lives so that we can go on living as we please. People like John Greenwood, who, at the age of sixteen, ran away from home and walked from Portland, Maine to Boston, Massachusetts so he could get into the thick of the colonies’ fight for independence. People like Dan Bullock, a fifteen-year-old who, rather than complain about the Vietnam War like a lot of teenagers, lied about his age so that he could serve in it. Our servicemen and women dedicate their whole lives to us–sometimes they even give their lives for us. The least we can do is remember them and give them the respect and admiration they are due.

I was trying to think of a poem about America that would suit the occasion when I thought, “What would be better than ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’?” This poem, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, originally contained four verses, though all you ever hear at football games and NASCAR races is one. In fact, for the longest time, I only knew that one verse, which is a shame, because the rest of the poem is pretty fantastic as well. I especially like the last verse, but you can see for yourself:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

God bless America!

Image Credit: Viintage.com.