“Mary Magdalen and I” by Czesław Miłosz

As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with Czesław Miłosz’s poetry. One poem in particular that I keep returning to is “Mary Magdalen and I,” translated by Miłosz and Robert Hass:

The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen
Chased from her by the Teacher with his prayer
Hover in the air in a bat-like flight,
While she, with one leg folded in,
Another bent at the knee, sits staring hard
At her toe and the thong of her sandal
As if she had just noticed such an odd thing.
Her chestnut-brown hair curls in rings
And covers her back, strong, almost virile,
Resting on her shoulder, on a dark blue dress
Under which her nakedness phosphoresces.
The face is heavyish, the neck harboring
A voice that is low, husky, as if hoarse.
But she will say nothing. Forever between
The element of flesh and the element
Of hope, she stays still. At the canvas’s corner
The name of a painter who desired her.

This isn’t an actual painting Miłosz is describing: he mentioned once at a poetry reading that he “invented” the painting and therefore, he said, the painter in the last line is him.

And like a master painter, Miłosz attempts to tell us as much of this woman’s story as he can solely through depictions of physical things. Mary’s pose, for instance—head down and “staring hard / At her toe and the thong of her sandal”—suggests a few things to me. Since Jesus could possibly be standing next to her (assuming her exorcism was recent), it could be a show of reverence for Him, denoting Mary’s piety. The gesture of staring at her own foot and shoe “As if she had just noticed such an odd thing,” for me, also brings to mind the image of a very young child who is mesmerized by commonplace objects. It makes me think of someone who is small and vulnerable and innocent, all of which describes Mary in this instance.

Getting to Mary’s physical features, they too help tell the story that’s been told about her for centuries: her hair, for instance, “curls in rings” because of a Talmudic passage in which the word “Magdalen” is sometimes translated to mean “curling women’s hair”; since artificially curled hair has for so long been associated with prostitutes, this little detail helps reinforce the story that Mary Magdalen was a reformed prostitute. (There’s actually no Scriptural basis for that, but anyhow ….) Her hair rests “on a dark blue dress,” blue being associated with heaven and often used in religious art to clothe saints. And yet even with the blue dress, we can still see how “her nakedness phosphoresces.” Looking at paintings of Mary Magdalen from about the early Renaissance onward, you’ll notice that many of them depict Mary partly undressed, sometimes with her whole torso uncovered. These paintings would seem to depict Mary in a sort of transitioning state between her old life (that of the sinner and prostitute) and her new life as one of Christ’s disciples.

Miłosz himself said he didn’t have an actual painting in mind when he wrote this poem, but it still reminds me of “Mary Magdalene in a Landscape” by Annibale Carracci.

And, as far as I can tell, that’s partly what the poem is about: being caught in between heaven and earth, “the element of flesh and the element / Of hope.” One thing I’ve always loved about Miłosz is how honest he is about the realities of living in a fallen world. While his poetry often glories in the things of the earth, at the same time, he recognizes these things to be corrupted, lesser versions of what they could be. He can be honest about the sin, death, and pain that plague the world, without giving up his duty to praise the world. I think this poem portrays that sort of duality in an especially elegant way, contrasting the humble, innocent, child-like Mary Magdalen with her surroundings, in which demons “Hover in the air in a bat-like flight.”

However, as we come to the end of the poem, we see that Mary is no longer front and center, but rather, the artist painting her is. Not only are we made aware of the painter’s presence, but we are also told that he is in some way aroused by this image of Mary Magdalen. I wondered about these last lines at first, wondered why it was even necessary to mention the painter, let alone that he “desired her.” Now, I think these lines have a dual purpose.

First, they bring the poem full circle. The poem begins with “The seven unclean spirits of Mary Magdalen” and ends with “The name of a painter who desired her.” Each time, we are confronted with a state of spiritual imperfection, which brings to my mind what seems to be the recurrent nature of sin. I hope I don’t sound too bleak: if Christ has freed you from sin, you are free indeed, but that doesn’t mean that the process of being made holier won’t be long and laborious. Salvation is instant; sanctification is not. That won’t be completed until we are actually with Christ in heaven. For many Christians (and Miłosz apparently was one of them), this is a painful reality: the idea that, even as we strive to be the best we can, we still fall short and do what we, justly, hate. But, even while we’re on earth, there’s always hope—more on that in a minute.

The second reason why these lines are important is because they point to the relative unimportance of the artist in relation to the work he creates. As I mentioned earlier, the painting in this poem says something very meaningful about the spiritual realities of the world. However, that last line reveals that the artist’s primary thought is of “desire” for this woman—or for women in general—and not the spiritual or historical weight that Mary’s story carries. Nevertheless, good things are still accomplished through this man and his work, in spite of his less-than-noble ambitions.

For me, that speaks to a sort of Providential action in life, whereby the things we do, even when we do them imperfectly or for the wrong reasons, can still be used to better our fellow men, and even to glorify God. That’s why we shouldn’t despair, even as we look on our own sinfulness and the fallenness of the rest of the world. Of course we should deplore any and all sin and avoid it whenever possible, but recognizing sin for what it is doesn’t have to lead us to despair. Instead, it gives us greater opportunities for rejoicing: it lets us better appreciate the providence of God when we realize that everything works together for Him, even our own imperfections.

That’s all for now. Do let me know in the comments if I’ve completely misinterpreted this poem and what you take away from it.

Literary Rediscoveries of 2016

About this time last year, I brought you a list of previously-unknown or lost works that were found/published in 2015. With such geniuses as Dylan Thomas, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charlotte Brontë on that list, I was afraid this year’s installment would seem a little lackluster by comparison.

No danger of that.

So, in the order that these pieces were found or published, here are 13 old works that the world got a new look at in 2016.

1: “New York to San Fran” (et. al.) by Allen Ginsberg

This poem, published for the first time in the February 2016 issue of Poetry magazine, is taken from a new Ginsberg collection titled Wait till I’m Dead: Uncollected Poems. It’s actually just one of over 100 of Ginsberg’s poems that, over the years, either were lost or never published in the first place, and are now seeing the light of day once more thanks to this collection.

2 & 3: “The Shadow Man” and “Noel” by J. R. R. Tolkien

For the second year in a row, Tolkien makes it onto the “Rediscovered Works” list, this time with a pair of poems published in a school magazine in 1936. (It appears the initial discovery was actually made in 2013 by Tolkien scholars Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, but for some reason, the press didn’t catch wind of it until February of this year.) Of these two poems, only “The Shadow Man,” an early version of what would later become the poem “Shadow-Bride,” was previously known to exist. “Noel,” a retelling of the story of Christ’s birth, was a completely unexpected find, even to the Tolkien experts. No word yet on when or where these poems will be reprinted, but for now, you can read “The Shadow Man” here.

4: Recordings of Robert Frost reading his poetry

Frost in or around 1910.

In March of this year, PennSound, the University of Pennsylvania’s online archive for poetry recordings by poets, announced the release of twenty-one unpublished recordings of Frost’s poetry. The recordings were made at Columbia University between 1933 and 1934 and include, among other poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” and “On the Heart’s Beginning to Cloud the Mind,” which Frost composed in place of an acceptance speech after he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

5: A letter Walt Whitman wrote for a Union soldier

This isn’t so much a “literary work,” but it provides an interesting glimpse into Whitman’s life: during the Civil War, Whitman was known to visit Union army hospitals, where he would hand out food and sometimes money to the patients. He also wrote letters for those who were too badly hurt to do it themselves, or, in the case of this letter, for those who were illiterate. This previously-unknown letter, discovered in the National Archives by a volunteer archivist, was written for a Private Robert Jabo to send to his wife and six children. A brief P.S. at the end mentions that the letter was written by Whitman, and several Whitman experts have authenticated the handwriting. It’s the real deal!

6: Aeneid, Book VI translated by Seamus Heaney

For years, Heaney, a lifelong lover of Latin poetry, had been planning to translate the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid and publish it as a standalone work. He even had a finished manuscript of the translation ready for his editor when he died suddenly in 2013. That manuscript was then discovered in 2015 on one of Heaney’s old computers by his daughter Catherine, who published it in March of this year. This story becomes even more amazing and slightly eerie when you find out that Book VI of the Aeneid is about Aeneas going to the underworld to speak with his dead father.

7: Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda by Pablo Neruda (translated by Forrest Gander)

On the same day that Heaney’s Aeneid translation was published in the US, we also got this book of poems by the great Chilean master, including twenty poems being published for the first time in English. It seems that some archivists at the Pablo Neruda Foundation in Chile discovered these poems while sorting some of the late author’s papers. The non-profit publisher Copper Canyon Press then went to Kickstarter to raise the necessary $50,000 to get this book in print, where they raised more than twice that amount.

8: “Seven People Dancing” by Langston Hughes

Hughes in 1936. Photo by Carl van Vechten.
Hughes in 1936. Photo by Carl van Vechten.

This short story, written around 1961 and never published, was found in Yale University’s collection of Hughes’s papers by Arnold Rampersand, Hughes’s biographer. Hughes was experimenting with modernist prose in the sixties and this story is one such experiment. The story was published in the June 6 issue of The New Yorker, but you can also read it here at The New Yorker‘s website.

9: The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter

This story, concerning a little black cat who likes sling her shotgun over her shoulder and go hunting, was first written around 1914. 100 years later in 2014, a reference to the story in some of Beatrix Potter’s letters led Jo Hanks, the children’s editor at Penguin Random House, to go looking through the archive of Potter’s papers at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she found three drafts of this story. The finished book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, was published this September.

Wells, in an undated photograph.

10: “The Haunted Ceiling” by H. G. Wells

Remember Andrew Gulli? The magazine editor who, last year, found and published a previously-unseen short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald? He and his magazine The Strand are back again, this time with an unpublished short story by the science fiction master H. G. Wells. “The Haunted Ceiling,” the story of a man whose study is haunted by a young woman’s ghost, was discovered at the University of Illinois, which hosts a huge archive of Wells’s papers. The story was published in the October-January issue of The Strand.

11: “Poem” by A. A. Milne

Though today he’s known almost exclusively as the author of the wonderful Winnie-the-Pooh books, Milne wrote across multiple genres, including drama, crime fiction, and poetry. This particular poem was written in 1918 to be read at a fundraiser for the Tank Corps Prisoners of War Fund. Appropriately, it’s a propaganda piece extolling the virtues of Britain’s brand new tanks and their role in the First World War.

12: The oldest known audiobook, Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon”

Conrad in 1916.

Recorded by England’s Royal National Institute for Blind People in about 1935, this set of four shellac discs is believed to be the oldest full-length audiobook in existence. Its discovery was announced in November by Matthew Rubery, a literature professor at London’s Queen Mary University. Rubery was researching the history of audiobooks when he was contacted by a record collector in Canada saying he had acquired a copy of the “Typhoon” audiobook. Shellac records are infamously delicate, so it’s amazing that the entire set has survived this long. You can also listen to a portion of this long-lost book here.

13: A lot of documents belonging to a lot of authors

In 2014, Mary Innes-Kerr, Duchess of Roxburghe, passed away, leaving the enormous library she inherited from her father to Cambridge University’s Trinity College. Besides gaining more than 7,000 new books, the university also received a cache of letters and other papers belong to famous authors that the Duchess’s father and grandfather had collected over the years, many of them previously unknown. I haven’t been able to find the full list of goodies yet, but the BBC reports that among the papers Duchess Roxburghe owned were a letter from Charles Dickens (squirreled away in a first edition copy of Hard Times), a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray with an inscription from Wilde, and a letter that Henry James wrote to the duchess’s grandfather, in response to a fan letter he wrote to him. So, all in all, a pretty impressive lot.

Let me know in the comments if I missed anything and Happy New Year!

All images are from Wikimedia Commons.

“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.)

Top Ten Tuesday: Valentine’s Day Edition


Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

With Valentine’s Day coming up this Sunday, the girls at The Broke and the Bookish decided to make this week’s “Top Ten Tuesday” a Valentine’s Day-themed free-for-all. And since I’ve been looking for an opportunity to talk about poetry anyway, I decided to take advantage of this week’s topic to write a list of favorite love poems (in no particular order).

1: “Glanmore Sonnets, X” by Seamus Heaney

I won’t say this poem is perfect, but it is a Seamus Heaney sonnet, so it’s pretty darn close.

2: “When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats

Perhaps a little cliché by now, but that matters not a whit: it’s still one of my favorites by Yeats, as well as the poem that made me fall in love with his work in the first place.

3: “Innocence” by Patrick Kavanagh

Granted, this isn’t a usual love poem, because it’s about love of a place rather than love of a person. But as Kavanagh himself said in a different poem, “nothing whatever is by love debarred.”

4:  “If You Were Coming in the Fall” by Emily Dickinson

Like most everyone else it seems, I cut my poetic teeth on short little poems by Dickinson. This one was and still is one of my favorites from her.

5: “The Otter” by Seamus Heaney

Ordinary poets might compare their beloved to a bird, maybe, or perhaps a deer: extraordinary poets, however, can compare their wives to otters and get away with it. Heaney was one such extraordinary poet.

6: “The Sun Rising” by John Donne

Somehow, I don’t think I can write a post about love poetry and not include something by Donne.

7: “To My Dear and Loving Husband” by Anne Bradstreet

Another poet I would be remiss not to mention is Anne Bradstreet. She was one of my first favorite poets, and this poem in particular has stuck with me ever since I first read it years ago.

8: “For Annie” by Edgar Allan Poe
Sure, it’s dark and morbid as only Poe can be, but I still love it for its musicality (and for the irony of writing a love poem about death).

9: “If You Came” by Ruth Pitter

I’ve just started to dip into Ruth Pitter’s work, but this poem in particular strikes me with the depth of feeling that its seeming simplicity belies.

10: “Creation Day” by G. K. Chesterton

Last but by no means least, we have this lovely quatern that our very own Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote to his wife Frances shortly after they were married in 1901.


What about you? Do you have any favorite love poems? Any favorite poems of any sort? Let me know in the comments.

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.

Poem of the Week: “Desdichado”

One of my most favorite poems of all time. I hope you all like it!


by Dorothy L. Sayers

Christ walks the world again, His lute upon His back,
His red robe rent to tatters, His riches gone to rack,
The wind that wakes the morning blows His hair about His face,
His hands and feet are ragged with the ragged briar’s embrace,
For the hunt is up behind Him and His sword is at His side, . . .
Christ the bonny outlaw walks the whole world wide,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Lie among the bracken and break the barley bread?
We will see new suns arise in golden, far-off skies,
For the Son of God and Woman hath not where to lay His head.”

Christ walks the world again, a prince of fairy-tale,
He roams, a rascal fiddler, over mountain and down dale,
Cast forth to seek His fortune in a bitter world and grim,
For the stepsons of His Father’s house would steal His Bride from Him;
They have weirded Him to wander till He bring within His hands
The water of eternal youth from black-enchanted lands,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Or sleep on silken cushions in the bower of wicked men?
For if we walk together through the wet and windy weather,
When I ride back home triumphant you will ride beside Me then.”

Christ walks the world again, new-bound on high emprise,
With music in His golden mouth and laughter in His eyes;
The primrose springs before Him as He treads the dusty way,
His singer’s crown of thorn has burst in blossom like the may,
He heedeth not the morrow and He never looks behind,
Singing: “Glory to the open skies and peace to all mankind.”

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking, . . . why, how small a thing is death!”


Poem of the Week: “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”

If you’re not too sick of all the poetry talk yet, here’s a little gem by Emily Dickinson.

“There’s a Certain Slant of Light”

by Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –


An Anniversary I Had to Mark

Photo by George Hodan.
Photo by George Hodan.

I’m not going to lie: I was never a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s not that I read his stories and didn’t like them, or read his poems and found them wanting, I simply didn’t like his reputation, and for this reason, never tried him. Dead girls who aren’t really dead? Brothers who bury them before they’re dead? No, thank you.

But recently, for some reason or another, I read Poe’s legendary poem “The Raven,” which just so happens to have been first published on this date in 1845. Like many things, I didn’t expect to like it, but once I read the poem–really read it–I was amazed at what I had been missing. This poem is brilliant! Poe was a genius! Being rather unschooled when it comes to poetry, I can’t tell you exactly what it is about this poem that I love so much; maybe I just admire Poe for being able to keep this long, involved rhyme scheme going for so long without becoming monotonous, or maybe I love the way the words tumble out one on top of the other to give it the reader a sense of the fear and urgency the speaker feels. But whatever it is, I adore this poem and I love Poe for being brilliant enough to write it (from a distance, that is. I love Poe from a distance).

Here without further adieu is the 170-year-old poem itself:

“The Raven”

by Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Of course, if you don’t feel like reading it yourself, this guy gives a pretty good reading:

P.S. I hope this makes up for me missing the last installment of “Poem of the Week.”

Why People Hate Poetry

In an interview with CUNY TV, Irish poet Paul Muldoon advanced his theory for why so many people, particularly students, struggle to understand and enjoy poetry. According to Muldoon, it has to do with the way that poetry is taught in schools: in high school, he says, students are given the impression that they will never be able to understand poetry without a teacher or other sort of “expert” there to tell them what they’re reading.

Muldoon makes a good point: most schools’ ways of teaching–not just poetry, but all subjects– cause students to doubt or neglect their own abilities. Because they, from the time they were waist-high, were spoon-fed their lessons, they become convinced that they cannot accomplish anything academic without involving a teacher. I believe college professors call this “freshman syndrome.” But this, I think, is only part of the reason why students struggle with poetry.

Like Mr. Muldoon, I believe the root of the problem is in how poetry is taught: in most schools, where one curriculum is expected to accommodate hundreds of unique students, the idea of “one-size-fits-all” rules the day. All children are introduced to poetry the same way and through the same works. The problem is that poetry, whether in reading it or writing it, is one of the most individual experiences in the world. Because it deals with thoughts and emotions in a way that no other sort of writing does, no two people will react the same way to the same piece of poetry, nor will two people react the same way to the same method of teaching poetry. For me, I disliked poetry intensely when I was taught from texts like “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth and “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish. However, when I was allowed to read Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” and John Milton’s Sonnet 23, I began to take a liking to poetry. As my fellow blogger Fariba once wrote, “I am convinced that people who say they don’t like poetry have not yet found the right poem. When they do find the right one (notice that I didn’t say ‘if’) they will know.” I agree.

“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

Poem of the Week: “The Savior Must Have Been a Docile Gentleman”

This week’s poem is by Emily Dickinson (who else would give a poem such a cumbersome title?).

“The Savior Must Have Been a Docile Gentleman”

by Emily Dickinson

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman—
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen—

The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be
A rugged Billion Miles—