A YEAR IN POEMS 4/27/2021


“i count the morning
stars the air so sweet i turn
riverdark with sound.”

Sonia Sanchez, “Haiku [i count the morning] 

Haiku forces the poet to compress her imagery into versatile and breathtaking verbal offerings like “riverdark with sound." The image is almost synesthetic.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/23/2021


“Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.”

Edward Arlington Robinson, “Mr. Flood’s Party” 

Sympathetic and poignant, a portrayal of age and isolation as well as the strength of memories. Robinson's poems are small elegantly carved portraits that seem to capture the huge experience of each little life.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/22/2021


“…If you like-
I'll be furiously flesh elemental,
or - changing to tones that the sunset arouses -
if you like-
I'll be extraordinary gentle,
not a man, but - a cloud in trousers!

Vladimir Mayakovsky, “A Cloud in Trousers”

A lyrical portion of a rather brutal, long poem by the Russian Futurist. His imagery can be coarse and gritty, but the heart and soul are bared and vulnerable. One of the poems I would love to read in its original language since I fear some of its grace is lacking in translation.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/21/2021


“I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold”

William Carlos Williams. "This Is Just to Say"

I have an ongoing debate whether this is a poem or an actual note. It is elegant in its simplicity and in the way he brings the sensual into the mundane.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/20/2021


“The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then, moves on.”

Carl Sandburg, "The Fog" 

Oh, the audacity of this tiny poem! One image distilled into description and a small action. Almost haiku in its deceptive simplicity.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/19/2021


“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man in now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride”

In celebration of the original Patriot’s Day. This classic poem used to be memorization fodder and whole generations can recite at least the first stanza as easily as they can their name and childhood address. Like much of Longfellow, there is a clumsy charm and earnestness about the verse, but he is excellent at using the meter to convey motion and urgency. The words rattle along like the hoofbeats of a galloping horse. If you can forgive its historic inaccuracies, this is great patriotic pablum.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/18/2021


“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the leas,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Somber and moving, this curious antiquity is frankly a chore to read. Gray’s lyricism, though – his carefully constructed metaphors and imagery (“incense-breathing morn” or “yonder nodding beech”) – make this poet the perfect introduction to the overwrought verse of the high Romantics. The meaning seems daunting until you stop to listen and read and then it is surprising in its self-evidence. I think that is why Gray’s “Elegy” remains high on the list of must-read poetry.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/17/2021


“Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

Wallace Stevens. “Emperor of Ice Cream” 

Since we are on the subject of Ice Cream. An elaborate play on a line from Hamlet ("Your worm is your only emperor for diet"), this clever poem is striking for its magnificent alliteration as well as its come-and-go rhythm and rhyme scheme.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/16/2021


“I am Ebenezer Bleezer,
there are flavors in my freezer
you have never seen before,
twenty-eight divine creations
too delicious to resist,
why not do yourself a favor,
try the flavors on my list:


Jack Prelutsky, “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” 

The list goes on for twenty-eight poetic lines, each one a rhythmic orgy of color and sound. How can you resist “COTTON CANDY CARROT CUSTARD” or “CAULIFLOWER COLA MUSTARD” ice cream? 

There is nothing wrong with a bit of doggerel on occasion, even in comparison with heavy epic and powerful odes. Poetry is meant to free the language into a realm of pure oral expression – it is a joyous oral medium. The almost hypnotic flow of these absurd concoctions read aloud represents the height of freedom.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/15/2021


April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

Surely one of the most debated and notorious poems in the literature. The density of allusions and the sharp shifts in tense and focus are unsettling. This is a classic poetry class study poem – find the DIM within its sonnets. But even without teasing out the allusions, even without sorting out the myriad voices, there is lyricism and sensibility. The opening stanza itself foreshadows the mixed emotions of memory.

For personal reasons of loss, April was always a difficult time for me, so this opening line rang true from my first reading. I still visit The Wasteland infrequently and find more gems in its turbulent writing.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/14/2021


"To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
    Dark like me—
That is my dream!"

Langston Hughes, “Dream Variations”

Hughes has emerged from being a prominent Black poet to being one of the most recognized and revered voices among all American poets. His poetry wears that mantle uncomfortably in its self-conscious awareness of the enforced otherness of the Black voice in society. This poem can be read as a sonorous, joyous elegy to the beauty and promise of life, but its emphasis on “white day is done” in contrast to the offset lines “Dark like me” and “Black like me” in the next stanza is unmissable.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/13/2021


“Because I cannot sleep
I make music at night.
I am troubled by the one
whose face has the color of spring flowers.
I have neither sleep nor patience,
neither a good reputation nor disgrace.
A thousand robes of wisdom are gone.”

Rumi, “Ode 314” (transl. by C Barks and J Moyne)

Although ancient (mid-13th C. CE) there is a timelessness about Rumi’s poetry. The verse could be as comfortably from the 18th C. or written last week. That is the essence of Rumi’s creations. He found the universality in his own emotions, filtering them through the vista of the world at large. I find it comforting to see so much commonality of feeling across cultures and across time.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/12/2021


I know a thing that's most uncommon;
(Envy, be silent and attend!)
I know a reasonable Woman,
Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.
Not warp'd by Passion, awed by Rumour;
Not grave through Pride, nor gay through Folly,
An equal Mixture of good Humour
And sensible soft Melancholy.
"Has she no faults then (Envy says), Sir?"
Yes, she has one, I must aver;
When all the World conspires to praise her,
The Woman's deaf, and does not hear.

Alexander Pope, “On a Certain Lady in Court”

Eventually Pope would turn up in any list of poetry. This is not his most famous writing (“To err is human” and “Hope springs eternal” are far more renowned) but it is one of his most graceful and rhapsodic works with enough irony to recognize Pope’s hand but not enough sardonicism to bite. It also demonstrates a “roman a clef” – that maddening riddle that points to a certain, living person who will never be uncovered because of lost allusions and context. The 'certain lady' may be a satirical invention or she may be a real figure, but we may never know.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/11/2021



"i shall imagine life
is not worth dying, if
(and when) roses complain
their beauties are in vain

but though mankind persuades
itself that every weed's
a rose, roses (you feel
certain) will only smile”

E.E. Cummings, “i shall imagine life”

I once reviewed a poem for a high school literary magazine that included the line “not vain/ Like a flower.” I mistook the author’s meaning, or at least her punctuation, to imply that flowers are vain. Which of course they are. What other purpose is the color and the beauty except to call attention to itself: the very definition of vain.



A YEAR IN POEMS 4/10/2021


“We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon."

Gwendolyn Brooks. "We Real Cool"

This is the poem that taught me about free verse, although it's not really free verse, is it? It has meter and rhyme, both internal from the main body and external from the repeated pronoun at the end of each line. The freedom of the verse comes from the the choppy staccato of the text - it is almost a chant. The uneasy perching of the pronoun at each line's end gives the whole work a feeling of headlong rashness and unsteadiness, especially placed atop the unbalanced final statement. The striking and abrupt disappearance of the pronoun at the end, representing perhaps the loss of life and of self, leads the reader to return to the beginning for an air of futile inevitability. A whole tableau is established in eight brilliant lines.



A YEAR IN POEMS 4/9/2021


“Everyone grumbled. The sky was grey.
We had nothing to do and nothing to say.
We were nearing the end of a dismal day,
And then there seemed to be nothing beyond,
Daddy fell into the pond!

Alfred Noyes, “Daddy Fell into the Pond”

Nothing but a silly story poem for a fun if gray Friday. 

From a personal note, I have fallen into a pond (or pool) twice, once unwitnessed when I was testing the ice on the semi-frozen turtle pond in front of the Scarsdale Public Library and once to the wild amusement of my then 5-year-old son into a hot tub. Read the poem, laugh along with the children, the gardener, and even the geese. But be sympathetic to the Daddy’s side of the story as well.



A YEAR IN POEMS 4/8/2021


Beneath the blossoms with a pot of wine,
No friends at hand, so I poured alone;
I raised my cup to invite the moon,
Turned to my shadow, and we became three.

Li Po, “Drinking Alone in the Moonlight”

Is this small, spare poem about loneliness or the denial of it?


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/7/2021


“If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might we move
To live with thee and be thy love.”

W Raleigh, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”

Why are we so blessed to have this poetic conversation when so many of Elizabethan poems are lost? What was the relationship between these two famous figures (Marlowe and Raleigh)? How did Marlowe react to the playful rebuke that Raleigh puts in his Nymph’s mouth, cutting through the seductive flattery to a rather cold dismissal? And how gratifying to for once hear the pastoral woman's point of view.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/6/2021

           “Come live with me and be my love,
            And we will all the pleasures prove
            That valleys. Groves, hills, and fields,
            Woods, or steepy mountain yields.”

Christopher Marlowe, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” 

One of the most famous poems of English literature, and rightly so for its effervescent and lively meter and rhymes. If nothing else, it points to the versatility of the amazing Kit Marlowe, known at the time for his sweeping and epic tragic dramas. This poem reads more of a song, especially in the cunning clue of a line like “Melodious birds sing madrigals.” Was this a response to a challenge? Is there a horde of lyric poetry that history has hidden from us? What masterpieces might he have written had he not been murdered in his prime? These are questions that bring literature and history to life before our eyes.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/5/2021


“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Sonnet XLII from Sonnets from the Portuguese”: 

What to make of this oft-ridiculed poem? It is deceptively simple, on its face a simple list of the types of love, although that feature in itself is both moving and powerful. Perhaps the aspect most frequently missed by the satirists is the sophistication of the prosody, with its complex shift of rhyme scheme for the final sesto and its stirring transition of the terminal rhymes from “faith” to “breath” to the final word “death”. As is often the case, there is one internal line (oft overlooked) which I think is timeless. “I love thee to the level of every day’s/ Most quiet need.” 

Beware what you parody. It is often the parodist who comes off looking the worst.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/3/2021


“maggie and millie and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were”

E.E. Cummings, “10 (maggie and milly and molly and may)”

Another poem from my singing past, like most of Cummings’ work pithy and frolicsome. He gives us the friends’ joy and delight of discovery. This is a particularly effective use of his anarchic and frenetic style, because we are kept off balance by the verse, uncertain what will come next, but brought home with a satisfying touchdown point at finish.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/2/2021


“The cat fits in the crook of my arm
as would a new-born child, although
equipped with wariness.
He cares for me much as I care
for what seems to be God, demonstrably
here and in charge
though often deaf to prayer.
Having no Cattish, I cannot explain
why I wear clothes, speak words and cause
a car to move, but as a cat will choose
food and a kind hand, not the frosted wood,
I trust in the unknowable
rather than cry on the cliff’s edge
to a diagram of stars.

Alison Prince, “Having no Cattish”

A sweet reflection on the nature of faith without language. The poet's cat cannot understand the basics of a human but he knows (or trusts) that he will be provided for. He bides in contented care. The poem also raises the question of the two-way nature of belief. The cat’s acceptance of the existence of the poet’s care makes that care a responsibility, a covenant.


A YEAR IN POEMS 4/1/2021


Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
            Here shall he see
            No enemy
But winter and rough weather.”

Shakespeare, Song (from “As You Like It”)

On April Fool’s Day, one of the sweetest and most graceful of Shakespeare’s songs. 

The role of the Fool in Shakespeare’s plays is always a source of scholarly debate. Is the Fool an everyman through which we should filter the action? Does the Fool serve as a form of Greek chorus to narrate and frame context within the play? Is the Fool the author himself, freed from the constraints of character to make caustic commentary? 

I think the role is an inherited one – Elizabethan theater demanded a comedic presence even in the direst of tragedies (hence the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet”). But as with so many things, Shakespeare took the existing patterns and refined and reshaped them, so that by a mature comedy like this one, the Fool could be both a source of humor and a font of satire. By “King Lear” the Fool could become a tragic actor in his own right. By “The Tempest” the Fools had been given power and strength that embodied the theater itself and the human characters were cast in the foolish roles.