Poetry Review: “Morning Worship” by Mark Van Doren

Mark Van Doren

Mark Van Doren

When I think of Mark Van Doren, I always think of Thomas Merton. That is because it was Merton that first led me to read Van Doren, or rather, reading Merton’s Seven Story Moutain that led me to want to find and read Van Doren’s poetry.

Once Van Doren was widely acclaimed as a poet. His Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. As time has passed though, his stature has diminished. His books are difficult to find. Looking on Amazon.com, I find used copies of his poetry available… but little currently in print.

It is difficult to say why Van Doren has fallen so far out of fashion. It is not his poetry or his poetic ability. It may simply be that at this point in time predominant tastes do not lean in his direction. Some day they will again. They must because his poetry is too good to be lost.

The first volume of Van Doren’s poetry I ever purchased was one I found at a used bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama. I was killing time waiting for a Greyhound bus headed for Florida and Key West. I stepped into a small used bookstore on my way back to the bus station from a barbecue place that someone had recommended to me.

The store was cramped and filled with Harlequin romances and old best sellers. On a table in the back, I found a paperback copy of Van Doren’s Collected Poems. It may have been the only volume of poetry in the whole store. It was beat up but unmarked and only  .75 cents. I bought it.

I read the book on the bus through Florida and in Key West. When I read one of his poems now, I quite often think of Key West… of Red Stripe beer and boats… of  long, lazy mornings and lazier afternoons… of music and girls and sun… of my youth.

What better way to start the weekend than reading a poem that reminds you of all of that….

Enjoy!

Morning Worship

I wake and hearing it raining.
Were I dead, what would I give
Lazily to lie here,
Like this, and live?

Or better yet: birdsong,
Brightening and spreading –
How far would I come then
To be at the world’s wedding?

Now that I lie, though,
Listening, living,
(Oh, but not forever,
Oh, end arriving)

How shall I praise them:
All the sweet beings
Eternally that outlive
Me and my dying?

Mountains, I mean; wind, water, air;
Grass, and huge trees; clouds, flowers,
And thunder, and night.

Turtles, I mean, and toads; hawks, herons, owls;
Graveyards, and towns, and trout; roads, gardens,
Red berries, and deer.

Lightning, I mean, and eagles; fences; snow;
Sunrise, and ferns; waterfalls, serpents,
Green islands, and sleep.

Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;
Mosses, and stars and gravelly
Rivers, and fruit.

Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;
Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice;
And warnings of flood.

How shall I name them?
And in what order?
Each would be first.
Omission is murder.

Maidens, I mean, and apples; needles; leaves;
Worms, and planers, and clover; whirlwinds; dew;
Bulls; geese –

Stop. Lie still.
You will never be done.
Leave them all there.
Old lover. Live on.

Poetry Review: “Winter Night” by Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak

We inherit from our parents much that flows beneath the surface of our immediate awareness: temperment, personality, ways of looking at and moving through the world. Nature (genes) forms our external characteristics… nurture (environment) forms our personalities.

My mother watched virtually no television and only occasionally went to movies or watched them on tv. One movie that she did love though was Doctor Zhivago. She also loved the book. My own interest in Russian literature that began in high school no doubt was influenced by the place that Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago had in our household.

For a few years when I was in high school, I read almost exclusively Russian writers: Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pasternak. Looking back now I can see that the way literary, religious, and political themes interconnect and mingle in Russian literature resonated with my interests and inclinations and, of course, helped form them.

I came across this poem by Pasternak on the internet while researching my favorite Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. I mention this because I really know nothing about this poem: the occasion for its writing, the translator, how it fits in with other Pasternak poems. I only know that I liked it very much the first time I read it… and that it seems appropriate for the coldest, snowiest winter I can remember.

On a cold February morning this seems like the perfect poem.

Enjoy!

Winter Night

It snowed and snowed ,the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

As during summer midges swarm
To beat their wings against a flame
Out in the yard the snowflakes swarmed
To beat against the window pane

The blizzard sculptured on the glass
Designs of arrows and of whorls.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

Distorted shadows fell
Upon the lighted ceiling:
Shadows of crossed arms,of crossed legs-
Of crossed destiny.

Two tiny shoes fell to the floor
And thudded.
A candle on a nightstand shed wax tears
Upon a dress.

All things vanished within
The snowy murk-white,hoary.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

A corner draft fluttered the flame
And the white fever of temptation
Upswept its angel wings that cast
A cruciform shadow

It snowed hard throughout the month
Of February, and almost constantly
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

Guilty Pleasures

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. ~ Groucho Marx

ERB

Edgar Rice Burroughs

I must confess that I am a bad television viewer. There are shows I like, but I seldom like to watch them. For the most part, with the exception of sports, I prefer books.

When I was younger… in my teens and twenties… that meant only poetry and “great” literature. Somewhere along the way I loosened up and started reading things that I had skipped or eschewed altogether as being “beneath” me.

Now, I keep a few dozen books in play at all times: at least two or three volumes of poetry, some history and sports books, a couple mysteries, some scifi and fantasy, a few traditional novels, some theology and chess books…. I am admittedly a restless reader and a restless thinker.

One of my guilty pleasure of late has been a Edgar Rice Burroughs, he of Tarzan fame. I had never read Burroughs until the last six months. But Kindle editions of his work are available for free or nearly free from Amazon, and so I thought I would give him a try. And so I have:

  • At the Earths Core
  • Pellucidar
  • Tanar of Pellucidar
  • Tarzan of the Apes
  • The Return of Tarzan
  • Princess of Mars
  • The Gods of Mars

There is a reason that Burroughs was famous and successful and that a few of this characters like Tarzan have become so iconic. Burroughs understood pulp writing and did it well. He made no pretense in his writing about elevating his readers… he only cared about entertaining them. And in that he was successful… and is still successful.

Good pulp writing pulls you in and pulls you along like good movies and television shows do. It is the perfect kind of writing to read in snatches, between things. And so when I have a few minutes in bed before falling asleep, or when I am sitting in the car waiting to pick up one of my  daughters, or in a waiting room waiting to be called, or when I have been chased out of the family room because someone has turned the television on,  I know I can open up the Kindle app on my iPod and read another Edgar Rice Burroughs book and be… entertained.

Music Monday: “This Old Porch” by Lyle Lovett

“This Old Porch” is a song about nostalgia and memory, about remembering a time and a pace of life that has sadly passed. Tired of snow…. tired of much… I close my eyes and listen to Lyle Lovett. I imagine what it would be like to sit again on an old porch with a longneck beer and good Tex-Mex food, to listen to good music and to feel the warm sun on my face again… and on the faces of so many who are gone.

On the last day of a cold January, it is easy to dream of warmer climes, of summer days and shady porches, of cold drinks and easy breezes whispering in leaf-covered trees.

Enjoy!

Poetry Review: “Yeats Died in France” by Delmore Schwartz

YeatsThere is a peculiar irony that this poem about a famous poet’s death was written by a poet who died so anonymously that his body was not found for several days after his death. Such is the nature of fame… and finitude.

While Yeats continued to write and grow as poet throughout his life, Delmore Schwartz, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, took the opposite trajectory. He created some very good work in his early career, including this poem… but soon faded. His poetic powers suffering the effects of the illnesses that ravaged his body and mind.

I wanted to post Auden’s famous poem about Yeats side-by-side with this one. They make a good match. Poets thinking poetically about poets and poetry.

Enjoy!

Yeats Died Saturday in France

Yeats died Saturday in France.
Freedom from his animal
Has come at last in alien Nice,
His heart beat separate from his will:
He knows at last the old abyss
Which always faced his staring face.

No ability, no dignity
Can fail him now who trained so long
For the outrage of eternity,
Teaching his heart to beat a song
In which man’s strict humanity,
Erect as a soldier, became a tongue.

Poetry Review: “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden

W.B. Yeats died on January 28, 1939. This is Auden’s famous poem about the death of Yeats. It is also a poem about the limits of poetry and poets.

Auden, like Yeats, is a poet who revisited his poems often to rework and rewrite them. I have written elsewhere about this vice, one which I share with both poets. What that means is when quoting a whole poem by either poet sometimes the version you remember is just slightly different from one you might find in an old volume or posted on the internet. This is the case here. Auden has reworked his famous refrain.

The youtube video is posted here so that you can hear Auden read part his famous work. I have the audio files of him reading the whole thing, along with him reading other poems of his.  Auden is one to poets that I like to hear reading their work. While certain poets have an amazing capacity to diminish their written work by reading it, Auden elevates it.

On the last Friday in January, the 72nd anniversary of Yeats’s death, what better poem or poet than this.

Enjoy!

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Poetry Review: “The Folly of Being Comforted” by W.B. Yeats

Yeats_CollectedWilliam Butler Yeats as a poet is unique. He grew greater as he aged. He was world famous as a poet in his early 20s, but wrote many of his best poems when he was in his 70s. For this reason, he has more great poems about middle age and old age than any other poet who has written.

The argument of this poem is a simple and straightforward one. So is its form. Yet in “The Folly of Being Comforted,” we see much that makes Yeats the greatest poet of the 20th Century: intellect, artistry, instinct, musicality,… poetic perfection.

On the last Friday in January, when cold and winter can make you feel middle aged, a Yeats’ poem seems like just the thing.

Enjoy!

The Folly of Being Comforted

One that is ever kind said yesterday:
‘Your well-beloved’s hair has threads of grey,
And little shadows come about her eyes;
Time can but make it easier to be wise
Though now it seems impossible, and so
All that you need is patience.’
Heart cries, ‘No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild Summer was in her gaze.’

Heart! O heart! if she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.

The 10 Best Baseball Books Ever Written

In the cold dark of winter, a middle-aged man’s fancy turns to thoughts of summer, baseball, beer, and the best books about baseball. On the last hump day in January, the Top Ten Baseball books of all time, and a brief description:

  1. The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
  2. Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
  3. Total Baseball
  4. My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams
  5. Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
  6. A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
  7. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, LeRoy “Satchel” Paige
  8. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
  9. Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
  10. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein

1. The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
In 1961 after Ty Cobb died, Lawrence Ritter got the idea of sitting down and talking to other great, old-time baseball players before it was too late. In pursuit of that goal, he traveled over 75,000 miles recording his conversations with some of the best players to have ever played the game.The result of these conversations is the single best book about baseball ever written. Ritter helped to invent a genre of sports book, the recorded-conversation, that has been often copied but never with the same success. His conversations with the likes of Hank Greenberg, Sam Crawford, Goose Goslin, and Stan Coveleski are engaging, humorous, revealing, and always magical. As the players look back at their youth and the game that they played from the vantage point of old age their memories take on a lyrical quality that is at once a tribute to the game they loved and to a time in America long gone. (For a more complete review,click here.)

2. The Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
I used to play a game with a friend of mine who is one of the biggest baseball fans I have ever met. The question was: what one book would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? It always came down to a choice between MacMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia or this one, James’sHistorical Abstract. When stats guru Bill James examines the history of baseball he creates a work that is much more than a stat book. Decade by decade he examines the players, the developments, and the growth of the game he knows so well. In 2001, James published an updated and revised version. I prefer the original.

3. Total Baseball
Once MacMillian’s Baseball Encyclopedia deservedly had the moniker of “the bible of baseball.” Total Baseball rightfully holds that title today. Utilizing advances in baseball research and statistical analysis,TB gives you 10 times more information than MacMillan’s, and dozen’s of great essays, something MacMillan’s never had at all. TB lets you compare players within their eras and within the history of the game. There is no better way to watch a game of baseball on TV than with a copy sitting on a table next to you. How does Randy Johnson stack up against Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax? How does Alex Rodriquez compare to Honus Wagner?

4. My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams and John Underwood
In his career Ted Williams often felt victimized by members of the press, and, if truth be told he was. While DiMaggio in New York was afforded a free pass by an adoring press, Williams in Boston who actually saw combat in two wars was savaged at every turn. This is William’s chance to tell his side of the story. The last man to hit .400 discusses his neglected childhood in San Diego, being a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, Boston and the Red Sox, fishing and, of course, hitting. 100 years from now, when the personal baggage between William’s and the media is long forgotten, Williams will be remembered with Jackie Robinson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth as one of the seven greatest players of the 20th century. When you factor in the seasons lost to not just one, but two wars, number 9 certainly deserves the title of “the greatest hitter to have ever lived.”

5. Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
The definitive book about Brooklyn and the Dodgers, Kahn’s sentimental work weaves together his own autobiography into stories about and conversations with the men who once made Brooklyn the emotional center of the capital of baseball: Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, and especially Jackie Robinson. There are scores of other books about the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson but this is by far the best. It is also one of the best books about the game of baseball. (For a more complete review, click here.)

6. A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
Other writers have attempted to analyze the game of baseball by analyzing the action, strategy, and play of a single game. The fact that Hano did it first, with so much sentimentality and grace, and that the game in question is Game 1 of the 1954 World Series has meant that every other attempt to follow Hano’s formula has been destined to failure. From to Willie May’s catch, to Dusty Rhodes’s home run, this is the best insider’s look at the game of baseball ever written. (For a more complete review, click here.)

7. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, Satchel Paige and David Lipton
Paige was somewhere between age 50 and 90 when he broke into the Major Leagues in 1948. Perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, Paige never got a shot at the all-white Major Leagues until it was almost too late. Considering how well he fared as a senior citizen, we can only assume that in his prime he was as unhittable as the many legends about him claim. Paige discusses his considerable legend and adds to it, describing life in the Negro Leagues, the Jim Crow South, and barnstorming baseball before Jackie Robinson.

8. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
Bouton’s book was a controversial bestseller in 19. Profiling the drinking, womanizing, and shenanigans on and off the field of his teammates and fellow players in the early and mid-1960s, Bouton’s expose seems tame by today’s standards. In its time, though, it caused a great deal of embarrassment for Mickey Mantle, the Yankees, and Major League Baseball, so much so that Bouton, a pitcher, found himself blackballed and out of work. Still one of the top-ten books about baseball.

9. Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
Ty Cobb has been called the greatest baseball player who ever lived, a racist, a killer, and the meanest man alive. Stump, who spent more harrowing days with the lonely and driven Cobb than seems possible, or even advisable, presents us with a complex portrait of a man who was indeed everything he has been called and more. On and off the field, Cobb has driven by demons of racism, hatred, personal tragedy and mental illness to be the best, at all costs. Stump profiles the life of the man who built a staggering baseball legacy and personal fortune, but in the end, died friendless and un-mourned. The best baseball biography ever written, period.

10. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein
The origin of baseball in America, like the origin of all important things, is shrouded in myth. The very location of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, was predicated on the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing the game there. Mr. Goldstein delves beneath the myth into baseball’s very pre-history, to discover the historical origins of the game that has defined America more than any other. The result is a remarkable work that is beautifully written, entertaining, and difficult to put down. Goldstein’s achievement gives us a better understanding of the game, and reminds us of why we love it so much.

Music Monday: “Darkness on the Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen

There are to my mind three distinct eras in Springsteen’s music:

  • Early Springsteen, everything up to Born in the USA (including Nebraska)
  • Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love
  • Late Springsteen

I am in the camp of those who prefer Early Springsteen (including Nebraska): the working class angst, the anger, the energy, the raw youthfulness, the rootiness of rock and blues. I can listen to and enjoyBorn in the USA and Tunnel of Love but I have no great passion for those songs. I have no interest whatsoever in anything after Tunnel of Love… so two decades worth of music.

Looking for youtube footage of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” one of my all time favorites, I found a number of clips from the last two decades. The one I include here shows my bias for the Early Springsteen. It is grainy, and black and white… but it is essential Springsteen.

What better way to start another cold and bleak week than with “Darkness of the Edge of Town.”

Poetry Review: “Psalm 14”

St_Thomas_Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas

The “poems” that make up the book of psalms were written long before the first century. Yet in the nature of great literature they hold truths that are as important and relevant today and they were when they were first heard.

In the time that Psalm 14 was first composed and sung, monotheism was a minority religion. Most  peoples of the world believed: in a set of gods particular to their culture/family; a democratic kind of holiness that said that you believe in your gods and I will believe in my gods and we will leave each other alone; or in no gods at all. While people claiming to adhere to monotheism in the 21st Century has increased “radically,” in point of fact, not much has changed.

The result of thinking that gods and religion really don’t matter are quite clear to the psalmist. For the psalmist, being rightly rooted in faith in the one true God leads naturally to peace, better life, and a better world. Just as obviously, being rooted into the wrong faith, or believing that faith does not matter, leads inevitably into violence, ignorance, and chaos.

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that if you had a thousand years, you could through reason convince any person of the existence of God and the truth of Christ. He believed, like the psalmist, that wisdom led back to the Creator because all reason and wisdom began there. Intellect and reason were inextricably mixed with the author of both.

Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the rest of the reformers held no such confidence in the power of reason. The Protestant battle cries of “faith alone”… “scripture alone”… express the duality of reason and faith that the Reformation ushered into the Western world. Reason is used to talk about faith in the Protestant world, it cannot by definition lead you there. Mohammad created the same dualism for Islam by making God so transcendent that ultimately you can only hint at aspects of God. Reason in that religion has a lesser place apparently than even the most radical Protestantism.

The faith vs. reason battle of the Reformation has become the religion vs. science battle of our time. Like the psalmist, we live in a time when most people believe in whatever god (small g) they are born into “worshiping” or they believe in none at all. For the psalmist it is all the same. It involves ultimately, fools missing the truth of the one, true God.

Religion matters profoundly. Thinking it does not is foolishness. But it also matters whether the chosen religion is “true” or not. The wrong religion is also dangerous, more dangerous even than no religion at all, perhaps. That was true thousands of years ago. How much more true is it in our own nuclear-loaded, inter-connected, small world?

Psalm 14

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do
abominable deeds,
there is none that does good.

2 The LORD looks down from heaven
upon the children of men,
to see if there are any that act
wisely,
that seek after God.

3 They have all gone astray, they are
all alike corrupt;
there is none that does good,
no, not one.

4 Have they no knowledge, all
the evildoers
who eat up my people
as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the LORD?

5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the generation
of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans
of the poor,
but the LORD is his refuge.

7 O that deliverance for Israel
would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores
the fortunes of his people,
Jacob shall rejoice, Israel shall be glad