Poetry Review: “Tell” by Paul Muldoon

Poet Paul Muldoon uses a number of unconventional devices to create some unconventional poetry: archaic language, unusual rhyme schemes, “mashing” together two completely different things to create something new.

In “Tell,” Muldoon is much more straight-forward than that… he does “mash” together William Tell and American Indians but his rhyme scheme is more a “slant” rhyme than an unusual one per se.

Muldoon, who was born in Northern Ireland, borrows heavily on childhood memories in many of his best poems. He does it in a much different way though than his fellow Northern Ireland poet, Seamus Heaney. In my mind, I have always thought of Muldoon as an Irish Theodore Roethke: darker, edgier. It may simply be that I read a lot of Muldoon and Roethke at the same time and so they have morphed together in my mind over the years.

Muldoon is admittedly not the most natural choice for a Sunday morning poet… and “Tell” is not the most Sunday morning of poems. And yet on another dreary-cold January morning… it seems like just the thing.



He opens the scullery door, and a sudden rush
of wind, as raw as raw,
brushes past him as he himself will brush
past the stacks of straw

that stood in earlier for Crow
or Comanche tepees hung with scalps
but tonight past muster, row upon row,
for the foothills of the Alps.

He opens the door of the peeling-shed
just as one of the apple-peelers
(one of almost a score
of red-cheeked men who pare

and core
the red-cheeked apples for a few spare
shillings) mutters something about “bloodshed”
and the “peelers.”

The red-cheeked men put down their knives
at one and the same
moment. All but his father, who somehow connives
to close one eye as if taking aim

or holding back a tear,
and shoots him a glance
he might take, as it whizzes past his ear,
for a Crow, or a Comanche, lance

hurled through the Tilley-lit
gloom of the peeling-shed,
when he hears what must be an apple split
above his head.

Big Talk on the Lowly Comic Book

Capt_Marvel_1967_colanWithin the comic book industry, there is a small but vocal segment of collectors, artists, and writers who are uncomfortable with the traditional term “comic book.” These dissenters suggest a number of reasons for their desire to find different terminology for what they read, collect, or create. Chief among them being that the work they love is not being afforded the respect they believe it deserves by academia because academics, by definition, find comic books beneath serious study.

The argument apparently goes like this. In academia, comic books are for children, great literature and great art alone merit serious academic study…unless, of course, you are a professor of American Studies, American Culture, or Pop Culture… or are simply slumming. Within that framework, advocates of alternative terms such as “sequential art” and “graphic novel” argue, the work of mere comic book artists and writers will never get the serious attention it deserves.

Leaving aside for a moment the obvious question of why anyone who is not currently taking undergraduate classes would give as rat’s ass what any academic thinks, lets examine the basic argument presented for changing the “aforementioned nomenclature.”

To be fair, there are those who feel that a term like “sequential art” is simply more descriptive of the work they do and encompasses a much wider field of possibilities for what that art can someday become. For them, “comic” and “comic book” are limiting terms – for creators, market forces, and audiences alike. Since the greatest proponent of this term is Will Eisner, it would foolish for anyone, especially me a humble comic book reader, to argue with that assumption. Having said that, it is important to note, however, that for Eisner traditional comic books are simply one of many categories of communicative/narrative/art that can potentially fall under the broad umbrella called sequential art. Hence, even for Eisner, comic books would seem to remain a valid descriptor.

If the traditional comic book can be viewed than as one form of sequential art, and its most recognizable one at that, the question remains: what reason do dissenters possibly have for wanting to change the terminology. As suggested above, there is only one reason… comic books are not taken seriously enough as an art form by critics and academics. And that pains the dissenters.

It is difficult for anyone to have the things they are most passionate about taken lightly. When we are serious about something we want to be taken seriously. Comic books, mystery novels, and movies all lay outside the genres and categories of art traditionally studied in academia. There are film classes and departments at many universities, to be sure, but Shakespeare and Sophocles hold a place that Bergman and John Ford never will. Likewise, mystery writers like Chandler and MacDonald will never be esteemed in the same way as Joyce and Proust.

The obvious question becomes, what difference does it really make? Those of us who love comic books know the fine work of people like Will Eisner and Russ Manning. We know that comic books at their best have the capacity to entertain, delight, and make us think in the same way that any art at its best does. Just as velvet Elvis’s and dogs-playing-poker canvasses do not de-legitimate Michelangelo and Picasso so too adolescent and trite comic books do not de-legitimate what is best about the art form we love.

The problem is not in the term “comic book,” but rather in the quality of many of the books themselves. There is no good reason to take much of what has been and is currently being published seriously. It is simply bad, poorly written, violent, over-sexed, adolescent fantasy. It should be taken just as seriously as movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Porky’s.

Comic books at their best are a great art form. The marriage of good writing and good art allows narrative and entertainment possibilities unattainable in traditional prose or traditional visual art forms. Those of us who are passionate about comic books do not care whether academics take them seriously, we figure that is their loss. It is possible to be just as serious about comic books as about any art form, without taking ourselves or comic books too seriously.

Poetry Review: “Death of a Naturalist” by Seamus Heaney

The completely solitary self: that’s where poetry comes from, and it gets isolated by crisis, and those crises are often very intimate also.
~ Seamus Heaney


In “Death of a Naturalist” Seamus Heaney’s gifts as a poet are clearly on display: the clashing consonants, the onomatopoeia, the wonderful attention to detail, the evocative reminiscing. These are what make Heaney one of the greatest poets of our time.

I like reading Heaney in the cold of winter. Some of his best poems feature spring or summer memories. When you read a poem like “Death of a Naturalist” your own reminiscences of childhood mix and mingle with his. That is the nature of a great poem, it draw us in… and then draws out from us: emotion, memory, thoughts, wonder.


Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Poetry Review: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes

Langston_HughesI first read Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in 1981 when I was living in Chicago. It was part of a volume of Hughes’s poetry that I bought in a used bookstore that was just north of the Loop near an Irish bar that I used to frequent. In my mind now they were right across the street from one another, the bar and the bookstore… but I suspect that time has minimized distances. They may very well have been blocks apart.

It was a place I went to often to spend the afternoon with coffee or Guinness depending on my mood. I usually sat in a booth off the bar and read, most often Yeats or theology. The day I bought the Hughes volume and started reading it the bartender asked what I was reading. He often asked about the books I was reading. I told him Langston Hughes.

“He isn’t Irish,” he said. “But I like the poem about rivers.”

I remember finding the poem in the table of contents and reading it. Later that evening when I was going to meet some friends, I remember walking along the river with the words of the poem stuck in my head. It has always been one of my favorites

In a week when there has been much talk about the use of another word that starts with the letter nin a famous book about a river, Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has come to my mind many times.

Read the poem once or twice yourself. Then listen to a clip of Hughes reading this poem: click here.


The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Music Monday: “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was popular with every generation and revered as a musician and a man. The word iconic is much abused these days… but for Cash, the word is totally appropriate.

Any list of top 10 songs of all time has to include a live version of Johnny Cash doing “Folsom Prison Blues.” There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe how great Johnny Cash was… and this is the definitive Cash song.

This clip is from his performance at San Quentin Penitentiary. What better way to start a cold January morning than this song from the Man in Black.


One Long Wait Is Over

bert_blyleven_ToppsAccording to the good sabermetricians at baseball-reference.com the pitchers who had the most similar careers to Bert Blyleven are:

  1. Don Sutton
  2. Gaylord Perry
  3. Fergie Jenkins
  4. Tommy John
  5. Robin Roberts
  6. Tom Seaver
  7. Jim Kaat
  8. Early Wynn
  9. Phil Niekro
  10. Steve Carlton

All but two on the list are Hall of Famers. One of those two, Jim Kaat, like Blyleven pitched the bulk of his career for the Minnesota Twins.

Blyleven was an anchor with Frank Viola of the 1987 Twins pitching staff that won Minnesota’s first World Series. He is generally regarded as having one of the best curveballs in the history of the game and was renowned for pitching a lot of innings and a lot of complete games, something that has become as rare at the ballpark today as a cheap beer.

Yesterday after 14 years of eligibility Blyleven was finally voted into the Hall of Fame with second baseman great Roberto Alomar. For Minnesota Twins fans it was good news on yet another bleak winter day.

My friend Jared Linsly, a baseball aficionado, sums up the day for Minnesota Twins fans this way:

Cold, dark Jan. in MN,
But good news from Cooperstown.
Bert gets call from Hall!

Congratulations Bert… it was a long wait (14 years?!)… but you made it.

Poetry Review: “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas can be a difficult poet but he is always an enjoyable one. In this familiar poem, he is at his best as both a poet and a reader. The audio clip of Thomas reading “Fern Hill” that is included here may be the single most famous reading any poet has ever done of their own work. It is certainly one of the best.

“Fern Hill” is a standard of English 101. It is a poem about childhood remembered. Its images are of Eden, of paradise once unspoiled now mournfully recalled in some more melancholy time. It is lyrical, musical, and beautiful. It is the kind of poem that only a great poet could have written… but, alas, it is one of only a small number of great poems that Thomas managed to write.

We can only wonder what Dylan Thomas could have accomplished if he had been more disciplined in his life, a better steward of his gifts. But at least today we can enjoy this perfect marriage of his great voice and this great poem.

Fern Hill

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Music Monday: “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Willie Nelson

I don’t have much time for the corporate kind of country that is played on the radio these days and hence almost never listen to country radio. But my iPod is mostly country music: Willie, Waylon, Johnny, George, Merle, Hank Sr., Hank Jr. It is the music that is closest to my heart probably because it is the music I grew up with.

The first Monday in 2011 and Willie Nelson and this song are on my mind. I love this video, Willie alone with that famous guitar while country legends sit and watch… wonderful.

If hearing this rendition of “Funny the Way Time Slips Away” don’t get your week and year started right… nothing will.


Poetry Review: Psalm 8

galaxiesOn the first Sunday of the new year, I am thinking of some of the oldest poems that we have, the Book of Psalms. These “songs” were originally created to be used in worship, at the Temple in Jerusalem. They are now part of the Christian Old Testament and are either chanted at mass or simply read responsively.

Tradition attributes this psalm and many of the others to King David. Biblical scholarship suggests that that attribution is meant to be taken loosely not literally… but than again, fundamentalism aside, most biblical scholarship suggests that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is not meant to be taken “literally.”

For the faithful of Judaism and Christianity, the Book of Psalms is seldom thought of as a book a poetry… but it is. And like any poetry translated from one language into another, much that runs beneath the words (forms, musicality, nuances, and word plays in the original language) is lost to us.

For the psalms, I still prefer the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation. The archaic “thou” and “thy” maintains the musicality and stature of the King James while making use of modern biblical scholarship. The version of Psalm 8 that is here is RSV.

This psalm needs no explanation. The psalmist wonders at the beauty of the earth and the universe and marvels that mere human beings have come under the special attention of the Creator of such a vast and awe-inspiring creation.

Contemplating a universe created billions of years ago with “billions and billions” of galaxies where there would presumably be countless other inhabited worlds let alone possibly countless other dimensions, we have two options: to succumb to our apparent smallness within such limitless vastness and forgo our humanity or to acknowledge with humility the great status we have been given by the one great enough to be Creator of all. The psalmist points us to the answer to this essentially existential either/or question.

Psalm 8

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!
Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted
2 by the mouth of babes and infants,
thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at thy heavens,
the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
4 what is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?
5 Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honor.
6 Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea.
9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

Poetry Review: “A Walk” by Ranier Maria Rilke

On another snowy Minnesota morning, this poem by Rilke comes to mind as we “walk” into another new year. In my early 20s, Rilke was a favorite poet. In the many moves I made in those days, I lost a number of those dog-eared volumes. I still do have two of his books: Selected Poems of Ranier Maria Rilke translated by Robert Bly and Letters to a Young Poet. The latter especially shows the effects of time and usage.

In my early 20s, I lived in Chicago and Michigan, two places greatly influenced by German immigrants. It was the perfect time and place to read Rilke, like it was to read Kafka and Mann and Hesse.

Metaphor is important in Rilke’s poems. Some re-occur often so as you read his poetry those metaphors gradually take on weight and freight. Rilke is not a Symbolist but he is sometimes something very near to that.

Rilke has been translated by both Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell among others. I have read a few of Kinnell’s translations and like them very much. I am more familiar, though, with Bly’s. Bly is the translator of this one.

I like the image in this poem of walking toward a sunny hill with the wind on our faces. Enjoy!

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.