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.

Poetry Review: Matsuo Basho


Haiku of Matsuo Basho on Autumn

Matsuo Basho was the most famous poet of his day (1644-1694). He is considered the greatest master of the haiku form. His haikus may be the most well-known and most-translated.

For those of us who do not read Japanese, we can only read him in translation. The subtle differences in translating his small poems from Japanese creates amazing variations when they are published in English. You can find the same poem translated many, many different ways, depending ultimately on the translators ear and own writing skills. I have seen some translations of Basho and other haiku poets that I especially like by poet Robert Hass. If Hass’ translations are accurate I cannot say. I can only say that I like the result.

Here are a few poems by Basho that seem apropos to winter and the New Year. I do not know the translators on these, though I suspect that Hass could have done one or two of them.



First Snow
First snow
on the half-finished bridge.

First Winter Rain
First winter rain–
even the monkey
seems to want a raincoat.

A Monk Sips Morning Tea
A monk sips morning tea,
it’s quiet,
the chrysanthemum’s flowering.

Awake At Night
Awake at night–
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

Basho’s Death Poem
Sick on my journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors

On New Year’s Day
On New Year’s Day
each thought a loneliness
as winter dusk descends

Haiku and the Small Poem

Haiku is the most familiar small poetic form. It is one of the first forms we are taught and one of the easiest to understand. Three lines with syllables numbered as follows:

What could be easier. Right? Until you spend a little time trying your hand at them again. When you do, the difficulty becomes apparent – the 50 pound sack quickly overflows.

For awhile now I have been looking at haiku and other small poetic forms and trying my hand again at them. Trying to shake the rust off… to stir things up.

There are a few good websites that highlight the small poem. My current favorite features one haiku or small poem a day. It is called TinyWords. Take a look.

In the meantime from the “for what it’s worth department,” I am including two Montana haiku’s I have recently written.


cottonwoods shimmer
mountains greet the climbing sky
a heron fishes

~  ~  ~

The Missouri turns
toward the rising sun. Heron
turns to greet the day.

Book Review: “Ghost Country” by Patrick Lee

Ghost-CountryReviewing a page-turner is different than reviewing most books. It is both easier and more difficult. It is easier because at the bare minimum a page-turner needs to accomplish just one thing: make you want to keep turning pages. It is more difficult because for the most part finding something to praise about your typical page-turner other than its momentum can be almost impossible. It is also difficult to talk about most page-turners without giving away their best parts.

I received an advance copy of Ghost Country from LibraryThing. (For those unfamiliar with LibraryThing, you can find a link in my Links section to the right.) Ghost Country is a sequel to The Breach. When I knew that I would be receiving Ghost Country I checked out The Breachassuming that having read the antecedent would help my appreciation and understanding. I am glad I did. The Breach was a good book, better in its own right than Ghost Country, and it gave me background I appreciated having.

Ghost Country is time travel, post-apocalyptic, science fiction. It centers around a pair of devices that allow people to view and visit the future. What the scientists from a top-secret government program see when they view and visit that not-too-distant future causes them to go to the President of the United States. What they show him, leads him to try and have them killed and kidnapped. And so the story begins….

From Patrick Lee’s first book we learn that the group of scientists, and one of the main characters, scientist Paige Campbell, work for a group called Tangent that is charged with overseeing a top secret anomaly created in a fusion reactor experiment years before in an underground testing site in Wyoming. From the anomaly, called the Breach, occasional items will enter our world. The latest two to enter our world are those that help people see the future. To say more about the plot is to say more than one should about this excellent page-turner.

Ghost Country is well written, the characters clearly defined and not too one-dimensional. The science is interesting and the mystery that guides the plot is well done. Ghost Country is a sequel and the ending to the book makes it clear that we can expect more books to follow. Count me in as someone who will want to read the next installment.

Music Monday: “Let it Be” by The Beatles

When the Beatles broke up officially, I was just nine years old. So though I am officially a Baby Boomer, the Beatles rightly belong to the generation before me. I had numerous older cousins and so the Beatles were, of course, in the very air that I breathed. I think that this is one of the many reasons that I never fully appreciated the Beatles as a kid. They were not “my generation’s” music.

I did have a number of Beatles 45s though, that my mother had given to me: “Let It Be”; “Hey Jude”; “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”; and “Somewhere.” They must have been songs that she liked… or at the very least, tolerated. I wore them out on my portable record player.

Flash forward years and understanding, and all of the appreciation I could not and would not have as a teen for the lads is now there. And I am richer for it.

“Let It Be” has been for a long time my all-time favorite song. The one I would want played at my funeral or wake. A couple of years ago at a Lutheran church (one that I occasionally attend with my wife but shall be left unnamed), the confirmands chose to have the congregation sing “Let It Be.” There was a small furor over it. A vocal minority (I assume a “minority,” but who knows) was angry because they believe it was “too Catholic” to be sung in church.

If there were any doubts about “Let It Be” remaining my favorite song for all time, it was finished there. Among its many other laudable qualities, “Let It Be” apparently reveals what Protestantism has really contributed to modernity… not a damn thing!

For the first Monday after Christmas, could there be a better song than “Let It Be”?

Poetry Review: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton

On-the-Morning-of-Christs-NativityMilton wrote this poem in 1629 at the age of 21. It is often considered his first great poem in English. It is poetically and theologically pure Milton. It is also the best Christmas poem ever written.

For almost 30 years now, I have re-read this poem on Christmas Eve. It is as close to a personal Christmas tradition as I have… one of a few literary/faith disciplines I keep.

These lines in particular are some of my favorite lines anyone has ever written. They are an example of what makes Milton to my mind the greatest poet of the English language.

But peaceful was the night,
Wherein the Prince of Light
His reign of peace upon the earth began:
The winds with wonder whist
Smoothly the waters kist,
Whisp’ring new joys to the mild ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is admittedly a very long poem. At first I thought I would just post a few of my favorite stanza’s here, but I have change my mind. The stanzas can best be appreciated only within the context of the whole poem. And when a poem is this great, it is worth all the time and space you can give to it.

Finally, a note about Blake’s drawing that accompanies this posting. Poet and artist William Blake believed that Milton was the greatest of all poets. He created a number of illustrations for Milton’s work, along with illustrations for his own work. The illustration posted here was done in particular to accompany “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.”

I wish to all my readers, a joy-filled Christmas. May we all experience the Incarnation in our lives and in our world.

Merry Christmas.

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity


This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven’s eternal King,
Of wedded maid and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.


That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heaven’s high council-table
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and, here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.


Say, Heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heaven, by the Sun’s team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?


See how from far upon the Eastern road
The star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet!
Oh! run; prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessèd feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

The Hymn


It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature, in awe to him,
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty Paramour.


Only with speeches fair
She woos the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;
Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.


But he, her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-eyed Peace:
She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready Harbinger,
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And, waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.


No war, or battail’s sound,
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
The hookèd chariot stood,
Unstained with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng;
And Kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.


But peaceful was the night
Wherein the Prince of Light
His reign of peace upon the earth began.
The winds, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kissed,
Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.


The stars, with deep amaze,
Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warned them thence;
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.


And, though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head of shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright Throne or burning axletree could bear.


The Shepherds on the lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sat simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they than
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.


When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet
As never was by mortal finger strook,
Divinely-warbled voice
Answering the stringèd noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air, such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.


Nature, that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia’s seat the airy Region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.


At last surrounds their sight
A globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shamefaced Night arrayed;
The helmèd Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes, to Heaven’s newborn Heir.


Such music (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the Sons of Morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced World on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.


Ring out, ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so;
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time;
And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort of the angelic symphony.


For, if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the Age of Gold;
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions of the peering day.


Yes, Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
The enamelled arras of the rainbow wearing;
And Mercy set between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And Heaven, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace-hall.


But wisest Fate says No,
This must not yet be so;
The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss,
So both himself and us to glorify:
Yet first, to those chained in sleep,
The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep,


With such a horrid clang
As on Mount Sinai rang,
While the red fire and smouldering clouds outbrake:
The aged Earth, aghast
With terror of that blast,
Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
When, at the world’s last sessiön,
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.


And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
The Old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurpèd sway,
And, wroth to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly horror of his folded tail.


The Oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
Will hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,
Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.


The lonely mountains o’er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
Edgèd with poplar pale,
From haunted spring, and dale
The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flower-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.


In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In urns, and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.


Peor and Baälim
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
And moon&egraved Ashtaroth,
Heaven’s Queen and Mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine:
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.


And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue;
In vain with cymbals’ ring
They call the grisly king,
In dismal dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.


Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green,
Trampling the unshowered grass with lowings loud;
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest;
Nought but profoundest Hell can be his shroud;
In vain, with timbreled anthems dark,
The sable-stolèd Sorcerers bear his worshiped ark.


He feels from Juda’s land
The dreaded Infant’s hand;
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside
Longer dare abide,
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damnèd crew.


So, when the Sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to the infernal jail,
Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted Fays
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.


But see! the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest,
Time is our tedious song should here have ending:
Heaven’s youngest-teemèd star
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.


Poetry Review: “Full Moon” by Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

The recent full moon put me in mind of this well known poem by Robert Hayden. That is the way it is with familiar and favorite poems… you will suddenly find yourself repeating lines to yourself while you are doing something else.

That is the kind of poem I have always wanted to write myself. One that someone will suddenly find themselves repeating as they are driving down the street, or out in the yard cutting the grass, or standing in a stream casting for trout.

Detroit-born Hayden studied under Auden. In some of his poems, I fancy that I can see the influence. This is one of those poems. It is something in the interplay between the images and the form, and in some of the word choices. I cannot articulate it any more than that. It is merely a feeling… no doubt originally suggested to me by the fact that when I first read the poem years ago I already knew that he had worked with Auden. But I think is is something more that that.

Two days before Christmas around the time of a full moon, it seems like the perfect poem.


Full Moon

No longer throne of a goddess to whom we pray,
no longer the bubble house of childhood’s
tumbling Mother Goose man,The emphatic moon ascends–
the brilliant challenger of rocket experts,
the white hope of communications men.

Some I love who are dead
were watchers of the moon and knew its lore;
planted seeds, trimmed their hair,

Pierced their ears for gold hoop earrings
as it waxed or waned.
It shines tonight upon their graves.

And burned in the garden of Gethsemane,
its light made holy by the dazzling tears
with which it mingled.

And spread its radiance on the exile’s path
of Him who was The Glorious One,
its light made holy by His holiness.

Already a mooted goal and tomorrow perhaps
an arms base, a livid sector,
the full moon dominates the dark.

Book Review: Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

A poor scan of a great cover

A poor scan of a great cover

There remain hundreds of books on my reading “to do” list, yet sometimes I find myself re-reading an old favorite. With poetry this is a fairly straight forward venture. I browse through the volume looking at notes I have made, lines I have underlined or otherwise marked in some way. It is interesting to see where my tastes have changed, to be reminded of lines, to see again poetic influences I may even have forgotten about on anything but a sub-conscious level.

With a novel or book of non-fiction this is a different experience altogether by definition. Re-reading a novel or full length non-fiction work is more of commitment. And since it is more of a commitment, it needs to be a real special book.

Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa is such a book for me.  It is special for me because it was the book, more than any other, that introduced me to real writing and real literature. It was the book that made me want to read something more than comic books and sports biographies.

I spend a part of every working day in and out of a middle school media center (library). In middle school, juvenile fiction is king. It has also become huge business. In the early 1970s, there was not a lot of juvenile fiction… and what there was did not interest me in the least.

In 1972-73, I was in 7th grade and 12 years old. I did not want to read about kids like me, I wanted to read about men. I knew about the kid world… what I wanted to know about was the world of adults… the real world.

One day I pulled down a copy of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa from the library that was in our English teacher’s classroom. I suppose I liked the cover and that it was about Africa and hunting. Who knows why we choose some of the books we do?

Whatever the reason, that moment changed my life. Until that moment, when I had to read something I always chose non-fiction (and that is probably another reason I chose it). As soon as I finished Green Hills of Africa, I started The Sun Also Rises and after that… book after book, novel after novel, poetry book after poetry book until this day.

I am pleased to say that The Green Hills of Africa holds up well. It is Hemingway. It is memoir in muscular prose. Ostensibly it is about a safari he and wife, Pauline, took to Africa in 1933. It is more than mere travelogue though, for Hemingway intersperses with details of his hunting, discussions of writers and literature: Twain, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, and Tolstoy. All these writers I began reading within a few years of having first read The Green Hills of Africa, precisely because Hemingway recommended them.

When I am in the middle school media center, I will often look at the books that are there. There is no Hemingway. There are plenty of books about boys and girls, and many of these are very well written… but there are few about men and women doing the kind of things that many middle schoolers want to know about. There are no books that would have appealed to me.

My life was changed because I picked up The Green Hills of Africa and discovered great writing and great literature, because I found out about Tolstoy and Stendahl and Dostoyevsky. I am forever grateful for that serendipitous moment. I am forever grateful that I had access to adult-level books like this in my classroom when I was just 12 years old.

Music Monday: “Laura” by Flogging Molly

When I re-did montanawriter.com this Fall, I ended up taking down a lot of content. One of the casualties of that rearrangement was Music Monday. Surprisingly, I did get a few emails asking why I had taken those down. (Interestingly, no one asked about the poems or short stories… oh well).

Well Music Monday is back. I will also be re-posting, as much as I am able, the previous ones. Who says I cannot take unsolicited advice?

So without further ado… today’s Music Monday…. Flogging Molly.

Most bands are better in the studio than live. There is one class of bands that this is never true for, bar bands. A good bar band is always best live. The interaction between audience and the band is at the very heart of what they do. They are performers as much as they are musicians.

Flogging Molly is everything a great bar band should be: raucous, loud, and entertaining. Their music is the perfect marriage of two of my favorite kinds of music: punk and Irish.

This live version of “Laura” is easily one of my 25 favorite songs of all time… lyricism and edge. The perfect way to begin a week

Poetry Review: “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins-book-189x300On the last Sunday in Advent, “God’s Grandeur” by Hopkins seems like the perfect poem to read as we prepare for the coming birth of the Christ child. But if truth be told, on any day of the week a Hopkins’ poem would no doubt be the perfect poem to read.

Hopkins was a convert to Roman Catholicism. His Roman Catholic faith infuses his poetry in a way that is as unique to English poetry as his famous sprung rhythm is. Combined they make him one of the most interesting poets in the English language. And one of the most difficult.

Hopkins is difficult because he consistently pushes the boundaries of language, metaphor, and thought. He makes your tongue and your mind work. Most of his poems require more than one reading to fully appreciate them. The effort, however, is worth it. His poetry is wonderful.

“God’s Grandeur” in not one of Hopkins’ difficult poems. It is, however, one of his most famous. On a Sunday morning, it’s hymn-like quality seems very apropos.


God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.