National Poetry Month
To celebrate National Poetry Month (April) we are again offering poetry related trivia for your entertainment and edification. Videos from the Wright Library Poets reading in January are available, as are a collection of online Poetry Resources.
Who said “We wear the mask”?
Dayton’s own Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties,
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
This poet was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927, where his father worked in a glass factory and his mother was a laundress. His working class roots informed his writing, and in 1972 he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Who was he?
James Wright (1927-1980)
Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
by James Wright
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
What is iambic pentameter? What does it have to do human physiology?
Iambic is the name given to the rhythm of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An example is the word “today.” String five iambic feet in a row to get iambic pentameter (equal to 10 syllables) – da-DUM da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM - or “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It is said that iambic is the rhythm of the heartbeat, and that a line of iambic pentameter is the length of a human exhale.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold (Sonnet 73)
by William Shakespeare
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Today’s poem is one of the most beloved on the subject of Death. The poet is John Donne (1572-1631), who as a Catholic in Anglican England spent his life wrestling with God and religion. What is the poem?
Death, be not proud
Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10)
by John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
This American poet traveled to Mexico, Africa and Europe before settling in Harlem. His poetry is deeply influenced by Jazz. Who is he?
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes
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.
This Polish Poet won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 and her work is now widely available in English. She died in February 2012. Who is she?
Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)
by Wislawa Szymborska
I’ll never find out now
What A. thought of me.
If B. ever forgave me in the end.
Why C. pretended everything was fine.
What part D. played in E.’s silence.
What F. had been expecting, if anything.
Why G. forgot when she knew perfectly well.
What H. had to hide.
What I. wanted to add.
If my being around
to J. and K. and the rest of the alphabet.
What’s the subject of ekphrastic poetry?
Ekphrastic poems explore a work of art, often a painting or sculpture or perhaps a photograph. They use words, rhythm, rhyme, narrative and other poetic devices to describe or enhance meaning of an artwork. Consider this poem by W. H. Auden (1907-1973):
Musee des Beaux Arts
by W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Jubilate means to feel great joy, to rejoice, to exult. What is the subject of Christopher Smart’s (1722-1771) poem Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, inspired by Psalm 100?
The poet’s cat, Jeoffry. Read his joyful cat poem.
Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]
by Christopher Smart
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry!
poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the
bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
This 13th century Persian poet was born in Afghanistan (or perhaps Tajikistan) and is known the world over for his mystical and spiritual poems. He’s one of the most popular poets in America. Who is he?
What Was Told, That
by Jalal al-Din Rumi
translated by Coleman Barks
What was said to the rose that made it open was said
to me here in my chest.
What was told the cypress that made it strong
and straight, what was
whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made
sugarcane sweet, whatever
was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in
Turkestan that makes them
so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush
like a human face, that is
being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in
language, that's happening here.
The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude,
chewing a piece of sugarcane,
in love with the one to whom every that belongs!
This American poet was born in Jakarta in the 1950s. His father, who figures prominently in his poetry, spent time as Mao Tse-tsung’s personal physician, was exiled from China, was imprisoned for 19 months in Indonesia, and became a Presbyterian Minister in Pennsylvania. Who is the poet?
Li-Young Lee (b.1957) Read his beautiful "Immigrant Blues."
by Li-Young Lee
People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.
It's the same old story from the previous century
about my father and me.
The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.
It's called "Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation."
It's called "Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,"
called "The Child Who'd Rather Play than Study."
Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.
But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?
And me, confused about the flesh and soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?
You're always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body's finitude,
at peace with the soul's disregard
of space and time.
Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.
If you don't believe you're inside me, you're not,
she answered, at peace with the body's greed,
at peace with the heart's bewilderment.
It's an ancient story from yesterday evening
called "Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,"
called "Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,"
called "I Want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs."
If Walt Whitman is the grandfather of American poetry, this poet is the grandmother. A contemporary of Whitman’s, her poems expressed longing and loneliness in spare and inventive verse. Her poems weren’t published until after her death. Who was she?
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
I'm Nobody! Who are you? (260)
by Emily Dickinson
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
In 1855, this American poet rocked the world with his poetry collection. His poetry was expansive, optimistic and sexy—just like America. Children secretly read it looking for the dirty parts. Who was he?
Walt Whitman (1819-1892). His book is Leaves of Grass. Here’s one of his overtly sexual poems.
A Woman Waits for Me
by Walt Whitman
A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of
the right man were lacking.
Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves,
beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow'd persons of the
These are contain'd in sex as parts of itself and justifications
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the
deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
Now I will dismiss myself from impassive women,
I will go stay with her who waits for me, and with those
women that are warm-blooded sufficient for me,
I see that they understand me and do not deny me,
I see that they are worthy of me, I will be the robust
husband of those women.
They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tann'd in the face by shining suns and blowing
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run,
strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves,
They are ultimate in their own right--they are calm, clear,
well-possess'd of themselves.
I draw you close to me, you women,
I cannot let you go, I would do you good,
I am for you, and you are for me, not only for our own
sake, but for others' sakes,
Envelop'd in you sleep greater heroes and bards,
They refuse to awake at the touch of any man but me.
It is I, you women, I make my way,
I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable, but I love you,
I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these
States, I press with slow rude muscle,
I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long
accumulated within me.
Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself,
In you I wrap a thousand onward years,
On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and
The drops I distil upon you shall grow fierce and athletic
girls, new artists, musicians, and singers,
The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn,
I shall demand perfect men and women out of my love-
I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and
you interpenetrate now,
I shall count on the fruits of the gushing showers of them, as
I count on the fruits of the gushing showers I give now,
I shall look for loving crops from the birth, life, death,
immortality, I plant so lovingly now.
Working with George Dillon, this American poet was Charles Baudelaire’s (see yesterday’s poem) first English translator. Their translation of Flowers of Evil was published in 1936. Who was the poet?
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her book of poems, The Harp Weaver. (Incidentally, Wright Library owns this 1936 edition. Here are two of St. Vincent Millay’s short poems.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is known for his Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) poems, some of which were condemned as obscene and banned from publication. Before writing Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire was the French translator of this American poet and author, whom Baudelaire considered to be a “twin soul”. Who was it?
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Compare Baudelaire’s "Spleen II" and Poe’s "The Valley of Unrest."
by Charles Baudelaire
translated by Richard Howard
More than if I had lived a thousand years!
No chest of drawers crammed with documents,
love-letters, wedding-invitations, wills,
a lock of someone's hair rolled up in a deed,
hides so many secrets as my brain.
This branching catacombs, this pyramid
contains more corpses than the potter's field:
I am a graveyard that the moon abhors,
where long worms like regrets come out to feed
most ravenously on my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir where a rack of gowns,
perfumed by withered roses, rots to dust;
where only faint pastels and pale Bouchers
inhale the scent of long-unstoppered flasks.
Nothing is slower than the limping days
when under the heavy weather of the years
Boredom, the fruit of glum indifference,
gains the dimension of eternity . . .
Hereafter, mortal clay, you are no more
than a rock encircled by a nameless dread,
an ancient sphinx omitted from the map,
forgotten by the world, and whose fierce moods
sing only to the rays of setting suns.
The Valley of Unrest
by Edgar Allan Poe
Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley's restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless —
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye —
Over three lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave: — from out their fragrant tops
Eternal dews come down in drops.
They weep: — from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.
Another child prodigy was this late 19th century French poet who wrote "Le Bateau Ivre" ("The Drunken Boat") full of surreal dreamlike poetry that has influenced many poets, artists, and musicians through the years. Who was he?
Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891). Almost all of his poetry was written before his 20th birthday. Here’s an excerpt from his poem "The Drunken Boat."
The Drunken Boat
By Arthur Rimbaud
Translated By Wallace Fowlie
As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers:
Yelping redskins had taken them as targets
And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.
I was indifferent to all crews,
The bearer of Flemish wheat or English cottons
When with my haulers this uproar stopped
The Rivers let me go where I wanted.
Into the furious lashing of the tides
More heedless than children's brains the other winter
I ran! And loosened Peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub
The storm blessed my sea vigils
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
That are called eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!
Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook
And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,
Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated
Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks;
Where, suddenly dyeing the blueness, delirium
And slow rhythms under the streaking of daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres,
The bitter redness of love ferments!
I know the skies bursting with lightning, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exalted as a flock of doves
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!
This Chilean poet published his Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada ("Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair") in 1924 when he was only twenty years old. Who was he?
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) Here is an excerpt from his Song of Despair translated by W.S. Merwin.
The Song of Despair
by Pablo Neruda
translated by W. S. Merwin
The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.
Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!
Cold flower heads are raining over my heart.
Oh pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked.
In you the wars and the flights accumulated.
From you the wings of the song birds rose.
You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank!
It was the happy hour of assault and the kiss.
The hour of the spell that blazed like a lighthouse.
Pilot’s dread, fury of a blind diver,
turbulent drunkenness of love, in you everything sank!
In the childhood of mist my soul, winged and wounded.
Lost discoverer, in you everything sank!
You girdled sorrow, you clung to desire,
sadness stunned you, in you everything sank!
I made the wall of shadow draw back,
beyond desire and act, I walked on.
Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I loved and lost,
I summon you in the moist hour, I raise my song to you.
This poet was born in Tennessee, but grew up in Cincinnati where she organized the city’s first Black Arts Festival in 1967. Who is she?
Nikki Giovanni (b.1943)
My First Memory (of Librarians)
by Nikki Giovanni
This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big
In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
a quilt rack
Magazines face out from the wall
The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books—another world—just waiting
At my fingertips.
Who was Barack Obama’s second Inaugural poet? He drummed up a lot of publicity for poetry (his own and the art itself) back in January of this year. Bonus points if you remember Obama’s first Inaugural poet.
Richard Blanco (b. 1968). He made headlines as the first Cuban-American and openly gay poet chosen to read at a presidential inauguration. Here’s his poignant poem, Looking for the Gulf Motel. (FYI, Obama’s first Inaugural poet was Elizabeth Alexander b.1962 http://www.elizabethalexander.net/home.html)
Looking for The Gulf Motel
Marco Island, Florida
There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .
The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts
and ship's wheel in the lobby should still be
rising out of the sand like a cake decoration.
My brother and I should still be pretending
we don't know our parents, embarrassing us
as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk
loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen
loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging
with enough mangos to last the entire week,
our espresso pot, the pressure cooker—and
a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby.
All because we can't afford to eat out, not even
on vacation, only two hours from our home
in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled
by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida,
where I should still be for the first time watching
the sun set instead of rise over the ocean.
There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .
My mother should still be in the kitchenette
of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart
squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous
in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings
stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles
of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce.
My father should still be in a terrycloth jacket
smoking, clinking a glass of amber whiskey
in the sunset at the Gulf Motel, watching us
dive into the pool, two boys he'll never see
grow into men who will be proud of him.
There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .
My brother and I should still be playing Parcheesi,
my father should still be alive, slow dancing
with my mother on the sliding-glass balcony
of The Gulf Motel. No music, only the waves
keeping time, a song only their minds hear
ten-thousand nights back to their life in Cuba.
My mother's face should still be resting against
his bare chest like the moon resting on the sea,
the stars should still be turning around them.
There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .
My brother should still be thirteen, sneaking
rum in the bathroom, sculpting naked women
from sand. I should still be eight years old
dazzled by seashells and how many seconds
I hold my breath underwater—but I'm not.
I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard,
looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything
that should still be, but isn't. I want to blame
the condos, their shadows for ruining the beach
and my past, I want to chase the snowbirds away
with their tacky mansions and yachts, I want
to turn the golf courses back into mangroves,
I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was
and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.
By Richard Blanco
Looking for The Gulf Motel
University of Pittsburgh Press