Thursday, March 12, 2009

Channeling Longfellow

I can write a story. I can write an essay. But I can’t write a poem. Never could.

In high school a teacher asked if he could publish the one poem I wrote during his creative writing class. It was barely a poem at all. It was, though, completely atheistic, which I guess he found edgy. So, he published it after I had forgotten all about it. It pissed off some other students and even teachers. I started receiving reports that I was going to get beaten up - the old beat God into him theory. I really didn’t think anyone was going to do it, and, I think I recall being a little flattered at the attention, although I certainly didn't wanted my ass kicked. The next day I walked past one of the kids who was supposedly going to beat me up and we just said hello. So, perhaps it was mere talk and it was forgotten about pretty quickly. There must be a point to all that, but, I think it just shows that not only can I not write poetry, but I probably shouldn’t.

Truth be told, as much as I love beautiful prose, I really don’t like most poetry that much. More than a few lines and my eyes start to wander. Why can't they just say what they want to say? Some poets I really hate – T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, to name two.

Now, there are some poems I do like, even love, just like there are actually some rap songs I like (Momma said knock you out, for one), but more poems than rap songs. Perhaps not all of them would be considered great poetry by others, but there are few things more subjective.

All I know is that these poems either inspired me to try to be a certain way or I was attracted to them because of who I aspired to be - I'm not sure it is possible to tell the difference. I am not counting poetry in other languages (e.g., Homer - how can we judge another language?) or beautiful prose (why some of John Donne’s work is called prose and not poetry I have no idea) and speeches like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or Second Inauguration text. I leave aside Shakespeare’s plays as unique and deserving of a category of their own. I have never enjoyed his sonnets although I have given them some attention.

I’ll start with poetry from my youth.

If called by a panther
don’t anther.

My mother owned a book of poetry by Ogden Nash, who wrote short and very silly rhyming poems such as the above. As with most people, I like rhyming. I have trouble reading poetry that doesn’t rhyme unless it has a very strong rhythm. Freestyle poetry is so often just prose without the grammar.

Here’s another gem from Nash:

Senescence begins
And middle age ends
The day your descendents
Outnumber your friends.


The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.

So distinctive was Nash's style, that some of his most famous poems weren’t actually his. That is, they sound so much like his, he got the credit. You can even find them attributed to him in books and online. Here are two I know about:



That’s by Strickland Gillian, who I never heard of other than to know this little fact, but, I think he is well known among poets and poetry lovers. Another Nash-alike is this:

A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.

That one was by Dixon Lanire Meredith, who I also never heard of before. I’m not even sure if Dixon is a he or she. In the age of Wikipedia, it takes but a few clicks to find out, but I’ll leave it to you (I don’t care that much and I've indulged in way too much useless trivia).

Anyway, I am not limited to the totally unsophisticated. That would bring us to Edgar Allan Poe who wrote what is for me a long poem, but so full of rhythm and ambience, I am hoping that it is still on grade school curriculums:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore -
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor', I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door:
Only this and nothing more'.

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor,
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

Poe was a unique talent who arguably invented the modern detective story, and I can't think of any literary genre more successful than that. The whole poem is too long for here but not too long to read and enjoy.

A little more sophisticated than Poe perhaps and just as good to my mind is Robert Frost, whose The Road Not Taken has been used by so many people as a metaphor for life that the title has become iconic. Here's an interesting tidbit. Of the first 24 books that popped up on when I checked under that title, 14 of them had nothing to do with the poem or Frost, they just used The Road Not Taken it or a variation, probably because of the recognizability of the metaphor.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Now there'a a man who knew how long poems should be. Almost as well loved as The Road Not Taken, but a little longer and denser is Mending Wall which ends with “Good fences make good neighbors.” He didn’t invent the phrase (Wolfgang Mieder has a wonderful article on who did at is_2_114/ai_106981965/pg_2?tag=content;col1, but once you’ve read the poem it is hard to hear it without thinking of Frost.

From Frost, I pop over to a poem that I deem the most romantic and sad at the same time. It’s called Maud Muller and it was written by John Greenleaf Whittier. It’s about a ‘love not taken’ because of class differences. The immortal line is this:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

I tried this line on a few women in my time in an effort at seduction with the results being on the negative side. It got a couple of “Aws,” but never worked. Maybe I should have tried Odgen Nash.

Then there was the one my mother liked to quote from Whittier – a line or so anyway from Barbara Frietchie, of which I only add a few more lines – but the best ones:

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right

He glanced; the old flag met his sight.
'Halt!' - the dust-brown ranks stood fast.

'Fire!' - out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;

It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff

Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.
She leaned far out on the window-sill,

And shook it forth with a royal will.
'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,

But spare your country's flag,' she said.

We come now to my favorites. The first of these is from one of the immortals, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I liked him when young because I loved the woods and so did he. I tried to read him and did better than I had with most poetry. I believe he is the only pure poet in my library. The truth was, I only really enjoyed a few of his poems. I wasn’t all that crazy about Evangeline, A Tale of Arcadie, too long for one thing, but I identified with the beginning:

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

But much more so, I love this next Longfellow poem, also quite long, but so perfect to my ear, I’ve read it several times in my life, even a few years ago. He borrowed the meter from a Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. There is only room here for the beginning to The Song of Hiawatha:

Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?

I should answer, I should tell you,
"From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer."

Should you ask where Nawadaha
Found these songs so wild and wayward,
Found these legends and traditions,
I should answer, I should tell you,
"In the bird's-nests of the forest,
In the lodges of the beaver,
In the hoofprint of the bison,
In the eyry of the eagle!"

It was as enchanting to my forest laden mind as Peter Pan. If it is even possible anymore for you to take a hike into the woods one day and sit by yourself without your cell phone and PDA, without having to rush home to watch something on tv, or do some work, or run an errand (this is a good question to ask yourself anyway), I could not recommend taking anything with you than The Song of Hiawatha, unless it is something by Thoreau.

Yet even Hiawatha must fall in a line behind two other poems, the first of which is quite short and comes in the words of a good hearted elephant named Horton, penned by the greatest children’s author of all time:

I meant what I said
And I said what I meant . . . ,
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred per cent.

Why do I love that so? I don’t know, but I think of it all the time. The thought of loveable Horton, emphatic in doing just as he promised regardless of the consequences, and knowing that Lazy Mayzie was off enjoying herself somewhere, not doing her duty, is a beacon for our faithless times and I quote it often (perhaps obnoxiously, but even so). Even when we fail, Horton reminds us that we should try.

But the award for my number one favorite poem goes to the one with the shortest title I know, and damn if it doesn't rhyme either. Go figure. I have quoted it in these digital pages before, perhaps more than once. Ten times wouldn’t be too much. It is the most inspirational poem, at least for me, and I've made sure my daughter has read it too, even if Rudyard Kipling wrote it for his son. Times have changed.


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;

If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

As I cannot choose better, I will stop here.


  1. Anonymous9:04 AM

    Boy, for a guy who doesn't know poetry, you are more familiar with it than most. And your taste is so sentimental, quel surprise. There is a big mush lurking behind the facade of a stoic cynic after all. Coincidence that you bring up Frost, I've been reading him lately with a great deal more appreciation, and considering a blog. Suggest you read a little Dorothy Parker. Easy to find on-line. She is very much in the mold of Nash, but her humor is darker. Thanks for making me smile, thinking of you on a log in the woods reading Longfellow. Now there's a picture.

  2. We've also probably exhausted my knowledge of poetry.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .