A poet’s work … to name
the unnameable, to point
at frauds, to take sides,
start arguments, shape
the world, and stop it
from going to sleep.
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Nineteen poets have birthdays this week!
1819 – Louise Otto-Peters born in Meissen, Saxony; German poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, and women’s rights activist; founder of Frauen-Zeitung (Women’s Newspaper), and Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein (German Association of Women Citizens), Germany’s oldest women’s rights organization.
by Louise Otto-Peters
See the women making lace
Pallid cheeks and eyes so red!
Tired out, and all for nothing,
Nothing but the coarsest bread!
Grandma’s eyes are blinded now,
Only death will set her free,
Wringing hands, she quietly prays:
God help us in extremity.
The children move their little hands,
Up and down the bobbins fling.
Toil and trouble without end
Is what their future life will bring.
God protect each little Miss
Who nothing knows of youthful zest –
For poverty embraces all;
Want snuggles into every breast.
See the women making lace,
Pillow lace, a work of art;
Rich and famous – do not scruples
Linger in your inner heart?
While they decline, you feast and spend,
And savour life in luxury,
Meanwhile these women starve and die,
Released, at last from misery!
See the women making lace
Is not your faith hypocrisy?
All their belief extinguished now,
They call your faith apostasy!
See the woman making lace,
Have you no mercy for her plight?
For else your final waking hour
Will reap her curse from pain and blight!
(1840) – translation by Carol Deithe – from her book The Life and Work of Germany’s Founding Feminist: Louise Otto-Peters © 2002
1859 – A .E. Housman born Bromsgrove, Worcestershire; English poet and classical scholar, noted for his books about Juvenal, Ovid, and Lucan. In 1896, his poetry cycle A Shropshire Lad established his reputation as a poet. He was Professor of Latin at Cambridge University (1911-1936). He died at age 77 in 1936.
A Shropshire Lad, XL
by A .E. Housman
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
1874 – Robert Frost born in San Francisco, Califoria; one of the most celebrated American poets. He lived most of his life in the Eastern U.S., much of it in Vermont and Massachusetts. He published numerous volumes of poetry, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry four times: in 1924 for New Hampshire, for Collected Poems in 1931, for A Further Range in 1937, and in 1943 for A Witness Tree. He won an unprecedented four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, and in the 1960s was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Metal “In recognition of his poetry, which has enriched the culture of the United States and the philosophy of the world…" He died at age 88 in 1963.
Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
– first printed in Harper's Magazine, December 1920
1907 – Mahadevi Verma born in Farukhabad, British India; essayist, educator, sketch story writer, translator, and one of the four major Hindi poets of the Chhayavaad Neo-romantic movement in modern Hindi literature. Though she was married off by her family at age nine, they still funded her education through college. Upon her graduation in 1929, she refused to live with her husband. She was an advocate for women’s education, and an editor of the leading women’s magazine Chand (Moon). She died at age 80 in 1987.
Why an Introduction, Since You Are Within Me
by Mahadevi Verma
Why an introduction dear, you are within me,
reflections on starry nights, memories of a life,
creations of life in short spells, eyes notice
creations of life in short spells, eyes notice
I don't much to treasure anymore,
you are the treasure I have in me.
Your dazzling, radiant smile like sunrise
Is the reflection of fragrant sorrow,
it is consciousness, and dreamy slumber,
Let me tire and sleep incessantly, for
Would I understand the creation, big-bang!!
You are drawn, I am just an outline,
you are the sweet melody, I am just a string of notes, you are limitless, I am but an illusion of limits,
In the secrecy of real image-reflection,
why enact to be lovers!!!
Why an introduction, since you are within me.
– translator not credited
1930 – Gregory Corso born in New York City; American ‘Beat’ poet; son of Italian-Americans, his mother abandoned him as an infant, and his father put him in a foster home. By 1941, he was a homeless street child, but kept it a secret so he could continue going to school, running errands for street stall merchants in exchange for food. He was arrested for a series of petty crimes committed to survive until at 18, he was tried as an adult, and sent to Clinton, New York’s toughest prison. In 1951, he met Alan Ginsberg, and became the youngest member of the inner circle of Beat Generation writers. In 1954, he and Ginsberg traveled separately, mostly hitchhiking to San Francisco, but Corso went back to New York in 1958. In the 60s, he struggled with drugs and alcohol, but continued to write. He died at age 70 in Minneapolis in 2001.
by Gregory Corso
What simple profundities
What profound simplicities
To sit down among the trees
and breathe with them
in murmur brool and breeze —
And how can I trust them
who pollute the sky
the below with hells
I’m part of you
and so my son
but neither of us
your big sad lie
“Humanity” © 1998 by Gregory Corso
1942 – Erica Jong born in New York City; American novelist, satirist, and poet; though best known for her novel Fear of Flying, she had published 8 volumes of poetry, including Half-Lives, Ordinary Miracles, and The World Began with Yes.
by Erica Jong
She left him in death's egg,
the bone sack & the gunny sack,
the bag of down & feathers-all black . . .
Somehow he couldn't get back.
It was night,
a night of shark-faced jets
winking brighter than blue stars,
a night of poisoned cities
mushrooming beneath the eyes of jets,
a night of missile silos
sulking in the desert,
a night of babies howling in the alleys,
a night of cats.
She left a death so huge
his life got lost in it.
She left a bloodstained egg
he had to hatch.
“The Widower” from Becoming Light: Poems New and Selected, © 1992 by Erica Jong – Harper Collins
1954 – Dorothy Porter born in Sydney: Australian poet best known for her noir private eye novel in verse, The Monkey’s Mask, which was a surprise international hit and revitalized Australian poetry publishing – after being rejected by publishers for years. It won Australia’s National Book Council Turnbull Fox Phillips Poetry Prize (the Banjo) in 1995. In 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and died in 2008.
Exuberance With Bloody Hands
by Dorothy Porter
What do the Minoans teach us –
exuberance with bloody hands?
The wind the Goddess brings
is both wonderful and vicious
she flies into your soul
she flies into your face
and what will you do to see her?
Become the stone altar
become the moist fetish
become the bird screaming down on you
it’s just a trance
you tell yourself
you’ll wake up tomorrow
your lover sleeping on your shoulder
it was just the wine
it was just the drugs
it’s all over
I can’t remember
no-one got hurt
but there was something
a wind, a bird, a sense
of being taken up and over
dancing and dying
dancing and not dying
dancing and living forever
but your mortal lover snores
and snuffles into your mortal skin
the rattle, the trees, that perfume,
that fantastic presence
what are you fit for now?
whose throat would you cut
to have it happen again?
“Exuberance With Bloody Hands” from The Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter, © 2013 by Dorothy Porter – Black Inc Books
1679 – Domenico Lalli born as Nicolò Sebastiano Biancardi in Naples; Italian poet and librettist for the opera houses of Venice, including Vivaldi's Ottone in villa and Alessandro Scarlatti's Tigrane. He died at age 62 in 1741.
A certain "I don't know what"
by Domenico Lalli
A certain "I don't know what"
befalls me and pierces my heart,
although it's neither pain nor smart.
Could this perhaps be love?
In its fiery glow
- unmindfully —
I have already set my foot!
– translation by Bertram Kottman
1814 – Charles Mackay born in Perth in central Scotland; Scottish author, journalist, songwriter, and poet; best remembered for his three-volume work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841, an early study of crowd psychology, including economic bubbles like Tulipomania, the Crusades, witch trials, alchemy, and fortune telling. It is still in print today. Mackay published Songs and Poems in 1834. He died at age 75 in 1889.
by Charles Mackay
You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You've hit no traitor on the hip,
You've dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You've never turned the wrong to right,
You've been a coward in the fight.
1883 – Marie Under born Reval, Estonia when it was part of the Russian Empire; now regarded as one of Estonia’s greatest poets, but her first poems were written in German because Russia had banned the Latvian language in schools, and her family sent her to a girls school in Germany. She returned to Estonia in 1906, and became part of the Siuru (firebird) literary movement in 1917, but fled to Sweden when the USSR occupied her country in 1944, and died in exile at age 97 in 1980.
by Marie Under
I cry aloud with all my people’s mouths,
our land is smitten by a plague of fear and lead,
our land is shadowed by the gallows tree
our land, a common graveyard, huge with dead.
Who’ll come to help? Right here, at present, now!
Because the patient’s weak, has lost his hold.
But, like the call of birds, my shouting fades
in emptiness: the world is arrogant and cold.
The sighing of the old, the baby’s cry —
do they all run to sand, illusion, fail?
Men, women groan like wounded deer
to those in power all this is just a fairy-tale.
Dark is the world’s eye, its ear is deaf,
the powerful lost in madness or stupidity.
Compassion’s only felt by those whom suffering breaks,
and sufferers alone have hearts like you and me.
– translator not credited
1911 – Veronika Tushnova born in Kazan on the Volga River, Soviet poet and translator, member of the Soviet Union of Writers; known for Memory of the Heart and One Hundred Hours of Happiness. She was trained medicine, and served as a medical assistant in military hospitals during WWII. Disliking medicine, she chose to be a writer instead. Her poem They don’t renounce loving became the lyrics of a song. Tushnova died from cancer in Moscow at age 54 in 1965.
There is nothing really to explain
by Veronika Tushnova
There is nothing really to explain.
What has happened? That’s what we don’t know,
And we try, still try to love again
With the hearts as cold as winter snow,
Ghostly evenings smelling of the sea,
Of spring flowers delicate and sweet…
You will touch my lips and I will see
That your kisses seem so cold, indeed,
I will clench your palm, but now my heart
Is just beating calmly, with no change
In my feelings. People grow apart
By the reason so absurd and strange…
(1945) – translation by Dina Mukhamedzyanova
1950 – Julia Alvarez born in New York City, but spent most of her childhood in the Dominican Republic; Dominican-American novelist, poet, and essayist; best known for her novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. She has published three volumes of poetry: The Other Side, Homecoming, and The Woman I Kept to Myself. She is also the author of a collection of essays, and a number of books for younger readers. In 2014, she was honored with the National Medal of Arts.
I, Too, Sing América
by Julia Alvarez
I know it's been said before
but not in this voice
of the plátano
and the mango,
marimba y bongó,
not in this sancocho
it's my turn
to oh say
what I see,
I'm going to sing America!
with all América
from the soles
of Tierra del Fuego
to the thin waist
up the spine of the Mississippi
through the heartland
of the Yanquis
to the great plain face of Canada —
all of us
the whole hemispheric
belting our canción,
singing our brown skin
into that white
and red and blue song —
the big song
con toda América:
un new song!
Ya llegó el momento,
under the sun —
ese sol that shines
So, hit it maestro!
“I, Too, Sing América” from Homecoming: New and Collected Poems, © 1996 by Julia Alvarez – Plume
1976 – Ada Limón born, American poet of Mexican America heritage, magazine contributor, and educator; her 2015 poetry collection, Bright Dead Things, was a finalist for the National Book award for Poetry, and in 2018, her book The Carrying, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
by Ada Limón
Suppose it’s easy to slip
into another’s green skin,
bury yourself in leaves
and wait for a breaking,
a breaking open, a breaking
out. I have, before, been
tricked into believing
I could be both an I
and the world. The great eye
of the world is both gaze
and gloss. To be swallowed
by being seen. A dream.
To be made whole
by being not a witness,
“Sanctuary” by Ada Limón appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of VQR
1913 – R. S. Thomas born as Ronald Stuart Thomas in Cardiff, Wales; prolific Welsh poet, Church of Wales priest, essayist, and ardent Welsh nationalist. Among his books are The Stone of the Field, Poetry for Supper, No Truce With the Furies, and Residues. He died of a heart condition at age 87 in 2000.
by R. S. Thomas
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
“Via Negativa” from Collected Poems, 1945-1990, © 1990 by R.S. Thomas – J. M. Dent Publishers
1844 – Paul Verlaine born in Metz, France; prolific French lyric poet of the fin de siècle era; he left his wife and child for a turbulent relationship with Arthur Rimbaud – at one point, he fired a gun at Rimbaud, who fortunately was not seriously injured. In Verlaine’s last years, he descended into drug addiction, alcoholism, and poverty, but after his early poetry had a revival, it brought in enough money to sustain him until his death at age 51 in 1896.
by Paul Verlaine
The keyboard, over which two slim hands float,
Shines vaguely in the twilight pink and gray,
Whilst with a sound like wings, note after note
Takes flight to form a pensive little lay
That strays, discreet and charming, faint, remote,
About the room where perfumes of Her stray.
What is this sudden quiet cradling me
To that dim ditty's dreamy rise and fall?
What do you want with me, pale melody?
What is it that you want, ghost musical
That fade toward the window waveringly
A little open on the garden small?
– translator not credited
1621 – Andrew Marvell born in the East Riding area of Yorkshire; English poet, political satirist, and on-again, off-again member of the House of Commons between 1659 and 1678. “To His Coy Mistress” is his best-known poem. Andrew Marvell died at age 57 in 1678.
The Mower to the Glow-Worms
by Andrew Marvell
Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night,
Her matchless songs does meditate;
Ye county comets, that portend
No war nor prince's funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Than to presage the grass's fall;
Ye glow-worms, whose officious flame
To wand'ring mowers shows the way,
That in the night have lost their aim,
And after foolish fires do stray;
Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displac'd
That I shall never find my home.
1914 – Octavio Paz born near Mexico City into a prominent liberal political family; Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat. He was awarded the 1977 Jerusalem Prize, the 1981 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the 1960s, he was Mexico’s Ambassador to India, then became Simón Bolívar Professor at Cambridge University (1969-1970). Among his many poetry collections is his best known collection Piedra del Sol (Sunstone). He die of cancer at age 84 in 1988.
by Octavio Paz
If the lamp’s white light
is real, if real
is the hand that writes,
are the eyes that stare
at these words real?
From one word to the next
what I say vanishes.
Between two parentheses
is only when I know
– translated by Jeff Alessandretti
“Certainty” from Salamandra (1958-1961) © 1962 by Octavio Paz – Joaquin Mortiz
1934 – Kamala Suraiyya born in what was the Malabar district in British India: Indian author and columnist who published poetry in English, often under the pen name Kamala Das. In 1948, she was a major figure in launching the national liberal political party Lok Seva Party, which promoted social reform. Her books in English include Summer in Calcutta, The Descendants, and Only the Soul Knows How to Sing.
My Grandmother’s House
by Kamala Suraiyya
There is a house now far away where once
I received love … That woman died,
The house withdrew into silence, snakes moved
Among books, I was then too young
To read, and my blood turned cold like the moon
How often I think of going
There, to peer through blind eyes of windows or
Just listen to the frozen air,
Or in wild despair, pick an armful of
Darkness to bring it here to lie
Behind my bedroom door like a brooding
Dog … you cannot believe, darling,
Can you, that I lived in such a house and
Was proud, and loved ... I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?
“My Grandmother’s House” from Selected Poems, © 2009 by Kamala Suraiyya
1936 – Marge Piercy born in Detroit, Michigan; American poet, novelist, anthology editor and social activist. Her working-class parents were Jewish, and they lived in a predominately black neighborhood, where the Great Depression hit hard. She became the first in her family to go to college, on a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where she joined and became an organizer for political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Anti-Vietnam War/Pro-Peace groups. She’s a feminist, a Marxist and an environmentalist. Piercy is also a prolific writer, with almost 20 novels and over 20 books of poetry published. She’s written plays, several volumes of nonfiction, a memoir, and edited the anthology Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now. Piercy also explores Jewish issues, and was poetry editor of Tikkun Magazine.
The cat’s song
by Marge Piercy
Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.
Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.
You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?
Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.
Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word
of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.
“The cat’s song” from Mars & Her Children, © 1992 by Marge Piercy – Alfred A. Knopf
Painting: ’Dance’ by Matisse
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