“Have you ever heard a good joke?
If you've ever heard someone
just right, with the right pacing,
then you're already on the
way to poetry. It's about
using words in very precise
ways and using gesture.”
– Rita Dove,
U.S. Poet Laureate
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13 poets born this week,
August and September
1953 – Gjertrud Schnackenberg born in Tacoma, Washington; American poet. She began writing poetry at Mount Holyoake College and won the school’s Glascock Prize in 1974 and 1975. After graduating, she was a Writer-in-Residence at Smith College and visiting fellow at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. She has published six poetry collections, including The Throne of Labdacus; A Gilded Lapse of Time; Supernatural Love; and Heavenly Questions, which won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize.
by Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Threading the palm, a web of tiny lines
Spells out the lost money, the heart, the head,
The wagging tongues, the sudden deaths, in signs
We would smooth out like imprints on a bed,
In signs that can’t be helped, geese heading south,
In signs read anxiously, like breath that clouds
A mirror held to a barely open mouth,
Like telegrams, the gathering of crowds—
The plane, an X in the sky spelling disaster:
Before the whistle and hit, a tracer flare;
Before rubble, a hairline crack in plaster
And a housefly’s panicked scribbling on the air.
“Signs” appeared in the June 1974 issue of Poetry magazine – © 1974 by Gjertrud Schnackenberg
1749 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in the Free Imperial City of Frankfurt, then part of the Holy Roman Empire; German poet, playwright, novelist, critic, statesman, lawyer, theatre director, and philosopher. He is widely regarded as the greatest and most influential writer in the German language, his work having a profound and wide-ranging influence on Western literary, political, and philosophical thought from the late 18th century to the present day. He died at age 82 in March 1832.
Ever and Everywhere
Penetrate deep mountain caverns,
Follow clouds towards the heavens;
Muses call, to stream and valley,
Many a thousand times, oh, many.
As soon as fresh flowers meet the eye,
New songs our efforts earn:
And though fleeting time goes by,
The seasons they return.
– translated by A.S. Kline © 2004
1952 – Rita Dove born in Akron, Ohio, African American poet, essayist and academic; she was the youngest appointee as U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-1995) to that date, and was a Special Consultant in Poetry (1999-2000) for the celebrations of the Bicentennial Year of the Library of Congress. Dove is also the second African American to receive the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for Thomas and Beulah. Her poetry collections include The Yellow House on the Corner, Mother Love, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, American Smooth, and Collected Poems: 1974-2004, a finalist for a 2016 National Book Award.
by Rita Dove
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits –
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see
“Dawn Revisited” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks, © 1999 by Rita Dove – W.W. Norton & Company
1929 – Thom Gunn born in Gravesend, Kent, UK; English poet who lived most of his adult life in San Francisco, where he moved in the 1950s to live with his American partner Mike Kitay. They had met as students at Trinity College, Cambridge. Gunn taught writing at Stanford University and UC Berkeley. His poems are frequently explorations of drug ecstasy, homosexuality, and life in the ‘60s and ‘70s in San Francisco. Later Gunn wrote wrenching poems about the AIDS crisis. His many poetry collections include: Fighting Terms; Touch; Moly; The Man With Night Sweats; and Old Stories.
by Thom Gunn
I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tights: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.
He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,
Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.
“Still Life” from The Man with Night Sweats, © 1992 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
1852 – Karen Hesse born in Baltimore, Maryland; American children’s and young adult author. Out of the Dust, a free-verse novel, won the Newbery Medal, a story told in the voice of a young girl growing up in the Depression-era Dust Bowl. In her 2001 verse novel Witness, she tells a story of an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to take over a small Vermont town in the 1920s. Hess is also known for her novel The Music of Dolphins.
by Karen Hesse
When I got home I told Ma
our school scored higher than the
whole state on achievement tests and
I scored top of eighth grade.
"I knew you could."
That's all she said.
She was proud, I could tell.
But she didn't coo like Mad Dog's ma. Or
go on like Mrs. Killian used to do.
"That's not your ma's way."
But I wish it was.
I wish she'd give me a little more to hold on to than
"I knew you could."
Instead she makes me feel like she's just
taking me in like I was
so much flannel dry on the line.
“State Tests” from Out of the Dust, © 1997 by Karen Hesse – Scholastic Inc
1811 – Théophile Gautier born in Tarbes in southwestern France; French art critic, journalist, novelist, and transitional poet from Romanticism to early Modernism. Known for his poetry collections Albertus, España, and Émaux et Camées (Enamels and Cameos). Gautier was an editor of L’Artiste, a weekly review of the arts in Paris. In his later years, he suffered from cardiac disease, and died at age 61 in October 1872.
Farewell to Poetry
by Théophile Gautier
Come, fallen angel, and your pink wings close;
Doff your white robe, your rays that gild the skies;
You must—from heaven, where once you used to rise—
Streak, like a shooting star, fall into prose.
Your bird’s feet now must strike an earthly pose.
It is no time to fly: walk! Lock your prize—
Your harp’s fair harmonies—in resting wise,
Within your heart: vain, worthless treasures those!
Poor child of heaven, but vainly would you sing:
To them your tongue divine means not a thing!
Their ear is closed to your sweet chords! But this
I beg: O blue-eyed angel, first, before
You leave, find my pale love, whom I adore,
And give her brow one long, last farewell kiss.
“Farewell to Poetry” from Selected Lyrics, translation © 2011 by Norman R. Shapiro –Yale University Press
1919 – Amrita Pritam born as Amrita Kaur in Gujranwala, British India; Indian novelist, essayist, and poet, who wrote in Punjabi and Hindi. Her career spanned over six decades, and she produced more than 100 books of poetry, fiction, biographies, essays, a collection of Punjabi folk songs, and an autobiography that were all translated into several Indian and foreign languages. Her mother died when she was eleven, and she was married at sixteen. In 1947, a million people – Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims – died during the violence that followed the partition of India. Pritam became a Punjabi refugee, leaving Lahore and moving to New Delhi. Her work is much admired in both India and Pakistan. In 1956, she became the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her long poem, Sunehade (Messages). After her divorce in 1960, her work became more feminist. Many of her stories and poems drew on the unhappy experience of her marriage. She worked for All India Radio, and edited Nagmani, a monthly Punjabi literary magazine. For the last forty years of her life, she lived with artist and writer Imroz. He designed most of her book covers and made her the subject of several paintings. Pritam died at age 86 in her sleep, after a long illness, in October, 2005.
by Amrita Pritam
With a cover of the
Sun and the moon, the earth
Is a beautiful book.
But starvation, poverty and slavery …
God, are these your sermons
Or simply printing errors?
– translated by Suresh Kohil
“A Document” from Selected Poems of Amrita Pritam, © 1970 by Amrita Pritam – Dialogue Calcutta Publications
1944 – Lorenzo Thomas born in Panama, but his Afro-Caribbean family immigrated to the U.S. when he was four, and he grew up in New York City. He graduated from New York’s Queens College, and joined a group of emerging black poets at the Umbra Workshop, then served in the U.S. Navy (1968-1972) before moving to Houston, Texas as writer-in-residence at Texas Southern University (1973-1979) and editor of the journal Roots. He was then an English professor at the University of Houston-Downtown for over 20 years. Thomas died from emphysema at age 60 in July 2005. His poetry collections include Chances Are Few; I Cudda Had A V-8; and Dancing on Main Street.
by Lorenzo Thomas
The cruelty of ages past affects us now
Whoever it was who lived here lived a mean life
Each door has locks designed for keys unknown
Our living room was once somebody’s home
Our bedroom, someone’s only room
Our kitchen had a hasp upon its door.
Door to a kitchen?
And our lives are hasped and boundaried
Because of ancient locks and madnesses
Of slumlord greed and desperate privacies
Which one is madness? Depends on who you are.
We find we cannot stay, the both of us, in the same room
Dance, like electrons, out of each other’s way.
The cruelties of ages past affect us now
“MMDCCXIII 1/2” from Chances are Few, © 1979 by Lorenzo Thomas – Blue Wind Press
1791 – Lydia Huntley Sigourney born in Norwich, Connecticut; prolific American poet, author, essayist, and publisher; known as the “Sweet Singer of Hartford.” Her father was a gardener, and his employer enabled her to attend a private school. After she completed her education, she taught at schools for young ladies, and learned by trial and error how to teach a deaf student to read and write. Daniel Wadsworth, son of an older friend, helped her set up a school of her own, and get her first work, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse, published in 1815. In 1819, she married Charles Sigourney, and at his request began submitting her work anonymously. She met with limited success until 1833, when the family experienced financial hardship, and she began publishing as Mrs. Sigourney. An advocate for maintaining the traditional “spheres” of men and women, she wrote two books on proper conduct for young ladies, which were popular at the time. However, she did believe in education for women, and often wrote with concern about mistreatment of Native Americans and decrying slavery. Sigourney died at age 73 in June 1865, and her writing fell out of favor as the woman suffrage movement began to grow, and innovators like Walt Whitman appeared.
by Mrs. Sigourney
When was the redman's summer?
When the rose
Hung its first banner out? When the gray rock,
Or the brown heath, the radiant kalmia clothed?
Or when the loiterer by the reedy brooks
Started to see the proud lobelia glow
Like living flame? When through the forest gleamed
The rhododendron? Or the fragrant breath
Of the magnolia swept deliciously
Over the half-laden nerve?
No. When the groves
In fleeting colours wrote their own decay,
And leaves fell eddying on the sharpen'd blast
That sang their dirge; when o'er their rustling bed
The red deer sprang, or fled the shrill-voiced quail,
Heavy of wing and fearful; when, with heart
Foreboding or depress'd, the white man mark'd
The signs of coming winter: then began
The Indian's joyous season. Then the haze,
Soft and illusive as a fairy dream,
Lapp'd all the landscape in its silvery fold.
The quiet rivers, that were wont to hide
'Neath shelving banks, beheld their course betray'd
By the white mist that o'er their foreheads crept,
While wrapp'd in morning dreams, the sea and sky
Slept 'neath one curtain, as if both were merged
In the same element. Slowly the sun,
And all reluctantly, the spell dissolved,
And then it took upon its parting wing
A rainbow glory.
Gorgeous was the time
Yet brief as gorgeous. Beautiful to thee,
Our brother hunter, but to us replete
With musing thoughts in melancholy train.
Our joys, alas! too oft were woe to thee.
Yet ah! poor Indian! whom we fain would drive
Both from our hearts, and from thy father's lands,
The perfect year doth bear thee on its crown,
And when we would forget, repeat thy name.
1887 – Blaise Cendrars born as Frédéric-Louis Sauser in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland; Swiss-French novelist and poet. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1916. After fighting in WWI, he travelled extensively, drawing on (and embellishing considerably) the experiences that he had around the world for his surreal documentaries in verse and prose. Cendrars’ best-known poem is the epic “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” which documents in vivid, sometimes dreamlike detail his journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway at the time of the Russian Revolution. Cendrars suffered a stroke in 1957, and died at age 74 in 1961. His complete Complete Poems, translated by Ron Padgett, were published by the University of California Press in 1992.
by Blaise Cendrars
Islands where we will never alight our ships
Islands where we will never touch earth
Islands thick with foliage
Islands crouched like jaguars
Unforgettable, nameless islands
I toss my shoes overboard, because—
Because I would like to go near you.
― translated by Victoria Le, © 2013
1821 – Anne Whitney born in Watertown Massachusetts to a well-off Unitarian family; American sculptor, poet, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and forest conservationist. Her best-known statue, of Samuel Adams, is in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. and a copy is at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Whitney’s statues are also on view at the Smithsonian Institute, Harvard University, and the Boston Public Library. In 1875, her model for a statue of Charles Sumner won a blind competition, but the judges disqualified her when they discovered ‘A. Whitney’ was a woman. They publicly decreed that "a woman could not accurately sculpt a man's legs" but also deemed it inappropriate, even if the limbs were covered by trousers (they apparently had never seen her statue of Sam Adams, wearing knee-length breeches – and his calves covered only by stockings). She lived an unconventional, independent life, sharing a home with artist Abby Adeline Manning (considered a “Boston Marriage”). Whitney died of cancer at age 93 in January 1915.
by Anne Whitney
Enfolding essence-binding all in one,
All motion and all life,– the near, the far,–
August,–enthroned beyond or sight or sun
And yet most intimate of things that are!–
Bathed in a miracle of light, I grope;
And darkly question the supernal will
Which gave us life and fed it with hope
That time could neither shatter nor fulfill.
1850 – Eugene Field born in St. Louis, Missouri; American writer and poet best known for his children’s poetry and humorous essays; worked as a journalist and then city editor for the St. Joseph Gazette in Missouri (1875-1876) and after he married, arranged for all the money he earned to be sent to his wife, saying he had no head for managing money. After working in St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver (1876-1883), he moved to Chicago, where he wrote a humorous column, Sharps and Flats, for the Chicago Daily News (1883-1895). He had published his first poem in 1879, followed by over a dozen volumes of poetry. His most famous poems are for children: “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat” and “Little Boy Blue.” He died of a heart attack in 1898 at the age of 45.
The Gingham Dog and The Calico Cat (The Duel)
by Eugene Field
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
'T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t' other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn't there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)
The gingham dog went "bow-wow-wow!"
And the calico cat replied "mee-ow!"
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I'm only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)
The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, "Oh, dear! what shall we do!"
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw -
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don't fancy I exaggerate -
I got my news from the Chinese plate!)
Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)
1894 – Bryher pen name of Annie Winifred Ellerman, born in Margate, England, into a wealthy ship-owning family; British novelist, poet, memoirist, and editor, she became a major figure of the international set in Paris in the 1920s, using her fortune to provide financial support to many struggling writers, and to found literary magazines and a publishing company. She had a long-time relationship with American poet H.D. (Hilda Dolittle), and two marriages of convenience with men, which both ended in divorce. In 1933, she published an essay about the increasingly perilous situation of Jews in Germany, and urged readers to take action. Her home in Switzerland became a “receiving station” for refugees, and she helped over 100 people escape Nazi persecution. Bryher’s two poetry collections are Region of Lutany and Arrow Music and Arrow Music. She died at age 88 in January 1983.
Baby gulls who cannot walk,
Whose feathers are ungrown,
Hop to tufts of chamomile
From lattices of stone.
The wind smoothes where the back dips
Wings of shaded straw;
Blue and coral-banded shells
Stick between each claw.
Tumbling with the grace of seals
From the far spit of land,
They scurry from their own wide beaks
Reflected on the sand.
“Gulls” was published under the name ‘A. Winifred Bryher’ in Poetry magazine’s November 1924 issue