Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

woodsDecember 21, 2012 is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. No wonder that we celebrate the Light coming into the world during December.  It’s a dark month.

As many of you know, I was a professor of English for twenty-four years, so occasionally, some of that personal history sneaks into this blog.  Almost every year on this day, I think about Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” because the scene depicted occurs on “the darkest evening of the year.”

Probably only a few of you know, however, that for about a year, I was quite a Frost scholar! To complete my MA degree at the University of Mississippi in 1971, I submitted a pretty extensive thesis study of the dark side of Robert Frost. One of the traits of Frost’s poetry that attracted me was his apparent, even folksy accessibility–which easily disguised the depth of the poet’s conflict.

I know, that sounds too much like an English professor, doesn’t it!  Let me show you what I mean with this very familiar poem.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

On the surface, this poem appears to describe a person sleighing home on a dark night, who stops to take in the woods filling up with snow. Oh what I lovely sight, but he must be on his way because there is much more to do.  What a nice little poem!

But let me lead your thinking along a different path to understanding the poem with just a few easy questions:

  1. Is this poem about the driver, the horse, the woods, or the snow?
  2. Which of these lines represents the primary dramatic tension or the “conflict” in the poem?
  • “He will not see me stopping here”
  • “To stop without a farmhouse near”
  • “Between the woods and frozen lake”
  • “But I have promises to keep”

3. If I tell you that “the woods” are almost always the scene of danger, despair, or treachery in American literature, does it change your understanding of the poem?

“The darkest evening of the year” was a day not chosen by accident.

Yesterday, I had conversations about friends whose children are threatened by divorce, about the tragedy at Newtown, about the imminent loss of aging parents, about the early loss of a dear spouse—just about the temptation to disappear into the woods, lovely, dark and deep.

It’s not the promises that I have made, but the promise in the Light of Bethlehem that offers a reason to keep traveling those miles before we sleep.

Some people make a big deal out of the fact that pagans had winter celebrations about the same time that Christians now celebrate the birth of Christ even though we know how unlikely this date is as the real time of his birth.  Perhaps it is true that pagans danced around trees, gave gifts, and had some mythological character that appeared down their chimneys.  That is not Christmas! At least, it is not what a Christian celebrates.

When Christians remember the birth of Jesus in December, they completely hijack and transform pagan rituals into what is real and true. You can’t take Christ out of Christmas for a Christian. You can ban the words in public, but the Word became flesh and dwelt among us! It is our breath of Life!

And so today, the 21st of December 2012,  this very short day will be followed by a very long night. The darkness of the world we live in is dark and deep.

Will you go to the woods or will you take the journey, walking in the Light—the Light of Bethlehem?

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When I was in the first grade, our class memorized this poem and recited it over the loudspeaker system to the whole school during the morning devotional time.  (Public schools were different then!) It is a poem, you know, not just a psalm. Remember how Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were the division of the Bible called the Books of Poetry! The Spirit of God is a prolific poet.

Add to the pure poetry then the lyrical words of songs that Moses sang, Miriam, Deborah, and all Israel together with the Magnificat of Mary and the probable hymns of the early Christians reflected in Paul’s writings. I think God really likes poetry!

I think you will like poetry better, if you learn the technique of close reading. Let’s read this favorite poem of mine together and I will record my thoughts as I do a close reading so that you can see a concrete example of what I’m talking about.

A close reading of a biblical text for me means that the reader looks more closely at the detail of the text, but probably does not do a historical or linguistic analysis.  Let me show you what I mean. Stay with me and let’s read the text together. It may feel a little disjointed, but the goal is to experience the poem and understand it in a meaningful way.

The LORD is my shepherd; To claim the Creator of the Universe with the word my is pretty audacious! Either the speaker is a pompous fool or he has an extraordinary sense of relationship with his God! And why does he choose the shepherd metaphor? Why not king or mountain or ocean or sun? Or if he’s choosing a profession, why not carpenter or farmer or winemaker? Probably in this case, the poet wants to reveal the relationship that the shepherd establishes with the sheep. The writer puts himself in the position of being a sheep by calling the LORD his shepherd.  Is being a sheep a good thing? Aren’t sheep a little dumb? Oops, maybe that’s part of the poem?  Well let’s go on.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. What confidence in the shepherd! Can a human shepherd provide everything for the sheep as well as protect them from all harm? Not really, but the poet says his shepherd can—the LORD can.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. I must admit, this sounds pretty good. Green pastures for eating and still waters for drinking—but, in fact, it doesn’t seem to me that creature comforts are not what the writer focuses on. No, he is describing a place of quiet rest—perhaps just a place of contentment where the sheep don’t have to worry about their needs because they can just look around and see that everything is there that they need—so they can relax.

He restoreth my soul. Yes, that seems to be the whole direction of this poem so far—restoration. Not just meeting physical needs, but feeding and watering the soul is what the poet means when he says, “I shall not want.”

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness .  . . The word righteousness gets in the way for me. It’s too churchy, too theological. Would it be just as right to say, “He leads me down the right path,” or, “He makes sure that I stay on the path?”

. . . for his name’s sake: Then the poet just reminds us that while the shepherd is doing so much for the care of the sheep, ultimately the sheep are there for the benefit of the shepherd! It is the shepherd’s will for the sheep that will ultimately be done, not the sheep’s will for themselves. They will be petted, they will be shorn, some may be eaten—they belong to the Shepherd, not to themselves.  The Shepherd cares for the flock for his own sake!  And that seems to be OK with the poet.

4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: I know that it is a misreading of the text, but I can’t help but love the Yea, because it sounds like “Yay!!” or maybe YES!! Sometimes poets use words to mean one thing, but to suggest other things. I wish that were the case here, but I don’t think it is.  Well, that is probably a sidetrack.  Not being afraid as one is threatened with death is not normal! But the poet didn’t say he wasn’t afraid; rather, he said he would fear no evil! His fearlessness is certainly because of his confidence that he is being led along the righteous path where evil does not prevail.

For thou art with me! One of these words is shocking!  It’s OK to talk about the Majestic God of heaven as the Shepherd, even though it is a lowly image. It was bold to call Him my Shepherd, but at least the poet is still speaking metaphorically and positions himself well below the Shepherd, but suddenly here, the poet switches voices and addresses Almighty God directly—with one of the most common words in the English language—and one of the most familiarly intimate words:  YOU! Most languages have forms of address for royalty, for class or gender differentiation. In English, the poet just says, “YOU” to God. I don’t think a Muslim could be so familiar with Allah.

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. The rod and staff are for protection and rescue mostly, I suppose, therefore to know the shepherd has all he needs to protect and rescue me is comforting.  But to spread a picnic in the middle of a battlefield, that’s a peculiar image—unless his enemies were not yet active, not yet aggressive, still his enemies, however.  We too live in a world of intrigue. Think about your family drama, the tensions at work—or at church as people trample others to get what they want or where they want.  OK, I’m getting a better picture of sitting down to eat among people who are after me, but without fear because . . .

Thou anointest my head with oil! Because I’m a sheep of the Almighty Shepherd and I have been chosen, anointed, so the Shepherd and I stand together.

My cup runneth over! My cup of wine or cup of blessing or cup of joy or cup of thanksgiving—any of those work for me.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, It’s all based on this relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep. If the Shepherd is as good as He seems, then surely that sheep need not worry one day of his life that he will be left to evil and judgment—the opposites of goodness and mercy!

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Sheep in the house?? I don’t know about that. I think with the shift to YOU, the poet starts giving up the sheep metaphor and is wrapped up in the goodness of his own relationship to the LORD.  And the house of the LORD could be just where He is, but it could be the metaphorical temple—which was the house of the LORD! And could it be the household of the LORD or His family?

Don’t you love the word forever! There is no forever to anything that we know in the physical universe. So by using the word forever, the poet carries himself and us with him far beyond anything that we know! That says to me that anything we even conceive of in the image the house of the LORD is wrong and whatever it is, it is so much more than we can imagine—and I shall dwell there forever!

I love to read closely—to read poetry closely, but especially to read God’s poetry closely because the richness is completely satisfying—but never exhausted.  I’m glad my English teachers taught me to love poetry. I’m quite sure we will do poetry readings in the house of the Lord forever!

Are you ready?




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The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. . . .

When he was 86 years old, Robert Frost was invited by the freshly elected young president to read a poem at the inauguration in Washington. The year is 1961, the president is John F. Kennedy, and the poem that Frost wrote for the inauguration was one entitled “Dedication” – which does not contain the above lines.  The glare of the sun off the snow on the ground blinded the elderly poet to the point that he could neither read nor recite the newly written poem. Frost stopped and in a strong and commanding voice, he began quoting a very familiar poem of his “The Gift Outright.”

Other poets have spoken powerfully at political moments. One of the earliest may have been Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.


Lt. John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Field,” written during the horrors of WWI continues to represent that whole event in literature as does the novel All Quiet On The Western Front. Somehow when we move to WWII and the arts, things seem to shift to film and music—until the late fifties and sixties when poetry once more joined the triumvirate!

Lately, when I find myself thinking of pure poetry, I find myself thinking mostly of African-American poetry, starting, of course, with Langston Hughes and not ending but certainly finding one of its mountaintops in Maya Angelou. Certainly because of the racial conflict of the previous decades fourscore, these poets have been voices heard when more virulent voices were not.

Poetry and politics are not from different edges of the globe. Poetry is often the purest expression, the most concentrated form of the arguments of the human soul.

My thesis at Ole Miss is entitled “Frost Among the Leaves: The Dark Side of Robert Frost.” I’m sure you can find it in the university library in Oxford—probably untouched by human hands. I had always liked Frost’s poetry, and although I’m quite aware that he is considered second tier by some scholars who prefer more obscurity, I believe that very few can equal the depth of emotion that he captures in quite carefully crafted language.

He wrote of pastures, he wrote of paths in woods, he wrote of cows, but he also wrote of death, of fear, of betrayal, of angst, of the quest for meaning—and he wrote about God.

Next I want to read closely perhaps my favorite poem, written by another pastoral poet, also about sheep and pastures—and also about God.  I learned this poem in the first grade—and it continues to move me to quiet and to faith.

I bet you know this poem as well!


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Love and Limericks!

The Sixties loved poetry! The Beat poets of the 50s like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were being read everywhere.  Everyone loved ee cummings lack of capitalization—very anti-establishment! The Beatles not only were writing great poetical lyrics, but using the poetry of published poets as well, a la Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory.

And everyone wrote poetry! I think it may have been the freedom from rhyme and meter that was so popular, that allowed everyone to think of themselves as a poet.  Absence of these discipline releases lots of totally undisciplined rubbish—but we all did it anyway.  Especially if we were in love!

“At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet” (Plato)

OK, here is the gem you have been waiting for.  When Sherrylee and I first started dating in 1969, she had just joined our summer mission campaign team in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  I, being much older and wiser, made the first flirtatious moves, including teasing her—a very sophisticated thing to do, I know.  So I wrote her a limerick—a very educated verse form, of course. It went something like this:

There was once a girl from Bononson

Who liked a young man name’ed Hanson.    (my first name)

She had a cute lisp–

S and J weren’t too crisp.

Too bad she was named Sherry Johnson!

Terrible, I know, but we—at least I—still laugh about it!

And then there was Rod McKuen! Every girl had Rod McKuen books of poetry sitting on her nightstand—typical flower child kind of poetry. Very much about nature, love, fluff, and more love.

While Sherrylee and I were dating long distance—she was in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, and I was in Oxford, Mississippi, so I would drive down about once a month to visit her—I would lie on her living room floor and listen to Rod McKuen’s album called The Sea, which was his sea/beach/love poetry set to music with sounds of breaking waves through the transitions.  I guess it was such a hit that you can’t find it anywhere anymore!  Not even on ITunes—not that I ever looked J

I need to just say that all of these stories occur before I took my aforementioned course in Modern Poetry, so I can just plead ignorance.  Then I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and many others who opened a whole new world of reading to me.

Of course, I took courses in the Romantic Poets (Shelley, Keats, Byron, etc), but the more modern poets I was reading captured me mostly because to understand the modern poets required an exegesis—much like I had learned to do in my biblical studies.  Why does the poet choose this word that you stumble over? Why does the alliteration carry you only this far and not further? What other possible meanings could this word or this phrase have?

You know how the best movies make you think as compared to the superficial ones that you figure out about five minutes into it. Great writing is often difficult enough that you can’t get it with just a cursory reading, but a close, thoughtful reading rewards you with something magnificent!

Yes, I’m on a crusade to bring poetry back from oblivion!! Have I whetted your appetite at all?  Here’s a great poem from T.S. Eliot that you should be able to read and enjoy with thinking—but not to the point of a headache J!  It’s a Christmas poem—or is it?

Journey of the Magi

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


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Some of you don’t know that I have a M.A. degree in English from the University of Mississippi. For two years of my life, I buried myself in literature of all kinds. I had all the standard courses in Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer, as well as specialized courses in both American and English literature. Of all the courses I took, perhaps the one that I enjoyed the most and that served me best—surprisingly– was a course in Modern Poetry.

My dad introduced me to poetry as a child. He had been required to learn hundreds of lines of poetry at a time when educators thought memorization to be a part of everyone’s education. He was far from sophisticated in his tastes; no, the poems I remember from my dad are mostly narrative poems like The Song of Hiawatha (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow),  Abou ben Adham Leigh Hunt), and The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay (Oliver Wendell Holmes). But I did grow up thinking that poetry was fun!

He also introduced me to The Charge of the Light Brigade“Cannon to the right of them/Cannon to the left of them/Cannon in front of them . . . into the valley of death rode the six hundred”  And then came the lines I heard a million times: “Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die!”  For my dad, this took the place of “Because I said so!”—and I remember it today with great affection.

Since today is Opening Day  (capitalized you notice!) of  the 2011 baseball season, I have to mention one of his favorite poems—Casey At The Bat by Ernest L Thayer. Having been a fairly arrogant young baseball player, I suspect he was trying to teach me something about pride coming before a fall because I heard this poem often.  He used to walk up behind the dugout behind where I would sit after a vain at-bat and softly say, “Somewhere the sun is shining and somewhere the children shout, but there ain’t no joy in Mudville—Mighty Casey has struck out!” He didn’t quote it exactly right, but he made his point!

April is National Poetry Month so this is my start to a few musings on, about, and with poetry. Stick with me and follow the links to read the poems–you can skip Song of Hiawatha—and you will enjoy them, I’m sure.

Here’s a short verse that is a clue to the next piece. Can you identify the poet?

Fireflies In The Garden

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,

And here on earth come emulating flies

That, though they never equal stars in size

(And they were never really stars at heart),

Achieve at times a very starlike start.

Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.



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