America’s Poet Laureates, Finally Together

Jan 25th, 2011 in Poetry

This is the beginning of what appears to be a great year for poetry in our lives.

Someone finally had the sense to gather in one compendium, the poems of all the American poets who have been appointed over the last 75 years to the office of “Poet Laureate.”  The sensible one here is Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, “Forwarded” and abetted by none other than justly-popular poet, Billy Collins (who held the Poet Laureate office from 2001 until 2003).  The book is a treasure trove for those who love American poetry (legions, I know).  The surprise is that the book, while presenting some of the best poetry by the normal suspects of 20th and 21st Century American poetry (Frost, Lowell, Bishop, Williams, Lowell, Kumin, Brodsky, Haas, Gluck, Pinsky, Merwin, etc.),  manages to introduce us to some great poetry from poets that were previously unfamiliar to us (we’re ashamed to admit: Kay Ryan, Rita Dove, Stephen Spender, Leonie Adams and Louise Bogan).

Below is a sampling of our favorites from this fine collection.  Please give a close read, and give poetry a chance to immeasurably illumine this life.

The first reminds us of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the Live Oak Festival and other enchanting environs where folk music flourishes.

Song from a Country Fair

by Léonie Adams

When tunes jigged nimbler than the blood
And quick and high the bows would prance
And every fiddle string would burst
To catch what’s lost beyond the string,
While half afraid their children stood,
I saw the old come out to dance.
The heart is not so light at first,
But heavy like a bough in spring.

Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell

by Louise Bogan

At midnight tears
Run in your ears.

Halley’s Comet

By Stanley Kunitz

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.


by Rita Dove

She wanted a little room for thinking:
but she saw diapers steaming on the line,
a doll slumped behind the door.
So she lugged a chair behind the garage
to sit out the children’s naps

Sometimes there were things to watch–
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,
a floating maple leaf. Other days
she stared until she was assured
when she closed her eyes
she’d only see her own vivid blood.

She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared
pouting from the top of the stairs.
And just what was mother doing
out back with the field mice? Why,

building a palace. Later
that night when Thomas rolled over and
lurched into her, she would open her eyes
and think of the place that was hers
for an hour–where
she was nothing,
pure nothing, in the middle of the day.

Love Song

by Joseph Brodsky

If you were drowning, I’d come to the rescue,
wrap you in my blanket and pour hot tea.
If I were a sheriff, I’d arrest you
and keep you in the cell under lock and key.

If you were a bird, I ‘d cut a record
and listen all night long to your high-pitched trill.
If I were a sergeant, you’d be my recruit,
and boy i can assure you you’d love the drill.

If you were Chinese, I’d learn the languages,
burn a lot of incense, wear funny clothes.
If you were a mirror, I’d storm the Ladies,
give you my red lipstick and puff your nose.

If you loved volcanoes, I’d be lava
renlentlessly erupting from my hidden source.
And if you were my wife, I’d be your lover
because the church is firmly against divorce.


by Howard Nemerov

an introductory lecture

This morning we shall spend a few minutes
Upon the study of symbolism, which is basic
To the nature of money. I show you this nickel.
Icons and cryptograms are written all over
The nickel: one side shows a hunchbacked bison
Bending his head and curling his tail to accommodate
The circular nature of money. Over him arches
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and, squinched in
Between that and his rump, E PLURIBUS UNUM,
A Roman reminiscence that appears to mean
An indeterminately large number of things
All of which are the same. Under the bison
A straight line giving him a ground to stand on
Reads FIVE CENTS. And on the other side of our nickel
There is the profile of a man with long hair
And a couple of feathers in the hair; we know
Somehow that he is an American Indian, and
He wears the number nineteen-thirty-six.
Right in front of his eyes the word LIBERTY, bent
To conform with the curve of the rim, appears
To be falling out of the sky Y first; the Indian
Keeps his eyes downcast and does not notice this;
To notice it, indeed, would be shortsighted of him.
So much for the iconography of one of our nickels,
Which is now becoming a rarity and something of
A collectors’ item: for as a matter of fact
There is almost nothing you can buy with a nickel,
The representative American Indian was destroyed
A hundred years or so ago, and his descendants’
Relations with liberty are maintained with reservations,
Or primitive concentration camps; while the bison,
Except for a few examples kept in cages,
Is now extinct. Something like that, I think,
Is what Keats must have meant in his celebrated
Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Notice, in conclusion,
A number of circumstances sometimes overlooked
Even by experts: (a) Indian and bison,
Confined to obverse and reverse of the coin,
Can never see each other; they are looking
In opposite directions, the bison past
The Indian’s feathers, the Indian past
The bison’s tail; (c) they are upside down
To one another; (d) the bison has a human face
Somewhat resembling that of Jupiter Ammon.
I hope that our studies today will have shown you
Something of the import of symbolism
With respect to the understanding of what is symbolized.

I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great

By Stephen Spender

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

In addition to these great poets and poems, we were struck by a portion of the introduction to the collection.  In these times and with recent political events and histrionics we would all do well to stop, read and consider the words of John F. Kennedy and the verses of Robert Frost, who was Poet Laureate from 1958-1959, and whom JFK invited to speak at Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1961.  Kennedy had this to say:

“I asked Robert Frost to come and speak at the Inauguration…because I felt he had something important to say to those of us who are occupied with the business of G0vernment, that he would remind us that we are dealing with life, the hopes and fears of millions of people….  He said it well in a poem called “Choose Something Like a Star,” in which he speaks of the fairest star in sight and says:

It asks a little of us here.

It asks of us a certain height,

So when at times the mob is swayed

To carry praise or blame too far,

We may choose something like a star

To stay our minds on and be staid.

In other words, let us be methodical and slower to anger, and let us resist the urge to canonize or excoriate.  Instead, let’s be thoroughly thoughtful and give wisdom at least a toehold’s chance before speaking or acting rashly.  We have miles to go on this front before we sleep (yours truly, especially).

And as for poetry itself, in Tom Stoppard’s play “The Real Thing,” the main character has this to say:  “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are.  They deserve respect.  If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little, or make a poem children will speak for you when you’re dead.”

We hope that poetry will nudge your world a little this year.

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