Tag Archives: poetry

This is What You Shall Do

Philosophically, I like to think of myself as an empiricist. I remember vividly my introduction to the study’s ideals in a literature and philosophy class my freshman year of college.

And while empiricism often lends itself to intellectualism, there’s still a part of me that at least understands transcendentalist theories… which is one of the many reasons I love Walt Whitman. Another is his marvelous, inspired ability to write, to call to action, to illustrate an image or an ideal, to enchant, to pursue, to create.

read these leaves in the open air every season

The first printing of Leaves of Grass (and none of the subsequent printings) had a preface with the following quote:

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

the birthday boy

Today is 192 years after Walt Whitman was born and 119 years after his death. In honor of those 72 years in between, I celebrate the great American writer’s life with a humble post. I got the idea from a new blog I’m enjoying called Letters of Note. Today, they published a letter written by contemporary and friend Mark Twain to Whitman for his 70th birthday.

In May of 1889, Twain wrote the following beautiful letter of congratulations to Walt Whitman, the indisputably influential poet behind, most notably, Leaves of Grass. The cause for celebration was Whitman’s upcoming birthday; the imminence of which saw Twain pen not just a birthday wish, but a stunning 4-page love letter to human endeavor, as seen during Whitman’s lifetime.

The images of the actual letter are courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and a transcript of the letter is copied below.


Hartford, May 24/89

To Walt Whitman:

You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history & richest in benefit & advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man & the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.

good ol' Sammy C

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest & strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result — Man at almost his full stature at last! — & still growing, visibly growing while you look. In that day, who that hath a throne, or a gilded privilege not attainable by his neighbor, let him procure his slippers & get ready to dance, for there is going to be music. Abide, & see these things! Thirty of us who honor & love you, offer the opportunity. We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Take 30 of them — the richest birth-day gift ever offered to poet in this world — & sit down & wait. Wait till you see that great figure appear, & catch the far glint of the sun upon his banner; then you may depart satisfied, as knowing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, & that he will proclaim that human wheat is worth more than human tares, & proceed to organize human values on that basis.

Mark Twain

How lovely. And so, as tribute to the recipient of this birthday letter, go forth and sound your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world!

In Flanders Fields

handwritten by the poet himself

 A few weeks ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I hadn’t read anything by the well-known contemporary Canadian author before, but I did see her speak last spring at a humanities symposium my university sponsored. She was magnificent. I bought one of her books to be autographed, and while I’ve always heard great things about classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake and Cat’s Eye, and even been recommended The Blind Assassin and Lady Oracle, it was the subtitle Writer on Writing that caught my eye. Negotiating with the Dead was a fascinating study on the psychology and thematic elements that occupy a writer’s thoughts and give meaning to a writer’s life, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who fits even vaguely into the category of “writer,” but that is not the end purpose of this post.

In the last chapter of the book, Atwood reprints the famous WWI poem “In Flanders Fields.” I had not thought of these few verses in quite a long time, but I’m very glad that Negotiating with the Dead brought them back into the forefront of my memory. I’ve found myself reciting – almost chanting – the few lines I know by heart several times since I read the book… McCrae’s words have stuck with me. And so I have copied them here, along with a little background on the author and the history of the poem for those unfamiliar:

Canadian poet John McCrae was a medical officer in both the Boer War and World War I. A year into the latter war he published in Punch magazine, on December 8, 1915, the sole work by which he would be remembered. This poem commemorates the deaths of thousands of young men who died in Flanders during the grueling battles there. It created a great sensation, and was used widely as a recruiting tool, inspiring other young men to join the Army. Legend has it that he was inspired by seeing the blood-red poppies blooming in the fields where many friends had died.

In Flanders Fields
By Lt. Col. John McCrae

the poppies in Flanders fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie 
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 
In Flanders fields.

This poem was actually first known to me in high school when my chamber choir sang a haunting and beautiful musical arrangement of it by Paul A. Aitken. The composition needs no other introduction; hear a heartrending choral rendition of the piece here:

National Poetry Month

In honor of April as National Poetry Month, a verse by one of my favorite poets about one of my absolute favorite literary beings.

“Sherwood,” by Alfred Noyes

Sherwood in the twilight, is Robin Hood awake?
Grey and ghostly shadows are gliding through the brake;

Shadows of the dappled deer, dreaming of the morn,
Dreaming of a shadowy man that winds a shadowy horn.

Robin Hood is here again: all his merry thieves
Hear a ghostly bugle-note shivering through the leaves,
Calling as he used to call, faint and far away,
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

shivering through the leaves

Merry, merry England has kissed the lips of June:
All the wings of fairyland were here beneath the moon;
Like a flight of rose-leaves fluttering in a mist
Of opal and ruby and pearl and amethyst.

Merry, merry England is waking as of old,
With eyes of blither hazel and hair of brighter gold:
For Robin Hood is here again beneath the bursting spray
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

merry, merry England has kissed the lips of June

Love is in the greenwood building him a house
Of wild rose and hawthorn and honeysuckle boughs;
Love it in the greenwood: dawn is in the skies;
And Marian is waiting with a glory in her eyes.

Hark! The dazzled laverock climbs the golden steep:
Marian is waiting: is Robin Hood asleep?
Round the fairy grass-rings frolic elf and fay,
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

Oberon, Oberon, rake away the gold,
Rake away the red leaves, roll away the mould,
Rake away the gold leaves, roll away the red,
And wake Will Scarlett from his leafy forest bed.

Friar Tuck and Little John are riding down together
With quarter-staff and drinking-can and grey goose-feather;
The dead are coming back again; the years are rolled away
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

Softly over Sherwood the south wind blows;
All the heart of England hid in every rose
Hears across the greenwood the sunny whisper leap,
Sherwood in the red dawn, is Robin Hood asleep?

all the heart of England hid in every rose

Hark, the voice of England wakes him as of old
And, shattering the silence with a cry of brighter gold,
Bugles in the greenwood echo from the steep,
Sherwood in the red dawn, is Robin Hood asleep?

Where the deer are gliding down the shadowy glen
All across the glades of fern he calls his merry men;
Doublets of the Lincoln green glancing through the May,
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day;

shattering the silence with a cry of brighter gold

Calls them and they answer: from aisles of oak and ash
Rings the Follow! Follow! and the boughs begin to crash;
The ferns begin to flutter and the flowers begin to fly;
And through the crimson dawning the robber band goes by.

Robin! Robin! Robin! All his merry thieves
Answer as the bugle-note shivers through the leaves:
Calling as he used to call, faint and far away,
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.

Sonnet 104

My senior year of high school, I was President of our National Forensic League, a club that one can join only after participating in a number of events or occasions that involve oratory, public speaking, public reading, speeches, etc. We went to tournaments and competitions, loads of students from our theatre department preparing poems or monologues or extemporaneous pieces with which to compete. And I was their nerd queen. One year, I recited a creepy monologue from Five Kinds of Silence by Shelagh Stephenson; one tournament, a friend and I performed a scene from William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker; I won a few competitions with my version of Noyes’ The Highwayman; but none of these was I so proud of as my Shakespeare pieces.

The regional Shakespeare competition requires a contrasting monologue and sonnet recitation. I chose Tamora’s angry, heart-wrenching monologue from Titus Andronicus and the enlightening, inspired Sonnet 104. The words from Titus have faded from memory over time, but that sonnet – those 14 beautiful lines – have stayed with me all these years. They are practically music, and I just had to share:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d,
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:
For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

three April perfumes

in three hot Junes burn'd