NaPoMo, Week Three: Bird Poems by Edward Thomas

And a Certain Famous Poem by Robert Frost

On Wings of Song, poems about birds , everyman's library pocket poets and Bright Wings, an illustrated anthology of poems about birds
I found both of these poems today in that book on the left.

Already I’ve met the goal of reading poems by four poets I have never before recorded. But since I got excitable and couldn’t wait for week four, I counted that last one as a bonus.

So, now, officially for week four, I have two poems about my favorite creatures on the planet—birds. Both poems are written by Edward Thomas. One is about a bird of the daytime and one a bird of the night.

I’m actually a little surprised that I hadn’t recorded anything by Edward Thomas before. I remember reading “The Owl.” I think I heard it discussed on a podcast at some point, and possibly by Robert Pinsky. But I can’t seem to find that now. I remember being so impressed by it that I was eager to dig into it and try it out in my own voice.

Why I Record

Maybe you’ve figured that out about me by now; I either record a poem because I have fallen in love with it, or because it fascinates me, and I want to see how it works. Probably both. Language in action is what fascinates me, so reading, practicing the pauses, figuring out the pace, basically deciding on the right vocal interpretation is, in my opinion, is the best way to embrace a piece and understand it.

Maybe that’s true of singers and musicians too when there is a song they love. There is a deaf poet I know who brings his poems to life through sign language and I have to guess that the poems feel more complete to him once he’s done that. Just this morning I was discussing with a dear friend who reading my poems out loud is how I figure out where the bumpy spots are, what works and what doesn’t.

Good art makes you want to interact with it. And if it’s your chosen medium, like poetry is for me, you just naturally want to taste it. I swear, even reading poetry quietly in a waiting room, I’m hearing it in my head.

Edward Thomas and a Misunderstanding

But back to our poet for this last week of poetry month. Edward Thomas. You may or may not have heard of him. While some have referred to him as a war poet, it might be more accurate to say he was a nature poet who turned soldier and died as one. He was a Welshman who became good friends with American poet Robert Frost, who inspired him to turn many of the works in his notebooks into poems.

Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917), English poet and ...
Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917), English poet and nature writer, c.1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been speculated that the Thomas’ misunderstanding of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is what led to his death in the war. John Green covers the theory in this video. This article in the Guardian also deeply delves into it and discusses the influence Frost had on Thomas and highlights some of their interesting correspondence.

Frost himself, long before the recent book by David Orr, warned that the poem was “tricky.” To be fair, plenty of people have talked about this, and even I took up the discussion in the description section of a video on my YouTube channel back in 2012, three years before Orr’s book.

That doesn’t make me special or smarter than Orr, or any of the professors I’ve been listening to and reading for 25 years. They all said some version of the same thing about how people fail to understand this poem, simply because they fail to pay attention. It’s just that Orr was savvy enough to put out a book on the topic through a popular press.

Frost is being kind to us when he calls it “tricky.” There is no special trick to interpretation. All you have to do is what most people haven’t done; read more than the first few and the last few lines of the poem. Because in the middle you’ll find the speaker arguing with his own false claims when he says:

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Got it? Both roads were the same, and the unreliable narrator stops to confess this fact to us before he ends by saying, not what is true but what he will be telling himself years later:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one . . .

Yeah, he took the one that was exactly the same as the other one, and there was no way he could have known what might have happened had he taken the other.

But isn’t this how we humans are? We make up our history retrospectively to fit our current outlook. And that, dear friends, makes for a much better and more honest poem, than the bullshit “I-did-it-my-way” mantra of self-independence that our culture has told us it meant, mostly, because nobody took the time to read the whole poem and see it actually said.

Two Poems

I wasn’t going to get into all of that. Too late! I’ve tainted your idea of Edward Thomas. But regardless of what he may have misunderstood about his friend’s popular poem, Edward Thomas was a very fine poet himself. He was also a bit of a tortured guy who struggled with poverty and fought with his wife, though by all accounts they did love each other, and she spoke well of him after his death.  Look him up for yourself, and read some of his poems.

Here are two to get you started. I’ll save the close readings for our discussions in tbe comments. Happy Poetry Month!

The Hollow Wood
Edward Thomas

Out in the sun the goldfinch flits
Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits
Above the hollow wood
Where birds swim like fish—
Fish that laugh and shriek—
To and fro, far below
In the pale hollow wood.

Lichen, ivy, and moss
Keep evergreen the trees
That stand half-flayed and dying,
And the dead trees on their knees
In dog’s-mercury, ivy, and moss:
And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops
Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.

The Owl
Edward Thomas

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Blizzard 2017 Is in the Books

“Let’s read ‘Snowbound’ together” – Kenneth Koch

Or it will be. Someone should write books about it. I imagine there will be some epic poems coming out of what the Weather Channel was calling “Stella.” Apparently, the National Weather Service is not involving themselves in the marketing scheme of naming winter storms, though. They’re sticking to hurricanes for that kind of treatment. I did hear someone call it Stormageddon 2017. Still, it was not the end of the world even if it did nearly suspend Northeast Pennsylvania in time for a few days.

Twenty-six inches of snow fell here in my neighborhood and Continue reading “Blizzard 2017 Is in the Books”

Dad Libs: Throwback Thursday

My son Jonathan and I trying not to lose it.
My son Jonathan and I trying not to lose it.

This has been a scary week, the first week of a certain presidency that pushes my family and me way past the uneasy mark. But rather than give that blowhard, narcissistic, buffoon any more press today, we’re going to jump back to some old Dad Libs, our twist on the classic Mad Libs game.

Micah is spending the week with the old man here and he mentioned to me that he’d like to record some new versions of these, so as we warm up for new Dad Libs episodes, here are three of our favorites from over the years. The first is from 2010 when we recorded the very first Dad Lib on my old Acer laptop, so pardon the poor quality. The next two are just, well just favorite examples of the most fun a family can have indoors without alcohol.

Oh, and we seem to have a thing for butchering Robert Frost poems and great political speeches.

Summer Birds, Some are Poets

Reflections on Robert Frost’s “Ovenbird,” and “First Song,” by Matthew Murrey
English: Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes...
Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes of a Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) and an Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus) from The Burgess Bird Book for Children (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There is a song that everyone has heard.” That is how Robert Frost begins his unique sonnet, “The Ovenbird.” Of course, you’d be right to protest; not everyone has heard the bird. But a lot of the North American continent has. The little “mid-wood bird,” as Frost calls her, ranges as far as Florida, the Caribbean, and the tip of South America when the North gets cold in winter.

So I suppose if Frost wanted to be exact, as poets rarely do, he could say that the bird’s song is one that many of us in the “New World” may have had opportunity to hear. But I don’t think he was going for a scientific approach here. First of all, the poem is thought by certain critics and scholars to be a response to some discussion or argument, possibly in poetry itself to which we are not privy.  And further, in that way the bird becomes symbolic of something else, of poets perhaps, of those who sing in the dead leaves of pre-autumn woods, wondering, “what to make of a diminished thing.”

But you’ll have to follow the links above to learn about the Ovenbird, and read Frost’s poem, along with the literary discussions that have surrounded it these many years. Tonight I am more interested in another poet, and quite probably an entirely different bird. I want to introduce you, if you haven’t met them already, to poet Matthew Murrey, and the bird outside his window.

American Robin -- Humber Bay Park (East) (Toro...
American Robin — Humber Bay Park (East) (Toronto, Canada) — 2005, by User:  Mdf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I discovered Matthew earlier today while researching journals, contests, and publishers, plotting my submission goals. I first found his poem “Coyotes” in Tinderbox Poetry Journal. And from his bio I moved on to his website, where I saw tonight’s poem on his home page.

Let’s not get involved in the discussion of symbolism, or the speculation about just which species of bird is singing. If it were carrying on outside my window at five in the morning, it would likely be the local and loud American Robin, but even if Matthew’s poem is a response to Robert Frost’s, the species hardly matters.

What matters is how this poem gave me the little shiver that I long for when reading poetry. How about we let it speak for itself this evening, without further commentary. Or better yet, and I hope Mr. Murrey doesn’t mind, I’d like to read it to you. Please click here to read along.

“First Song,” by Matthew Murrey.

First published in Poetry East #66, Fall 2009 (reprinted in #70, Spring 2011)

Fun with Metrics? I Certainly Hope So

10380318_700248176706148_3589674976662403112_nOops! I just noticed as I looked two posts back that I had promised to share the poems we went over at the last Cross Keys Poetry Society gathering, and already the next one is upon us tomorrow night. So I’ll be brief and just share a few notes that I sent out to the group as a review and to catch up a couple people who couldn’t be there. In this version I give all the links I can. I hope you enjoy exploring!

So here is what we’ve done and what’s coming up:
 
Next Meeting is this Tuesday, August 19th (Always on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays)
 
Reading:
Last time we finished up the sections on Sound and Sound Devices.
For this week if you haven’t yet please take a look at her chapter on The Line, pages 35-57.
If the metrical stuff seems overwhelming, don’t worry, we’ll talk through it on Tuesday and have some fun with it.
 
Exercises:
Prior to last meeting we had each made our private lists of 25 (or up to 50) words that we like, especially based on their sound.
If you haven’t yet, there is still time. Choose words particularly if you associate their sound with their meaning.
We didn’t share those lists yet, but I asked you, keeping in mind Oliver’s section on imitation, to use as many of your words as possible to write a short piece in a style or form similar to one of the many poems we’ve read so far.
 
If you missed last time we read (If you don’t have the handouts, most of them I think can be found online):
And I passed out copies of two rhyming “nonsense” poems, though we didn’t get to read them together yet. Feel free to use them in the imitation exercise.
  • Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carol
  • and “Counting Out Rhyme,” (which you might already have a copy of from our first meeting) by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Have fun! And I hope to see you this Tuesday. If you know of any friends who might enjoy reading and experimenting with poetry, please invite them to come along.

The challenge I’ve been facing this week is to make a study of metrics a fun evening for adults of various experience levels. I’ve found only a few somewhat helpful guides online to supplement Mary Oliver’s. If you have any suggestions, please mention them in the comments!

I did not include the following videos in the Cross Keys meeting, but I can be more self-indulgent here on my blog and share with you a couple of readings from four years back when I was really starting to record poems on YouTube with full-force enthusiasm. The “Bean Eaters,” by Gwendolyn Brooks really should be re-recorded with a better microphone, but I’ve had some good comments on it, and it does show up on page one of google search for the piece, so I think I’ll leave it for posterity. The recording of Meinke’s “Advice to My Son” is of much better quality. Thanks for indulging me.

 

A Thursday Love Poem, “The Four Moon Planet,” by Billy Collins

Cover of "The Notebooks of Robert Frost"
Cover of The Notebooks of Robert Frost

I don’t know what Robert Frost was thinking when he jotted those words in his notes, “I have envied the four moon planet.” Or maybe he never wrote them at all. Maybe Billy Collins just made the whole thing up. I’ll have to read The Notebooks of Robert Frost to find out for sure. But it’s a lovely poem that Billy created from Frost’s idea.

And since aliens and outer space are sometimes subjects of scary movies and costumes (I’ve dressed as an alien for Halloween, haven’t you?), then maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to make “The Four Moon Planet” by Billy Collins our October 31st Thursday Love Poem. You know, it being Halloween and all, and we bloggers feeling this market-driven need to relate everything to everything else.

Come to think of it, isn’t that what poets do? I recall Billy saying as much in another poem. “The Trouble with Poetry,” I believe it was.

Aside: And while I’m thinking of it, if you managed to miss the former Poet Laureate reading, quipping, and doing poetry tricks with Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report Tuesday night, treat yourself by clicking here.

But what’s a Thursday Love Poem, you ask? Well, let me quote myself from last Thursday, when we enjoyed the first ever Thursday Love Poem. Last week we were dumped unceremoniously by Edna St. Vincent Millay via the Thursday Love Poem feature’s flagship poem, appropriately called “Thursday.”

. . . And what should a Thursday Love Poem be here on The Dad Poet? Well, let’s face it, it’s got to be a bit unconventional. No Hallmark cards of course, and none of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Not that your sweetheart doesn’t deserve a nice greeting card, and not they the Bard’s love poems are not a delight (come to think of it a few might actually fit in here) . . . But we have already read Robert Burns’, “my luv is like a red red rose.” Here I want to share something different, off-center, unexpected, something that resonates, but may not be what you expect from a love poem.

. . . I do not wish to act as if true love and romance in a poem is “dishonest,” as some writers claim. But for a poem to be a Thursday Love Poem it will have to look at that tenderness squinting sideways, maybe standing on its head, in order to give us a unique view, one other than what the masses have come to expect of a love poem.

In other words a Thursday Love Poem isn’t your grandmother’s love poem, baby.

And so for this Thursday Love Poem we go galactic, but subtly with the master of wit and winsomeness, Billy Collins. Perhaps I’ll make a brief comment or two below the poem’s text.

 

The Four-Moon Planet

I have envied the four-moon planet.
-The Notebooks of Robert Frost

Maybe he was thinking of the song
“What a Little Moonlight Can do”
and became curious about
what a lot of moonlight might be capable of.

But wouldn’t this be too much of a good thing?
and what if you couldn’t tell them apart
and they always rose together
like pale quadruplets entering a living room?

Yes, there would be enough light
to read a book or write a letter at midnight,
and if you drank enough tequila
you might see eight of them roving brightly above.

But think of the two lovers on a beach,
his arm around her bare shoulder,
thrilled at how close they were feeling tonight
while he gazed at one moon and she another.

From Ballistics
Copyright © 2008 by Billy Collins
Random House

Alright then. You have heard me defend Collins, as if he needs defending, from those who criticize his “simplicity,” using the word “accessible” as if it were a bad thing, as if erecting an electric, barbed-wire fence around an art museum were a good idea. You have heard me say a hundred times that accessibility does not equal simplicity. Neither does complexity, ambiguity, or depth of thought require linguistic word puzzles meant to lose the reader and prove how very clever and intelligent the poet is. Collins is certainly accessible, but he’s anything but simplistic.

And this poem is a prime example. It may also serve as an illustration of why I love poetry so much.  Prose might have simply told us, “In matters of love we are so unknowably different from each other that we are doomed to have wildly divergent views of what our relationship actually is.” Or, “We never see each other for who we are, and nobody could ever truly know the other’s thoughts.”

This is probably all true; it might even be a revelation, but how beautifully Collins sets us up, not to tell us this, but to let us discover it ourselves in the final line, “while he gazed at one moon and she another.” He says it without ever saying it. And the result is that tiny gasp, maybe not the freezing, headless sensation Emily Dickinson described, but a tug in the gut that makes me feel something true. And it comes about from a carefully laid trap that I am glad to have fallen into, the way I am glad when Agatha Christie brilliantly shows me why I should have known all along what Miss Marple understood about the murderer. This is why I can’t get enough good poems in my life, getting slapped in the gut, liking it, and asking for more.

Poem on.