Roads diverge

So this week I'm walking to raise money for the women and girls who spend their lives walking. (You can sponsor me here!) Much less depends on my walk than on theirs, but the idea is to walk in their shoes, at least some part of the way. That set me thinking, naturally, of poems about walking, and there are many. Walking has a rich literature, even more so in prose; after all, prose is a kind of walking. According to this literature, there's a mysterious affinity between walking and thinking, and a persistent allegory between walking and living. Even as I write this I'm conscious of the gulf between poor women walking for their lives, and privileged men walking for their own amusement, but if part of that privilege is having written some beautiful poetry about it, that at least can be shared. Here are some bits of Whitman, Pound and Frost: poems to travel by. 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. [...]

You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here. [...]

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

         (Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”) 

At Rochecoart,
Where the hills part
                            In three ways,
And three valleys, full of winding roads,
Fork out to south and north,
There is a place of trees . . . grey with lichen.
I have walked there
                            Thinking of old days.

         (Ezra Pound, “Provincia Deserta” - March, 1915)

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended. 

         (Robert Frost, “Reluctance”)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, 
And sorry I could not travel both 
And be one traveler, long I stood 
And looked down one as far as I could 
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then took the other...

         (Robert Frost, “The Road not Taken”)

In the springing of the year

Since today's a proper spring day, and I'm sitting in our garden where there are bees in the rosemary and in the apple blossom, here's Robert Frost's “A prayer in Spring.” It seems strange to have to ask for pleasure in a beautiful spring day, but it's true we often need reminding to take pleasure when it's offered, to find happiness in what's given, and to keep ourselves here.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.


So near to paradise

A month since my last post. Too busy, and too cold, to do more than agree with Robert Frost's “A Winter Eden.” Winter hours are short. Keep warm, my friends.

A winter garden in an alder swamp,
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree.

It lifts existence on a plane of snow
One level higher than the earth below,
One level nearer heaven overhead,
And last year's berries shining scarlet red.

It lifts a gaunt luxuriating beast
Where he can stretch and hold his highest feast
On some wild apple-tree's young tender bark,
What well may prove the year's high girdle mark.
So near to paradise all pairing ends:
Here loveless birds now flock as winter friends,
Content with bud-inspecting. They presume
To say which buds are leaf and which are bloom.
A feather-hammer gives a double knock.
This Eden day is done at two o'clock.
An hour of winter day might seem too short
To make it worth life's while to wake and sport.

Frost / Kennedy

On Monday, Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term as America's president. As always, hopes are high for what he might say, particularly given the coincidence of this inauguration with Martin Luther King Day. As well as his speech, for which we have such high hopes, the ceremony will include music and poetry. This year's poet is Richard Blanco, a 44-year-old gay Cuban American civil engineer turned prize-winning poet. Last time around, it was Elizabeth Alexander whose poem, Praise Song for the Day", I've mentioned before. It's hard to imagine the pressure of conceiving or bringing a poem to that occasion, but I'm glad they still expect someone to try. And what else is poetry good for if not to be the “moment’s monument”? 

I was intrigued to learn that John F Kennedy was the first president to include poetry in the ceremony. The poet was Robert Frost, then 86 years old. Frost had named Kennedy as the next president long before Kennedy announced any intention to run in 1960. In his campaign, Kennedy would often close his stump speech with two lines from Frost: “But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” When he was elected, he asked Frost to read at his inauguration, and even named the poem he wanted: “The Gift Outright." Frost agreed, but then wrote another, much longer poem, which he typed up on hotel note paper in Washington the night before the ceremony. On the day, wind and glare made the typed poem hard for him to read, so he simply recited the other poem, Kennedy's first choice, from memory. Afterwards, his advice to Kennedy was to govern with “poetry and power,” to which Kennedy responded: “It's poetry and power all the way!" Read more about the poet and the president here

I find the story lovely, but the poem itself less so. It speaks to a different sensibility from the one Blanco will draw on and perhaps, if we're lucky, immortalise. I would have guessed it's not exactly the sensibility surrounding Kennedy's election, either, with its nostalgic backward glance and glorification of settlement, but I wasn't there. Kennedy obviously thought it was perfect for his moment, the monument he required. Here it is:
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

The books not taken

We went by ship to Tasmania, spent half a week in the northwest and the other half in the southeast. Both were spectacular, and we were blessed with what locals thought uncanny sunshine. Packing Robert Frost was an afterthought, but one I was heartily glad of. I had decided not to take any fiction. Knowing myself, I knew any novel would sap the better part of my attention, and seduce me away from harder reading and from observation. So I took theology, philosophy, criticism - and Frost. By week's end most of the prose was still untouched, but I had read more than a hundred poems; by sunlight in the day, and by torchlight in our tent at night. There was something especially harmonious about reading Frost while living out of doors. There was scant resemblance to Frost's New England, but there was still a resonance in what I saw with what I read of tree and bird and apple blossom, of daybreak and nightfall. I relished Frost's quiet attention to his world. Without requiring too much interpretative labour, Frost's poetry gave me a liturgy for my enjoyment. Where fiction would have led me astray from where we were, his poetry led me to look more closely and see more clearly the road we travelled by. And that has made all the difference.