Burns Night and John Barleycorn

I’ve no particular brief for Burns, but as it is Burns night (and poetry should be read), I poked around and found his version of John Barleycorn:

There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and plough’d him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show’rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris’d them all.

Sorry, Robbie, it’s not a patch on the Traffic version:

In penance, I might try this (rather nice looking) vegetarian haggis recipe (or just get some ready made).



Poem a Day

Academy of American Poets has an excellent service “Poem a Day“. They’ll put a poem in your email box (often with a link to a soundcloud page with a reading) nearly everyday. During the week, they send poems by contemporary poets. On the weekend, they go more historical. It’s all English language, afaict, with no translations.

Still! It’s pretty awesome. I’ve read more poetry in the past year or so than I have in quite a while. And many of the poems have been delightful. Even when I hate the poem, something good comes from it.

On Sat, Jan 6 2018, they sent “A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death” by Jupiter Hammon.

It’s very…very…religious.


To pray unto the most high God,

and beg restraining grace,

Then by the power of his word

You’l see the Saviour’s face.


Little children they may die,

Turn to their native dust,

Their souls shall leap beyond the skies,

And live among the just.


Like little worms they turn and crawl,

and gasp for every breath,

The blessed Jesus sends his call,

and takes them to his rest.

I don’t necessarily hate religious poetry. Or poetry with strong rhyme and meter. But I’d didn’t like this.

But damn, the poet is named “Jupiter”. That’s pretty interesting. So I looked him up to try to figure out what was going on. Turns out, he’s really interesting:

Jupiter Hammon (October 17, 1711 – before 1806) was a blackpoet who in 1761 became the first African-American writer to be published in the present-day United States. Additional poems and sermons were also published. Born into slavery, Hammon was never emancipated. He was living in 1790 at the age of 79, and died by 1806. A devout Christian, he is considered one of the founders of African-American literature.

I’d never heard of him! This is a big deficiency in my education. He was a slave in New York, was of minor significance in the Revolution, and had complex expressed views on slavery (inflected hard by his Christianity). I have his An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York (1787) queued up to read.

Kaveh Akbar is doing a bang up job as guest editor this month (shout out!). Today’s poem is flat out awesome.

A spoonful of sugar (poem)

(I was doing so well with the posting. But yesterday, I ran out of steam. The next few days will be challenging due to travel et al. But here’s a poem I found on my phone. I’m pretty sure I wrote it.)

A spoonful of sugar

The best lesson is:
We are all ephemera
The snap of our fingers
Is no less permanent than a timeless love
Or the strongest star.

All things in our regard
Whether dear or dross
Are fashioned with no more constant purpose than loss

Each breath destroys all that came before
And all futures too
A monument to a noble deed
Is dust, as dust as forgotten memory.

Our fastened fading wilting hearts
Know this, and lie for our sake
We do not believe what we know most to be true
We forego the bitter joy of truth
We embrace an unsatisfactory confusion.

Most of us learn this as we age
Ground down by our skeptical eyes
By illusions we walk through to find the gold
That never was anywhere.

Some are born thus
Most such leave quickly
Some laugh a little scary at the rest of us

We both know these things from our insubstantial bones to our stony skin.

With all this as firmly in mind as possible:
Would you like to come over for dinner and catch up?

29 March 2014

The ambiguities of honor, memory, and love

I wrote this on Monday, 29 May 2000. I tend to look at on memorial day.

Thomas Stanford Leonard

This is one of our favorite photos of Grandpop. It lived on Grandmom’s refrigerator until her death.

My grandfather fought in Europe as a paratrooper during WWII. Like many of his generation, his life was strongly tinted by that fact—being a veteran was a core feature of his identity.

I’m not a militaristic sort, and never have been. Although the fact of my grandfather’s service was a defining aspect of my childhood’s world, I never felt the slightest pressure toward any form of military activity. My mother’s eldest brother did use a peacetime tour of Germany to “straighten himself out” (another defining aspect), but that was an anomalous case, both for him, and for the rest of us.

Much of my knowledge of the inner self of my grandfather is, in fact, knowledge of my mother, and what she believes and feels about him. It is, perhaps, a pointless endeavor to try to discern how much of my loyalty and love for him is in fact loyalty and love for her. But this is the proper way of family, I think: to be entangled in a net of ourselves and of others that we knotted to capture our childhood confusions about the world.

My grandfather is dead, now, though he is still a veteran. He did get to read this poem and appreciate that I wrote it:

Jumping from airplanes

There is this strange little man,
well, he’s not all that little,
and I remember a time when he was big enough
to scare me with his shadow—
but I’m the one who’s changed.
I guess I’m big enough now
to scare with my shadow.

The strange man, well, he’s not all that strange.
He’s a little quiet, soft-spoken for the most part
except for the times when I was little
when he’d give out a peculiar kind of bellow
which didn’t frighten me until my
cousins told me it should.

Actually, this man is stranger than I let on,
he used to jump out of airplanes
so that he could run around snowy fields
avoiding being killed, and maybe killing
somebody who looked at lot like him,
but hadn’t jumped out of an airplane.

My mother tells me that he loved it,
that is, the jumping out of airplanes part.
Even though they were shooting
he got a real kick out of jumping
and (if he was lucky) plummeting slowly
to the ground.

My mother tells me about this funny little man
who would still jump, she tells me,
if only he wasn’t so old
if only he wasn’t going blind
if only there was a way that
people wouldn’t shoot at him.
(The last part I added, I wouldn’t
want him to get shot at again.)

My mother tells me about this funny little man
who is her father, who jumped out of airplanes
so he could kill people who spoke the same
language her grandmother spoke.
I don’t think he’s jumped since.

He’s very soft-spoken, though he doesn’t like to be bothered.
Small children are cute, but often noisy.
He can be kinda gruff, kinda meek, kinda quiet,
but, boy, he did jump from airplanes.
That must mean something.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”

Ta-Nehisi Coates (who often writes about poetry) writes movingly about Allan Ginsburgs Howl and the effect it had on him as a writer.

I remember being profoundly disappointed by Howl. I had read the first line in a biography of William Burroughs and was wild for it. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” felt like a punch in the gut, or being struck by world made anew but lost. It was of the sublime. It was so economical and yet filled with vastness that I didn’t know if I would survive reading the whole thing.

So I got a copy.

Not so good for me. The poem is definitely not economical. Quite the contrary. It died for me on the very next words, “, starving hysterical naked, ” and then went on and on and on beating me with endless, clunkly, prolix description. Make no mistake! I am a fan of the extravagantly lyrical. Purple is one of my poetical colors and I wear it proudly. There are clearly some wonderful lines and phrases and I can imagine the sum being quite delightful.

But not for me. When I think of Howl I mourn that poem which exists only in the first line and haunted ellipsis. The poem that I long for, but will never read.