Category Poetry

He Had a Dream: Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again”

We seem to be tumbling down a long dark shaft toward a reckoning. A reckoning of our history, of the dreams that helped build us, the denial that sustained us, the sins that defiled us, the nightmare of oppression that too many of our people have endured. Our shadow of racism fully exposed, the light from a thousand video feeds burning a hole through our willful ignorance, we stand before the world, and even more grievously, before ourselves, naked and fully exposed.

And now, beset by a pandemic that has been aggressively scorned by the leader of our land, with millions out of work and hundreds of thousands in the streets, we face the furnace of a heating planet and an already overheated political season, a presidential campaign in the offing that will not look or sound like anything that has ever come before.

“Who are we?”, we will be asking come November. Or perhaps more to the point: “Who will we be...

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A Wilderness Beyond Reason: Lisel Mueller’s “Joy”

I have a dear friend who is given to proclaim, “Oh what a beautiful day!”…in meteorological conditions ranging from 90/90 temperature/humidity combos to bright blue skies with 70-degree temps and a light breeze to slate-gray winter fog where your words form ice crystals as you speak.

It’s the sort of sentiment that reflects a basic gratefulness for merely being alive, whatever aggravations the weather or the news or your kids are sending your way.

Yet lest one think this person a shallow pollyanna training herself like a seal to see life only as a bright shiny orb bobbing at the end of her nose, let it be said that many layers of hard-won wisdom, pensiveness, and grief inform her love for the day that dawns every morning, whatever garments it shrouds itself in.

That is why I am quite certain my friend will appreciate Lisel Mueller’s “Joy,” the poem under discussion here, given the complex de...

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Can the Centre Hold? W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

In what is surely an indication of just how powerful and provocative William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem, “The Second Coming” is, a critic writing in “The Paris Review” five years ago suggested  it “may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.” (Personally, I’m inclined to think it may be a dead-heat between it and Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled.”)

Images and phrases from the poem (“widening gyre,” “falcon/falconer,” “things fall apart,” “the center cannot hold,” “blood-dimmed tide,” “rough beast,” “passionate intensity,” “slouching toward…”) abound in popular culture, politics, literature and other arts (even comic books, heavy metal, and as a true mark of distinction, the music of Joni Mitchell).

That’s no minor accomplishment for a poem (a poem!) of a mere 22 lines, more than a century after its publication in the calamitous ...

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The Turning Year in Poem and Song

The great earth spins, morning to night and back again, season upon season, the eternal return, its unalterable rhythm punctuated in the days of our own lives by our scurryings after food and drink, fun and rapture and love. The lives we make are all our own, yet beneath each one, a Great Commonality, a stickiness to others, all others, across all space and time, who harbor near-identical needs, dreams, longings, and questions of the night.

Below, a poem reflecting that commonality, the universal rhythms and rituals of our daily lives, given perspective and focus at this turning of the year, the turning of a hand toward another, the turning of the shovel as we lay a beloved to rest, the turning to light as the winter solstice recedes and spring beckons us anew.

All the best to you, my friends, in 2020.

***

                   THE YEAR

By Ellen Wheeler Wilcox (1910)

What can be said in New Year ...

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Mt. Royal Drive, 1959

MT. ROYAL DRIVE, 1959

The garage door—
atop which my father
placed a basketball hoop,
its backboard sawed, drilled,
painted and hoisted
by his own hands,

Against which
dodgeball epics played out
among siblings and neighbors,

Past which
we dashed in races that
began north of the driveway and
careened to the back fence,

Inside which
I smoked my first cigarette,
nervous as the homing pigeons
who pecked warily in their coop above
(another father-built project born of scrap wood and love).

The basement—
place of hiding & seeking,
caroms & checkers on
idle summer days,
where the parents retreated occasional Sundays,
locking the door with an air of authority that
required no “Do Not Disturb” sign for 8-year-old eyes.
(Two surprise sisters products of those languid afternoons…)

The breakfast nook—
Site of pancake fests and
endless torments by an older sister
artful in the ways of clandestine kicks,
where...

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