Poetic Spotlight: Emily Dickinson

A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, taken at Mount Holyoke Seminary.

This week’s addition to the poetic bookshelf is one I’m pretty every American knows (or at least they should), in spite of her legendary nature as something of a hermit.

Emily Dickinson was something of an anomaly, in all senses of the term. Though she wrote nearly 1800 – yes, 1800 – poems over the course of her lifetime, fewer than a dozen saw publication before her death, and these significantly altered versions of her work could scarcely be called hers by the time the publishers’ ink dried. But of course, Dickinson liked it that way. The obscurity – probably not the manipulation of her craft. Though there is often great yearning within her words, she was an introvert – the majority of her relationships being carried out by correspondence alone.

And yet, one can scarcely think of American poetry today without drifting to the topic of the recluse wonder. Today, she is considered one of the great American poets, her work – much of it only after her death discovered by her sister! – considered a treasure trove of language, thought, and style.

Though difficult to settle on but one of her pieces for the show tonight, in the end I bring to you “Because I could not stop for Death” – a fine sampling of her skills, and her tendencies, as readers of Dickinson will quickly find the themes of death and time cornerstones of much of her work…

Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –

The Dews drew quivering and chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

~Emily Dickinson

Poetic Spotlight: Poem without a Hero

Portrait of Akhmatova, by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin; image care of Wikimedia Commons.

I know, I know, I’ve been a little slack the past couple weeks in putting up some poetic features – but if you feel like you’re missing out, you should be certain to check out the dVerse Poetry Pub, where they’ve been appearing under the header of “Pretzels and Bullfights,” at a rate of one per week. At any rate, among the many things I’m thankful for in this world, writers and literature is surely among the top of the list, so regardless of what’s gone before, I was to be cursed if I wasn’t going to put up some poetic goodness for Thanksgiving…though admittedly, this week’s selection probably won’t evoke all that many warm and fuzzy feelings.

This week’s pick takes us on a chilling turn to Russia in the midst of a dark poetic winter. Few places, I think, have as unique an engagement with poetry (or literature in general) as Russia. While all nations have had their historic drifts between passions and themes, few can claim to have gone through a period of such rigid and destructive clamp-down as they.

The period I speak of is, of course, the time of the Soviet Union. While I seek to make no political judgements here, I do feel right in making creative ones – and I think our spotlighted poet tonight, one Anna Akhmatova, would feel justified in doing so as well.

Akhmatova is a fascinating sample of a poet. In her, you can see the true transformation of time – of the advent and change of style that only life can stir. Akhmatova was a modernist poet, known before the communist revolution largely for short lyric poems that entranced the nation, and made her one of the most popular poets of the age – a time many refer to as Russia’s “Silver Age.”

On the one hand, she befriended such other writers as Boris Pasternak. Yet she also lived through World War II, and the madness of a 900 day siege in the city of Leningrad. She married three times, divorcing twice, and losing the third to the horrors of a labor camp.

And that was what sadly came to define her life: horror. She watched as friends and family died, fled, or were executed – yet she remained. Her work was condemned by the government, but still she remained, choosing to remain as witness to the horrors around her. And her work changed with them. What was short and musical twisted into intricate and structured tragedies – like the piece we present tonight.

“Poem without a Hero” was originally dedicated to all those friends and countrymen that died at Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Though it was not published until after her death, Akhmatova began it in 1940, and proceeded to work on it for twenty years, considering it the major work of her life. Today, it is one of her longest and most well known works, and regarded as one of the finest poems of the twentieth century.

The translations, given below, were undertaken by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward.

And P.S. – check back on the blog tomorrow, you fine readers you, for the latest little “special feature” post for my upcoming novel, “The Hollow March!” You won’t be disappointed.

Poem without a Hero

I have lit my treasured candles,
one by one, to hallow this night.
With you, who do not come,
I wait the birth of the year.
Dear God!
the flame has drowned in crystal,
and the wine, like poison, burns
Old malice bites the air,
old ravings rave again,
though the hour has not yet struck.

Dread. Bottomless dread…
I am that shadow on the threshold
defending my remnant peace.

Let the gossip roll!
What to me are Hamlet’s garters,
or the whirlwind of Salome’s dance,
or the tread of the Man in the Iron Mask?
I am more iron than they.

Prince Charming, prince of the mockers —
compared with him the foulest of sinners
is grace incarnate…

That woman I once was,
in a black agate necklace,
I do not wish to meet again
till the Day of Judgement.

Are the last days near, perhaps?
I have forgotten your lessons,
prattlers and false prophets,
but you haven’t forgotten me.
As the future ripens in the past,
so the past rots in the future —
a terrible festival of dead leaves.

All the mirrors on the wall
show a man not yet appeared
who could not enter this white hall.
He is no better and no worse,
but he is free of Lethe’s curse:
his warm hand makes a human pledge.
Strayed from the future, can it be
that he will really come to me,
turning left from the bridge?

From childhood I have been afraid
of mummers. It always seemed
an extra shadow
without face or name
had slipped among them…

you are as old as the Mamre oak,
ancient interrogator of the moon,
whose feigned groans cannot take us in.
You write laws of iron.

Creature of special tastes,
you do not wait for gout and fame
to elevate you
to a luxurious jubilee chair,
but bear your triumph
over the flowering heather,
over wildernesses.
And you are guilty of nothing: neither of this,
that, nor anything..

what have poets, in any case, to do with sin?
They must dance before the Ark of the Covenant
or die! But what am I trying to say?

In the black sky no star is seen,
somewhere in ambush lurks the Angel of Death,
but the spices tongues of the masqueraders
are loose and shameless
A shout:
“Make way for the hero!”
Ah yes. Displacing the tall one,
he will step forth now without fail
and sing to us about holy vengeance…

There is no death, each of us knows —
it’s banal to say.
I’ll leave it to others to explain.

Is this the visitor from the wrong side
of the mirror? Or the shape
that suddenly flitted past my window?
Is it the new moon playing tricks,
or is someone really standing there again
between the stove and the cupboard?

This means that gravestones are fragile
and granite is softer than wax.
Absurd, absurd, absurd! From such absurdity
I shall soon turn gray
or change into another person.
why do you beckon me with your hand?
For one moment of peace
I would give the peace of the tomb.

~Anna Akhmatova

Poetic Spotlight: Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

The rebel Guy Fawkes, by George Cruikshank. Image care of Wikimedia Commons.

I put off the poetic spotlight for a few days this time around for two-fold reasons. First of all, I was much too excited about the maps announcement for my upcoming novel earlier this week – and second, I thought it would be all too appropriate to wait for the fifth. Why? Well, of course it’s all in the title my good readers – a little English folk song for you to entertain yourself with.

The lyrics, revolving around the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and a number of co-conspirators attempted to blow up the English Parliament. The event, remembered in the tune, but more recently popularized by the movie V for Vendetta, is often heralded as a sign of people’s movements against corrupt or dictatorial powers. So without further adieu…

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent

To blow up the King and the Parliament

Three score barrels of powder below

Poor old England to overthrow

By God’s providence he was catched

With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, holloa boys

God save the King!

Hip hip hooray!

Hip hip hooray!

Poetic Spotlight: The Jabberwocky

Curiouser and curiouser…that’s the theme this week as featured previously on dVerse Poets Pub, with a few words from one of England’s wackiest writers: Lewis Caroll. The author of the legendary Alice in Wonderland – a staple engrained into the very heart of modern western culture – one of his most famous creations actually came within its sequel, in the form of a poem: “The Jabberwocky.”

Nonsense is the name of the game – and this work is considered one of the greatest bits of whimsy and fancy produced by the English language…comprised of many made-up yet perfect words. Many of them words that have since entered into the actual language. Ever wonder, after all, where the word “chortle” came from?

Get ready to get silly.


” ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

~Lewis Caroll

Poetic Spotlight: The Dole of the King’s Daughter

Photograph of Oscar Wilde, by Napoleon Sarony. Image care of Wikimedia Commons.

This week we step into the mind of one of Britain’s most famous writers and satirists: Oscar Wilde. Often known for his rebellious nature toward the Victorian era in which he lived, Wilde was a writer that rose high and fell hard within his lifetime, but his works have continued to the modern day, and often find themselves as part of school curriculum.

Don’t worry, though – Pretzels and Bullfights wasn’t here to school you with essays, and neither is the Waking Den!. Today, we’ll be taking a look at Wilde’s poem, “The Dole of the King’s Daughter” – a work with a touch of dastardly deeds and unrequited love.

But, dear fellows, what do you make of it?

The Dole of the King’s Daughter

Seven stars in the still water,
And seven in the sky;
Seven sins on the King’s daughter,
Deep in her soul to lie.

Red roses at her feet,
(Roses are red in her red-gold hair)
And O where her bosom and girdle meet
Red roses are hidden there.

Fair is the knight who lieth slain
Amid the rush and reed,
See the lean fishes that are fain
Upon dead men to feed.

Sweet is the page that lieth there,
(Cloth of gold is goodly prey,)
See the black ravens in the air,
Black, O black as the night are they.

What do they there so stark and dead?
(There is blood upon her hand)
Why are the lilies flecked with red?
(There is blood on the river sand.)

There are two that ride from the south to the east,
And two from the north and west,
For the black raven a goodly feast,
For the King’s daughter to rest.

There is one man who loves her true,
(Red, O red, is the stain of gore!)
He hath duggen a grave by the darksome yew,
(One grave will do for four.)

No moon in the still heaven,
In the black water none,
The sins on her soul are seven,
The sin upon his is one.
~Oscar Wilde

Poetic Spotlight: A Dream Within a Dream

I’m late, I’m late for a very important…oh, well, it’s not quite the end of the day yet, so I suppose I’m still within my time frame. My lateness, however, I do assure you was for a very good cause…Photographer Chris got himself all tangled up in the mountains, and made a horrendous forgetfulness of his time. Plus side though: some rather lovely shots in sunset shade, of the Rocky Mountains and that nestled city Denver gleaming.

Check my photography site to see what I mean on that particular portfolio front, but now I’ve got to get down to business!

Edgar Allan Poe, image care of Wikimedia Commons.

This week’s poem of the week is a classic from the hand of the famous Edgar Allan Poe. While many know that particular writer for his arabesque, grotesque, and downright gothic explorations in his short stories, I must assure you there is so much more to the man than that particular genre! Poe – who is sometimes credited with having given the short story its art form – was touched by many things, and his pen guided him to many strange and varied fronts, this piece – “A Dream Within a Dream” – among them.

While I’m sure many of us know the phenomenon the name suggests, the poem is actually a dramatization of life…an outpouring of question and confusion to some of the stranger facets of existence. It gives rise to the old adage “Truth stranger than Fiction” by leading the narrator to his final question…

But enough of my words. I give you Poe’s:

“Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow–
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand–
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep–while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?”
~ Edgar Allan Poe

Poetic Spotlight: Journey

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, image care of Wikimedia Commons.

Travel! It’s the theme of the week don’t you know? Our poetic spotlight of the week certainly isn’t breaking that tradition, with the wonderful Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Journey.” Millay embodies one of those figures many people like to think of when they think of poets – wondrously lyrical, passionate in her views, and known as much for love affairs as poetry (the woman liked to love – and it’s a theme easy to spot in a number of her works). This American poet, playwright, and activist from the first half of the 20th century was an honored winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and a must read for any soul with a poet’s heart.

So without further delay, I offer you one of her works:

“Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me—I am so tired, so tired
Of passing pleasant places! All my life,
Following Care along the dusty road,
Have I looked back at loveliness and sighed;
Yet at my hand an unrelenting hand
Tugged ever, and I passed. All my life long
Over my shoulder have I looked at peace;
And now I fain would lie in this long grass
And close my eyes.
Yet onward!
Cat birds call
Through the long afternoon, and creeks at dusk
Are guttural. Whip-poor-wills wake and cry,
Drawing the twilight close about their throats.
Only my heart makes answer. Eager vines
Go up the rocks and wait; flushed apple-trees
Pause in their dance and break the ring for me;
And bayberry, that through sweet bevies thread
Of round-faced roses, pink and petulant,
Look back and beckon ere they disappear.
Only my heart, only my heart responds.
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,—sharp underfoot
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs—
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold.”
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

Poetic Spotlight: Change upon Change

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, image care of Wikimedia Commons

I know I’ve been bad…all week and no poetics for you. What can I say? Packing’s certainly taken its toll on my time, and the remainder’s been filled with parting meals with friends, last minute work assignments, and the like. Rare have been the moments where I could just sit and breathe. This morning has presented one such opportunity, however, so while it’s not one of my own, I’d like to continue our new tradition of “Poem of the Week” with a piece by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Browning was one of the most accomplished and prominent poets of the Victorian era, and wife to the equally famous Robert Browning. Over the years, she has inspired many other famous poets as well…Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson among them. Today, keeping in pace with all the hustle and bustle about here, and all the changes coming to life at the moment, I share with you her work, “Change upon Change.”

Five months ago the stream did flow,
The lilies bloomed within the sedge,
And we were lingering to and fro,
Where none will track thee in this snow,
Along the stream, beside the hedge.
Ah, Sweet, be free to love and go!
For if I do not hear thy foot,
The frozen river is as mute,
The flowers have dried down to the root:
And why, since these be changed since May,
Shouldst thou change less than they.

And slow, slow as the winter snow
The tears have drifted to mine eyes;
And my poor cheeks, five months ago
Set blushing at thy praises so,
Put paleness on for a disguise.
Ah, Sweet, be free to praise and go!
For if my face is turned too pale,
It was thine oath that first did fail, —
It was thy love proved false and frail, —
And why, since these be changed enow,
Should I change less than thou.”

~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Poetic Spotlight: Let America Be America Again

Langston Hughes, image care of Wikimedia Commons.

This week, we’re trying a little something new (with a little something old) here at the Waking Den. Every Thursday I’ll be doing my best to sift through my library (yes, I’m 22 and I would say I’ve got a good start on a library going) for some of the great works by classic poets – both known, and unknown – to bring before your eyes. Some will be personal favorites. Some will not. All will be here for your benefit, put forth, archived, and ready and waiting for any of your discussions of these immortalized poetic greats.

Today, we kick off the affair with something hardly “lightweight” in subject matter – Langston Hughes’s powerful “Let American Be America Again”. It packs a punch, as a forewarning, as well it should – it speaks to matters many would wish to forget, or to sweep under a rug and keep out of sight, at the least. It speaks of freedom and equality – critiques and hopes, longing–it rings out in a voice that echoes through the ages…and works as such are rarely gentle. Enjoy.

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!”