Music of the Soul

writing-arts-fountain-penRita Dove said that “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” I totally agree with that. Whether it is painting a beautiful picture or capsulizing an ugly truth, a poem is language used in simplicity and beauty to help us see what can often not be captured by the naked eye.  A favorite poem can say a lot about love, about life, about the author but it also tells a bit about the person who loves it. Here are a few of the AAR staff’s favorite poems:

Haley:  Most of my favorite poems are in French, because I read them in undergrad. This is one of my favorites and its translation.

La Musique by Charles Baudelaire

La musique souvent me prend comme une mer!

Vers ma pâle étoile,

Sous un plafond de brume ou dans un vaste éther,

Je mets à la voile;

 

La poitrine en avant et les poumons gonflés

Comme de la toile

J’escalade le dos des flots amoncelés

Que la nuit me voile;

Je sens vibrer en moi toutes les passions

D’un vaisseau qui souffre;

Le bon vent, la tempête et ses convulsions

 

Sur l’immense gouffre

Me bercent. D’autres fois, calme plat, grand miroir

De mon désespoir!

Music

Music often transports me like a sea!

Toward my pale star,

Under a ceiling of fog or a vast ether,

I get under sail;

 

My chest thrust out and my lungs filled

Like the canvas,

I scale the slopes of wave on wave

That the night obscures;

I feel vibrating within me all the passions

Of ships in distress;

The good wind and the tempest with its convulsions

 

Over the vast gulf

Cradle me. At other times, dead calm, great mirror

Of my despair!

 

Pat:  Theodore Roethke’s poem “Dolor” changed my life.  Even though I enjoy teaching, for many years I resisted post graduate academia and became a writer because I was afraid of this:

Dolor by Theodore Roethke

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,

Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,

All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,

Desolation in immaculate public places,

Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,

The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,

Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,

Endless duplicaton of lives and objects.

And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,

Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,

Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,

Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,

Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

 

Lee: this one reminds me of spring and all that the season encompasses.

The Pasture by Robert Frost

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):

I shan’t be gone long.  You come too.

 

I’m going out to fetch the little calf

That’s standing by the mother.  It’s so young

It totters when she licks it with her tongue.

I shan’t be gone long.  You come too.

 

Heather: When I was little, my grandmother would recite poetry to me. One of the poems she frequently recited was Invictus by William Ernest Henley. It wasn’t exactly what one might term “age appropriate” for a child. But the imagery and power of the words were striking and I have always loved its message of resilience in the face of adversity. I still call upon it when I need to find my own strength and will to push forward.

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

 

Dabney:  I am, in all art forms, a sucker for a story.

Biography of Southern Rain by Kenneth Patchen

Rain’s all right. The boys who physic

through town on freights won’t kick

if it comes; they often laugh then, talking

about the girl who lived down the block,

and how her hair was corn-yellow gold

that God could use for money. But rain,

like memory, can come in filthy clothes too.

 

The whole upstairs of space caved in that night;

as though a drunken giant had stumbled over the sky—

and all the tears in the world came through.

It was that. Like everyone hurt crying at once.

Trees bent to it, their arms a gallows for all

who had ever died in pain, or were hungry, since

the first thief turned to Christ, cursing…

 

Then, out of the rain, a girl’s voice—her hand

on my arm. “Buddy, help me get this train.”

Her voice was soft… a cigarette after coffee.

I could hear the clickdamnitclick of the wheels;

saw the headlight writing something on the rain.

Then I saw her face—its bleeding sores—I didn’t

ask her if she had ever been in love

or had ever heard of Magdalen and Mary

or why she wanted to leave that town.

 

Do you see what I mean about the rain?

 

Blythe: This is my sister’s poem that I love. I know it sounds cheesy to pick something written by your sister, but she won awards for her poetry in college. This was written toward the end of my grandmother’s life and read at her funeral.

Thinking About my Grandmother Dancing by Dawn Pulsipher

“Yes” said my aunt, nodding severely,

“She has Real Trouble getting around.”

But what if it were July,

and her wheelchair cast aside,

lined up with some others on the lawn.

The sun melts the red vinyl seats

and reflects off a row of silver wheels,

 

and she’s dancing,

 

spinning on the grass

until she’s dizzy, staggering,

falling down laughing,

and nothing breaks, even.

Her dress is long and has white flowers on it,

the hem caught on the heel of her shoe

is what made her laugh so hard.

 

And I imagine her in love,

Love so hard she falls back on her bed,

and stares at the ceiling with young eyes

thinking, “My heart has been stolen,

it’s gone and I’m empty.”

Maybe her sister hits her with a pillow then,

says, “Stop dreaming and come to dinner

silly Lois,”

and wheels her on in.

 

Her eyes might be empty

looking at our young faces,

so many,

but I guess she’s probably thinking

about dancing.

 

Maggie:  I love poetry so it was hard for me to pick! Acquainted with the Night is so evocative of how it can feel to be alone that I find myself mesmerized by it.

Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

 

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

 

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

 

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

One luminary clock against the sky

 

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

 

So these are a few of our favorites, what are yours?

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17 Responses to “Music of the Soul”

  1. Paola says:

    A poem by Stevie Smith, that can have different meanings, but years ago I felt just like this, drowning in depression.

    Not Waving but Drowning

    Nobody heard him, the dead man,
    But still he lay moaning:
    I was much further out than you thought
    And not waving but drowning.

    Poor chap, he always loved larking
    And now he’s dead
    It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
    They said.

    Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
    (Still the dead one lay moaning)
    I was much too far out all my life
    And not waving but drowning.

  2. Leigh says:

    I wish I could think of one, but I am a lazy reader, I much rather read a story than a poem. I rarely read poetry.

    • HeatherS AAR says:

      Oddly enough, while I love happy endings in romance, I tend to like my poetry darker and broody, i.e. Sylvia Plath.

  3. Kim T. says:

    In addition to collecting more romance novels then I’ll ever read, I also collect 20th and 21st century poetry by Irish women poets. My two favorite poets are Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (who only writes in Irish and other famous Irish poets translate her poems) and Paula Meehan.

    The following is a controversial (sorry, you’ve been warned) poem about women, Catholicism, and modern Ireland.

    “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard”
    By Paula Meehan

    It can be bitter here at times like this,
    November wind sweeping across the border.
    Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick.
    The whole town tucked up safe and dreaming,
    even wild things gone to earth, and I
    stuck up here in this grotto, without as much as
    star or planet to ease my vigil.

    The howling won’t let up. Trees
    cavort in agony as if they would be free
    and take off – ghost voyagers
    on the wind that carries intimations
    of garrison towns, walled cities, ghetto lanes
    where men hunt each other and invoke
    the various names of God as blessing
    on their death tactics, their night manoeuvres.
    Closer to home the wind sails
    over dying lakes. I hear fish drowning.
    I taste the stagnant water mingled
    with turf smoke from outlying farms.

    They call me Mary – Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
    They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
    the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
    the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
    into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.

    They name me Mother of all this grief
    Though mated to no mortal man.
    They kneel before me and their prayers
    fly up like sparks from a bonfire
    that blaze a moment, then wink out.

    It can be lovely here at times. Springtime,
    early summer. Girls in Communion frocks
    pale rivals to the riot in the hedgerows
    of cow parsley and haw blossom, the perfume
    from every rushy acre that’s left for hay
    when the light swings longer with the sun’s push north.

    Or the grace of a midsummer wedding
    when the earth herself calls out for coupling
    and I would break loose of my stony robes,
    pure blue, pure white, as if they had robbed
    a child’s sky for their colour. My being
    cries out to be incarnate, incarnate,
    maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed.

    Even an autumn burial can work its own pageantry.
    The hedges heavy with the burden of fruiting
    crab, sloe, berry, hip; clouds scud east,
    pear scented, windfalls secret in long
    orchard grasses, and some old soul is lowered
    to his kin. Death is just another harvest
    scripted to the season’s play.

    But on this All Soul’s Night there is
    no respite from the keening of the wind.
    I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
    From the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
    A cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
    And release from being the conscience of the town.

    On a night like this I remember the child
    who came with fifteen summers to her name,
    and she lay down alone at my feet
    without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
    and she pushed her secret out into the night,
    far from the town tucked up in little scandals,
    bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,
    and though she cried out to me in extremis
    I did not move,
    I didn’t lift a finger to help her,
    I didn’t intercede with heaven,
    nor whisper the charmed word in God’s ear.

    On a night like this, I number the days to the solstice
    and the turn back to the
    light.

    O sun,
    center of our foolish dance,
    burning heart of stone,
    molten mother of us all,
    hear me and have pity.

    Plus, you can’t go wrong with any Dorothy Parker poetry. My favorite is

    “Comment”
    Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
    A medley of extemporanea;
    And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
    And I am Marie of Romania.

    • Lynnd says:

      I had not heard of Paula Meehan before this. Thank you for sharing this poem. I will go in search of more of her work.

  4. Maria D. says:

    Lately I seem to be caught up in poems about freedom and I particularly like
    I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou :

    A free bird leaps on the back
    Of the wind and floats downstream
    Till the current ends and dips his wing
    In the orange suns rays
    And dares to claim the sky.

    But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage
    Can seldom see through his bars of rage
    His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
    So he opens his throat to sing.

    The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
    Of things unknown but longed for still
    And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
    The caged bird sings of freedom.

    The free bird thinks of another breeze
    And the trade winds soft through
    The sighing trees
    And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
    Lawn and he names the sky his own.

    But a caged BIRD stands on the grave of dreams
    His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
    His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
    So he opens his throat to sing.

    The caged bird sings with
    A fearful trill of things unknown
    But longed for still and his
    Tune is heard on the distant hill
    For the caged bird sings of freedom.

  5. Veronica says:

    These have all been great to read. Thanks for posting them. It’s hard for me to pick my favorite poem, but the first that comes to mind is Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’.

    • maggie b. says:

      I like it!

      CITIES and Thrones and Powers
      Stand in Time’s eye,
      Almost as long as flowers,
      Which daily die:
      But, as new buds put forth
      To glad new men,
      Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth,
      The Cities rise again.

      This season’s Daffodil,
      She never hears,
      What change, what chance, what chill,
      Cut down last year’s;
      But with bold countenance,
      And knowledge small,
      Esteems her seven days’ continuance
      To be perpetual.

      So Time that is o’er-kind
      To all that be,
      Ordains us e’en as blind,
      As bold as she:
      That in our very death,
      And burial sure,
      Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,
      “See how our works endure!”

  6. Eliza says:

    The words “music” and “poetry” immediately make me think of Robert Burns and my favorite “For A’ That and A’ That.”

    Is there, for honest poverty,
    That hings his head, an’ a’ that?
    The coward slave, we pass him by,
    We dare be poor for a’ that!
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that;
    The rank is but the guinea’s stamp;
    The man’s the gowd for a’ that,

    What tho’ on hamely fare we dine,
    Wear hoddin-gray, an’ a’ that;
    Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
    A man’s a man for a’ that.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Their tinsel show an’ a’ that;
    The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
    Is king o’ men for a’ that.

    Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord
    Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
    Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
    He’s but a coof for a’ that:
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    His riband, star, an’ a’ that,
    The man o’ independent mind,
    He looks and laughs at a’ that.

    A prince can mak a belted knight,
    A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
    But an honest man’s aboon his might,
    Guid faith he mauna fa’ that!
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
    The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
    Are higher rank than a’ that.

    Then let us pray that come it may,
    As come it will for a’ that,
    That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
    May bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    It’s coming yet, for a’ that,
    That man to man, the warld o’er,
    Shall brothers be for a’ that.

  7. Lynnd says:

    My favourites are the epic poems, such as Chaucer or Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee. It starts:

    There are strange things done in the midnight sun
    By the men who moil for gold;
    The arctic trails have their secret tales
    That would make your blood run cold; etc

    Or Robert Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter”:

    When chapman billies leave the street
    And drouthy neibors, neibors meet…

    Reading these poems is great, but hearing such poems recited in a dim room or sitting by a campfire is magical.

  8. LeeF says:

    Wow- what a great variety! One of my favorites is by Mary Elizabeth Frye

    Do not stand at my grave and weep,
    I am not there; I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow,
    I am the diamond glints on snow,
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the morning’s hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry,
    I am not there; I did not die.

  9. My shelves are stacked with poetry books, and the ones I love best are legion. My favourites shift and rearrange themselves according to my age and mood, but this one always stays at or near the top. It hit me in the heart the first time I read it as a child, especially the last line of the second-last stanza. And by the time I got to the final two lines of the poem, I had a lump in my chest — maybe because I was writing even then, and I DID understand.

    TO A POET A THOUSAND YEARS HENCE by James Elroy Flecker

    I who am dead a thousand years,
    And wrote this sweet archaic song,
    Send you my words for messengers
    The way I shall not pass along.

    I care not if you bridge the seas,
    Or ride secure the cruel sky,
    Or build consummate palaces
    Of metal or of masonry.

    But have you wine and music still,
    And statues and a bright-eyed love,
    And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
    And prayers to them who sit above?

    How shall we conquer? Like a wind
    That falls at eve our fancies blow,
    And old Mæonides the blind
    Said it three thousand years ago.

    O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
    Student of our sweet English tongue,
    Read out my words at night, alone:
    I was a poet, I was young.

    Since I can never see your face,
    And never shake you by the hand,
    I send my soul through time and space
    To greet you. You will understand.

  10. These are beautiful. Thank you for sharing them!

    I was never much of a poetry reader until I became an English major and was forced to take poetry courses. Then I fell for it–hard. One of my favorites is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which has such beautiful images in it. It’s pretty long, so I’ll just link it: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html

    I also love e. e. cummings’s “i carry your heart with me” sonnet: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/179622

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