On March 6, 1806 the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born. Married to the poet Robert Browning, she charts the development of their relationship in her Sonnets from the Portuguese. Her feelings of inadequacy. her fears for her life, evolve to joy in her love's return. In Sonnet XLIII she defines her love for her husband.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath.
Smiles, tears, of all my life!--and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Moving this month to a retirement community in a different location, I'm thankful for the work in poetry I have been able to do at this senior complex.: workshops and my own writing, poems for a chapbook. Advanced age is no hindrance to the connection of one's life to others through poetry. The joy and recognition in reading long cherished work and discovering new poets is immeasurable. At the Church Door by Louis Simpson, a favorite poet, read online, tells of an encounter with a child entering the church as he was leaving, asking him to help her with the ladybug on her sleeve,
So I opened the door,
and she said, "It jumped off."
We stood looking around.
"It'll be all right," I said.
She went in, and I left,
taking care where I stepped.
Owner of the House
In her remarkable collection What the Living Do, Marie Howe follows the illness of her brother John, recounting her participation in his suffering. In the title poem, she addresses him after his death, enumerating the annoyances and frustrations of her daily life: clogged drains, breaking grocery bags, coffee-drenched shirtsleeves, and those unanswered wants her brother gave up. Yet in the poem's conclusion, she celebrates life itself.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
What the Living Do
Copyright 1998 by Marie Howe
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, N. Y. 10110
The other day, a chorus of mockingbirds in a nearby tree brought back an earlier time when their notes were a familiar sound. Thomas Hardy's poem "The Selfsame Song" celebrates" the return of those we have lost in the bird song.
SELF SAME SO NG
A bird sings the selfsame song
With never a fault in its flow,
That we listened to here those long
Long years ago.
A pleasing marvel is how
A strain of such rapturous rote
Should have gone on thus till now
Unchanged in a note!
--But it's not the selfsame bird--
No: perished to dust is he...
As also are those who heard
That song with me.
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
In a time of a pandemic's limitations and heartbreaking news, a poem can offer an insight into our resources. Emily Dickinson's 'Hope is a strange invention" confirms the abiding strength in the human spirit.
Hope is a strange invention
A patent of the heart
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out --
Of this electric Adjunct
Not anything is known
But its unique momentum
Embellish all we own --
For expressing joy in the immediate a poem is a perfect vehicle. No matter the isolation, the hardship, the loss. such occasions occur. in his poem "Blackberry Eating," Galway Kinnell (1927-2014) expresses his encounter with blackberries. He writes that the blackberries he has picked in late September at breakfast "fall almost unbidden" to his "tongue/ as words sometimes do...
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry eating in late September.
Copyright 1980 by Galway Kinnell. From MORTAL ACTS, MORTAL WORDS (Mariner Books, 1980).
In a poem reflections on an unfortunate experience may evolve into an awakening to a brighter, inclusive insight. Mary Oliver's poem "The Black Snake" moves from thoughts of the "terrible weight" of death, occasioned by the accidental death of a black snake, to an awareness of a " brighter fire." The poem begins:
When the black snake
flashed onto the morning road
and the truck could not swerve--
death, that is how it happens.
In the poem's conclusion, death has its reprieve:
reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!
It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.
copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver
NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
The Beacon Press
An effective point of view on a major issue can work in its reliance on a fanciful image, the concrete thereby enlarged. In his poem "At the Bomb Testing Site," William Stafford calls attention to the danger all life risks in the atomic bomb through the eyes of a lizard, who sees "an important scene/acted in stone for little selves." The final stanza shows the lizard, vulnerable in expectancy.
There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less,
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.
The Way It Is, New & Selected Poems
Saint Paul, Minnesota
The satisfaction and perhaps delight in reading a poem about a particular person or place may be in its relation to one's own life. Robert Hayden's poem "Those Winter Sunday's " is such a poem. Hayden recalls how his father "got up early," and "made banked fires blaze." He adds that "No one ever thanked him." The poem concludes with the poet's late recognition of his father's selfless action.
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
Angle of Ascent
Liveright / New York
Neva Herrington is a poet and former educator. She is currently working on a new book of poetry, a collection of short stories, and her memoir. Her inspiration comes from her own experience and the work of other poets.