Anthology: Poems on How to Live Human Voices Wake Us

Tonight I read a handful of poems on the theme of How to live, what to do? How to get by in the world as a devotee of culture, solitude, ritual, beauty, tradition and individuality? There is of course no one answer, and anyway, poetry should stay as far away from direct “advice,” or proscription of any kind. Still, when I sit back and think about the kind of poems that help me through the day – and the months, and the years – these are some of them. Let me know the poems you rely on in this way: send me a message at humanvoiceswakeus1@gmail.com. As I also mention, after this episode I’ll be taking a break from Human Voices Wake Us for at least a month. The best way to support the podcast is to preorder my book Notes from the Grid (coming out February 23), or check out any of my other books: To the House of the Sun, The Lonely Young & the Lonely Old, Bone Antler Stone The poems I read are: Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), How to Live What to Do Galway Kinnell (1927-2014), Tillamook Journal Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), Things That Matter Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), #2 from Lightenings Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), Joy Louise Glück (1943-), Summer Night W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), A Prayer on Going into My House Emily Brontë (1818-1848), “Often rebuked, yet always back returning” Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), Man Don’t forget to join Human Voices Wake Us on Patreon, or sign up for our newsletter here.  — Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/humanvoiceswakeus/message Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/humanvoiceswakeus/support
  1. Anthology: Poems on How to Live
  2. Anthology: Love Poems from the Last Four Centuries
  3. Advice from Charles Dickens & Alice Munro
  4. First Person: Voices from 1900-1914
  5. The Great Myths #22: The Story of Ragnarok in the Norse Eddas

Elder Edda

To close out a month of posts, here’s the Voluspa, that great bit of the world turning over, from the Norse Poetic Edda. Somehow these bards, in the voice of the Seeress narrating it all, were able to cram into a few pages everything from creation to the apocalypse, and there is simply nothing like it.

The oddities and opaqueness of many of the passages speak less to intentional obscurity as they do to the entirety being a desperately protected artifact from a handful of patched together sources, and one preserved in a time of great cultural upheaval, as Christianity came to overshadow paganism. Thankfully, like much Celtic myth, the old stories were kept from destruction (in some cases by monks themselves), and like the Tao Te Ching, the Voluspa especially begs for a lifetime of rereading in any and all translations you can find.

The version of the Voluspa used below comes from Andy Orchard’s recent translation in The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore, but the translations of Carolyne Larrington and Lee M. Hollander are also worthwhile. All of them include a great deal of explanatory notes, but beyond those the best edition of the poem is easily that of Ursula Dronke in her The Poetic IMG_5365Edda Volume 2: The Mythological Poems, which features the English translation alongside the Old Norse original, and more than a hundred pages of commentary and textual variants.

When Ezra Pound threw his hands up in frustration over Finnegans Wake, he wrote to James Joyce that, “Nothing would be worth plowing through like this, except Divine Vision—and I gather it’s not that sort of thing.” Much of modern poetry—I’d even say much of Pound’s poetry—strikes me the same way, in its complexity and experimentation that isn’t meant to be much other than an illustration that the mind or the world are complex and unreliable; and so it’s a double joy every time I run back to Voluspa. There is no end to digging it.


1. A hearing I ask of all holy offspring,
the higher and lower of Heimdall’s brood.
Do you want me, Corpse-father, to tally up well
ancient tales of folk, from the first I recall?

2. I recall those giants, born early on,
who long ago brought me up;
nine worlds I recall, nine wood-dwelling witches,
the famed tree of fate down under the earth.

3. It was early in ages when Ymir made his home,
there was neither sand nor sea, nor cooling waves;
no earth to be found, nor heaven above:
a gulf beguiling, nor grass anywhere.

4. Before Bur’s sons brought up the lands,
they who moulded famed middle-earth;
Sun shone from the south on the stones of the hall:
then the ground grew with the leek’s green growth.

5. Sun, Moon’s escort, flung from the south
her right arm round heaven’s rim.
Sun did not know where she had a hall;
the stars knew not where they had stations,
Moon did not know what might be had.

6. Then all the powers went to their thrones of destiny,
high-holy gods, and deliberated this:
to Night and her children they gave their names:
Morning they called one, another Mid-Day,
Afternoon and Evening, to tally up the years.

7. The Aesir assembled on Action-field,
they who built high-timbered temples and altars;
they set down forges, fashioned treasures,
shaped tongs, fabricated tools.

8. They played board-games in the meadow: they made merry;
in no way for them was there want of gold
until there came three ogres’ daughters,
vastly mighty, from Giants’ Domain.

9. Then all the powers went to their thrones of destiny,
high-holy gods, and deliberated this:
who should shape the troop of dwarfs,
from Brimir’s blood, from Bláin’s limbs.

10. There was Mótsognir made most esteemed
of all the dwarfs, and Durin next;
many man-shaped forms they made,
dwarfs from earth, as Durin told:

11. New-moon, Moon-wane, North and South,
East and West, All-stealer, Dawdler,
Trembler, Grumbler, Tubby, Old Salt,
Friend and Friendly, Great-grandpa, Mead-wold.

12. Swig and Wand-elf, Urge,
Knowing and Daring, Spurt, Wise and Bright,
Corpse and New-counsel—now the dwarfs—
Regin and Cunning-counsel—have I reckoned.

13. Filer, Wedger, New-found, Needler,
Handle, Slogger, Craftsman, Waster,
Swift, Horn-bearer, Famed and Puddle,
Mud-plain, Warrior, Oaken-shield.

14. Time it is to reckon back to Praiser,
the dwarfs in Dawdler’s band for the children of men:
those who sought from halls of stone
the dwellings of Mud-plains on Soily-flats.

15. There was Dripper and Eager-for-strife,
Grey, Mound-treader, Shelter-plain, Glowing,
Artisan, Stainer, Crooked-Finn, Great-grandpa.

16. Elf and Yngvi, Oaken-shield,
Much-wise and Frosty, Finn and Beguiler;
there will remain in memory while the world lasts,
the lineage of Praiser, properly listed.

17. Until there came three from that company,
powerful and pleasant Aesir to a house.
They found on land, lacking vigour,
Ash and Embla, free of fate.

18. Breath they had not, energy they held not,
no warmth, nor motion, nor healthy looks;
breath gave Odin, energy gave Hoenir,
warmth gave Lódur, and healthy looks.

19. An ash I know stands, Yggdrasil by name,
a high tree, drenched with bright white mud;
from there come the dews that drop in the dales,
it always stands green over Destiny’s well.

20. From there came maidens, knowing much,
three from the lake that stands under the tree:
Destiny they called one, Becoming the second
—they carved on wood-tablets—Shall-be the third;
laws they laid down, lives they chose
for the children of mankind, the fates of men.

21. She remembers the war, the first in the world,
when they stabbed at Gold-draught with many spears,
and in the hall of the High One they burned her body.
Three times they burned the one thrice-born,
often, over again; yet she lives still.

22. They called her Brightness, when she came to their homes,
a witch who could foretell; she knew the skill of wands,
she made magic where she could, made magic in a trance;
she was always a delight to a wicked woman.

23. Then all the powers went to their thrones of destiny,
high-holy gods, and deliberated this:
whether the Aesir were obliged to render tribute,
and all the gods were obliged to pay the price.

24. Odin flung his spear, cast it into the host,
still that was the war, the first in the world;
the shield-wall was shattered of the fortress of the Aesir,
the Vanir with war-spells trampled the battlefield.

25. Then all the powers went to their thrones of destiny,
high-holy gods, and deliberated this:
who had mixed the whole sky with mischief
or given Ód’s girl to giants’ kin.

26. Thor alone threw blows there, bursting with rage
—he seldom sits still when he hears such things said—
oaths were trampled, words and assurances,
every binding pledge that had passed between them.

27. She knows that Heimdall’s hearing is hidden
under that brilliant holy tree;
she sees a river surge with a muddy stream
from Corpse-father’s pledge: do you know yet, or what?

28. Alone she sat out, when the aged one came,
the Dread one of the Aesir, and she looked in his eye:
“What do you ask me? Why do you try me?
I know it all, Odin: where you hid your eye,
in the much-famed fountain of Mímir;
Mímir sips mead every morning
from Corpse-father’s pledge: do you know yet, or what?”

29. War-father picked for her rings and circlets:
he had back wise tidings and wands of prophecy;
she saw widely and widely beyond, over every world.

30. She saw valkyries come from widely beyond,
ready to ride to the people of the gods.
Shall-be bore one shield, Brandisher another,
Battle, War, Wand-maid and Spear-brandisher:
now are reckoned War-lord’s ladies,
ready to ride over earth, valkyries.

31. I saw for Baldr, the blood-stained god,
Odin’s son, his fate fully settled;
there stood blooming, above the ground,
meagre, mighty beautiful: mistletoe.

32. From that plant, that seemed so slender,
Höd learned to shoot a dangerous dart of harm;
Baldr’s brother was quickly born:
that son of Odin learned to kill one night old.

33. He never washed hands nor combed his head,
till he put to the pyre Baldr’s foe;
but Frigg lamented in Fen-halls,
for Slain-hall’s woe: do you know yet, or what?

34. Then Váli’s war-bands were woven
—rather hard were the bonds—out of his own guts.

35. She saw a prisoner prostrate under Kettle-grove,
in the likeness of Loki, ever eager for harm;
there sits Sigyn, over her husband,
but she feels little glee: do you know yet, or what?

36. A river flows from East through venom-valleys
with knives and swords: Stern is its name.

37. There stood to the north, on Moon-wane-plains,
a hall of gold, of Sindri’s line;
a second stood, on Never-cooled,
the beer-hall of a giant, the one called Brimir.

38. A hall she saw standing far from the sun,
on Dead-body strands: its doors face north;
venom-drops flowed in through the roof-holes:
that hall is plaited from serpents’ spines.

39. She saw there wading through heavy currents,
men false-sworn and murderous men,
and those who gull another’s faithfulest girl;
there Spite-striker sucks the bodies of the dead
—a wolf tore men—do you know yet, or what?

40. East sat an old crone in Iron-wood,
and suckled there the seed of Fenrir:
from them all shall emerge a certain one,
a grabber of the moon in monstrous guise.

41. He is filled with the life-blood of doomed men,
reddens the powers’ dwellings with ruddy gore;
the sun-beams turn black the following summer,
all weather woeful: do you know yet, or what?

42. There sat on a grave-mound and plucked at a harp,
the giantess’s herdsman, happy Eggthér;
over him there crowed in Gallows-wood,
a bright-red cock, whose name is Much-wise.

43. Over the Aesir there crowed Golden-comb,
who wakes the warriors at Host-father’s home;
another crows beneath the earth,
a soot-red cock in the halls of Hel.

44. Garm howls loud before Looming-cave,
the bond will break, and the ravenous one run;
much lore she knows, I see further ahead,
of the powers’ fate, implacable, of the victory-gods.

45. Brothers will struggle and slaughter each other,
and sisters’ sons spoil kinship’s bonds.
It’s hard on earth: great whoredom;
axe-age, blade-age, shields are split;
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world crumbles:
no one shall spare another.

46. Mím’s sons sport, the wood of destiny is kindled
at the ancient Sounding-horn.
Heimdall blows loud, the horn is aloft,
Odin speaks with Mím’s head.

47. The standing ash of Yggdrasil shudders,
the aged tree groans, and the giant breaks free.
All are afraid on the paths of Hel,
before Surt’s kin swallows it up.

48. What’s what the Aesir? What’s with the elves?
All Giants’ Domain groans, the Aesir hold council,
the dwarfs murmur before their stone doors,
lords of the cliff-wall: do you know yet, or what?

49. Garm now howls loud before Looming-cave,
the bond will break, and the ravenous one run;
much lore she knows, I see further ahead,
of the powers’ fate, implacable, of the victory-gods.

50. Hrym drives from the East, holds his shield ahead,
Great-wand writhes in giant-wrath;
the serpent strikes waves, the eagle screams,
pale-beaked rips bodies, Nail-boat breaks free.

51. A vessel journeys from the East, Muspell’s troops will come,
over the waters, while Loki steers.
All the monstrous offspring accompany the ravenous one,
the brother of Byleist is with them on the trip.

52. Surt comes from the South with what damages branches,
there shines from his sword the sun of corpse-gods;
rock-cliffs clash, troll-wives crash,
warriors tread Hel-roads, and heaven is rent.

53. Then there comes for Hlín a second sorrow,
when Odin goes to fight the wolf
and Beli’s bright bane against Surt:
then’s when Frigg’s beloved must fall.

54. Then there comes the great son of Victory-father,
Vídar, to fight against the slaughtering beast;
with his hand he sends his sword to the heart
of Hvedrung’s son: then his father is avenged.

55. The earth’s girdle gapes over heaven,
the dread serpent’s jaws yawn on high,
Odin’s son must meet the serpent,
when the wolf is dead, and Vídar’s kin.

56. Then there comes the famous offspring of Hlödyn,
Odin’s son goes to fight the serpent;
the defender of middle-earth strikes his wrath;
—all warriors must abandon their homesteads—
he goes nine paces, the son of Fjorgyn,
spent, from the snake that fears no spite.

57. The sun turns black, land sinks into sea;
the bright stars scatter from the sky.
Flame flickers up against the world-tree;
fire flies high against heaven itself.

58. Garm now howls loud before Looming-cave,
the bond will break, and the ravenous one run;
much lore she knows, I see further ahead,
of the powers’ fate, implacable, of the victory-gods.

59. She sees rising up a second time
the earth from the ocean, ever-green;
the cataracts tumble, an eagle flies above,
hunting fish along the fell.

60. The Aesir come together on Action-field,
and pass judgment on the powerful earth-coil,
and commemorate there the mighty events,
and the ancient runes of Potent-god.

61. Afterwards there will be found, wondrous,
golden gaming-pieces in the grass,
those which in ancient days they had owned.

62. All unsown the fields will grow,
all harm will be healed, Baldr will come;
Höd and Baldr will inhabit Hropt’s victory-halls,
sanctuaries of the slain-gods: do you know yet, or what?

63. Then Hoenir shall choose the wooden lots,
and the sons of two brothers build dwellings
in the wide wind-home: do you know yet, or what?

64. She sees a hall standing, more beautiful than the sun,
better than gold, at Gimlé.
Virtuous folk shall live there,
and enjoy the live-long day.

65. Then there comes the mighty one down from above,
the strong one, who governs everything, to powerfulness.

66. Then there comes there the dark dragon flying,
the glittering snake up from Moon-wane-hills,
it bears in its wings—and flies over the plain—
dead bodies: Spite-striker; now she must sink.