The Song of the Sea (Forerunners)

Underfoot Poetry

The Song of the Sea,” which comprises Exodus 15:1-18 and tells of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt via the Red Sea, is one of the oldest parts of the Bible. Explaining the early form of Hebrew in which it was written, James Kugel notes that the Hebrew prefix ha- (a definite article corresponding to our word “the”) only developed in later Hebrew, so that while in the rest of the Old Testament ha- can be found in abundance, in “The Song of the Sea” “it is not found even once.”

While the song appears later in the Exodus than the prose version of the escape, in chapter 14,  Kugel points to other songs in the Old Testament that were also placed amid later prose renditions of the same events: the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, Hannah’s Hymn in 1 Samuel 2, David’s song in 2 Samuel 22…

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Michael McGill (5 Poems)

Underfoot Poetry

Documentary

A woman in a documentary
is frozen in my mind. She stands
behind an asylum window

and whispers in a foreign language.
The subtitle below her
reads, “Please let me out of here.”

She is framed by the subtitle;
framed by the edit
of her portrayal.

Finally, she is framed
by the asylum itself.
“Please let me out of here,” she says.


Possessions

1.
On that last day at my Grandmother’s
house, after we had taken down
her paintings and placed all of her
possessions into boxes, I opened
a door in the hall. I had always

thought this was a small cupboard.
But it wasn’t. Instead, the door
revealed a tiny spiral flight
of stairs. And it was up
these stairs that I climbed.

2.
The spiral staircase led to a loft,
and in the corner of the room was
a photograph of my Grandmother
as a young…

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Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Forerunners)

Underfoot Poetry

Many thanks to David Cooke for contributing this week’s Forerunner, and it’s quite a treat. Below he has recorded a good portion of two Anglo-Saxon poems, “The Ruin” and “The Seafarer” in the original Old English. Also included is the original text, an English translation and, following “The Ruin,” David Cooke’s response to the poem, “Ruins.” These doomed, mournful poems have remained vivid for more than a thousand years, and we’ll be lucky if anything from our own day lasts half as long.


The Ruin

Wrætlic is þes wealstan,   wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston,   brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene,   hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen,   hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge   scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone.   Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan   forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan,   oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan.   Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah   rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum;   steap geap gedreas…
                              … hygerof gebond
weallwalan wirum   wundrum togædre.
Beorht…

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New Poetry Series

To celebrate Walt Whitman’s birthday today, S4N Books is announcing their new series, Pocket Poems. It will feature classic long poems and books of poetry in small pocket-sized editions. The first three volumes are now available: the 1855 and 1892 editions of Whitman’s Song of Myself, and Alfred Tennyson’s elegy, In Memoriam. Future titles will…

J. S. Belote (5 Poems)

Five poems from J. S. Belote now up on Underfoot–

Underfoot Poetry

Boriska

Snowmelt mangles
gray potato fields,

oxcarts rot & sink
by dung heaps,

& month after month
the heaps rise—
 
I don’t care.

Again the sky is
opaque. &, still,

wizened, Andrei
goes on

painting icons. In one

he gives Christ a cloak
the color of earth.

He hangs it nonchalantly over
His left shoulder, & leaves from His face
any discernible look.

There’s not shame, or pity,
or anger there.

What is there, he would tell you,
is another world
this world is

redeemed by. Which means
suffering is
a disease of perspective.

Which is true, of course,
to an extent.

But I choose to keep my rage.

I choose to hate my father.

I can still see him there
on his deathbed.

The dark blood & puss.

The boils in his armpits
forcing him

to lie spreadeagled.

The hut reeked
of urine.

& what I begged him…

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David Cooke (6 Poems)

For the metallurgist in us all, six great new poems by David Cooke are now up at Underfoot—please pass along & enjoy—

Underfoot Poetry

Gold

Its lack of reaction has made it unique,
that and the way it can magnetize fools:
forty-niners, Midas, the futures mob—
so gung ho, yet always dazzled by it,
like urchins dreaming of gilded pavements.

Locked in a vault, it validates paper.
It’s what the rich cling to when the bubble
bursts, smiling at the rest of us, our mouths
agape, who wonder why what’s left
is fool’s gold, when the real stuff vanishes.

Acquaint yourself with history, the endless
grubby tomes we’ve filled. From the Age
of Gold to the Age of Iron the avalanche
of grief it’s caused would make you think
we had gathered mountains of it

when, if we had managed to find enough,
we could divvy up into shares for all.
So trudge across the moonlit ploughland
with a metal detector, unearthing
hoards of coins so hastily abandoned.

Crack open the mausoleums of men

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New Poetry Blog

I’m happy to announce the launch of a new poetry blog I’ll be editing, Underfoot Poetry. It will include original, unpublished work from poets around the world, as well as a series I call Forerunners, featuring influential poetry from the past. The first installments of both are up right now: six new poems from the…

Is Shakespeare Just “Okay”?

Heresy of heresies perhaps, but is Shakespeare just “okay”? I love the idea of Shakespeare, and how enthusiastic actors get about him (Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey have both made wonderful documentaries about their affection for Richard III). I love reading about Shakespeare and imagining the life we know so little about, like those sixteen…

There is Only the Trying: Some Thoughts on Fame & Failure

1. When Derek Jeter retired from baseball in the fall of 2014, those who followed his last season heard the unsurprising story that he’d wanted to be shortstop for the New York Yankees since he was a little boy. And as I watched his last home game at Yankee Stadium, and watched how his last…

Classic Jam Hits

Going through my computer the other day, I found the .pdfs of these classic book sets, and thought to post them here for whoever wants them: Frazer’s The Golden Bough, The Mythology of All Races, and Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Whatever their limitations now, they are still great resources. I…

The Palace of Winds (rereading “The English Patient”)

Our love for certain books or movies or pieces of music are so intense that we like to imagine our preference for them rises to the level of objectivity. The wonderfully grouchy critic Harold Bloom, for instance, praises the poetry of Hart Crane to no end; but, just as effusively, he relates the memory of…

John Donne: Holy Sonnets & Good Friday

There’s a sense that, eventually, somebody could have written much of the best of John Donne’s poetry. His tremendous blend of looseness (many of the poems can feel casually spoken) coupled with an almost impenetrable density and complexity, or his mixture of the erotic and humorous and newly-scientific in some of his love poetry, feel…

Early Yeats (12 Poems)

A recent article tells the astonishing story about theatre majors who were unable to act out flirting: “Accustomed to soliciting one another via text, and more used to hookups than dates, this verb was no longer a touchstone for college students, and ‘flirting’ did not elicit any specific physical or emotional behaviors (sustained eye contact,…

Daniel Paul Marshall (6 Poems)

I would encourage anyone with an interest in poetry to check out the work of Daniel Paul Marshall. He has kindly allowed a handful of his poems to appear below, but many more are available at his website. Originally from England, he now lives on Jeju Island, Korea, where he runs a café and guesthouse…

Thomas Wolfe

On this anniversary of Thomas Wolfe’s death, I’m reminded that every few years I turn around and he’s there again. Whether in influencing Ferlinghetti or Kerouac, or anecdotes about his editor Maxwell Perkins trying to beat his holy mess novels into some more coherent shape, or just his own troubled life, Thomas Wolfe always shows…

The State of Poetry … in 1993

The following essay was published in the New Criterion in February, 1993, and reflects a view of American poetry from at least the 1970s forward. It’s quite depressing to read this two decades later, since the status of poetry as a subculture can’t help but be worse than it was then, and worse in part…

A Gallery of Greeks & Romans

Talking with a friend about ancient Greece the other day reminded me of being in Athens back in 2007, and taking two days to wander through its National Archaeological Museum. The best part was all the faces, whether reliefs from numerous funeral stele, or the later busts of Roman emperors or other higher-ups. Nearly all…

“I respond more to revelation”: Hart Crane on Fire

Perhaps because he embodied that rarest of combinations—the energy and enthusiasm of youth, and actual genius—there are few writers better at articulating the fire of creation than Hart Crane. The following selection from his letters carries Crane from his early twenties to a few years before he died at thirty-two: here is is writing The…

William H. McNeill – History as Myth

Last Friday, the great historian William H. McNeill died. I still have surprisingly endearing memories of reading his A World History one winter, in the middle crowded New York City Wendy’s, surrounded by high school kids just done with their day, his narrative silencing every one and every thing. And this year during a brief…

A Bit of Late Yeats

For all those poets who feel guilty (or have been guilted) for not writing bad political poems—bad Brexit couplets, bad protest rants on racism, sexism, or Donald Trump poems that are as shitty as him—some advice from an aging Yeats is worth repeating:   Those Images What if I bade you leave The cavern of…

Dante, Through the Fire

Here’s one of the great moments in poetry: Canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, where Dante passes through the fire, and Virgil crowns him on their way up to the summit of Mount Purgatory. This taken from the translation of Allen Mandelbaum, and the Digital Dante site at Columbia University. *** Just as, there where its…

Picasso & the Gestapo

Here’s a favorite, possibly apocryphal, story of Pablo Picasso (who lived in Paris during the German Occupation) and his great painting, Guernica. The exchange is almost too good to be true, and perhaps nobody but Picasso could have gotten away with it. Whenever volume four of John Richardson’s biography of Picasso is finally released, I’ll…

Heaney’s Bog Poems

Here’s Seamus Heaney, first talking about his poems on the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, in Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, and then the bog poems themselves, spanning three of his collections: Wintering Out, North, and District and Circle. Also, since I hope to do a post on the bog bodies at some point, interested…

Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish”

I’d like to say that after Four Quartets, I don’t know of another long poem from the last century that’s meant as much to me as Allen Ginsberg’s elegy for his mother, Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg, 1894-1956. But it’s so powerful that even describing it as a poem seems silly: it really doesn’t matter what…

Yeats Comes to the Occult

Here is W. B. Yeats, remembering some of his adult experiences with the occult and supernatural. All taken from his The Trembling of the Veil, collected in Autobiographies: When staying with Hyde in Roscommon, I had driven over to Lough Kay, hoping to find some local memory of the old story of Tumaus Costello, which…

Henry Vaughan – 5 Poems

Here are a few pieces from seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan. Going through The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, the usual names stuck out, but Vaughan seemed to run past most of them. Trying to place him, he strikes me very nearly as a forerunner of William Blake in the visionary quality of his unexpected rhythms.…

Heaney on Writing

Here’s Seamus Heaney talking about writing, from Dennis O’Driscoll’s book-length interview with him, Stepping Stones: On Inspiration On the week in May 1969 when he wrote “about forty poems”: It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming. This you felt, was “it.” You had been initiated into the order of the inspired.…

Joyce & Proust Meet

From that greatest of literary biographies, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, here is the account of Joyce meeting Marcel Proust, only a few months before Proust’s death: On May 18, 1922, Sydney Schiff (“Stephen Hudson”), the English novelist whom Joyce had met a few times, invited him to a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev following…

The Unfinished Kafka

Reiner Stach, in the middle entry of his three volume biography of Franz Kafka, writes, “Anyone who studies bibliographies today will envy Kafka’s earliest readers, who knew very little about his life and could enjoy his work as literature and not as an accumulation of autobiographical codes.” (186) Stach’s biography (and its beautiful translation into…

Wallace Stevens, Intergalactic Planetary

Here are some bits on writing, nature, and anonymous everyday life from Wallace Stevens, that quiet murmur of American poetry who may well outlast nearly everybody. The following are from his letters and journals, from 1898 to 1955, only a few months before his death at seventy-five. That a poet so technically isolated (and gladly…

Heaney Comes to Poetry

Here are some of Seamus Heaney’s memories of reading, writing, and poetry, from earliest schooldays to university, all taken from Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful book-length interview with him,  Stepping Stones. Yes, my memory of learning to read goes back to my first days in Anahorish School, the charts for the letters, the big-lettered reading books. But…

Yeats & Lady Gregory

(photo from the LG/WBY Heritage Trail) In the single-volume Autobiographies of W. B. Yeats, which collects all of Yeats’s autobiographical writings from throughout his life, the great Irish poet mentions the memoirs of one John O’Leary. O’Leary was apparently taking his good old time at it, writing “passages for his memoirs upon postcards and odd…

Hart Crane to His Father

In early January, 1924, the poet Hart Crane, twenty-four and basically broke, received a letter from his father offering to hire him into the family business. To a friend, Crane wrote, “Along comes a letter from my father this morning offering me a position with him as travelling salesman! This is unacceptable, of course, even…