Al Young & Gabriel Garcia Marquez (PAD #28)

Al Young is California Poet Laureate Emeritus. He’s a huge spirit, a deep soul, a purposeful poet. Read one of my favorite poems by him, “Birthday Poem” at the Poetry Foundation. I love especially these last two stanzas, and especially on this day, over this weekend, when I’m remembering how the suffering of each of us, through compassion, empathy and imagination, can be remembered and experienced by all. This I see as the function of art.

How I got from then to now
is the mystery that could fill a whole library
much less an arbitrary stanza
But of course you already know about that
from your own random suffering
& sudden inexplicable bliss


This entry on Al Young’s blog offers a variety of thoughts about and images of the late great Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

One of the delights he’s collected is this interview with Isabele Allende about how Marquez “gave us back our history” — meaning primarily the history of the people of Central and South America, but also, I think, the history of anyone who chooses to re-imagine a history other than that which is told by the conquerors.


There are many photos of Marquez in the press now, some in which he’s obviously frail but sporting a lovely yellow rose in his lapel. Some show him flipping off the camera. I like this one (above). I think I understand what it means to wear a book on your head. To wander around in life, worried that those words might clatter to the ground in a pile of pages and board, to lose your mind.

Rest in peace, Sr. Marquez. Thank you for the gifts of your imagination and your hard work. Rock on Al Young, keep telling us like it is.

(For your poem-a-day prompt, try writing a poem in which you address both your random suffering and sudden inexplicable bliss. That should keep you busy.)

Good Friday with Emily Dickinson

To honor my Christian cultural tradition, I’m not posting much today, other than to share this poem of Emily Dickinson. ED wasn’t a religious poet, but her poems express the kind of spiritual inquiry that I aspire to. (The Bartleby link shows the poem as it was published first after Dickinson’s life, and edited by her publishers. The version I have here is from Johnson’s Complete Poems with reconstructed words and punctuation.)

“To know just how He suffered – would be dear –”

By Emily Dickinson

To know just how He suffered – would be dear –
To know if any Human eyes were near
To whom He could entrust His wavering gaze –
Until it settled firm – on Paradise –

To know if He was patient – part content –
Was Dying as He thought – or different –
Was it a pleasant Day to die –
And did the Sunshine face His way –

What was His furthest mind – Of Home – or God –
Or what the Distant say –
At news that He ceased Human Nature
On such a Day –

And Wishes – Had He Any –
Just His Sigh – Accented –
Had been legible – to Me –
And was He Confident until
Ill fluttered out – in Everlasting Well –

And if He spoke – What name was Best –
What last
What One broke off with
At the Drowsiest –

Was He afraid – or tranquil –
Might He know
How Conscious Consciousness – could grow –
Till Love that was – and Love too best to be –
Meet—and the Junction be Eternity


This video offers a musical rendition of the poem, with music by David Bennett Thomas, performed by The Gregg Smith Singers and organ accompaniment.

This blog has done a lovely job of presenting the poem as published initially. Click through to see.



Remembering civil rights history, when ‘words meant everything’

2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act (1964). As part of a series of stories on this subject, NPR has run several stories and videos.

Remembering civil rights history, when ‘words meant everything’.

In this one, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Jeffrey Brown recently traveled from Mississippi to Alabama on a pilgrimage to witness the historical struggles and sorrows people faced during the civil rights movement. On their 100-mile journey, they examine the role of poetry in advancing the movement’s message for justice and freedom.

The video is about eight minutes long, and Ms. Trethewey only recites part of her moving and calmly horrifying poem “Incident,” about a black family looking through their living room curtains at a cross burning in their neighborhood. Here is the poem in its entirety. The form may be recognizable to some of you; it is a special stanza form called a pantoum.

I hope you’ll agree, as is mentioned in the video, that poetry is a form of sacred language, a way to speak (and sing) when you are afraid to speak.


By Natasha Trethewey

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shade drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our room and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

Gentle reader, you might find interesting another poem, by an African American poet, Countee Cullen, also named “Incident.” Poets like to do this, comment and copy and call out after one another.


By Countee Cullen

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.


Pulitzer Prize Winner Vijay Seshadri

It’s been a busy day. I don’t have much energy for (even) poetry, Luckily, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry was awarded today to Vijay Seshadri. As this NPR Book News article says, this winner was unexpected. I know nothing about Mr. Seshadri, other than he was born in Bangalore India, in 1954, and he must be a great poet. This should make him of particular interest to our Cupertino community. Here’s a biography of Mr. Seshadri from and here is a poem of his, that speaks directly to our guilt and privilege, and the mysterious nature of our survival. I look forward to learning more about his poetry.

by Vijay Seshadri

We hold it against you that you survived.
People better than you are dead,
but you still punch the clock.
Your body has wizened but has not bled

its substance out on the killing floor
or flatlined in intensive care
or vanished after school
or stepped off the ledge in despair.

Of all those you started with,
only you are still around;
only you have not been listed with
the defeated and the drowned.

So how could you ever win our respect?–
you, who had the sense to duck,
you, with your strength almost intact
and all your good luck.


by Vijay Seshadri

We hold it against you that you survived.
People better than you are dead,
but you still punch the clock.
Your body has wizened but has not bled

its substance out on the killing floor
or flatlined in intensive care
or vanished after school
or stepped off the ledge in despair.

Of all those you started with,
only you are still around;
only you have not been listed with 
the defeated and the drowned.

So how could you ever win our respect?--
you, who had the sense to duck,
you, with your strength almost intact
and all your good luck.

– See more at:


by Vijay Seshadri

We hold it against you that you survived.
People better than you are dead,
but you still punch the clock.
Your body has wizened but has not bled

its substance out on the killing floor
or flatlined in intensive care
or vanished after school
or stepped off the ledge in despair.

Of all those you started with,
only you are still around;
only you have not been listed with 
the defeated and the drowned.

So how could you ever win our respect?--
you, who had the sense to duck,
you, with your strength almost intact
and all your good luck.

– See more at:

The Passover Full Moon, Bei Dao and Alan Ginsberg

Tonight is a full moon. There’s also going to be a total lunar eclipse. Tonight is also the first night of Passover, which always starts with a full moon (I think). I tried to look this up on the internet and the answers to how to calculate Passover and Easter dates are very complicated and involved math and java script. Yikes! This is why I am a poet.

There are many poems about the moon. You might even say that the moon is the single most poetic thing around. I want to share some of these lovely poems with you.

  • Here’s a website dedicated to poems that have the phrase “full moon” in them.
  • Bei Dao, perhaps the most internationally famous living Chinese poet, is the nom de plum of Zhao Zhenkai. This poem, “Moon Festival” is mysterious to me, but perhaps my Chinese Cupertino readers will understand it better. I looked for a version in Chinese and could find nothing. That’s probably my fault, not the poem’s. (My favorite part of this poem is the trees applaud.)

Moon Festival
By Bei Dao
Translated by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong

Lovers holding pits in their mouths
make vows and delight in each other
till the underwater infant
periscopes his parents
and is born

an uninvited guest knocks at my
door, determined to go deep
into the interior of things

the trees applaud

wait a minute, the full moon
and this plan are making me nervous
my hand fluttering
over the obscure implications of the letter
let me sit in the dark
a while longer, like
sitting on a friend’s heart

the city a burning deck
on the frozen sea
can it be saved? it must be saved
the faucet drip-drop drip-drop
mourns the reservoir

  • This poem by Alan Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California,” is a fantasy on walking around San Francisco, talking to Walt Whitman. Here’s the first crazy stanza:

What thoughts I have of you tonight Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I hope you can see the full moon wherever you are and whatever you are doing tonight.

Poems for Palms

I always enjoy Palm Sunday, even now when I no longer attend church, and I think partly it’s because I grew up in California and palm trees have been ubiquitous and beloved for many years. When I was younger, Palm Sunday meant a day in church when children has a special job, taking all the palm leaves to the altar. Now, palm trees are mostly things I wonder at and walk or drive under — along Palm Drive at Stanford University, Palm Avenue in Cupertino, palm trees and their messy falling fronds in my own back yard.


I’m writing a poem today about palm trees, calling it “Palm Tree Sunday” but I wondered if there were poems about Palm Sunday — religious poetry that I could share here. And, of course, there are.

G. K. Chesterton wrote a beautiful poem about a mournful donkey, and only mentions Palm Sunday in passing, without naming the day. You have to be familiar with the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to catch the allusion. Chesterton was an English poet, art critic and Christian apologist. He converted to Roman Catholicism from the Church of England and spent much of his time and energy as a writer with spiritual work. The poem here, “The Donkey” is a delightful poem on so many levels, and no matter what you believe about Jesus, the donkey’s sad, disrespected voice is familiar to anyone who has ever felt less than loved.

The Donkey

by G. K. Chesterton

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

The next poem I want to share is a contemporary verse about Palm Sunday written to delight children learning about the day in their church school. Andrew King has a wonderful blog full of his own poetry, much of it in response to the week’s lectionary. (Click through to his blog for an explanation.)

This poem, called “The Story of Palm Sunday (as told for the young)” is absolutely charming. What is not to love about a poem that rhymes “anointed” with “pointed” and remembers the glory of historical Jerusalem as “quite a blast” — I mean, this poet must have had a great time writing this. The rhythm is strong, the language alive. I love it. Here are several stanzas from the middle of the poem.

“He’s coming straight to Jerusalem’s gate,”
the folks were excitedly saying;
“Let’s get out there in the open air
and show the Romans for what we’ve been praying.”

They cut branches down and handed them round,
a symbol of joy and praising.
And they lined the way for Jesus that day,
palms and voices ready for raising.

Jesus, meantime, had his followers find
a young donkey on which he could ride.
He’d come to that place to show God’s saving grace,
that God’s on the sufferer’s side.

These photos are the closest I could find to what I remember.

palm-sunday1 galleryImage.php

So, Happy Palm Sunday. Be you a believer in Jesus or not, I hope that you can believe in poetry with me today.

The painting at the top of the post is Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti. Entering the city on a donkey symbolizes Jesus’ arrival in peace rather than as a war-waging king arriving on a horse.

A Poem from Nothing but Words : The Column Poem (PAD Prompt #27)

In honor of my daughter’s anthropology qualifying exams, which you can read more about in this Cupertino Poetry Exchange post, I wanted to write her a poem that celebrated anthropology. But, not being an anthropologist, I wasn’t really sure how to go about this. So, of course, I went to Wikipedia. I always start either there or at Stanford’s Green Library. General consumption of information that might be accurate or the deep deep scholarship of the ages. Sometimes you need one, sometimes the other.

So, Wikipedia defines anthropology nicely enough but didn’t give me much inspiration for writing a poem. Then I remembered a prompt/tactic/exercise I’ve taught and that I’ve also been taught by others (probably in the other order). Take a piece of prose (or write your own piece of prose) about a topic. Then circle 5, 7, 15, 31 of the best or most interesting words in the prose. Always an odd number. Don’t ask me why. Then put those words in a line down the center of the page in a single column and write whatever comes to you on both sides of those words. Voila, your poem. Like a column with wings.

I took Wikipedia’s definition of anthropology, picked the words that spoke to me, and came up with this funky, silly, sexy, and rather delightful poem. I doesn’t have much to do with my daughter, except perhaps the last two lines. And it’s got 14 lines, so I didn’t even follow my own advice.

Here’s what the prose looked like and then the messy wing-y column first draft. Finally, the poem (at the top of the post).

Your challenge, if you want to write today, is to write prose, pick your favorite words, and then make your own “column poem.”

Anthropology Poetry

In honor of my daughter, who is this very moment taking her anthropology qualifying exam, I’ve found some anthropology poetry connections.

In this short essay, Robert Peake thinks about how poetry can be a kind of anthropology — the idea of “poet as anthropologist” — in contrast to the recently popular confessional poetry point of view — “poet-as-person-who-confesses.” The author makes the point that poets might be tired of gazing at their navels, and are now more likely to gaze at the navels of others.

“[…] American poets are no less united in the cause … to “extend the imaginative franchise”–with its power to renew our understanding of what it means to be human. It is in this pursuit that poetry and the actual science of anthropology intersect. At the end of postmodernism, having our ideas of objectivity and centrality blasted to bits by the Second World War, we are beginning to pick up the pieces.

But simply gluing them back together is no longer an option. Having examined our own little fragment ad nauseum through confession, we are finally beginning to relate more inquisitively to our own, and the other, shards. In what I hope history will regard as our current period of “late postmodernism” or perhaps “post-postmodernism,” we return in poetry to the one question a Google search can’t answer for us: what is it, this thing called “being human?”

And because I want to give my daughter (to whom I have mailed a copy of this poem) and you, gentle digital reader, a moment to slow down with a poem and consider what it means to be human, here is a wonderful mysterious poem I found, just for you.

By James Galvin

Remember the night you got drunk
and shot the roses?
You were a perfect stranger, Father,
even my bad sister cried.

Some other gravity,
not death or luck,
drew fish out of the sea
and started them panting.

The fish became a man.
The archer’s bow became a violin.
I remember the night you searched the sofa
for change

and wept on the telephone.
Some other gravity,
not time or entropy,
pulled the knife down for centuries.

The archers dropped their bows,
harmless as pine needles in the snow.
The knife became a plow
and entered the earth, Father.

Later it became a boat
and some other things —
It isn’t a dream but it takes a long time,
for the archer’s bow to become a violin.

James Galvin, “Anthropology” from Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. Copyright © 1997 by James Galvin. Copper Canyon Press,

For future exploration:

(In case you came today to get a prompt to write a poem, read this related post.)

Poems about Healing

Poetry can help us heal. Mind and body. Today I offer the poem “Lying In Wait” by Rachel Hadas.

Lying In Wait

by Rachel Hadas

Lying in bed and waiting for the purple
bruises to fade from my arms,
I remember the grinding pebbles underfoot
when I gave in to the muscular embrace of the ocean.
Now I rest in the wash of what has been accomplished.
A shallow golden river is pouring itself over stones,
over this empty husk, scooped shell of waiting
for transformation. Also transportation:
I need a fresh itinerary now
a dismantled world is being reassembled;
new map of stars I gaze at from the cool
tank of silence where I lie back, bathe,
and wait for the purple to fade.

About the poet:

Rachel Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, where she has taught for many years. Her latest collection of poems is The Golden Road (2012). A new collection, Questions in the Vestibule, is in preparation.

Click through this link to the wonderful blog “Pulse-Voices from the Heart of Medicine” to read her poem and more like it. Today’s front page features a sweet haiku.


It’s raining in California today, but there are still blossoms on many of the trees. Take a moment to pause today and notice something that might heal your pain.

(Today’s photo by Ken Taylor)


Golf Poetry Through the Ages

In honor of my brother-in-law and my uncle, who both celebrate their birthdays today and love golf, I’m offering golf poetry on the Cupertino Poetry Exchange.

This New York Times article is a fascinating tale about the poetry written by golfers and golf enthusiasts. I have to say, I had absolutely no idea.

“People who wrote golf poetry were golfers, and they understood the perversities and intricacies of the game,” he added.

White’s book assembles 90 poems by 45 writers from England, Scotland and the United States, including himself. Among the highlights are works by the authors Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, the golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. and the sportswriter Grantland Rice.

Dr. Leon S White, the author of the book reviewed in the NY Times, Golf Course Rhymes, has a blog, at which you can read some of the most fun poems I’ve read all month. Here’s just a taste!

On Putting

When the greens were fast and freakish,
Once my putts were either weakish
Or absurdly strong.
Now I calmly snap my digits
For I play with Spaulding “Midgets,”
Not a putt goes wrong.

When a green’s too hard for others,
Have recourse to Spaulding Brothers!
Buy the perfect ball.
Architects may slope and ridge it,
But you’ll always hole a “Midget,”
And defeat them all.

Read the whole post in which Dr. White describes how this advertisement for Spaulding appeared in a 1914 issue of Golf Magazine and the poem’s relationship to Robert Frost.

Happy Birthday to my beloved family members and happy golfing to anyone who’s out enjoying spring this weekend.