WRITTEN WITH HIS OWN HAND
IN THE TOWER* BEFORE HIS EXECUTION
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,°
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and I found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,°
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full,° and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
*The Tower of London. Used at this time as a prison.
°A reference to the three fates who spin the thread of a persons
life and when they decide it is time for him to die. they cut it.
°Shadow ° Hourglass.
the ragged hawthorn
into the park:
by a frozen pond
a muffled toddler
See her make
a clockwork run
at a scattering fan
of silver birds--
her open arms raised
in a gesture
of hopeless desire.
When we were toddlers, there were many things we wanted very badly which it was quite impossible for us to have. Write a sketch--a written drawing-- of a toddler, (yourself or another) trying to get something that it is impossible to have.
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,°
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the Devil's foot.
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance a honest mind.
If thou beest born to strange sights,
Things invisibe to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee.
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and fair.
If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true when you met her,
And last till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
°The mandrake plant has a forked root
which led people to associate it with human beings.
The root, when ground up and taken as a medicine,
was thought to increase fertility.
When I was the sissy of the block who nobody wanted on their team
Sonny Hugg persisted in believing that my small size was an asset
Not the liability and curse I felt it was
And he saw a use for my swift feet with which I ran away from fights.
He kept putting me into complicated football plays
Which would have been spectacular if they worked:
For instance, me getting clear in front of him and shooting the ball over--
Or the sensation of the block, the Sleeper Play
In which I would lie down on the sidelines near the goal
As though resting and out of action, until the scrimmage began
And I would step onto the field, receive the long throw
And to the astonishment of all the tough guys in the world
Step over the goal line for a touchdown.
That was the theory anyway. In practice
I had the fatal flaw of not being able to catch
And usually had my fingers bend back and the breath knocked out of me
So the plays always failed, but Sonny kept on trying
Until he grew up out of my world into the glamorous
Varsity crowd, the popular kids of Lynbrook High.
But I will always have this to thank him for:
That when I look back on childhood
(That four psychiatrists haven't been able to help me bear the thought of)
There is not much to be glad for
Besides his foolish and delicious faith
That, with all my oddities, there was a place in the world for me
If only he could find the special role.
When you were small, were you ever befriended by an older more powerful child--even in a small way. (It is sometimes the small ways we remember.) How did it affect you? Make a poem about it.
THE DEATH OF SANTA CLAUS
Charles Harper Webb
He's had the chest pains for weeks,
but doctors don't make house
calls to the North Pole,
he's let his Blue Cross lapse,
blood tests make him faint,
hospital gown always flap
open, waiting rooms upset
his stomach, and it's only
indigestion anyway, he thinks,
until, feeding the reindeer,
he feels as if a monster fist
has grabbed his heart and won't
stop squeezing. He can't
breathe, and the beautiful white
world he loves goes black,
and he drops on his jelly belly
in the snow and Mrs. Claus
tears out of the toy factory
wailing, and the elves wring
their little hands, and Rudolph's
nose blinks like a sad ambulance
light, and in a tract house
in Houston, Texas, I'm 8,
telling my mom that stupid
kids at school say Santa's a big
fake, and she sits with me
on our purple-flowered couch,
and takes my hand, tears
in her throat, the terrible
news rising in her eyes.
The illusions of childhood. When we have grown far enough away from the loss, it is possible to get some whimsical distance from it. Try it.
BRYAN, BRYAN, BRYAN, BRYAN
The Campaign of Eighteen Ninety-Six, as Viewed at
the Time by a Sixteen-Year-Old, Etc.
In a nation of one hundred fine, mob-hearted, lynching, relenting, repenting millions,
There are plenty of sweeping, swinging, stinging, gorgeous things to shout about
And knock your old blue devils out.
I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion,
The one American Poet who could sing outdoors,
He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor,
Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender,
All the funny circus silks
Of politics unfurled,
Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores,
And torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.
There were truths eternal in the gab and tittle-tattle.
There were real heads broken in the fustian and the rattle.
There were real lines drawn:
Not the silver and the gold,
But Nebraska's cry went eastward against the dour and old,
The mean and cold.
It was eighteen ninety-six, and I was just sixteen
And Altgeld ruled in Springfield, Illinois,
When there came from the sunset Nebraska's shout of joy:
In a coat like a deacon, in a black Stetson hat
He scourged the elephant plutocrats
With barbed wire from the Platte.
The scales dropped from their mighty eyes.
They saw that summer's noon
A tribe of wonders coming
To a marching tune.
Oh, the longhorns from Texas,
The jay hawks from Kansas,
The plop-eyed bungaroo and giant giassicus,
The varmint, chipmunk, bugaboo,
The horned-toad, prairie-dog and ballyhoo,
From all the newborn states arow,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on.
The fawn, prodactyl and thing-a-ma-jig,
The rakaboor, the hellangone,
The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig,
The coyote, wild-cat and grizzly in a glow,
In a miracle of health and speed, the whole breed abreast,
They leaped the Mississippi, blue border of the West,
From the Gulf to Canada, two thousand miles long:--
Against the towns of Tubal Cain,
Ah,--sharp was their song.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain, too cunning for the young,
The longhorn calf, the buffalo and wampus gave tongue.
These creatures were defending things Mark Hanna never dreamed:
The moods of airy childhood that in desert dews gleamed,
The gossamers and whimsies,
The monkeyshines and didoes
Rank and strange
Of the canyons and the range,
The ultimate fantastics
Of the far western slope,
And of prairie schooner children
Born beneath the stars,
Beneath falling snows,
Of the babies born at midnight
In the sod huts of lost hope,
With no physician there,
Except a Kansas prayer,
With the Indian raid a howling through the air.
And all these in their helpless days
By the dour East oppressed,
Making their mistakes for them,
Crucifying half the West,
Till the whole Atlantic coast
Seemed a giant spiders' nest.
And these children and their sons
At last rode through the cactus,
A cliff of mighty cowboys
On the lope,
With gun and rope.
And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
The bard and the prophet of them all.
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
Blotting out sun and moon,
A sign on high.
Headlong, dazed and blinking in the weird green light,
The scalawags made moan,
Afraid to fight.
When Bryan came to Springfield, and Altgeld gave him greeting,
Rochester was deserted, Divernon was deserted,
Mechanicsburg, Riverton, Chickenbristle, Cotton Hill,
Empty: for all Sangamon drove to the meeting--
In silver-decked racing cart,
Buggy, buckboard, carryall,
Carriage, phaeton, whatever would haul,
And silver-decked farm-wagons gritted, banged and rolled,
With the new tale of Bryan by the iron tires told.
The State House loomed afar,
A speck, a hive, a football,
A captive balloon!
And the town was all one spreading wing of bunting, plumes, and sunshine,
Every rag and flag, and Bryan picture sold,
When the rigs in many a dusty line
Jammed our streets at noon,
And joined the wild parade against the power of gold.
We roamed, we boys from High School,
While Springfield gleamed,
Oh, Tom Dines, and Art Fitzgerald,
And the gangs that they could get!
I can hear them yelling yet.
Helping the incantation,
With every bridle gone,
Ridding the world of the low down mean,
Bidding the eagles of the West fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the West fly on,
We were bully, wild and woolly,
Never yet curried below the knees.
We saw flowers in the air,
Fair as the Pleiades, bright as Orion,
--Hopes of all mankind,
Made rare, resistless, thrice refined.
Oh, we bucks from every Springfield ward!
Colts of democracy--
Yet time-winds out of Chaos from the star-fields of the Lord.
The long parade rolled on. I stood by my best girl.
She was a cool young citizen, with wise and laughing eyes.
With my necktie by my ear, I was stepping on my dear,
But she kept like a pattern, without a shaken curl.
She wore in her hair a brave prairie rose.
Her gold chums cut her, for that was not the pose.
No Gibson Girl would wear it in that fresh way.
But we were fairy Democrats, and this was our day.
The earth rocked like the ocean, the sidewalk was a deck.
The houses for the moment were lost in the wide wreck.
And the bands played strange and stranger music as they trailed along.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain,
Ah, sharp was their song!
The demons in the bricks, the demons in the grass,
The demons in the bank-vaults peered out to see us pass,
And the angels in the trees, the angels in the grass,
The angels in the flags, peered out to see us pass.
And the sidewalk was our chariot, and the flowers bloomed higher,
And the street turned to silver and the grass turned to fire,
And then it was but grass, and the town was there again,
A place for women and men.
Then we stood where we could see
And the speaker's stand.
And Bryan took the platform.
And he was introduced.
And he lifted his hand
And cast a new spell.
Progressive silence fell
Around the world.
Then we heard these glacial boulders across the prairie rolled:
"The people have a right to make their own mistakes....
You shall not crucify mankind
Upon a cross of gold."
And everybody heard him--
In the streets and State House yard.
And everybody heard him
Around and around and around the world,
That danced upon its axis
And like a darling broncho whirled.
July, August, suspense.
Wall Street lost to sense.
August, September, October,
And the whole East down like a wind-smashed fence.
Then Hanna to the rescue,
Hanna of Ohio,
Rallying the roller-tops,
Rallying the bucket-shops.
Threatening drouth and death,
Rallying the trusts against the bawling flannelmouth;
Invading misers' cellars,
Melting down the rocks,
Pouring out the long green to a million workers,
Spondulix by the mountain-load, to stop each new tornado,
And beat the cheapskate, blatherskite,
Election night at midnight:
Boy Bryan's defeat.
Defeat of western silver.
Defeat of the wheat.
Victory of letterfiles
And plutocrats in miles
With dollar signs upon their coats,
Diamond watchchains on their vests
And spats on their feet.
Victory of custodians,
And all that inbred landlord stock.
Victory of the neat.
Defeat of the aspen groves of Colorado valleys,
The blue bells of the Rockies,
And blue bonnets of old Texas,
By the Pittsburgh alleys.
Defeat of the alfalfa and the Mariposa lily.
Defeat of the Pacific and the long Mississippi.
Defeat of the young by the old and silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme.
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.
Where is McKinley, that respectable McKinley,
The man without an angle or a tangle,
Who soothed down the city man and soothed down the farmer,
The German, the Irish, the Southerner, the Northerner,
Who climbed every greasy pole, and slipped through every crack;
Who soothed down the gambling hall, the bar-room, the church,
The devil vote, the angel vote, the neutral vote,
The desperately wicked, and their victims on the rack,
The gold vote, the silver vote, the brass vote, the lead vote,
Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna's McKinley,
His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes?
Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time,
And the flame of that summer's prairie rose.
Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform
Read from the party in a glorious hour,
Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman,
And sledge-hammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.
Where is Hanna, bulldog Hanna,
Low-browed Hanna, who said: "Stand pat"?
Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.
Gone somewhere...with lean rat Platt.
Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy,
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way?
Gone to join the shadows with mighty Cromwell
And tall King Saul, till the Judgment day.
Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.
Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West?
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle,
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.
The defeat of Bryan in the presidential election of 1896 is the defeat of the narrator's dream. If you once pinned your dream to the success of someone else, write a poem about it.
WHEN THE BIG BLUE LIGHT COMES A WHIRLING UP BEHIND
Leaning back in the white vinyl of your rear-high
Mustang, forest green shining in as big a Saturday sun
as any June day could find,
perfect for opening her out down to the beach
when the big blue light comes a whirling up behind
and pulls you over. The trooper
fills your window. What’s the rush, kid?
Let’s see your license if you have one.
You fumble it out. Your fingers ache. He lumbers
back to his car, sits under the whirling light
and writes while traffic goes by like planes.
How much is there to write?
Here he comes.
He hands you the ticket and license.
Save your hotshot stuff for the amusement park.
Kid, you drive like that again
you’ll never drive again.
He swings out into traffic. You wait
and you wait longer.
Then you start her up,
pull out and stick in the right lane.
Your speedometer won’t stay steady.
You try to breathe all the way through yourself.
You would like to tell him
where he can go shine his leather.
You would like a button on your dash
that says WINGS.
Humiliation can come just when we’re really rolling. The sting lasts for a long time, so it is hard to write about it until time has passed. See if you can find a time that you were humiliated, probably by an adult, that you are now able to write about. Tell what happened and how you felt. Can you get a touch of humor into it?
South of the bridge on Seventeenth
I found back of the willows one summer
day a motorcycle with engine running
as it lay on its side, ticking over
slowly in the high grass. I was fifteen.
I admired all that pulsing gleam, the
shiny flanks, the demure headlights
fringed where it lay; I led it gently
to the road and stood with that
companion, ready and friendly. I was fifteen.
We could find the end of a road, meet
the sky on out Seventeenth. I thought about
hills, and patting the handle got back a
confident opinion. On the bridge we indulged
a forward feeling, a tremble. I was fifteen.
Thinking, back farther in the grass I found
the owner, just coming to, where he had flipped
over the rail. He had blood on his hand, was pale--
I helped him walk to this machine. He ran his hand
over it, called me good man, roared away.
I stood there, fifteen.
This young man's dreams were also interrupted by the intrusion of reality into his thoughts. Write a poem about day dreaming and having the day dream interrupted by the insrusion of reality.
(Bentonville, N. C. March 19-21, 1865)
Across late-frosted fields, shells toss
dirt, pines and flesh high in air
sliced by grape shot and canister.
For me, war's done, blown away from toes
to thigh. Now the other leg's black
and some Reb surgeon cleans his bonesaw
in my blood. Yet all I see is Emma's
soft arms cradling our son, showing off
his thatch of auburn hair just like mine.
"You damn Yanks've won," spit the gory
men who trundle out the bodies, toss
severed parts on heaps outside the door.
I don't think I'm even here because I
smell warm, clean hay as I toss it high
on the wagon, feel the sweet, private
ache of blistered hands when day's done.
Emma's song floats through the window.
Supper shared in heavy dusk, then up
to our bed where we can hear the rumble
of distant summer storms. Goldsboro's
taken! How far that is from home
don't matter. I'm as near now as I'll
ever be. I wonder if, before I left,
I gave Emma the little girl she wanted,
the one she said should have her yellow
hair and what she called my sweet-formed
lips. Too late for dreams. Which flag
I fought beneath won't save me. When
the battle's done, all uniforms are red.