Good Poem #25 – Ozymandias by Shelley

Here is Shelley’s well-known sonnet putting each of us in our place.

“Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair”

OZYMANDIAS

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Good Poem #24 – The Gila Monster Route

This poem refers to a fictional railroad so forlorn that it was named for the gila monster, a venomous lizard of the American Southwest. I found originally it in an old poetry anthology I had for years (“One Hundred American Poems” – 50 cents). I liked it for the vernacular language and used to read it to the children at bedtime.

My anthology says that the poem’s author was listed as anonymous, but the internet shows its authors to be Glenn Norton and Louis Freeland Post, a controversial Washington bureaucrat of the early twentieth century. This seems unlikely as nothing in Post’s background indicates he would write such a poem.  The earliest publication date is 1919.

THE GILA MONSTER ROUTE

By Glenn Norton and Louis Freeland Post(?)

The lingering sunset across the plain
Kissed the rear-end door of an east-bound train,
And shone on a passing track close by
Where a ding-bat sat on a rotting tie.

He was ditched by the shack by cruel fate.
The con high-balled, and the manifest freight
Pulled out on the stem behind the mail,
And she hit the ball on a sanded rail.

As she pulled away in the falling light
He could see the gleam of her red tail-light.
Then the moon arose and the stars came out —
He was ditched on the Gila Monster Route.

Nothing in sight but sand and space;
No chance for a gink to feed his face;
Not even a shack to beg for a lump,
Or a hen-house there to frisk for a single gump.

He gazed far out on the solitude;
He drooped his head and began to brood;
He thought of the time he lost his mate
In a hostile burg on the Nickel Plate.

They had piped the stem and threw their feet,
And speared four-bits on which to eat;
But deprived themselves of daily bread
And sluffed their coin for dago red.

Down by the track in the jungle’s glade,
In the cool green grass, in the tulas’ shade,
They shed their coats and ditched their shoes
And tanked up full on that colored booze.

Then they took a flop with their hides plum full,
And they did not hear the harnessed bull,
Till he shook them out of their boozy nap,
With a husky voice and a loaded sap.

They were charged with vag for they had no kale,
And the judge said, “Sixty days in jail.”
But the john had a bindle — a worker’s plea—
So they gave him a floater and set him free.

They had turned him out, but ditched his mate,
So he glommed the guts of an east-bound freight,
He flung his form on a rusty rod,
Till he heard the shack say, “Hit the sod!”

The john rolled off, he was in the ditch,
With two switch lamps and a rusty switch,—
A poor, old, seedy, half-starved bo
On a hostile pike, without a show.

From away off somewhere in the dark
Came the sharp, short notes of a coyote’s bark.
The bo looked round and quickly rose
And shook the dust from his threadbare clothes.

Off in the west through the moonlit night
He saw the gleam of a big head-light —
An east-bound stock train hummed the rail;
She was due at the switch to clear the mail.

As she drew up close, the head-end shack
Threw the switch to the passenger track,
The stock rolled in and off the main,
And the line was clear for the west-bound train.

When she hove in sight far up the track,
She was workin’ steam, with her brake shoes slack,
She hollered once at the whistle post,
Then she flitted by like a frightened ghost.

He could hear the roar of the big six-wheel,
And her driver’s pound on the polished steel,
And the screech of her flanges on the rail
As she beat it west o’er the desert trail.

The john got busy and took the risk,
He climbed aboard and began to frisk,
He reached up high and began to feel
For the end-door pin — then he cracked the seal.

‘Twas a double-decked stock-car, filled with sheep,
Old john crawled in and went to sleep.
She whistled twice and high-balled out,—
They were off, down the Gila Monster Route.

Good Poem # 23 – Travel by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Speaking of trains, here is Edna Millay’s heartfelt “Travel”.

“There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
no matter where it’s going.”

I feel the same way.

Travel

By Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)

Edna St. Vincent Millay

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

Good Poem #22 – “The Parson’s Son” by Robert Service

Robert Service was a nineteenth-century Englishman who fell in love with the Yukon in its gold rush days and celebrated it in poetry.  Most famous are his “The Cremation of SamMcGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.  Here’s a lesser known poem, sentimental but heartfelt. Service’s poetry was successful in his time and widely recited, so he was accused of writing “popular” poetry and dismissed by many critics.  Still, he captures the sense of the time and place very well. One of  the things I like about Service’s poetry is that his rhymes are fun to recite.

“Money was just like dirt there, easy to get and to spend.
I was all caked in on a dance-hall jade, but she shook me in the end.”

The Parson’s Son

By Robert Service (1874 – 1958)

Robert Service

This is the song of the parson’s son, as he squats in his shack alone,
On the wild, weird nights, when the Northern Lights shoot up from the frozen zone,
And it’s sixty below, and couched in the snow the hungry huskies moan:

I’m one of the Arctic brotherhood, I’m an old-time pioneer.
I came with the first — O God! how I’ve cursed this Yukon — but still I’m here.
I’ve sweated athirst in its summer heat, I’ve frozen and starved in its cold;
I’ve followed my dreams by its thousand streams, I’ve toiled and moiled for its gold.

Look at my eyes — been snow-blind twice; look where my foot’s half gone;
And that gruesome scar on my left cheek, where the frost-fiend bit to the bone.
Each one a brand of this devil’s land, where I’ve played and I’ve lost the game,
A broken wreck with a craze for `hooch’, and never a cent to my name.

This mining is only a gamble; the worst is as good as the best;
I was in with the bunch and I might have come out right on top with the rest;
With Cormack, Ladue and Macdonald — O God! but it’s hell to think
Of the thousands and thousands I’ve squandered on cards and women and drink.

“In the early days we were just a few, and we hunted and fished around,
Nor dreamt by our lonely camp-fires of the wealth that lay under the ground.
We traded in skins and whiskey, and I’ve often slept under the shade
Of that lone birch tree on Bonanza, where the first big find was made.

We were just like a great big family, and every man had his squaw,
And we lived such a wild, free, fearless life beyond the pale of the law;
Till sudden there came a whisper, and it maddened us every man,
And I got in on Bonanza before the big rush began.

Oh, those Dawson days, and the sin and the blaze, and the town all open wide!
(If God made me in His likeness, sure He let the devil inside.)
But we all were mad, both the good and the bad, and as for the women, well —
No spot on the map in so short a space has hustled more souls to hell.

Money was just like dirt there, easy to get and to spend.
I was all caked in on a dance-hall jade, but she shook me in the end.
It put me queer, and for near a year I never drew sober breath,
Till I found myself in the bughouse ward with a claim staked out on death.

Twenty years in the Yukon, struggling along its creeks;
Roaming its giant valleys, scaling its god-like peaks;
Bathed in its fiery sunsets, fighting its fiendish cold —
Twenty years in the Yukon . . . twenty years — and I’m old.

Old and weak, but no matter, there’s `hooch’ in the bottle still.
I’ll hitch up the dogs to-morrow, and mush down the trail to Bill.
It’s so long dark, and I’m lonesome — I’ll just lay down on the bed;
To-morrow I’ll go . . . to-morrow . . . I guess I’ll play on the red.

. . . Come, Kit, your pony is saddled. I’m waiting, dear, in the court . . .
. . . Minnie, you devil, I’ll kill you if you skip with that flossy sport . . .
. . . How much does it go to the pan, Bill? . . . play up, School, and play the game . . .
. . . Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name . . .”

This was the song of the parson’s son, as he lay in his bunk alone,
Ere the fire went out and the cold crept in, and his blue lips ceased to moan,
And the hunger-maddened malamutes had torn him flesh from bone.

Good Poem #21 – Sparklers

Here’s a poetry extra for Independence Day: A Barbara Crooker poem that my friend Walt shared with me by way of Ted Kooser’s on-line series “American Life in Poetry” (www.americanlifeinpoetry.org),  The poem is from Crooker’s 2013 book “Gold” which, along with other books of her wonderful poetry, are readily available. Buy one.

Sparklers
By Barbara Crooker (1945 – )
barbara crooker
We’re writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use the loops of cursive,
make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake. The rest, little ar, one small b,
spit and fizz as they scratch the night. On the side
of the shack where we bought them, a handmade sign:
Trailer Full of Sparkles Ahead, and I imagine crazy
chrysanthemums, wheels of fire, glitter bouncing
off metal walls. Here, we keep tracing in tiny
pyrotechnics the letters we were given at birth,
branding them on the air. And though my mother’s
name has been erased now, I write it, too:
a big swooping I, a hissing s, an a that sighs
like her last breath, and then I ring
belle, belle, belle in the sulphuric smoky dark.

:

Good Poem #20 – Barbara Frietchie

In the wake of recent events, flag-waving patriotism has become suspect in many quarters, but for decades celebrating being American was a defining characteristic of ours.  Few touchstones for Americanism were as deeply felt as patriotic poetry, learned and recited by school children everywhere.  It gave us a common heritage and informed us of America’s uniqueness:  “Paul Revere’s Ride”,”In Flanders Field” (although written by a Canadian), “Evangeline”, “O Captain, My Captain”, “Concord Hymn”, “Old Ironsides”, “The Ballad of William Sycamore”.  It’s hard to imagine such poems being written and taken seriously today.

A favorite is John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Frietchie” which is not to be outdone in its legendary celebration of sacrifices Americans are supposed to be willing to make for their country. It recounts an event that allegedly took place in 1862 as Stonewall Jackson’s army moved through Frederick, Maryland, to meet the Union army at Antietam Creek. Winston Churchill is said to have known it by heart.

“Barbara Frietchie” is an example of a poem that you can enjoy without loving all of it.  I used to think of the first verse every time we drove through Frederick to visit daughter Mary at school in Baltimore: “. . . the clustered spires of Frederick stand, green-walled by the hills of Maryland.” Barbara Frietchie’s house still stands in Frederick.

“Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag, she said.”

Barbara Frietchie
By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)
John Greenleaf Whittier
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.
“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Good Poem #19 – Mandalay

I couldn’t leave Kipling off my list.  I’ve enjoyed his poems from the days I first got interested in poetry.  He, like many other earnest Victorian era poets, have fallen into disregard in our days of cynicism and irony, but I still enjoy his poems: “Danny Deever”, “Gunga Din”, “Tommy”, “The Ballad of East and West”, and “If”, but especially this one. “Mandalay” is an old soldier’s recollection of his service to the Empire in Southeast Asia. Kipling was a great admirer and supporter of the British common soldier. Overlook the dialect. Disney cartoon fans should know that Kipling wrote “Jungle Book”.

“Ship me somewhere east of Suez where the best is like the worst”

Mandalay

By Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking’ lazy to the sea, there’s a Burma girl asittin’ and I know she thinks of me; For the wind is in the palm-trees and the temple bells they say: Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay. Come you back to Mandalay, where the old Flotilla lay; Can’t you hear their paddles chunking’ from Rangoon to Mandalay? On the road to Mandalay where the flying’ fishes play and the dawn comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green, An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen, An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot, An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot: Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud! On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow, She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo! With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak. Elephints a-pilin’ teak In the sludgy, squdgy creek, Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘alf afraid to speak! On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away An’ there ain’t no busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay; An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.” No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else But them spicy garlic smells, An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones, An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones; Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand, An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand? Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and – Law! wot do they understand? I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land! On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst; For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea; On the road to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay, With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay! O the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’-fishes play, An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Good Poem #18 – Dover Beach

Here are Matthew Arnold’s thoughts on the modern human condition.  His unforgettable imagery lends itself to description of any number of situations. Note the dichotomy between the beginning and the conclusion.

“. . . on a darkling plain. . . where ignorant armies clash by night”

Dover Beach (Fourth Stanza)

By Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888)

Matthew Arnold

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Good Poem #17 – With Rue My Heart is Laden

This poem describes a universal sentiment without getting too sappy and it’s easy to memorize.  Despite the title’s stilted language, it rolls off the tongue and is hard to forget.

“By brooks too broad for leaping. . .”

With Rue My Heart is Laden

by A.E. Housman (1859 – 1936)

aehousman

With rue my heart is laden
For many a friend I had,
For many a rose-lilt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot lads are laid;
The rose-lilt maids are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

Good Poem #16 – Plato Told

Here is ee cummings’ cryptic poem “Plato Told”. In addition to giving up on capital letters, Cummings employs peculiar rhythm and meter that would work as  rap lyrics.

What did Plato tell him?

Plato Told

by ee cummings (1894 – 1962)

ee cummings

plato told

him; he couldn’t
believe it (jesus

told him; he
wouldn’t believe
it) lao

tsze
certainly told
him, and general
(yes

mam)
Sherman;
and even
(believe it
or

not) you
told him: i told
him; we told him
(he didn’t believe it, no

sir) it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth

avenue
el; in the top of his head to tell

him