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AMERICAN LIFE IN
Ted Kooser, current U. S. Poet Laureate, in
response to an interviewer for National Public Radio, stated that
his "project" as laureate was to establish a weekly column featuring
contemporary American poems supported by The Poetry Foundation, The
Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University
of Nebraska. This column appears in on-line publications (such
as Thirty-Seven Cents) as well as hard-copy newspapers.
Poets are asked to contact their local newspapers to inform them
that such a column is available free to them and to relieve the
editor by explaining that all of the poems that will appear week by
week are accessible, not obscure poems.
American Life in
Poetry: Column 047
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
The poet, novelist and biographer, Robert Morgan, who was raised
in North Carolina, has written many intriguing poems that teach
his readers about southern folklore. Here's just one example.
When the most intense revivals swept
the mountains just a century ago,
participants described the shouts and barks
in unknown tongues, the jerks of those who tried
to climb the walls, the holy dance and laugh.
But strangest are reports of what was called
the holy cuss. Sometimes a man who spoke
in tongues and leapt for joy would break into
an avalanche of cursing that would stun
with brilliance and duration. Those that heard
would say the holy spirit spoke as from
a whirlwind. Words burned on the air like chains
of dynamite. The listeners felt transfigured,
and felt true contact and true presence then,
as if the shock of unfamiliar
and blasphemous profanity broke through
beyond the reach of prayer and song and hallo
to answer heaven's anger with its echo.
American Life in Poetry: Column 049
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
This fine poem by Rodney Torreson, of Grand Rapids, Michigan,
looks into the world of boys arriving at the edge of manhood,
and compares their natural wildness to that of dogs, with whom
they feel a kinship.
ON A MOONSTRUCK GRAVEL ROAD
The sheep-killing dogs saunter home,
wool scraps in their teeth.
From the den of the moon
howl their approval.
The farm boys, asleep in their beds,
live the same wildness under their lids;
every morning they come back
through the whites of their eyes
to do their chores, their hands pausing
to pet the dog, to press
its ears back, over the skull,
to quiet that other world.
American Life in Poetry: Column 051
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
Walt Whitman's poems took in the world through a wide-angle
lens, including nearly everything, but most later poets have
focused much more narrowly. Here the poet and novelist Jim
Harrison nods to Whitman with a sweeping, inclusive poem about
the course of life.
At dawn I heard among bird calls
the billions of marching feet in the churn
and squeak of gravel, even tiny feet
still wet from the mother's amniotic fluid,
and very old halting feet, the feet
of the very light and very heavy, all marching
but not together, criss-crossing at every angle
with sincere attempts not to touch, not to bump
into each other, walking in the doors of houses
and out the back door forty years later, finally
knowing that time collapses on a single
plateau where they were all their lives,
knowing that time stops when the heart stops
as they walk off the earth into the night air.
American Life in
Poetry: Column 048|
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
Every parent can tell a score of tales about the
difficulties of raising children, and then of the difficulties
in letting go of them. Here the Texas poet, Walt McDonald,
shares just such a story.
SOME BOYS ARE BORN TO WANDER
From Michigan our son writes, How many elk?
How many big horn sheep? It's spring,
and soon they'll be gone above timberline,
climbing to tundra by summer. Some boys
are born to wander, my wife says, but rocky slopes
with spruce and Douglas fir are home.
He tried the navy, the marines, but even the army
wouldn't take him, not with a foot like that.
Maybe it's in the genes. I think of wild-eyed years
till I was twenty, and cringe. I loved motorcycles,
too dumb to say no to our son--too many switchbacks
in mountains, too many icy spots in spring.
Doctors stitched back his scalp, hoisted him in traction
like a twisted frame. I sold the motorbike to a junkyard,
but half his foot was gone. Last month, he cashed
his paycheck at the Harley house, roared off
with nothing but a backpack, waving his headband,
leaning into a downhill curve and gone.
Life in Poetry: Column 050
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
Thousands of Americans fret over the appearance of their lawns,
spraying, aerating, grooming, but here Grace Bauer finds good
reasons to resist the impulse to tame what's wild: the white of
clover blossoms under a streetlight, the possibility of finding
the hidden, lucky, four-leafed rarity.
The midnight streetlight illuminating
the white of clover assures me
I am right not to manicure
my patch of grass into a dull
carpet of uniform green, but
to allow whatever will to take over.
Somewhere in that lace lies luck,
though I may never swoop down
to find it. Three, too, is
an auspicious number. And this seeing
a reminder to avoid too much taming
of what, even here, wants to be wild.
American Life in Poetry: Column 052
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE
What a marvelous gift is the imagination, and each of us gets
one at birth, free of charge and ready to start up, get on, and
ride away. Can there be anything quite so homely and ordinary as
a steam radiator? And yet, here, Connie Wanek, of Duluth,
Minnesota, nudges one into play.
Mittens are drying on the radiator,
boots nearby, one on its side.
Like some monstrous segmented insect
the radiator elongates under the window.
Or it is a beast with many shoulders
domesticated in the Ice Age.
How many years it takes
to move from room to room!
Some cage their radiators
but this is unnecessary
as they have little desire to escape.
Like turtles they are quite self-contained.
If they seem sad, it is only the same sadness
we all feel, unlovely, growing slowly cold.
POET OF THE MONTH: HARVEY SHAPIRO
parents came from a village outside Kiev. Born in Chicago in 1924, he
was educated at Yale and Columbia, taught at Cornell, and now lives in
New York where as a journalist he has worked for-among others-Commentary,
the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. He is
senior Editor of the New York Times Magazine. During World War
Two he was a gunner in a B17 and was decorated for his service. Harvey
Shapiro is a poet of the city. His vision may be focused through
unusual lenses--cabalistic, Chassidic, Zen--but it has about it also
the generous, inspiriting severity of Martin Buber. Undecorated and
uncontrived, the verse is spare like George Oppen's and Charles
Reznikoff's, older Brooklyn poets who are a part of him. "Not
wanting to invent emotion / I pursued the flat literal. / Saying wife,
children, job/over and over." Here is the strict economy of truth.
These are, George Oppen wrote, "poems of great emotional investment
and complex awareness." [Adapted from blurbs by Carcanet Press]
Upon publishing three poems by
Harvey Shapiro, Poetry Daily used this introduction:
" Direct, informal, and richly evocative
of his Jewish heritage and New York City home, Harvey Shapiro's poetry
has occupied a unique place in American letters for over fifty years.
This new collection [The Sights Along
the Harbor: New and Collected Poems
Harvey Shapiro] brings together his latest
work and much of his eleven previous collections, revealing the full
arc of his carefully calibrated poetics. Shapiro engages themes
including the experience, urban landmarks and lifestyles, family life,
and war. The reader will see the more formal British-tinged cadences
of his earlier work give way to the colloquial, personal nature of his
later poems, and how Shapiro's candor and simplicity mark his work
throughout the last five decades. Bringing the city and its balance of
despair and exuberance into stark relief, this poetry is intimately
attuned both to life's quiet disappointments and to its unanticipated
For an article about Shapiro, see
For the poem "New York Notes" see
For two poems, "American Poet" and "Greenwich Village, 1999," see
For "Nights" visit
For three other short poems by Shapiro see
Buy a book of
POEMS BY MEMBERS
TIME TO CHANGE
When did my thoughts and
deteriorate into mundane inanities
that have no connection to reality?
How many hours did I sleep last
How do I feel? Do I hurt anywhere?
Could this be serious depression?
What time is it? Time to call my doctor.
Which one-- family or surgeon?
What's the weather like? What if it snows?
I won't be able to keep the appointment.
When did Life narrow down
to symptoms and sleeplessness?
When did I allow everyone
to convince me I am old?
It's time to change!
It's time to start again to Live--
or curl into a fetal ball
and finish dying.
A WALK IN THE PARK
The crispy brown leaves crunch under my feet
as the sun warms my back
and I shed my jacket.
Too warm for winter!
I know the ice and snow will come
so I embrace these days
and wrap them around me
and live them.
FLOATING AT MIDNIGHT
Remember Frank, remember?
Mourning Docks, we understood their cry
Murderous waves stab gentle
Docks plead for mercy moaning
ďWill we ever find rest, O Comfort?Ē
Remember Frank, Comfort?
As we lie on thawed ice
Floating, flying, falling
Our lungs flood with air
As the thief attempts to mutter out silence.
Is our plea
Find rest will we
waves of eternity.
Brent C. McCune
Bright lights hide the stars
And my chest is constrained,
My movements, restrained
By the seatbelt in this car.
So I have to kill the brights
And be unbuckled from these crises,
Leaning out toward Pisces
Through the window toward the night.
Frosty breeze from the father
Is my gift and is my brother
Till cursed headlights come and smother;
This still moment has been bothered.
Being brave and strong,
you told us what was wrong;
and of course we knew
your days were likely few.
To Carcinoma now we pray:
Please don't haunt him every day,
this man for whom we care,
this man of social work and prayer.
A TENDER TOUCH
For You Iíll rejoice with a
Teach me to laud You in holy praise.
Iíll exalt Thee with adoration.
You are the light of my salvation.
In mercy I did find Your grace.
A Saviorís tender touch left a trace
Of anointment to warm my cold heart.
You heard me praying and took my part,
Bringing me home to Heavenís throne.
I wonít stay here on earth lying prone.
In humble ways Iíll praise Your glory.
Rejoicing in You is my story.
"Then the Pharisees
went out and laid plans to trap him . . ."
the lion becomes the loser
the jackal the joke
the viper the victim
with tiny feet
the lamb, the rabbit,
the field mouse
pin down their bulk
their cavernous mouths
and with nibbles slight
JESUS IS HERE
My Savior, come and sit by me.
Come, hold my shaking hand.
I need to feel you touch my eyes.
Come, make my heart to see
That even if more years speed by,
I care not what they be.
Your presence melts the fears away
And drives the painful tears away.
Your free anointing heals my years
From wonder as the world goes by.
I praise Your name, I am still the same,
For, Jesus, You are here by me.
No other word describes the ROAR before
dawn, the day the January thaw blew in
hurling trees--and belief. The forest floor
was littered with its pruning, scabs and skin
of winter being scraped and swept away
with branches, and a push so fierce I could
not move against it. Then a lull, a sway
of wind, and suddenly exultant I stood
with arms outstretched to hold the moment, feel
a new beginning happening again.
Little shut-in things are not the real
life we live; just the prunings of our pain
leaving room for light to nudge a sprout
reminding us what wind is all about.
FILL ME, LORD
fill me, Lord
I used to search
for the Holy Grail
far from home
away from home
it was me
I am Your cup
pour Your wine, Lord
fill me up
bleed bleed bleed
I need a
of Your love
I'M HIS CHILD
The Lord God is my
He is my shield, and fortress.
Iíve come to know Him at length,
I have found His peace and can rest,
From all my troubles I can walk away
Knowing Iím glad to be in His salvation,
Today is a wonderfully glorious day
And I shall sing in admiration
The strength of my salvation is love
I found Him through many tearful prayers.
And in answer He sent His love to prove,
Iím His child and will be His forever.
A word or phrase I've read
or heard builds
a nest in me. A raucous, unrelenting bird,
it broods there with hegemony until I fling
it from its rest in cackling poetry.
Never pleased to fill a
niche, it craves
extravagant display. Ruffled once, it calls
its name or character. If a peacock, it yells,
"Bill." It shrieks, "Thief," if its a jay.
Vicissitude is one
such owl. I like
quite well its rhythm and its tone. Esker,
prate, flummox, and parlous state are fowl
that hone right in and settle for the summer.
Feathered flocks like
regime whether singular or plural at roost
make suave, elegant, and urbane
a daily schedule of pastoral pain.
Now I have exorcised enough
The eggs thrown down have spattered
the ground again and emptied the hatchery.
Light-headed, I will consume some coq au vin.
WHERE ARE THEY?
Where have the days of
Where are the days of fall,
Where went the spring and summertime,
What happened to them all?
When winter days lay
Of white and sparkling snow,
We sit around the fire and ask
Where did the summer go?
And when the summerís
Burns brightly in the sky,
We sip on frosty drinks and ask
When winter passed us by.
We wonder why the colored
Fall off the trees so fast,
And what becomes of new spring green--
It never seems to last.
The hours go past, and then
And soon a year is spent,
And we remember all these times
But wonder where they went.
JOURNAL ENTRY: 517
Ian Scott Patterson
Over a year itís been.
My hand is used to cramping.
Every day, sometimes twice
I jot down thoughts, dreams,
(nonsense really) with great detail
in this leather-bound shoulder to cry on.
And it got me thinking . . .
Who will read this?
Who would want to?
Did my life really make for much more
than just a stoneís throw in a pond?
A splash, some ripples, then calm again
like nothing ever happened.
Did you come looking for this life Iíve lived on paper?
Or did you simply stumble upon this old, neglected book?
Maybe you found it in the attic of the house in which I write,
or one I havenít lived in yet.
How did it play out?
Life, that is. My story.
Iím assuming youíve read it all so far,
from day one to this freshest drop of ink,
and most of whatís still left to pen.
Did I become the man I am in dreams,
or just (ripple, ripple) disappear?
TALES OF A WET GENDER BENDER
There once was a feminist
who felt she was losing her sanity.
She detested male dominance
and fought for more prominence . . .
a woman-a-tee is what she wanted-to-be.
AFTER ATTENDING A POETRY
I havenít been to Ireland,
Hawaii, Rome or Spain;
Iíve never lived in Texas
(west or east), or Santa Fe,
but as I heard the poets read
I traveled everywhere.
I had not read much Roethke,
Auden, Donne or Yeats,
so some allusions, parodies
fell dumbly round my ears.
(Iíll need to read and study
more specifically Poeís ďBells.Ē)
Iíll never own a lake-view
live in an artistsí cove,
but for three days this April,
my soul and spirit feasted well
on inspiration, new ideas
and rich relationships.
The conference cost me
three dayís pay
plus child and daycare fees,
but, oh, poetic lines I garnered
(scenes along the Pig Trail route)
will sooner, later pay in fame
and fortune: speakerís promise!
A SAD STORY UNFOLDS
It began when he saw her
flip her hair
in his eyes, catching a glimpse of that green
eye shadow made discrete. With lemonade
sipped from a mug, he awaits in silence,
lost in her trance. She twirls the hoops she wears.
The coffee finally gives him a kick,
so he rose from the bench
only to kick
the leaves on the ground, and he feels his hair
move with the wind. Feet whisper in silence
as he moves to the life with roots and green
leaves, and hopes the t-shirt he proudly wears
is noticed by one who sips lemonade.
Relishing in her thirst,
is gulped, like through painted deserts she kicks
the sand and craves air but begins to wear
out as she falls to the concrete, her hair
wrapped over her head, the wind blowing green
leaves on her body. She dreams in silence
of times when she did not
know of silence
as her friends played dolls and sold lemonade
for ten cents a cup trying to make green
for a new doll that can cry, laugh, and kick,
with dark eyes and features and long black hair
like their new mommyís. She awakes and wears
a gown of plastic in a room
the smell of death and conforms to silence.
She feels a hand gently brushing her hair.
The boy softly sipping on lemonade,
a tear trickling down his cheek but he kicks
it off with his thumb blotching on his green
t-shirt. ďDo you remember
me?Ē, still green
her eyelids focus and glance at his wear
but closes them, twitching as though she kicks
herself for remembrance. Wait . . . the silence
is too much for him, and the lemonade
is spent. She begins to twirl her long hair,
and with her green eyes,
she is not silent . . .
ďI do not.Ē No wear of the lemonade
left, he cries and kicks his tears covered with her hair.
Lymphoma changed his
to that of a foraging chipmunk.
Both cheeks bulge
as though with an acorn
on each side.
Sometimes I look at him
and wonder who he is.
I wonder if he'll bury
what he carries inside each cheek.
The nodes are on a rampage,
changing size and location
as he passes through each day.
He is a stranger to disease
and does not know its consequence.
He hides his anguish
beneath broad smiles
and tries healing
on diets of laughter.
I was sitting on the porch with my cat
at peace on a lovely summer's eve
until disturbed--could not believe
the ruckus from some felines in combat
ruckus from some felines in combat
three cats tangled in a tussle
yellow, grey, and brown in a blur
they whirled around as one calico fur
till a big black tom showed some muscle
a big black tom showed some muscle
up he marched to the yowling three
and the brown cat slunk beneath a truck
the other two parted, their claws unstuck
still screeching with pugnacity
screeching with pugnacity
the grey threw curses indistinct
the yellow sauntered down the gutter
the black stalked off without a mutter
and my cat looked at me and winked
my cat looked at me and winked
IN A WHITE GOWN
My pear tree is blooming again
above a gaping hollow trunk.
How can she continue to bear
tasty fruit to eat, share, and can?
I considered cutting, years ago.
Pears draw skunks in late fall. March
wind strews white confetti flurries
covering my porch like new snow.
We buy sugar for gift preserves,
pain our backs picking bird-pecked
spoiled specimens for cattle food.
How can I destroy one that serves?
A beautiful inspiring thing,
love-hate affair stirring my spring.
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