Category Archives: Poetry

“We must love one another or die.”

September 1, 1939
by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Poetry Friday: Understanding

by Sara Teasdale

I understood the rest too well,
And all their thoughts have come to be
Clear as grey sea-weed in the swell
Of a sunny shallow sea.

But you I never understood,
Your spirit’s secret hides like gold
Sunk in a Spanish galleon
Ages ago in waters cold.


Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

This week’s Poetry Friday roundup is at Big A Little A.

Poetry Friday: The Water Is Wide

Another old Scots ballad I’ve been humming almost incessantly lately.

The water is wide,
I canna cross o’er.
Neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row,
my love and I.

A ship there is,
And she sails the sea.
She’s loaded deep as deep can be.
But not so deep
As the love I’m in…
I know not if I sink or swim.

I love these old songs so very much.
This one goes way, way back, and has many variations, some Scottish,
some English. The most common version, the one I’ve quoted above, goes on to tell a very sad tale
of love lost, betrayal, faithlessness. But I like the song best just
like this: these two simple verses, which by themselves seem to me to
speak to a true love, a real love, the kind between two people who,
pulling together, can navigate stormy waters no matter how burdened the

If you’d like to listen to the melody—perhaps even more beautiful than the lyrics—here’s a lovely version by Jewel, Sarah MacLachlan, and The Indigo Girls. (YouTube clip.)

Or here’s James Taylor.

The singer in this YouTube clip sounds like Charlotte Church to me, though she isn’t credited. The visuals are scenery.

This week’s Poetry Friday round-up can be found at Read. Imagine. Talk.

Poetry Friday: Of Course It Had to Be Heaney This Week


No surprise there, right? If you clicked through to the "Tollund Man" link on my last post, perhaps you listened to Seamus Heaney read some of his poems. If you didn’t, oh, do!

These, from his 8-sonnet suite about his mother, are particularly poignant: Clearances 3 and Clearances 5. For copyright reasons, I cannot post them here, of course, but here’s a taste.

    When all the others were away at Mass

    I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

    They broke the silence, let fall one by one

    Like solder weeping off the soldering iron…

Read the rest.

This week’s Poetry Friday roundup is at Two Writing Teachers.


This time last year, I was driving through Kansas. It was our fifth
day on the road en route from Virginia to California: the five kids and
me. If you’d like to read about our trip, I’ve pulled all the posts
together into one big page, here.

It’s hard to believe it has been a year. Hard to believe we are West
Coasters now, decorating for autumn by plopping pumpkins alongside our
rainbow of moss roses. (This year I’ll know to keep watch against pumpkin mush.)
We’re planting sunflowers in the back yard at the same time that we’re
planning Halloween and All Saints’ Day costumes. It’s a bit surreal.

We went to Balboa Park
again today. This time we visited the Museum of Man, lingering
particularly long in the Egyptian wing. The kids were fascinated by the
mummies, but I was a little bothered by the sad remains of the Lemon Grove Mummy,
the body of what seems to have been a girl around fifteen years of age,
possibly pregnant, curled into a fetal position. Her skin sags loosely
around her old, old bones. She was found in a cave near Chihuahua,
Mexico, in 1966 by two teenagers, who stole her and smuggled her home
to Lemon Grove, California. Apparently she sat in a garage for 14 years
because the boys didn’t want their parents to find out what they’d
done. Eventually she was discovered and donated to the Museum of Man.
She’s a special part of the mummy display, but I felt uncomfortable
gawking at her in her glass case: it seems like a violation of her
humanity for her to be cached there in public view next to the interactive
media display about how scientists determined her age and origin. She’s
one of several mummies there, and all the others had struck me as
simply fascinating until we got to the Lemon Grove girl. Maybe it’s
because she wasn’t wrapped up in linens like the Egyptian mummies. She
reminded me of the Irish Bog People, and Seamus Heaney’s poems about them.

Some day I will go to Aarhus

To see his peat-brown head,

The mild pods of his eye-lids,

His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by

Where they dug him out,

His last gruel of winter seeds

Caked in his stomach…

(—from "Tollund Man" by Seamus Heaney.)

And that made me think of grad school, where I first read Heaney’s
poems, back in the early ’90s when I had no inkling that one day I
would stand in a Southern California museum, recalling those lines
while watching four blonde heads peer at a long Mexican teenager in a
glass case, another golden-haired child perched on my hip in a sling. I
didn’t see today coming even two years ago, even 18 months ago.

Rilla was born in April of ’06 and Scott got the job offer in June.
I planted a cherry tree in our yard that spring, a gift from my mother.
I wonder if the new homeowners got cherries this summer?

This day last year we rolled into Kansas, where the prairie "slices the big sun at evening," to quote Heaney’s "Bogland."
Today we watched the frothy spray of the big Balboa Park fountain paint
a rainbow on the blue canvas of the sky. We counted koi in the long
lily pond outside the Botanical Building, their splotched
orange-and-cream bodies undulating beneath spiky, ladylike blossoms and
the notched round leaves that reminded us of Thumbelina’s prison and
Mr. Jeremy Fisher’s raft. We peered inside the deep wells of
pitcher-plant blossoms, angling to see if any hapless insects lay
dissolving inside. How surreal, this eager scrutiny of death, the
children chattering and lively in the moist green air of this palatial
greenhouse, just as they had been in the domed, echoing hush of the

How surreal to be pondering corpses while the children are laughing.
Pondering the human bodies, preserved; the insects, acid-eaten, their
final resting place the polar opposite of Heaney’s peat bog, where
hastily buried bodies remained clothed and well-manicured for
centuries, and

    Butter sunk under

    More than a hundred years

    Was recovered salty and white.

Sometimes I think about how life is like the very DNA it’s made of, a set of intertwined
spirals full of small stories. A girl dies in Mexico and centuries
later is brought to another country, where a woman stares at her empty
skin and remembers an Irishman with a rope round his neck, preserved
through the long march of years by the tannic acid in the peat and the
ripe syllables of a bristle-browed poet. A child leans out over a
reflecting pool and joyously points at a fish the same color as the
pumpkins she begged her mother to buy that morning. A man in Virginia
wanders, perhaps, out into his yard, and plucks a withered, mummified
cherry he missed during the summer harvest, while the hands that
planted the tree are pushing sunflower seeds into gritty soil a continent


Poetry Friday: The Solitary Reaper

One of the books I read during my research for the Martha Books was Dorothy Wordsworth’s Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in A.D. 1803. The time period was just about right; Little House in the Highlands is set in 1795, and change came slowly to those remote glens.

Dorothy traveled with her brother, William, and their friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Ooh! Now there’s an idea for a novel!) In her journal she wrote,

"It was harvest-time, and the fields were quietly (might I be allowed to say pensively?) enlivened by small companies of reapers. It is not uncommon in the more lonely parts of the Highlands to see a single person so employed. The following poem was suggested to Wm. by a beautiful sentence in Thomas Wilkinson’s Tour in Scotland."

And then she copied out William’s poem (written two years later), "The Solitary Reaper."

A note in my Wm. Wordsworth collection tells me that the line from Thomas Wilkinson is this:

"Passed a female who was reaping alone; she sung in Erse, as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no more."

I love to know the story behind a poem, a novel, a painting. Here is William’s poem, all the lovelier to me for knowing what sparked it in his mind.

The Solitary Reaper
by William Wordsworth

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!

Reaping and singing by herself;

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt

More welcome notes to weary bands

Of travellers in some shady haunt,

Among Arabian sands:

A voice so shrilling ne’er was heard

In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,

Breaking the silence of the seas

Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?—

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:

Or is it some more humble lay,

Familiar matter of to-day?

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,

That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o’er the sickle bending;—

I listen’d, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.


This week’s Poetry Friday round-up can be found at Hip Writer Mama.

What’s Poetry Friday? Susan Thomsen explains at

Poetry Friday: Rachel Field

The Little Rose Tree
by Rachel Field

Every rose on the little tree
Is making a different face at me!
Some look surprised when I pass by,
And others droop—but they are shy.

These two whose heads together press
Tell secrets  could never guess.
Some have their heaads thrown back to sing,
And all the buds are listening.
I wonder if the gardener knows,
Or if he calls each just a rose?

Rachel Field was the author of the charming novel Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. Her book, Prayer for a Child, illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones, won the Caldecott Award in 1945.

Hitty  200pxcm_prayerforachild

“For My Heart’s a Boat in Tow”

Of all the haunting, achingly beautiful Scottish ballads, this one may be the most aching and the most beautiful. The melody is gorgeously poignant in its own right, but add the words, the raw, profoundly moving outcry of a sailor spurned by his nighean ruadh—his red-haired girl—and your heart just might break along with his. Oh I cannot live without her…for my heart’s a boat in tow…This is one of the loveliest bits of poetry ever uttered.

Loch Tay Boat Song

When I’ve done my work of day,

And I row my boat away,

Doon the waters of Loch Tay,

As the evening light is fading

And I look upon Ben Lawers

Where the afterglory glows;

And I think on two bright eyes

And the melting mouth below.

She’s my beauteous nighean ruadh,

She’s my joy and sorrow too;

And although she is untrue,

Well I cannot live without her,

For my heart’s a boat in tow,

And I’d give the world to know

Why she means to let me go,

As I sing horee horo.

Nighean ruadh, your lovely hair

Has more glamour I declare

Than all the tresses rare

‘tween Killin and Aberfeldy.

Be they lint white, brown or gold,

Be they blacker than the sloe,

They are worth no more to me

Than the melting flake of snow.


Her eyes are like the gleam

O’ the sunlight on the stream;

And the songs the fairies sing

Seem like songs she sings at milking.

But my heart is full of woe,

For last night she bade me go

And the tears begin to flow,

As I sing horee, horo.

Today’s Poetry Friday roundup can be found at Mentor Texts & More.

Poetry Friday: What Is the Grass?

Poetry Friday was at Farm School this week, and I’m squeaking in with just a few hours of Friday left. And I’m wracking my brain, because earlier in the week I had a poem all picked out for today, and now I can’t remember it. Whitman, I think it was Whitman. Hang on, it’s coming to me. The girls and I were reading—OH THAT’S RIGHT! The grass.

The older my children get, the more children I have, the more Whitman means to me. He understands about wonder.

Leaves of Grass, Section 14, Poem 6

A child said, *What is the grass?* fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say, *Whose?*

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white;
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;

It may be you are from old people, and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps;
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers;
Darker than the colorless beards of old men;
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.