The Greek origin of the word “poetry” literally means, “I create”. The use of language to rise above semantics and ordinary prose has been a touchstone of human artistic expression since the birth of communication itself. The Arts + Culture team did not even realize it was National Poetry Month when we clamored to read our favorite poems on our new virtual platform. It seems like poetry itself that in a time of isolation, we were drawn to language that rises above the now to express a deeper relation to our current condition. Please enjoy our favorite poems — and please share yours with us!
Join our Arts + Culture team for a Facebook Live event on Wednesday, April 15 at 2:00 PM to hear our staff recite these gorgeous works!
I will be reading three short Sonnets by William Shakespeare: 116, 130 and 141. I love the sonnets because Shakespeare tells a short story with each with clarity, wit and brevity. The sonnets in general have always seemed to me less hopeful than many of his plays. Most of the tragedies often end with a light at the end, whereas the sonnets are critical even of the speaker’s own sense of self. Shakespeare often references himself in the sonnets and has a sad irony in his views on love and the human experience. Even sonnet 116, which is still popular in modern culture, can be seen as a critical look at “love” versus a celebration of the experience.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unsway’d the likeness of a man,
Thy proud hearts slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
I will be reading Ithaka by Cavafy. A dear friend from college gave this poem to me when we were recent graduates and working to get our grounding out of the comforts of the academic sphere. I loved it and found it warm and cathartic and it became a bit of a guide for a life well lived. I would read it when I was stuck or before embarking on trips and send to friends before they set off on journeys or when they were feeling stuck. Reading it always feels like taking a long, deep breath.
Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy
Translated by Edmund Keeley
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
A Thought of the Stars has an ethereal and gothic quality to it. The sense of dark nostalgia resonates with emotions that continue to flood us during this constant quarantine.
A Thought Of The Stars by Mary Gardiner Horsford
I remember once, when a careless child,
I played on the mossy lea;
The stars looked forth in the shadowy west,
And I stole to my mother’s knee,
With a handful of stemless violets, wet
With the drops of gathering dew,
And asked of the wonderful points of light
That shone in the distant blue.
She told me of numberless worlds, that rolled
Through the measureless depths above,
Created by infinite might and power,
Supported by infinite love.
She told of a faith that she called divine,
Of a fairer and happier home;
Of hope unsullied by grief or fear,
And a loftier life to come.
She told of seraphs, on wings of light,
That floated from star to star,
And were sometimes sent on a mission high
To a blighted orb afar.
And with childish sense, I forgot the worlds,
She had pointed out on high,
And deemed each wonderful beam of light
The glance of an angel’s eye.
And when she knelt with her babes in prayer, –
I know each petition now, –
I saw the gleam of those wings of light
Lie beautiful on her brow.
Years passed, and in earliest youth I knelt
By my mother’s dying bed;
The lips were mute that had spoken love,
And the eye’s bright glance had fled.
And when I turned from that silent room
Where the latest word was spoken,
The shadow of death o’er my spirit lay,
And I thought that my heart was broken
I sought the hush of the midnight air,
And wept till the founts were dry;
The earth was clad in a wintry garb,
But the star host filled the sky.
And then I remembered the faith divine
And the loftier life to come,
And felt the shadow of Death depart
From my childhood’s sacred home.
And often now when my heart is faint
With earth and its wearying care,
When my soul is sick with a feverish thirst
And burdened with contrite prayer,
I hasten forth to the starry gems,
That circle the brow of night,
And track with them the eloquent depths
Of the boundless Infinite.
They whisper low of a holier life
And a faith sublime and high;
And again I fancy each golden beam
The glance of a seraph’s eye,
As in days of yore, when a careless child,
I stole to my mother’s knee,
And asked of the wonderful points of light
That shone o’er the deep, blue sea.
Mutability beautifully and evocatively explores the changeability of our lives, and the plasticity of our mind, in a way that both basely resonates and intellectually explores the endless cycle of change.
Mutability by Percy Bysshe Shelley
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! – yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:
Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.
We rest. – A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise. – One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:
It is the same! – For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.
I’ve been part of the Downtown Dance scene in New York City for fifteen years. Two of the most important venues are churches: St. Marks Church on the Bowery and Judson Memorial Church. Though those connections I came across this poem by Lynn Unger, a poet and Minister living near San Francisco. I feel it offers an outline for how I hope to live through this time of crisis.
Pandemic by Lynn Ungar (permission granted by artist)
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.