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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The Ink Dark Moon

February 28, 2017


This is the second part of a series I am devoting to Jane Hirshfield, one of the most prominent American poets of today. Besides her poetry, Hirshfield has edited several anthologies. The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, an early work from 1990, is a series of translations from the Japanese with co-translator Mariko Aratani and Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women is an anthology of women writers from 2300 B.C. to the twentieth century, writers of various spiritual traditions. Both of these collections are attempts to make more widely known the works of historical women poets whose work has often been neglected and marginalized. They are attempts to contradict the lingering myth that women throughout history have not written significant poetry.

My next post in this series will be March 3.

Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner


Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Introduction

February 24, 2017

Jane Hirshfield HD photo (c) Curt Richter

On this date this Western American poet and poet of the world was born. I first heard Hirshfield read her work at the Western Literature Association meeting in Sacramento, California in, I believe, 1999. She took the stage right after the rage performance poet Sister Spit and before Gary Snyder. What a program. Years later in Oklahoma I attended a program of Hirshfield by herself reading her work. That’s when I really looked up and started reading her work seriously.

Over the next few weeks I am going to do a series in The Literary Life devoted to Jane Hirshfield’s early poetry taken from conference papers and notes for a piece published by Salem Press.

Besides her work as a poet, Jane Hirshfield has written several major works on the philosophy of poetry, including Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (2015). Nine Gates treats the gates through which readers and writers pass as they learn what poetry brings to life and how it works. Patricia Kirkpatrick considers this volume of essays as addressing “not only ways to read and write, but a way to live.” Ten Windows considers how “Poetry is language that foments revolution of being.” While I am not ready to write about this book, I can say it really is transforming the way I read. The next installment in this series will be February 28.

Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

On This Date: Judith Ortiz Cofer Was Born

February 14, 2017


On this date in 1952 the late Judith Ortiz Cofer was born. For much of her career she served on the faculty of the University of Georgia. The beloved Southern poet died on December 30, 2016.

Her best work, no doubt, is A Love Story Beginning in Spanish from 2005. Maxine Hong Kingston blurbed, “Judith Ortiz Cofer is a poet whose music pervades my life long after I’ve finished reading. A Love Story Beginning in Spanish inspires me and heartens me.”

Ortiz Cofer’s poetry is a poetry of many voices, often personal, but also projected into voices from acquaintances, original characters, as well as literary characters. In her longer poem, “Sailor’s Wife,” we hear from Homer’s Penelope as she awaits the return of her sailor husband, Odysseus.

Since Major League Baseball’s spring training has begun this month and the baseball season is practically here, I thought I would quote a few lines from “First Job: The Southern Sweets Sandwich Shop and Bakery.” The passage takes us into the country kitchen to meet Margaret:

In the kitchen of the Southern Sweets the black cook,

Margaret, worships at the altar of her Zenith radio. Hank Aaron

is working his way to heaven. She is bone-sticking thin,

despises sweets, loves only her man Hank, Otis Redding,

and a smoke. She winks at me when he connects,

dares to ignore Mr. Raymond when Aaron is up. Mysteriously

the boss-man understands the priority of home runs,

and the sacrilege of speaking ordinary words like my

“triple decker club on a bun with fries” frozen at tongue-tip

when Margaret holds up one bony finger at us, demanding

a little respect for the man at the plate.


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On This Date: The Death of John Keats

February 23, 2017


On this date in 1821 John Keats died in Rome. Here are some notes I made for a draft entry on Keats’s death in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:

By the end of the year 1820 Keats’s declining health rapidly accelerated. After February he never wrote another poem. His temper darkened and he began his short life as a recluse. Some of his bitterness began to be directed toward Fanny Brawne. As a desperate measure Keats accepted the Shelleys’ invitation to travel to Italy and share their residence in Pisa. So in September 1820, accompanied by his friend Joseph Severn, Keats moved to Italy. But his health was such that the move either did not help at all or it hastened the end. His close association with the Shelleys and with the Byron circle was brief. On 10 December he suffered a major hemorrhage followed in January with another severe attack. John Keats died in Rome near midnight on 23 February 1821. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome near the tomb of Caius Cestius close to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s burial place. Keats’s tombstone epitaph reads, “Here lies One/ Whose Name was writ in Water.”

John Keats seemed to have a premonition of an early death for most of his brief adult life. Take a look at one of his most familiar sonnets, “When I Have Fears.”

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

John Keats wrote this sonnet at the same time as he wrote “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” in January 1818. Lord Houghton published both poems posthumously in 1848. “When I Have Fears” is one of Keats’s few Shakespearean sonnets. When the poet realizes that death may prevent him from achieving poetic fame and enjoying passionate love, he understands that love and fame are of no consequence ultimately. They sink to nothingness before the threat of oblivion

A tidbit: Notice the two dominant metaphors of the first and second quatrains respectively: that of the harvest and that of a cloudy night. The imagery of the first two quatrains seems to relate to the nature of the imagination, involving work and maturity in the first while the imagery of the second involves chance and inspiration.

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Paul Varner

On This Date: John Henry, Cardinal Newman Born

February 21, 2017

On This Date: John Henry, Cardinal Newman Born


On this date in 1801, John Henry, Cardinal Newman was born in London. A spokesperson for the spiritual struggles of the Victorian Age in light of Charles Darwin’s publications, Newman’s best writings deal with the nature of education, the idea of the university, and the deep personal spiritual reflection of a highly educated man. His Apologia pro vita sua (“Explanation of his life”) relates Newman’s spiritual quest as he wrestled with theology and the life of his own soul. Newman died on August 11th, 1890.

On This Date in History: Philosopher Caitlin Tess Varner was Born

February 17, 2017

On This Date in History: Philosopher Caitlin Tess Varner was Born

Join me in saying Happy Birthday to philosopher and pundit Tess Varner. Dr. Varner’s seminal work in feminist animal philosophy has drawn glances of wonderment over the last several years in the American South, particularly in Birmingham, Alabama and in Georgia. Her seminal work Common Animals: Looking Beyond Linguistics with Nonhuman Stakeholders, A Pragmatist-(Eco) Feminist Framework for Democratic Deliberation. This work studies the outdoor pets of John Dewey’s household and how they voiced their nonhuman concerns. Currently Varner serves on the faculty at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.


For a Winter’s Day” Emerson’s “The Snow-Storm”

For a Winter’s Day” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow-Storm”

February 16, 2017


Fitting for this time of year as the Northeast and the Northwest U.S. are being pounded by snow sometimes measured in feet, not inches, is this classic winter poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord.

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,

Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air

Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,

And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.

The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet

Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit

Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed

In a tumultuous privacy of storm.


Come see the north wind’s masonry.

Out of an unseen quarry evermore

Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer

Curves his white bastions with projected roof

Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work

So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he

For number or proportion. Mockingly,

On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;

A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;

Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,

Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,

A tapering turret overtops the work.

And when his hours are numbered, and the world

Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,

Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art

To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,

Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,

The frolic architecture of the snow.

One of Emerson’s early commentators, George Edward Woodbury, wrote in 1907 that “Imagination with Emerson usually is set in motion by some psychological thought or by the presence of something elemental in the scene. His mind expands with the greatness of what is before him, and reaches a loftier height even when he is still in the regions of description, as . . . ‘The Snow-Storm,’ equally admirable as a picture of human home and of the wild grandeur of nature.”


So here comes the snowstorm in the first stanza compared by Emerson as a royal procession coming into town announced by heralds. The snow comes in and completely dominates the landscape. It “veils the farm house.” The sled carrying the royal personages stops. The couriers’ feet can go no further. That’s the outside scene. Inside, all the housemates of the farmstead sit warming themselves around the fire.

Emerson follows this cozy scene by describing the aftermath of the storm, and he does so as a commentary on the essence of artistic creation compared to nature’s creation. While the artist toils over his statuary columns of the finest marble—Parian marble—nature comes through and creates art far superior to that of the human hands: “Come see the north wind’s masonry.” Nature creates “wild work,” “fanciful, savage.” Nature creates organically—“nought cares he/ for number and proportion.” Humanity may create with just and true proportion works that last. “Astonished art,” though, “mocks” or imitates humanity’s lasting monuments with its—notice the oxymoron—“frolic architecture” of the snowstorm.

Stay inside folks. Keep warm. And follow The Literary Life blog.

The Ultimate Tale of Romance: Romeo and Juliet Meet each Other for the First Time

February 14, 2017


Happy Valentine’s Day to all lovers. What more beautiful way to think about romance, love, and how you feel about your Valentine. To celebrate love and romance here is the passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Romeo first casts eyes on Juliet.

It’s at the masquerade party at the Capulet which Romeo has crashed. Across the way he sees young Juliet and immediately is striken with Cupid’s arrow—as is she. He asks the passing server:


[To a Servingman] What lady is that, which doth
enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?


I know not, sir.

No name, but he stares across the way anyway, and his fiery passion begins its consummation of his heart.


O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

But on the other side of the hall some of the Capulets begin to notice the young Romeo, son of their bitter enemy. Romeo edges closer. They watch as he confronts his newfound love in a way only young lovers have. He touches her hand. She too has been watching him and she feels his hand with similar ardor.


[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Here Shakespeare gives speech to the young lovers in the form of a sonnet. A sonnet from the master of love sonnets. These are the first words exchanged between the lovers. Romeo is dressed as a pilgrim.

What is it that makes this passage stand out so much from the hurly burly of the party? What makes this speech so special that it is remembered by all as one of the greatest moments in dramatic history?

Look at the basic metaphor employed in the sonnet, and notice how it affects the tone of the relationship flaring into flame between the lovers. And then, ah yes, there’s that famous play on words first with “and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss” and later with

“Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake./ Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.”

As their palms kiss and as both realize the turmoil within their breasts for this very moment of their lives, so you, lovers young and old, take your beloved and kiss as if for the very first time in your lives. Happy Valentine’s Day.



Anne Bradstreet’s Valentine to Her Husband

February 13, 2017

Anne Bradstreet’s Valentine to Her Husband


Anne Bradstreet is the mother of American poetry in English, and it is fitting that for the U.S. and Canada, nations dedicated to women’s rights, within just a few years of the New English settlements Bradstreet would establish herself as more than just a Puritan huswife. For most readers, Bradstreet’s best poems are her short domestic pieces where she considers her husband, her house, her children, and does not attempt to imitate too much the mode of the male English poets of her time and before. In her domestic pieces, whether she writes literally or figuratively, her thought and feeling come across as authentic, not forced or artificial. She does not try to take well-known conceits and push them down into some form, trying to make it fit.

It’s the time of year for lovers to give each other valentines and speak of love for each other. Take a look at Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” in light of Valentine’s Day (although there is no reason to think Bradstreet actually was thinking of valentines here). I am deliberately placing the poem at the end here. So take a look with me at the first two couplets:

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

Here Bradstreet first gives us a direct statement about her relationship with her husband on the human level. Then the next two couplets employ figurative language—gold mines, riches of the East, rivers—

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

And then the last two give another direct statement ending the poem on the level of the eternal:

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,

That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Bradstreet communicates through the simplest of words, generally Anglo-Saxon monosyllabic words.

Now read the whole poem at once. Try reading it out loud if you can.

To My Dear and Loving Husband

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,

That when we live no more, we may live ever.


On this Date: Charles Darwin Was Born

February 12, 2017


On this date Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in Shropshire, England. He died in 1882.

Before the fame brought on by his books The Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin had begun to develop his reputation as one of the most influential naturalists in history with the publication in 1839 of The Voyage of the Beagle.

The Voyage of the Beagle is a delightful and readable account in journal form of Darwin’s original voyage to the South Pacific.


In commemoration of Charles Darwin’s birthday here is a short clip in which Darwin describes his original visit to Tahiti. Sit back with a cup of coffee and read this glimpse of paradise from 1835.

November 15th. — At daylight, Tahiti, an island which must for ever remain classical to the voyager in the South Sea, was in view. At a distance the appearance was not attractive. The luxuriant vegetation of the lower part could not yet be seen, and as the clouds rolled past, the wildest and most precipitous peaks showed themselves towards the centre of the island. As soon as we anchored in Matavai Bay, we were surrounded by canoes. This was our Sunday, but the Monday of Tahiti: if the case had been reversed, we should not have received a single visit; for the injunction not to launch a canoe on the sabbath is rigidly obeyed. After dinner we landed to enjoy all the delights produced by the first impressions of a new country, and that country the charming Tahiti. A crowd of men, women, and children, was collected on the memorable Point Venus, ready to receive us with laughing, merry faces. They marshalled us towards the house of Mr. Wilson, the missionary of the district, who met us on the road, and gave us a very friendly reception. After sitting a very short time in his house, we separated to walk about, but returned there in the evening.

The land capable of cultivation, is scarcely in any part more than a fringe of low alluvial soil, accumulated round the base of the mountains, and protected from the waves of the sea by a coral reef, which encircles the entire line of coast. Within the reef there is an expanse of smooth water, like that of a lake, where the canoes of the natives can ply with safety and where ships anchor. The low land which comes down to the beach of coral-sand, is covered by the most beautiful productions of the intertropical regions. In the midst of bananas, orange, cocoa-nut, and bread-fruit trees, spots are cleared where yams, sweet potatoes, and sugar-cane, and pine-apples are cultivated. Even the brush-wood is an imported fruit-tree, namely, the guava, which from its abundance has become as noxious as a weed. In Brazil I have often admired the varied beauty of the bananas, palms, and orange-trees contrasted together; and here we also have the bread-fruit, conspicuous from its large, glossy, and deeply digitated leaf. It is admirable to behold groves of a tree, sending forth its branches with the vigour of an English oak, loaded with large and most nutritious fruit. However seldom the usefulness of an object can account for the pleasure of beholding it, in the case of these beautiful woods, the knowledge of their high productiveness no doubt enters largely into the feeling of admiration. The little winding paths, cool from the surrounding shade, led to the scattered houses; the owners of which everywhere gave us a cheerful and most hospitable reception.

I was pleased with nothing so much as with the inhabitants. There is a mildness in the expression of their countenances which at once banishes the idea of a savage; and intelligence which shows that they are advancing in civilization. The common people, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad- shouldered, athletic, and well-proportioned. It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of an European than his own colour. A white man bathing by the side of a Tahitian, was like a plant bleached by the gardener’s art compared with a fine dark green one growing vigorously in the open fields. Most of the men are tattooed, and the ornaments follow the curvature of the body so gracefully, that they have a very elegant effect. One common pattern, varying in its details, is somewhat like the crown of a palm-tree. It springs from the central line of the back, and gracefully curls round both sides. The simile may be a fanciful one, but I thought the body of a man thus ornamented was like the trunk of a, noble tree embraced by a delicate creeper.

Many of the elder people had their feet covered with small figures, so placed as to resemble a sock. This fashion, however, is partly gone by, and has been succeeded by others. Here, although fashion is far from immutable, every one must abide by that prevailing in his youth. An old man has thus his age for ever stamped on his body, and he cannot assume the airs of a young dandy. The women are tattooed in the same manner as the men, and very commonly on their fingers. One unbecoming fashion is now almost universal: namely, shaving the hair from the upper part of the head, in a circular form, so as to leave only an outer ring. The missionaries have tried to persuade the people to change this habit; but it is the fashion, and that is a sufficient answer at Tahiti, as well as at Paris. I was much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women: they are far inferior in every respect to the men. The custom of wearing a white or scarlet flower in the back of the head, or through a small hole in each ear, is pretty. A crown of woven cocoa-nut leaves is also worn as a shade for the eyes. The women appear to be in greater want of some becoming costume even than the men.

Nearly all the natives understand a little English — that is, they know the names of common things; and by the aid of this, together with signs, a lame sort of conversation could be carried on. In returning in the evening to the boat, we stopped to witness a very pretty scene. Numbers of children were playing on the beach, and had lighted bonfires which illumined the placid sea and surrounding trees; others, in circles, were singing Tahitian verses. We seated ourselves on the sand, and joined their party. The songs were impromptu, and I believe related to our arrival: one little girl sang a line, which the rest took up in parts, forming a very pretty chorus. The whole scene made us unequivocally aware that we were seated on the shores of an island in the far-famed South Sea.

Realize, of course, that Darwin writes to an English audience with no knowledge of Tahiti or the South Pacific except what they might have read in fancifully exaggerated tales from previous imaginative voyagers. Here is a 19th-century version of scientific description writing aiming at accurate detail.

Notice, though, how Darwin begins by describing specific features of the land, comparing the strange and unusual to the ordinary and well-known from back in England. But then he shifts abruptly to describing the people, in general terms, not specific people. And just like his readers back home, these South Pacific islanders were all about fashion. Their peculiar way of shaving the middle of their scalps while leaving a ring of hair about the edges was essential fashion: “The missionaries have tried to persuade the people to change this habit,: Darwin says, “but it is the fashion, and it is sufficient answer at Tahiti, as well as at Paris.”

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