April is National Poetry Month. It just so happens that we love poetry. Recently, David barged in when I was taking a bubble bath to read me a poem he really likes by Charles Bukowski. Bukowski is one of David’s favorite poets. He is indeed very good, completely honest and soulful.
However, Bukowski is a bit too raw for my taste. My taste for poetry is whimsical but polished, more philosophical and rhythmic in tone. Think William Earnest Henley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both poets are ancient, belonging to 2 centuries ago.
Following are my favorite Carpe Diem poems selected from poets.org, website of the Academy of American Poets.
The Layers – Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006
Among many honors, Stanley Kunitz was United States Poet Laureate in 2000.
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
towards the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
And I roamed through wreckage,
A nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl – Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, a Puritan New England town. She led a mostly physically isolated life, but read widely and maintained active correspondences. Her brother Austin and sister Lavinia were her lifelong intellectual companions.
Dickinson’s poetry bears the influence of the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, her reading of the Book of Revelation and her orthodox, conservative Christian background.
Emily Dickinson, along with Walt Whitman, has invented one of the unique voices of American poetry.
I tie my Hat – I crease my shawl –
Life’s little duties do – precisely –
As the very least
Were infinite – to me –
I put new Blossoms in the Glass –
And throw the old – away –
I push a petal from my gown
That anchored there – I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
I have so much to do –
And yet – Existence – some way back –
Stopped – struck – my ticking – through –
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman – When the Errand’s done
We came to Flesh – upon –
There may be – Miles on Miles of Nought –
Of Action – sicker far –
To stimulate – is stinging work –
To cover what we are
From Science – and from Surgery –
Too Telescopic Eyes
To bear on us unshaded –
For their – sake – not for Ours –
Twould start them –
We – could tremble –
But since we got a Bomb –
And held it in our Bosom –
Nay – Hold it – it is calm –
Therefore – we do life’s labor –
Though life’s Reward – be done –
With scrupulous exactness –
To hold our Senses – on –
O Me! O Life! – Walt Whitman, 1819 – 1892
Walt Whitman is the author of the renowned poetry collection Leaves of Grass.
O Me! O Life!…of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless – of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light – of the objects mean – of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all – of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest – with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! So sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O Life?
That you are here – that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
Jet – Tony Hoagland, 1953
Tony Hoagland is a native of North Carolina.
Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys, getting louder and louder
as the empty cans drop out of our paws
like lobster rockets falling back to Earth.
and we soar up into the summer stars.
Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead,
bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish
and old space suits with skeletons inside.
On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness,
and it is good, a way of letting life
out of the box, uncapping the bottle
to let the effervescence gush
through the narrow, usually constricted neck.
And now the crickets plug in their appliances
in unison, and the fireflies flash
dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation
for the labyrinthe, untrue tales of sex
someone is telling in the dark, though
no one really hears. We gaze into the night
As if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.
A Song On the End of the World – Czeslaw Milosz, 1911 – 2004
Milosz was born in Lithuania but settled in Poland with his wife and son after WWI. In 1950, he moved to Paris for diplomatic work and requested political asylum to live there. In 1960, he moved to the United States to work as a lecturer in Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley.
Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.
We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths – Philip James Bailey
We live in deeds, not years; in thought, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest:
Lives in one hour more than in years do some
Whose fat blood sleeps as it slips along their veins.
Life’s but a means unto an end; that end,
Beginning, mean, and end to all things – God.
The dead have all the glory of the world.
Another Song [Are they shadows that we see?] (1610) – Samuel Daniel, 1562 – 1619
Samuel Daniel was an English poet and historian.
Are they shadows that we see?
And can shadows pleasure give?
Pleasures only shadows be
Cast by bodies we conceive,
And are made the things we deem,
In those figures which they seem.
But these pleasures vanish fast,
Which by shadows are exprest:
Pleasures are not, if they last,
In their passing, is their best.
Glory is most bright and gay
In a flash, and so away.
Feed apace then greedy eyes
On the wonder you behold.
Take it sudden as it flies
Though you yake it not to hold:
When your eyes have done their part,
Thought must length it in the heart.
The Road Not Taken – Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963
Robert Frost was one of the most celebrated poets in America.
Two roads diverged in the yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
O, Gather Me the Rose (1874) – William Ernest Henley, 1849 – 1903
William Earnest Henley was an English poet, critic and editor.
O, gather me the rose, the rose,
While yet in flower we find it,
For summer smiles, but summer goes,
And winter waits behind it!
For with the dream forgone, forgone,
The deed forborne for ever,
The worm, regret, will canker on,
And time will turn him never.
So well it were to love, my love,
And cheat of any laughter
And death beneath us and above,
The dark before and after.
The myrtle and the rose, the rose,
The sunshine and the swallow,
The dream that comes, the wish that goes,
The memories that follow!
Dreams – Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
A Psalm of Life – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807 – 1882
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the most famous American of his day. He wrote poems about history, mythology, and legend.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Finds us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.
Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III [O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?] – William Shakespeare, 1564 -1616
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! Your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting–
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,–
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world’s a stage] – William Shakespeare
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
In second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota – James Wright, 1927 – 1980
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distance of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.