Friday, October 14, 2016

POTW--Dylan Thomas, The Force ... That Drives the Flower

This week's poem can best be explored using your colored pencils. It is recommended that you print out a copy of the poem and start circling repeated words in different colors. It is a bit like a complex puzzle you will try to take apart: you will probably need to read through the poem six or seven times before you locate every word that is repeated. These repetitions help create the music, in a poem that does not rely on end line rhymes. The poem is under copyright, so find it on For those whose first language is not English, and even for native English speakers, the vocabulary may be a bit challenging. Look up the words, so that you can perceive the meanings.

The Dylan Thomas Center in Swansea, Wales, awaits your visit (, and you can read a good complete biography of the poet on their website.

Among the centenary sites, celebrating 100 years since the birth of Dylan Thomas in 2014 you might enjoy:

Translations into French:

Alain Suied has translated a large selection of Dylan Thomas's poems into French. Find out more about that via Esprits Nomades (

Line Audin has translated Dylan Thomas's most famous poem, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" into French at La Cause Littéraire (

Friday, October 7, 2016

"Serenade" by Ivor Gurney

It is hard to discern which talent was the more mastered by Ivor Gurney, musical composition or poetry. What is certain is that the experience of fighting in the Battle of the Somme and of being in the trenches with limited resources for musical composition led him to intense poetic creativity. He sent letters home to his friend, musicologist Marion Scott, recording French words he learns, the slang of war-time, and manuscripts of his poems. He arrived in France in May 1916, was wounded in the shoulder spring 1917, then gassed at Saint-Julien in September 1917, after which he was discharged. 

This poem, composed in 1925 in a mental hospital, vividly recalls the trenches, possibly with the experience of hearing records being played by the enemy at night. It includes the poet's deeper wish that the enemies could serenade each other instead of shoot each other.

It was after the Somme, our line was quieter,
Wires mended, neither side daring attacker
Or aggressor to be—the guns equal, the wires a thick hedge,
When there sounded, (O past days for ever confounded!)
The tune of Schubert which belonged to days mathematical, 
Effort of spirit bearing fruit worthy, actual.
The gramophone for an hour was my quiet’s mocker,
Until I cried, ‘Give us ‘‘Heldenleben’’,  ‘‘Heldenleben’’,’ 
The Gloucesters cried out ‘Strauss is our favorite wir haben
Sich geliebt’. So silence fell, Aubers’ front slept,
And the sentries an unsentimental silence kept.
True, the size of the rum ration was still a shocker
But at last over Aubers the majesty of the dawn’s veil swept.

One of the aspects of war that the poem makes allusion to is the "rum ration" in the penultimate line: soldiers where given something alcoholic to drink before going over the top, so a large ration of alcohol might indicate a difficult battle. But the rum ration could also refer to the small size and poor quality of food served to the troops. 

Take a few minutes to listen to one of Gurney's musical compositions.


Tim Kendall, "Ivor Gurney and the poets of the First World War," OUP Blog (October 14, 2013).

Exhibit "Ecrivains de guerre: nous sommes des machines à oublier" at Historial de Péronne,

Ivor Gurney Society

Friday, September 30, 2016

I, too, sing America

This poem has been going viral on social media around the United States for the past two weeks, and then it was published here:

The Black Lives Matter movement and people all across the United States review their basics with this "I, too, sing America," which the New York Times printed over the entire back page of the paper on September 22, 2016. When Hughes recites the poem, he changes the line "They'll see how beautiful I am" to "They'll see how beautiful we are," and this is not only to avoid bragging about his own looks. He is emphasizing that the "I" of the poem is not only his private I —in fact the speaker of the poem may be the poet or may be "the darker brother"—but is also a collective we. The "I" represents all people of color. 

On some level, this poem is a prophecy that Hughes optimistically writes during the Harlem Renaissance (the poem was first published in a magazine in 1925, and then was part of his first book of poems, The Weary Blues, published in 1926). In today's United States, the prophecy has been fulfilled with a second term of President Barack Obama, and the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. on September 24, 2016. However, the flip side of that coin is that the poem is still a "dream deferred" for a number African Americans.

Langston Hughes, "I, Too" text of the poem at Poetry Foundation (with related content).

David Ward, "What Langston Hughes' 'I, Too' Tells Us About America's Past and Present" on Langston Hughes at (September 22, 2016).

Friday, September 23, 2016

William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Sligo today is the home of the Yeats summer school. When W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) was a boy and young man it was a family place, associated with different relatives, and surrounded with exceptional landscapes. His family left Sligo for London before he was ten years old, but he returned there for vacations and it left a considerable influence on his poetry. 

The poem "The Second Coming" was first published in 1919, several years after the Easter Uprising in Dublin (see his "Easter 1916"), and in the wake of the carnage of the First World War.  It seems to describe a modernist apocalypse

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep 
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 

This poem of twenty-two lines could hardly be more famous than it is today. A century after its first publication, many phrases from the poem have entered common parlance. Some versions of the poem have a line break before the last five lines of the poem.


Ted Hughes recites the poem here:

Hear another reading of the poem here:

Nick Tabor describes how this poem has been quoted throughout the twentieth century in "No Slouch" Paris Review (April 7, 2015). And here's one example of what he's talking about:

A short 25 minute length lecture on the poem by an anonymous professor at Saint Ignatius College (the lecture is good, I wish the professor could receive some credit for it) :

Roy Foster speaks about the second volume of his biography of Yeats, in an hour or so (April 2014).

Ronan McDonald, from the University of New South Wales,  lecturing on Yeats, Ireland, and the Modern World in 2011, at the ANU Centre for European Studies. A good introduction to Yeats and Irish poetry in 45 minutes.

Friday, September 16, 2016

POTW - Carl Sandburg's Chicago (1914)

This week's poem of the week is no longer under United States copyright, having been first published over 100 years ago.

But instead of reproducing the whole text here, it would be more fun for you to see the text as it was first printed in 1914,  in the Chicago magazine Poetry, edited by Harriet Monroe. The Poetry Foundation website, which today provides on-line archives of the magazine, has evolved from a century of publication of Poetry and generous financial support. They also host a favorite poetry project, to which you will find a link below.

This interpretation of the poem also does it justice, though not all of the illustrations are from Chicago.

Of course, to get the full impact of this poem you need to remember what Chicago in 1914 was like. The population of the city had exploded during the prior century (from 4000 people approximately in 1840 to well over 1,000,000 in 1890), and the waves of new immigrants kept coming. For men, manual labor was relatively easy to find: in the stockyards, on the railroads, in the steel mills. Luckily, for the wives and children of these immigrants, there were some prominent citizens of Chicago with a social conscience—they tended to gravitate around Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Helen Gates Starr in 1889 (for more on Jane Addams, consult links here, This was the city that reversed the flow of water in the Chicago River in 1900, to avoid having further epidemics of typhoid and cholera.

Learn a bit more about Carl Sandburg by consulting the following links:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel reads "Chicago" for the Favorite Poem Project ( ).

"Radical Sandburg" at Modern American Poetry (

Carl Sandburg on PBS, Public Broadcasting (Nov 10, 2012).

Take a virtual tour of the Carl Sandburg home (

Sandburg's coverage of riots in Chicago in 1919 (Chicago Magazine, Feb 6, 2013).

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

#PoemOfTheWeek or #POTW number 1

Carol Rumens already writes a weekly column on poetry for the Guardian, and this new blog effort makes no pretense of trying to steal her show, which is, on the contrary, most warmly recommended.

Here, instead, will be poems that go to class with me, once a week, and are given exposure to all  the French students I teach, from first year college students to students at Master Level. There is still no reason why they should not also consult the interesting analyses of Carol Rumens.

Poem of the Week #1: Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Real Cool"

First things first: it probably looks like no poem you ever saw before. It does not look like a sonnet, it does not look like a ballad. You will notice that it has a subtitle that suggests the name of the bar where the action takes place, "Seven at the Golden Shovel". Since the full text of the poem is under copyright, here is a link to where you can read the text in full, and also hear it recited by the poet herself, with a number of interesting comments.

You will notice that the poet's recitation syncopates the rhythm, making this short poem sound like a jazz poem. If jazz, it is probably bebop—that more angry and rebellious genre. The two-line stanzas almost all end with the same word, "We" coming after a period, creating a very unified rhyme scheme. In fact lines 1-6 could also be described as rhyming couplets. But there are also numerous internal line rhymes: cool/school (lines 1-2), late/straight (3-4), sin/gin (5-6), June/soon (7-8).

All but the first and last lines contain only three words, and all the words of the poem are monosyllabic. Line one begins and ends with the same word (as a figure of speech, this is called epanalepsis). The sentences are simple sentences. The first one "We real cool" is agrammatical in that the verb "are" was omitted. The reader understands that the lack of education is perceptible in the language of these youths. All the other sentences have a verb and direct object (lines 2, 5, 6, 7) or verb and adverb (lines 3, 4, 8). The poet is able to give added punch to line seven because of the ambiguity surrounding the word jazz as she mentions in the recording (and that is also quite clever because the origin of the word jazz is indeed ambiguous). The month of June being also a traditional time for school testing, it seems that the speakers (the "we" in the poem) are also saying that they do not worry about tests.

Gwendolyn Brooks recalled that the inspiration for the poem came when she passed a pool hall and was surprised to find school-aged youths present there on a school day. This happened in her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The poem implies that the poet was worried that by skipping school these youths were digging their own graves. The shovel of the name of the bar could come in handy if they "die soon" as the end of the poem suggests. It is hard to realize, when one is in school, that life passes so rapidly. But perhaps Brooks was also concerned about the age at which young people who neglect their education die — or to put it differently, this poem might be considered a precursor to the Black Lives Matter movement. Brooks herself was a prominent artist in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s.

Friday, April 24, 2015

i.m. M.H. Abrams

Here, speaking at Cornell, Abrams offers excellent detailed analysis of poems by Auden, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Dowson, and Ammons.

See also:

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Angelou with the Angels

Letting her go is going to be hard for many people, and certainly reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was enlightening for the twenty-something year old that I once was. Angelou was a relatively early literary acquaintance that I only visited occasionally, but each time drew something that spurred reflexion and learning. Her pithy statements published by the Guardian  in memoriam (May 29, 2014) are no exception, with these quotes standing out:

"Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option."
"Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud."
"You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them."

It seems fitting to draw up a collection of some of the better tributes here.

Lyn Innes, "Maya Angelou obituary," Guardian (May 28, 2014).
"Maya Angelou - obituary," Telegraph (May 28, 2014).
Lynn Neary, "Maya Angelou, Poet, Activist and Singular Storyteller, Dies at 86," NPR (May 28, 2014).
Lev Grossman, "Maya Angelou: A Hymn to Human Endurance," Time (May 28, 2014).
Emma Brown, "Maya Angelou, writer and poet, dies at 86," Washington Post (May 28, 2014).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Take Dylan to the People"

Looking forward to touching around 4000 young people before Easter, the Carmarthenshire local council has made a replica of the shed that Dylan Thomas wrote in, above the Boathouse in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. For the centenary of Dylan Thomas, the shed is making the rounds on wheels with a poet in residence. See it at the Hay Festival in May, the Royal Welsh Show in July, and later in London. The photo below is from the Dylan Thomas Boathouse & Tea Room Facebook Page.

"Dylan Thomas's replica shed goes on UK tour" (BBC February 14, 2014).
"Dylan Thomas replica shed goes on tour for centenary" (BBC January 9, 2014).

Dylan Thomas Boathouse & Tea Room (Facebook Page).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dickinson Update

It's been a Dickinson Autumn.  First the lecture by Cristiane Miller in October. Then finding the Dickinson envelopes in an Amsterdam bookshop. Now, a friend's kind FB hints.  See the relevant links below.

Emily Dickinson Archives (
Cristiane Miller (October 22, 2013).
Craig Morgan Teicher, "Dickinson's Envelope Writings," NPR (November 30, 2013).