Of course once I started thinking I'd post something for Ronn's Poem On Your Blog Day, books started raining off the poetry shelves. But given the hour, I'm going to try to keep to just a poem or two.
I have a favorite poem—among many favorite poems—which is not a truly great poem. Or maybe it is a great poem, but compared to other poems by the same author it's hard to call it great and be emphatic about it.
The poem is by Frank O'Hara.
That's not a cross look it's a sign of life
but I'm glad you care how I look at you
this morning (after I got up) I was thinking
of President Warren G. Harding and Horace S.
Warren, father of the little blonde girl
across the street and another blonde Agnes
Hedlund (this was in the 6th grade!) what
now the day has begun in a soft grey way
with elephantine traffic trudging along Fifth
and two packages of Camels in my pocket
I can't think of one interesting thing Warren
G. Harding did, I guess I was passing notes
to Sally and Agnes at the time he came up
in our elephantine history course everything
seems slow suddenly and boring except
for my insatiable thinking towards you
as you lie asleep completely plotzed and
gracious as a hillock in the mist from one
small window, sunless and only slightly open
as is your mouth and presently your quiet eyes
your breathing is like that history lesson
Little things in this poem take my breath away:
1. The whole poem takes place as the speaker's lover's eyes are opening from sleep. The lover's eyes are opening in the first two lines and they're still just opening in the last two lines.
2. What that "what," hanging off the end of the last line of the first stanza, does to the tone of the second the stanza.
3. "elephantine traffic"
a) something about that gets the feeling of watching traffic from the my recently deceased (both at 99, 6 weeks apart), maternal grandparents' 13th floor window on the lower east side of Manhattan (the co-op apartments on Grand Street, between Essex and Clinton). When I was a small boy, I'd stand at the window, looking out over my grandmother's plants on the sill, and watch the cars and the pedestrians and the bigger kids playing basketball.
b) the way "elephantine" comes associatively from the day's "soft grey way" the same way Horace S. Warren comes from Warren G. Harding and blonde Agnes come from the first blonde girl. The two packages of Camels in the speaker's pocket probably would not have come up except for the similar kind of associative thinking that gets him from elephants to camels.
4. "thinking towards you"
There is a beautiful emotion in this even as it seems to complain of being too cerebral.
5. the last 5 lines
The subtle shifts in tone and diction are marvelous. O'Hara masters similar effects more perfectly in other poems. But if it's slightly clumsy here, it's also charming without exactly trying to be so.
6. "your breathing is like that history lesson"
This is a beautiful line. Such quiet, understated tragedy. The speaker is able to expand the millisecond of his lover's beautiful waking by allowing his distractable nature to have free reign. The speaker's mind flits from association to association, whether in word, image, or memory. He means to be enraptured by his lover's breathing but he's missing it the same way he missed whatever it was he should have learned about Warren G. Harding (whose name is so ugly, compared to the rest of the words in this poem).
The second poem I want to include is by Muriel Rukeyser. By chance it has the same generic title as O'Hara's poem. I'm not going to comment on this one except to say it is a favorite of mine because of how it helped me to feel less alone in the aftermath of September 11.
I lived in the first century or world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.
(from The Speed of Darkness, 1968)