February 23, 2021

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine in 1869. I first encountered his writing when my high school English teacher showed us his poem "Richard Cory" knowing that we were going to say "That's a song by Simon and Garfunkel." 

"Richard Cory" is a song written by Paul Simon in early 1965, and recorded by Simon and Garfunkel for their second studio album, Sounds of Silence, which probably everyone in my class in 1968 owned or had at least heard. It was much earlier a poem by Robinson. 

Our teacher asked us if we thought that Paul Simon had plagiarized the lyrics. (Plagiarism was a topic of discussion in that class recently.) We didn't think so and neither did our teacher who thought the use of the poem was "transformative" and so safe. 

We listened to the song and looked at the poem. Most of the class liked Simon's version better, but I remember thinking that he really owed it all to Robinson. 

I went to the library and borrowed a book of his poetry. (samples here) I remember liking "Miniver Cheevy" and "Mr. Flood's Party" because they were clear stories about people.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Robinson lived in poverty and was an alcoholic until President Theodore Roosevelt read his book Children of the Night (1897). Roosevelt liked the poetry enough that he wrote a review of the book and found Robinson a job at the New York Customs Office, which saved Robinson’s life. It was a place where Herman Melville had also worked for a time. The job Robinson was given was a kind of grant as it was designed to give him as little work as possible so he could write. He received a stipend of $2,000 per year. 

Here are Paul Simon's lyrics:

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town
With political connections to spread his wealth around
Born into society, a banker's only child
He had everything a man could want, power, grace and style
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory

The papers print his pictures almost everywhere he goes
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he's got
But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head"
But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory

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February 19, 2021

Amanda Gorman: A Young Poet Inspires

The popular media keeps reporting that "poetry is having a moment." That's odd to hear if you have been a fan of poetry or a poet yourself.  But now with a year of the COVID-19 pandemic and a crazy U.S. election year, protests about racial issues, it seems that more people are reading and writing poetry as a response.

210120-D-WD757-2466 (50861321057)

Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, also gave poetry media attention and offered inspiration to new young people who had not written or read poetry before. Then, she appeared at the Super Bowl - an unusual place for a poetry reading, and an audience not known for attending poetry readings. 

Her inaugural poem, titled "The Hill We Climb," received a lot of praise. Her sudden rise to fame has also had its critics who point to her enormous presales for three upcoming books and her getting a modeling contract with IMG as not what we expect poets to do. There is also lots of marketing around Amanda.

It reminds me of when Billy Collins became a best-selling poet which is not usually the case for poetry books and poets. But Collins became our Poet Laureate and continues to be very popular and much more respected. We seem to want our poets to be humble, be teachers, and stay somewhat poor.

Amanda Gorman is not new to poetry. She was writing as a child and was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014. She published her first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. While studying sociology at Harvard University, she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate in the United States.

Her chance to read at the inauguration came late. Dr. Jill Biden watched a reading Gorman gave at the Library of Congress just a few days before the event and asked if Gorman might read something for the inauguration. Amanda got the details on a Zoom call flew to Washington, D.C.



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February 4, 2021

Prompt: The Day After

Holidays, holy days, observances - global, national, and personal - have great significance. But what comes after?

In Susan Rothbard's poem, "February 15," she looks not at Valentine's Day but at the day after. What at first seems like a sad situation - unsold bouquets of roses - becomes a happy event.

February 15

Dozens of dozens of roses swaddled
in cellophane line the windows of Trader Joe’s.
I’ve come to buy eggs, bananas, a bottle
of seltzer, though I’ve thrown in more:
pretzels, Gouda, mix for a cake
I may never make. It’s winter—we live
from meal to meal, from fire to fire.
What pleasure we take is our solace
for all this cold, all this snow.
But today, at five, the sky is still blue
as the cashier offers me roses for free
and I walk to my car not minding the cold
so much. What a wonder it is to see shoppers
like me with cellophane poking from the tops
of their bags. We all want something for nothing,
we’re all bringing home roses. I imagine tonight
across the county: roses, roses, opening, opening.

by Susan Rothbard (from Birds of New JerseyBroadkill Press, 2020)

In this cold, Valentine month, we will be writing about "the day after." What happens the day after Christmas, a birthday, the summer solstice, a birth, a death, Thanksgiving, a wedding? What happens on the day after Labor Day? (Here's one take on that day after)

Special days are sometimes special; sometimes they are not. But for this prompt, we're interested in the day after that day. Choose a day that appears on all our calendars, or appears only on your calendar.

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