The Sexiest Elephant Poem You Ever Read

This is one way I’m happy to conceive of my sweet mate and lover. I’m proud to be a huge old beast. The only question is, will wifey allow me to call her ma petite éléphante? Perhaps if I tell her how well she stirs my massive blood.

The Elephant is Slow to Mate

by D. H. Lawrence

The elephant, the huge old beast,
is slow to mate;
he finds a female, they show no haste
they wait

for the sympathy in their vast shy hearts
slowly, slowly to rouse
as they loiter along the river-beds
and drink and browse

and dash in panic through the brake
of forest with the herd,
and sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.

So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,
and the great beasts mate in secret at last,
hiding their fire.

Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts
so they know at last
how to wait for the loneliest of feasts
for the full repast.

They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood
moves as the moon-tides, near, more near
till they touch in flood.

My Days Are Like A Burning Fuselage

When I read your poetry, I shake my head at your unfortunate phrasing. I was glad when you recognized that to speak on universals, you needed to find strange and new ways of expression. But I winced when you went over the top. Your Vortex on a String poem was particularly difficult to stomach.

You have to be really careful about using such brutal and aggressive words. “A cavalcade of anger and fear”? “Five years in Sweden dying for you”? “My days are like a burning fuselage”? Too much; too heavy-handed.

Alas, I cannot help that I am cynical and overly critical. I am too weak to be better than that.

__________________________________

Boys and girls, be beautiful. And be unashamed. Be better than me; be like John Darnielle of Mountain Goats. If I had found a lyric like “a cavalcade of anger and fear” in my old journals, I would have cringed, and perhaps even scratched it out. But that is because I am too weak and impure, too lacking in beautiful sincerity to pull it off. When Darnielle sings lines like that, you can see and hear how invested he is in them; he makes you believe that it truly was a cavalcade of anger and fear. What does it matter if haters don’t like the expression? He’s telling you how it was.

Earnestness is a beautiful quality. Mean what you say. Sell out to it. Live to what you’ve attained.

It is common for children to be beaten by their fathers. It is common for men to be left utterly alone. It is common for men to despair. Speak to those common things in a way that acknowledges how huge and terrible they are. They might happen to every man, but that makes them no less immense. And the salvation that comes to men is no less immense. Offer it sincerely, and earnestly. Find and express the beauty in it, caring nothing for the fact that millions before you have voiced the same thing.

Don’t be cool. Be beautiful. Be true. Be good.

Eighth Air Force

Eighth Air Force by Randall Jarrell

If, in an odd angle of the hutment,
A puppy laps the water from a can
Of flowers, and the drunk sergeant shaving
Whistles O Paradiso!–shall I say that man
Is not as men have said: a wolf to man?

The other murderers troop in yawning;
Three of them play Pitch, one sleeps, and one
Lies counting missions, lies there sweating
Till even his heart beats: One; One; One.
O murderers! . . . Still, this is how it’s done:

This is a war . . . But since these play, before they die,
Like puppies with their puppy; since, a man,
I did as these have done, but did not die–
I will content the people as I can
And give up these to them: Behold the man!

I have suffered, in a dream, because of him,
Many things; for this last saviour, man,
I have lied as I lie now. But what is lying?
Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can:
I find no fault in this just man.

Losses

Losses

It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes — and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like ants or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores —
And turned into replacements and woke up
One morning, over England, operational.
It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make).
We read our mail and counted up our missions —
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school —
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”

They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying — no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

 

Randall Jarrell

A Pilot From The Carrier

A Pilot from the Carrier

Strapped at the center of the blazing wheel,
His flesh ice-white against the shattered mask,
He tears at the easy clasp, his sobbing breaths
Misting the fresh blood lightening to flame,
Darkening to smoke; trapped there in pain
And fire and breathlessness, he struggles free
Into the sunlight of the upper sky —
And falls, a quiet bundle in the sky,
The miles to warmth, to air, to waking:
To the great flowering of his life, the hemisphere
That holds his dangling years. In its long slow sway
The world steadies and is almost still. . . .
He is alone; and hangs in knowledge
Slight, separate, estranged: a lonely eye
Reading a child’s first scrawl, the carrier’s wake —
The travelling milk-like circle of a miss
Beside the plant-like genius of the smoke
That shades, on the little deck, the little blaze
Toy-like as the glitter of the wing-guns,
Shining as the fragile sun-marked plane
That grows to him, rubbed silver tipped with flame.

Randall Jarrell

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

“A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.” — Jarrell’s note.

Reading Poetry For Fun & Profit

On the Moral Instruction of Children Through the Reading of Poetry; or the Inculcation of Manly Virtues & Feminine Graces Through Verse

Oooh, how very Victorian of me. And truth be told, 19th century poetry is very suitable for children.

L’il Joffre and I had another bath-time poetry reading session last night, which reminded me I should post about this.

My daughter is eight, my oldest boy is seven. Of course, the bath-time readings are limited to the males (the younger ones will hang out with us occasionally). Except for the occasional book of poems for children from the library, or readings of humorous collections such as T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the kids’ exposure to poetry for a while was L’il Joffre reading me poems I enjoyed, which I didn’t think unsuitable to his age. Billy Collins, T. S. Eliot, G. M. Hopkins, or maybe some selections from an anthology. My personal favorites.

I soon realized, however, that I was missing out on two opportunities. I now take those opportunities, and you might want to as well.

1. Read ballads or epic poetry to your kids. It’ll be a while before we tackle anything truly epic, such as The Poem of the Cid, or Beowulf, or even The Ballad of the White Horse. The kids are reading prose versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey for school, but of course, that doesn’t count as poetry. But I do think their appetite is already whet for such things when they’re ready. Several weeks ago we all sat down in the living room to hear me read Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. They loved it, and are still talking about it. I stopped every few verses so we could talk about what was happening and to make sure everyone was following the story. Even the five-year-old was able to follow the poem that way. We’ve read The Highwayman and The Lady of Shallot, which my daughter especially enjoyed (she has a Loreena McKennitt album in her room with sung versions of both poems).

The children’s own ability to read poetry has begun to improve as they hear me read. Joffre, for example, is now getting over his annoying habit of ending lines in an overly-dramatic whisper. The children have always imitated my rhetorical style when reading prose stories to each other, and the example of poetry emphasizes all the more the importance of reading well for effect.

Their sense of rhythm in particular is improving. And the potential to mix this with music, particularly in our family, which seriously lacks any musical gifting, is enormous. I’ve mentioned the McKennitt ballads. You can work in the other direction as well. I’m a big fan of folk ballads, so reading versions of songs like John Henry, Barbara Allen, or The Dreadful Wind and Rain is a great way to expose them to good music.

And of course, as with fairy tales or any other folklore, ballads and epic poetry are an excellent way to place the kids in the story-context of their own lives…it helps them to understand that they are part of a people, and a part of humanity.

2. This one is kind of new on me. I use poetry as a tool of moral instruction. I don’t necessarily mean that poetry can teach you what is right and what is wrong, although that is certainly true, as it is with any kind of story-telling. And it’s true of any good poetry. I’m not speaking strictly of story-formats of poetry, as I was in the section above.

The other day, when Joffre offered to read me some poetry (he values the dad time, poetry or no), I decided to take an opportunity. I wanted him to read some poems that were particularly English, because we’d been talking a bit about the English context of our cultural background. I love the English story, and I am of the opinion that a sense of Americanness without a sense of Englishness can lead to some unfortunate historical and philosophical myopia. With that in mind I had him read some martial English poetry. L’il Joffre read me Rupert Brooke’s The Dead (“blow out, you bugles”) and The Soldier (” there’s some corner of a foreign field/ that is for ever England”). We read Alan Seeger’s I Have A Rendezvous With Death (“I to my pledged word am true/ I shall not fail that rendezvous”). We read Kipling’s Recessional (“God of our fathers, known of old”).

The session ended up not really being about Englishness. Which I suppose I should have foreseen. The conversation ended up revolving around the ethical and moral elements of the poetry.

Okay, so Alan Seeger was actually an American who served in the French Foreign Legion.

None of the poems we read were stories, really. But they painted vivid pictures of certain kinds of men, and a certain ethos. Do I want a British imperialist for a son? Of course not. But I would like a son who has a sense of duty, of honor, of courage. I loved the things we got to talk about through the reading of the poems. And this is beside the basic educational comprehension stuff (“Who was taking the writer’s hand?” “Death.” “That’s right.”). We talked about everything from burial rites to keeping promises to what happens when a nation forgets God.

Poetry as a tool of moral instruction. I just love saying that. So Victorian of me. But also very fun of me, no? They already love reading poetry, so this actually ends up being an enjoyable way for them to learn about what is meet and proper so to do. Like basketball.

I just gave two didactic reasons for the reading of poetry with your children. But of course, there are many other reasons, not least that which is common to every art: the glimpse of beauty.

Which is why we might have to read High Flight this evening.