Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

22 APRIL, 2014

Three Delightful Poems About Dogs from E.B. White

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A charming celebration from literary history’s premiere champion of the canine.

Perhaps due to the occupation’s necessary solitude and the dearth of distracting human company it inherently requires, writers and their pets have always had a special bond. Chief among them was E. B. White — extraordinary essayist and satirist, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style. Over the course of his life, he owned — parented, rather — a dozen dogs, which inspired the infinitely wonderful writing collected in E. B. White on Dogs (public library) — a compendium compiled by his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White, which was among 2013’s best books about animals and gave us White’s moving obituary for his dog Daisy and his endearing love letter to his wife “written” by Daisy. But while White was best-known as a prose writer, from his remarkable essays to his prolific letters, he did pen a handful of poems for his beloved canine companions over the years, also included in the volume. Here are three of them, beginning with one that celebrates the general delightfulness of Dog:

E.B. White with his dog Minnie at the New Yorker offices

DOG AROUND THE BLOCK

Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Love of life, and fronts of dwellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintance, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Another paints a charming taxonomy of breeds and temperaments, with a special love-note to his Daisy:

FASHIONS IN DOGS

An Airedale, erect beside the chauffeur of a Rolls-Royce,
Often gives you the impression he’s there from choice.

In town, the Great Dane
Is kept by the insane.

Today the Boxer
Is fashionable and snappy;
But I never saw a Boxer
Who looked thoroughly happy.

The Scotty’s a stoic,
He’s gay and he’s mad;
His pace is a snail trot,
His harness is plaid.
I once had a bitch,
Semi-invalid, crazy:
There ne’er was a Scotch girl
Quite like Daisy.

Pekes
Are biological freaks.
They have no snout
And their eyes come out.
Ladies choose ’m
To clutch to their bosom.
A Pekinese would gladly fight a wolf or a cougar
But is usually owned by a Mrs. Applegate Krueger.
Cockers are perfect for Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Or to carry home a package from the A&P without clowning.

The wire-haired fox
Is hard on socks
With or without clocks.
The smooth-haired variety
Has practically vanished from nice society,
And it certainly does irk us
That you never see one except when you go to the circus.

The dachshund’s affectionate,
He wants to wed with you:
Lie down to sleep,
And he’s in bed with you.
Sit in a chair,
He’s there.
Depart,
You break his heart.

My Christmas will be a whole lot wetter and merrier
If somebody sends me a six-weeks-old Boston terrier.

Sealyhams have square sterns and cute faces
Like toy dogs you see at Macy’s.
But the Sealyham, while droll in appearance,
Has no clearance.

Chows come in black, and chows come in red;
They could come in bright green, I wouldn’t turn my head.
The roof of their mouth is supposed to be blue,
Which is one of those things that might easily be true.

To us it has never seemed exactly pleasant
To see a beautiful setter on East Fifty-seventh Street looking for a woodcock or a pheasant.

German shepherds are useful for leading the blind,
And for biting burglars and Consolidated Edison men in the behind.

Lots of people have a rug.
Very few have a pug.

But White, it appears, felt like he didn’t give the spaniel her due, so he dedicates a whole separate poem to the queen of ears:

CARD OF THANKS

A spaniel’s ears hang low, hang low;
They mop the sidewalk as they go.
Instead of burrs and beggar’s-lice,
They pick up things not half so nice.

Spaniels deserve our special thanks
For mopping floors in shops and banks,
Resourceful, energetic, keen,
They keep the city nice and clean.

Spaniels should be exempt from tax
And be supplied with Johnson’s wax.

Spaniel-mix specimen exhibiting high degree of specialness

E. B. White on Dogs is an absolute treat in its entirety — sometimes soulful, sometimes funny, always unmistakably Whitean in its warm irreverence and sensitive satire. Complement it with Mary Oliver’s magnificent Dogs Songs and John Updike’s harrowing poem on the loss of his dog, then lift your spirits with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs and Jane Goodall’s charming children’s book about the healing power of pet love.

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15 APRIL, 2014

Herman Melville on Art

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On the mystical mastery of wrestling with the angel.

“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” philosopher Alain de Botton assured in Art as Therapy, one of the best art books of 2013. “Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard declared in what became one of the most beautiful definitions of art. But how do we lay the bricks that pave that way and construct the soul? From the 1954 gem Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau — comes this magnificent meditation on art from Herman Melville, in a poem unambiguously titled “Art”:

ART

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt — a wind to freeze;
Sad patience — joyous energies;
Humility — yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity — reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel — Art.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

Also from Reader and Writer, which is a treat in its entirety, see Melville’s poetic daily routine. Pair with history’s finest definitions of art.

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11 APRIL, 2014

Dorothy Parker Reads “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom” in a Rare 1926 Recording

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An ode to the unflinching comfort of the bed, our most reliable sanctuary of safety.

Celebrated writer, humorist, poet, dramatist, and literary critic Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893–June 7, 1967) was in many ways the sad clown of literature — she survived an unhappy childhood, three troubled marriages (two of them to the same person, who eventually committed suicide by drug overdose), her own suicide attempts, and being blacklisted by the FBI with a 1,000-page dossier. And still she rose to the top of the literary elite, lining her formidable literary talents with unrelenting self-deprecation and transcended the tragedies of her life with her signature sharp wit. But nowhere did her singular blend of wit and wistfulness pierce with greater precision than in her poetry. In this rare 1926 recording, 33-year-old Parker reads her poem “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom” — an ode to the unflinching comfort of the bed, our most reliable sanctuary of safety — found in her 1936 collection Not So Deep As A Well (public library).

Daily dawns another day;
I must up, to make my way.
Though I dress and drink and eat,
Move my fingers and my feet,
Learn a little, here and there,
Weep and laugh and sweat and swear,
Hear a song, or watch a stage,
Leave some words upon a page,
Claim a foe, or hail a friend –
Bed awaits me at the end.

Though I go in pride and strength,
I’ll come back to bed at length.
Though I walk in blinded woe,
Back to bed I’m bound to go.
High my heart, or bowed my head,
All my days but lead to bed.
Up, and out, and on; and then
Ever back to bed again,
Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall –
I’m a fool to rise at all!

Pair with — what else? — Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake.

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