Poem for a Tuesday — “Alone at Night” by Kwon P’il
The way of the world as it is,
What can I do about the fleeting time?
As a few chrysanthemums shiver in the late autumn,
Cricket chirps grow louder as the night deepens.
The sad moon throws its beams on the windowpanes;
And the wind shakes the rustling branches.
Recalling what has happened over the last ten years,
I sit before a lamp, counting the moths flying into it.
translated from the Chinese by Sung-Il Lee
in The Gift of Tongues (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press), 1996, page 168.
Kwon P’il (1569-1612) was a classical Korean poet of the early Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). Although Korea has had its own language for several thousand years, it has had a writing system only since the mid-15th century when Hangul was invented. As a result, early Korean literary activity was in Chinese characters and was heavily influenced by Chinese intellectual thought. Kwon P’il was among the first poets to work in both Chinese and the newly developed Hangul. His poetry reflects an attempt to cultivate an authentically Korean voice and shake off the traditional social norms and standards of Chinese literature.
Poem for a Tuesday — “Sorrow Song” by Lucille Clifton
for the eyes of the children, the last to melt, the last to vaporize, for the lingering eyes of the children, staring, the eyes of the children of buchenwald, of viet nam and johannesburg, for the eyes of the children of nagasaki, for the eyes of the children of middle passage, for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes, russian eyes, american eyes, for all that remains of the children, their eyes, staring at us, amazed to see the extraordinary evil in ordinary men.
in Blessing the Boats, Rochester: BOA Editions, 2000, p. 39.
Lucille Clifton grew up in Buffalo, before attending Howard University and SUNY Fredonia. Her spare poems capture human experience in deeply revelatory ways, with hopeful focus on the enduring strength of the African American experience and family life. She wrote ten books of poetry and seventeen books for children, racking up a number of honors and awards, including the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats. Clifton was the Maryland Poet Laureate from 1974-1985 and served as the Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College in Columbia, Maryland. Asked once how she wished to be remembered, Clifton said, “I would like to be seen as a woman whose roots go back to Africa, who tried to honor being human. My inclination is to try to help.”
Poem for a Tuesday — “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street” by Ross Gay
Maybe, since you’re something like me, you, too, would’ve nearly driven into oncoming traffic for gawking at the clutch between the two men on Broad Street, in front of the hospital, which would not stop, each man’s face so deeply buried in the other’s neck—these men not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through that first, porous layer of the body into the heat beneath; maybe you, too, would’ve nearly driven over three pedestrians
as your head swiveled to lock on their lock, their burly fingers squeezing the air from the angels on the backs of their denim jackets which reminds you the million and one secrets exchanged in nearly the last clasp between your father and his brother, during which the hospital’s chatter and rattle somehow fell silent in deference to the untranslatable song between them, and just as that clasp endured through what felt like the gradual lengthening of shadows and the emergence of once cocooned things, and continues to this day, so, too, did I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine in my hands drifting through a stop light while I gawked at their ceaseless cleave going deeper, and deeper still, so that Broad Street from Fairmount to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these two men, sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar, yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth
like sun-colored spittle, the steel vehicle now a lost memory as I joined the fire-breasted birds in listening to air exchanged between these two men, who are, themselves, listening, forever, to the muscled contours of the other’s neck, all of us still, and listening, as if we had nothing to blow up, as if we had nothing to kill.
in The American Poetry Review, vol. 35, no. 5. Accessed online at aprweb.org.
Poet, professor, and essayist Ross Gay is all about joy. His four books of poetry include Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays – The Book of Delights – was a New York Times bestseller. His current work Inciting Joy is a Publisher’s Weekly best book of 2022. Editor John Freeman says Ross’s work, “throws off so much light, I’ve often wondered if it was powered by a superior energy source.” Ross Gay teaches at Indiana University, where he gives out lots of “A” grades and invites students to wonder with him.
On this New Year’s Day, I invite us to celebrate the birth of Christ and ponder his calling for our lives with some of my favorite poems of this season.
Susan Elizabeth Howe is a poet, playwright, and editor. Her poems have a keen attention to ordinary details that hint toward sacred truths. Her favorite themes explore women’s lives and the natural world through the lens of faith. Susan says, “Imagination . . . can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.” This poem was inspired by the promise found in a fortune cookie, “Your luck is about to change.”
“Your Luck Is About to Change” Susan Elizabeth Howe
(A fortune cookie)
Ominous inscrutable Chinese news
to get just before Christmas,
considering my reasonable health,
marriage spicy as moo-goo-gai-pan,
career running like a not-too-old Chevrolet.
Not bad, considering what can go wrong:
the bony finger of Uncle Sam
might point out my husband,
my own national guard,
and set him in Afghanistan;
my boss could take a personal interest;
the pain in my left knee could spread to my right.
Still, as the old year tips into the new,
I insist on the infant hope, gooing and kicking
his legs in the air. I won’t give in
to the dark, the sub-zero weather, the fog,
or even the neighbors’ Nativity.
Their four-year-old has arranged
his whole legion of dinosaurs
so they, too, worship the child,
joining the cow and sheep. Or else,
ultimate mortals, they’ve come to eat
ox and camel, Mary and Joseph,
then savor the newborn babe.
In Poetry, December 2002, p. 153.
Langston Hughes was an innovator of jazz poetry and one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a descendant of the elite, politically active Langston family, free people of color who worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. Hughes wrote from an early age, moving to New York City as a teen to attend Columbia University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, essays, and non-fiction. From 1942 to 1962, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. In 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. As you read, “Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York,” attend to his use of the word “almost” and consider what Hughes might be saying.
“Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight in New York” Langston Hughes
The Christmas trees are almost all sold And the ones that are left go cheap The children almost all over town Have almost gone to sleep.
The skyscraper lights on Christmas Eve Have almost all gone out There’s very little traffic Almost no one about.
Our town’s almost as quiet As Bethlehem must have been Before a sudden angel chorus Sang PEACE ON EARTH GOOD WILL TO MEN!
Our old Statue of Liberty Looks down almost with a smile As the Island of Manhattan Awaits the morning of the Child.
In Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Press, 1994.
Ann Weems was a gifted and prolific Presbyterian poet with seven books and collections of poems written for use in worship. Ann was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and was married to a Presbyterian minister. She served as an elder with her local church. Ann believed that writing was “a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer in which one can imagine what might be and in the writing help it become true.” She was sometimes referred to as the Presbyterian Poet Laureate.
“Boxed” Ann Weems
I must admit to a certain guilt
about stuffing the Holy Family into a box
in the aftermath of Christmas.
It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when,
each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others)
from a year’s imprisonment
boxed in the dark of our basement.
Out they come, one by one,
struggling through the straw,
last year’s tinsel still clinging to their robes.
Nevertheless, they appear, ready to take their place again
in the light of another Christmas.
The Child is first
because he’s the one I’m most reluctant to box.
Attached forever to his cradle, he emerges,
apparently unscathed from the time spent upside down
to avoid the crush of the lid.
His mother, dressed eternally in blue,
still gazes adoringly,
in spite of the fact that
her features are somewhat smudged.
Joseph has stood for eleven months,
holding valiantly what’s left of his staff,
broken twenty Christmases ago
by a child who hugged a little too tightly.
The Wise Ones still travel,
though not quite so elegantly,
the standing camel having lost its back leg
and the sitting camel having lost one ear.
However, gifts intact they are ready to move.
The shepherds, walking or kneeling,
sometimes confused with Joseph
(who wears the same dull brown),
tumble forth, followed by three sheep
in very bad repair.
There they are again,
not a grand set surely,
but one the children (and now the grandchildren)
can touch and move about to reenact that silent night.
When the others return,
we will wind the music box on the back of the stable
and light the Advent candles
and go once more to Bethlehem.
And this year, when it’s time to pack the figures away,
we’ll be more careful that the Peace and Goodwill
are not also boxed for another year!
In Kneeling in Bethlehem. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1980, p. 87.
The Rev. Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd is a retired Presbyterian minister, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of New York City. Shepherd has fifteen books of poetry and has published over 600 poems and articles in publications both sacred and secular. He has preached and lectured at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, and other universities, colleges and seminaries. In 2000, while I was serving Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, Rev. Shepherd joined us for a special 3-hour-long Good Friday service that featured his poetry. As you read “Forest Snowfall” listen for his description of the Kingdom of God, which dwells within the world, there for us to see and serve, if only we have the courage.
“Forest Snowfall” J. Barrie Shepherd
It is as if the light that is to come had taken on a flake-like form and substance laid itself, in silhouette, along, against, the windward part of every naked trunk and branch. The ground below lies cloaked, each blade of grass or bracken with its glistening garment, so that, even at the darkest hour last night, a luminescence shone as if reflected from whatever burns within.
Might the bright, promised realm lie here and now revealed, its last impediment my faltering fear to enter in?
In The Christian Century, Dec. 19, 2019. Accessed online at christiancentury.org.
Joyce Rupp is well-known for her work as a writer, international retreat leader, and conference speaker. She is the author of twenty-eight bestselling books on spirituality. A member of the religious order known as the Servites or Servants of Mary since the age of nineteen, Joyce received the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church in 2004. She has played a significant role as a “midwife” for women’s spirituality. In 2007, I attended “Writing from the Soul,” a writer’s workshop with Joyce in Chicago.
“A Christmas Blessing” (responsive) Joyce Rupp
May there be harmony in all your relationships. May sharp words, envious thoughts, and hostile feelings be dissolved.
May you give and receive love generously. May this love echo in your heart like the joy of church bells on a clear December day.
May each person who comes into your life be greeted as another Christ. May the honor given the Babe of Bethlehem be that which you extend to every guest who enters your presence.
May the hope of this sacred season settle in your soul. May it be a foundation of courage for you when times of distress occupy your inner land.
May the wonder and awe that fills the eyes of children be awakened within you. May it lead you to renewed awareness and appreciation of whatever you too easily take for granted.
May the bonds of love for one another be strengthened as you gather around the table of festivity and nourishment.
May you daily open the gift of your life and be grateful for the hidden treasures it contains.
May the coming year be one of good health for you. May you have energy and vitality. May you care well for your body, mind, and spirit.
May you keep your eye on the Star within you and trust this Luminescent Presence to guide and direct you each day.
May you go often to the Bethlehem of your heart and visit the One who offers you peace. May you bring this peace into our world.
In Out of the Ordinary, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2000, p. 36.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry. He was the fourth of twelve children. His brilliant but mercurial father, George Clayton Tennyson, was a country clergyman, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and opium; his mother was the daughter of a vicar. Plagued by poverty, Alfred never graduated from Cambridge University. Despite hardship, he persisted in his efforts as a poet. In 1850, Queen Victoria appointed Alfred Poet Laureate, a distinction that he held until his death in 1892. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. “Ring Out Wild Bells” expresses the fervent hope for a better year-to-come and our ability to shape the year with the choice for truth, right, and love.
“Ring Out, Wild Bells” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
In In Memoriam. London: Edward Moxson, 1850.
May we go forth into the New Year to “Ring in the love of truth and right, ring in the common love of good.”
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. 2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. 3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. 4 Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies.
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created, 6 and he established them for ever and ever— he issued a decree that will never pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, 8 lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, 9 you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, 10 wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, 11 kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, 12 young men and women, old men and children.
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens. 14 And he has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his faithful servants, of Israel, the people close to his heart.
Poem for a Tuesday — “December Moon” by May Sarton
Before going to bed After a fall of snow I look out on the field Shining there in the moonlight So calm, untouched and white Snow silence fills my head After I leave the window.
Hours later near dawn When I look down again The whole landscape has changed The perfect surface gone Criss-crossed and written on Where the wild creatures ranged While the moon rose and shone.
Why did my dog not bark? Why did I hear no sound There on the snow-locked ground In the tumultuous dark?
How much can come, how much can go When the December moon is bright, What worlds of play we’ll never know Sleeping away the cold white night After a fall of snow.
in Good Poems, New York: Penguin Books, 2002, p. 306.
Born in Belgium, May Sarton emigrated with her family to the United States as a small child at the outbreak of the First World War. Her father, a science historian, taught at Harvard. Sarton returned to Europe as a young adult and traveled in literary circles, meeting Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Julian and Juliette Huxley. Her extensive body of work, which included poetry, novels, journals, and essays, was controversial for the time, exploring themes of feminism and sexuality. Linda Barrett Osborne, critic for the Washington Post Book World, once noted that “in whatever May Sarton writes one can hear the human heart pulsing just below the surface.”
In Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991. P. 126.
Jane Flanders was a poet, musician, and gardener. A three-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize, Flanders was the author of three volumes of poetry at the time of her death from cancer in 2001. Not long afterward, her husband Steve discovered more than 700 of her uncollected, unpublished poems, a number of which were subsequently published in three posthumous volumes. Reviewer Andrew Hudgins wrote that “Flanders constantly probes the commonplace, seeking what message it has to reveal about the infinite or to discover in what way a particular moment contains the eternal” (Hudson Review).
After the teacher asked if anyone had a sacred place and the students fidgeted and shrank
in their chairs, the most serious of them all said it was his car, being in it alone, his tape deck playing
things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth had been spoken and began speaking about their rooms,
their hiding places, but the car kept coming up, the car in motion, music filling it, and sometimes one other person
who understood the bright altar of the dashboard and how far away a car could take him from the need
to speak, or to answer, the key in having a key and putting it in, and going.
in Songs for the Open Road. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999, p. 12.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn once said he was an unlikely poet. The first in his family to earn a college degree, he attended school on a basketball scholarship, worked writing copy for Nabisco, and quit it all to travel to Spain and pen a failed novel. He found his calling as a writer when his purpose shifted from prose to poetry. The author of twenty-one collections of poetry, Dunn was hailed for his ability to explore the complexity of life by attending to the mundane. Rita Dove once wrote that Dunn was “a poet who time and again achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary. He can take you by the hand and lead you along a street you may have passed through every day without much notice, and suddenly, at this new angle, the ordinary reveals in itself all the splendor and terror of existence.” He served as a distinguished professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College before his death in 2021.
Poem for a Tuesday — “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” by David Graham
How shall I not love them, snoozing
right through the Annunciation? They inhabit
the outskirts of every importance, sprawl
dead center in each oblivious household.
They’re digging at fleas or snapping at scraps,
dozing with noble abandon while a boy
bells their tails. Often they present their rumps
in the foreground of some martyrdom.
What Christ could lean so unconcernedly
against a table leg, the feast above continuing?
Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace
as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?
No scholar at his huge book will capture
my eye so well as the skinny haunches,
the frazzled tails and serene optimism
of the least of these mutts, curled
in the corners of the world’s dazzlement.
— in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 160.
David Graham is a teacher, writer, and poet. For twenty-eight years, he taught English literature and writing for Ripon College in Wisconsin. He was selected to serve as Resident Poet, as well as faculty member, at The Frost Place, a nonprofit educational center for poetry and the arts based at Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire. Retired now, Graham lives on the southern edge of the Adirondack Park in Glens Falls, New York. He writes a monthly column, “Poetic License,” on poetry and poets for Verse-Virtual, an online community journal of poetry. He has written nine books of poetry. The most recent The Honey of Earth is available now from Terrapin Books.
Poem for a Thursday — “To a Milkweed” by Deborah Digges
Teach me to love what I’ve made and judgment
in that love.
Teach me your arrogance.
With each five-petaled horned flower teach me
how much blossoming matters
along roadsides, dry-
beds, these fields no longer cleared.
Teach me such patience at each turning, how
to live on nothing but will, its milky
to the others, though when its stem is broken,
bleeds. Teach me to
need the future,
and the past, that Indian summer.
Let me be tricked into believing
that by what moves in me I might be saved,
and hold to this. Hold
onto this until there’s wind enough.
in Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, p. 159.
Deborah Digges grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, the sixth of ten children. Her poetry explores themes of family, nature, gender roles, and the complexities of being human. She taught for a number of years at Tuft’s University outside Boston. Digges authored four acclaimed volumes of poetry, including Vesper Sparrows (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize for a best first book of poetry. Her death by suicide in 2009 at the age of 59 deprived the world of a gifted voice. John Michaud of The New Yorker wrote, “She was the kind of writer whose work went deep into the lives of her readers.”