Poems from My Notebook


This morning at one of the coffee shops where I’m an early morning regular, I had to listen to two doctors talk about how they believe the humanities are a waste of time and money, and how those who love, study and profess the disciplines that form the “Arts” part of “Arts and Sciences” are irrational, impractical, and generally responsible for distracting human beings from the pursuit of real global progress.

As my hyperbole indicates, I obviously found this really infuriating.

To recover, and silently prove them wrong, I reread all the poems I’ve written down in my notebook over the past year. I felt better pretty quickly. Here are a few of them.

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Sonnet XIII

And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
Between our faces, to cast light on each? —
I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirit so far off
From myself — me — that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief, —
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Sonnets from the Portuguese

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High matter thou enjoin’st me, O prime of men,
Sad task and hard, for how shall I relate
To human sense th’invisible exploits
Of warring Spirits; how without remorse
The ruin of so many glorious once
And perfect while they stood; how last unfold
The secrets of another world, perhaps
Not lawful to reveal? Yet for thy good
This is dispensed, and what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By lik’ning spiritual to corporeal forms,
As may express them best, though what if earth
Be but the shadow of heav’n, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?

~ John Milton, from Paradise Lost, Book V, v.560-575

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What the last evening will be like.

You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty cafe by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blue fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.

~ Edward Hirsch

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I shall know why — when Time is over —
And I have ceased to wonder why —
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky —

He will tell me what “Peter” promised —
And I — for wonder at his woe —
I shall forget the drop of Anguish
That scalds me now — that scalds me now!

~ Emily Dickinson 

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If we had never left this room
the wind would be a ghost to us.
We wouldn’t know to read the storm
into the havoc of the glass

but only see each bough and leaf
driven by its own blind will:
the tree, a woman mad with grief,
a bush, a panicked silver shoal.

Something hurries on its course
outside every human head
and no one knows its shape or force
but the unborn and the dead;

So for all that we are one machine
ploughing through the sea and gale
I know your impulse and design
no better than the keel the sail—

when you lift your hand or tongue
what is it moves to make you move?
What hurricanes light you along,
O my fire-born, time-thrown love?

~ Don Paterson

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The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears

And watered heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

~ William Blake, from Songs of Experience