Archive for December, 2009

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Modern Language Association Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I heard the award-winning poet Dana Gioia give a poetry reading. He read poems from his well-known collections Daily Horoscope and Interrogations at Noon as well as new poems. These are some of the lines he read:

“I found my via dolorosa in your love.” – “Prophecy”

“The humble shall find resurrection
and the dead shall lie down with the dead.” – “The Archbishop”

“You know what I bring:
now, I am here,” – “Vampire’s Love Song”

“I look for you among the brightly colored crowds …
where are you, my fugitive?” – “Shopping”

“We had the luck of having been in love but never lovers.
What more could I have wanted from that day?” – “The Apple Orchard”

“The only purpose of desire
is to explore its infinite unfolding”

“What does destiny require us to renounce?”

After his performance, Dana Gioia spoke with the audience about his own poetry and the purpose of poetry in general. He said, “The study of literature is not a luxury. We help the young achieve the fullness of their humanity by it.” He also said that the American marketplace should determine prices, not values, and he asked the question, “What things are beyond price?” This, I believe, is an important question to meditate upon because the answer shapes our lives.

Jane Beal

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“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my soul rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.”

from Mary’s Magnificat
Luke 1:46-48

Commentary: This past Sunday was the last in Advent. Now Christmas will come! Mary’s Magnificat was the reading from the New Testament for the day, and the homily focused on rejoicing in small things.

One of the songs we had in our order of service was the beloved Christmas carol, “What Child is This?” You can listen to it performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

p.s. Have you seen “The Nativity Story”?

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I. “A Precise Woman”

A precise woman with a short haircut brings order
to my thoughts and my dresser drawers,
moves feelings around like furniture
into a new arrangement.
A woman whose body is cinched at the waist and firmly divided
into upper and lower,
with weather-forecast eyes
of shatterproof glass.
Even her cries of passion follow a certain order,
one after the other:
tame dove, then wild dove,
then peacock, wounded peacock, peacock, peacock,
then wild dove, tame dove, dove dove
thrush, thrush, thrush.

A precise woman: on the bedroom carpet
her shoes always point away from the bed.
(My own shoes point toward it.)

II. “An Arab Shepherd is Searching for his Goat on Mt. Zion”

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

III. “My Father”

The memory of my father is wrapped up in
white paper, like sandwiches taken for a day at work.

Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits
out of his hat, he drew love from his small body,

and the rivers of his hands
overflowed with good deeds.

Yehuda Amichai
Trans. Chana Bloch

Commentary: I love the poems of Yehuda Amichai. Perceptive and poignant, sometimes they cut away at you from the inside. But they are always rich in meaning and feeling.

You can read about his life and read more of his poems online.

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While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the lookout?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fo-Sa.

Ezra Pound
Cathay (1915)

Commentary: There is something so beautiful and well-expressed in this poem, this interior monologue of the soul, penned in English by Ezra Pound in imitation of Li Po. Li Po (or Li Bai) is an extraordinarily famous 8th c. Chinese poet, known as one of the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup,” and more than 1000 of his poems survive today. Ezra Pound translated “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” from the Japanese translation that was made from the Chinese original. As literary history shows, Ezra Pound not only translated the words in Li Po’s poem but the ideas that shaped modern poetry in English.

Ezra Pound was deeply influenced by east Asian poetry and philosophy, and one his most famous poems reflects the influence of the haiku masters of Japan in its brevity and concentrated imagery:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
petals on a wet, black bough.

It is remarkable to look at earlier drafts of this poem and see that it was once quite long, but Ezra Pound cut it down to two lines, so that in its brevity, it might convey something essential.

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‘TIS the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world’s whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.

John Donne
17th c.

Commentary: Last night, I went to a Santa Lucia party at the home of a my Texan friend, Michelle, and her Swedish-American husband, Andrew. We celebrated with Swedish coffee cake, spiced milk, and a young girl who dressed up as Santa Lucia in a white dress with a red belt and a wreath with four candles in her hair! The oldest daughter in the family usually takes on this role, but since my friends are newly married and have no children yet, they gave the job to a dear young friend whom Michelle has taken care of for years. It was splendid!

Saint Lucy is honored every year on December 13th, the shortest day and the longest night of the year (by the old calendar). John Donne’s 17th c. poem honors the paradox of the festival night: an ending that is also a beginning for the lovers he imagines are together in his poem.

To learn more about Saint Lucy, visit: Saint Lucy.

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Some of my favorite Christmas poems are sung as Christmas carols. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is one of the most beautiful. It was originally written in Latin in the 11th century and later translated into English. The tune we know so well is medieval as well.

To read the words in Latin and English, click the title:


To hear a beautiful rendition of the tradition Christmas carol by Enya on YouTube, click this title:



p.s. Here are Christmas Carols from various performers (via YouTube) for all twelve days of Christmas …

Christmas!: “Joy to the World!”

Day 2: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”

Day 3: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”

Day 4: “What Child Is This”

Day 5: “The First Noel”

Day 6: “Little Drummer Boy”

Day 7: “Nutcracker”

Day 8: “Hendel’s Gloria!”

Day 9: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Day 10: “Carol of the Bells”

Day 11: “Silent Night”

Day 12: “Twelve Days of Christmas (Irish Style)”

Epiphany: “We Three Kings”

*”Everything Changes”

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