Category Archives: Poetry

BGMD: Whitman’s “This Compost”

I know this is a little long, but my next big article for Eric at Planet Natural is on composting, so it had to be done. If it's too long for you, read the first line of each stanza and the whole last stanza, especially the last line. And if the idea that I'm giving advice about how to skim a poem horrifies you, well, now you know the worst about me. 

This Compost


SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;  
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;  
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;  
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me.          5
O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?  
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?  
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?  
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?  
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?   10
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?  
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;  
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?  
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;  
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;   15
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.  

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!  
The grass of spring covers the prairies,  
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,   20
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,  
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,  
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,  
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,  
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,   25
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,  
The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,  
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,  
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the dooryards;  
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.   30
What chemistry!  
That the winds are really not infectious,  
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,  
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,  
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,   35
That all is clean forever and forever.  
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,  
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,  
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the
orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them
poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,   40
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.  

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,  
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,  
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,   45
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,  
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

by Walt Whitman (1819–1892).  Leaves of Grass.  1900.

Monday Muse: Black Rook in Rainy Weather

This is not a poem about gardens or even, really, about Nature with a capital "N," but it seems fitting in this season of dying gardens and increasingly grey skies, when everything–lungs, arteries, possibilities–can feel constricted.

Since we don’t have rooks in the U.S., this poem deserves a photograph of a crow, which we do have, or at least of rain, but Montana seems to have skipped autumn this year, leaping straight from the almost summer-like temperatures that greeted us when we returned from Newfoundland in late September to the snow that now blankets the ground. I therefore have no rain to show you, and even the crows, which at times in summer drive me mad, appear to have fled. So I can offer only this photo of a rook, cadged off the Web.

Both here and in all the other photographs I found, the rook appears much blacker than crows do, glossier, more irridescent. Which makes sense, given what Plath does with it in the poem.


Image from Rooks and Crowsby Natalie Jacobs.

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Monday Muse: “Beauty is its own excuse for being.”

Here’s Emerson waxing poetic about a flower in the woods. His rather old-fashioned and self-consciously poetic vein   can be trying: You can tell I’m a poet because I say "thee!" And because I invert normal sentence structures! (Yes, I know that both language and poetic conventions were different in 1834, but greater poets worked with them without sounding so stilted in some lines. The problem is that those lines jar, and they do that because Emerson establishes a pretty straightforward syntax and style at the beginning. Okay, I’ll shut up now.)

Despite some stylistic lapses, the concepts here are endlessly intruiging. It’s a version of that old conundrum: if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make any sound? I don’t think this is a great poem, but it came to mind during my latest philosophical meanderings about bean blossoms and the nature of beauty, so I thought I’d go ahead and post it. Also, the line I quote as my title for this post is pretty damn good: simple, unforced, yet profound — and it scans perfectly, every other syllable receiving emphasis, like the downbeat in a measure of music.

The Rhodora

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

On being asked, Whence is the flower?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Monday Muse: Kudzu is Coming– UPDATED

I know this is long, but having just –oops– done an even longer post about kudzu, this poem by James Dickey seemed to be relevant–perhaps even unavoidable.


    Japan invades. Far Eastern vines
    Run from the clay banks they are

    Supposed to keep from eroding.
    Up telephone poles,
    Which rear, half out of leafage
    As though they would shriek,
    Like things smothered by their own
    Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.
    In Georgia, the legend says
    That you must close your windows

    At night to keep it out of the house.
    The glass is tinged with green, even so,

    As the tendrils crawl over the fields.
    The night the kudzu has
    Your pasture, you sleep like the dead.
    Silence has grown Oriental
    And you cannot step upon ground:
    Your leg plunges somewhere
    It should not, it never should be,
    Disappears, and waits to be struck

    Anywhere between sole and kneecap:
    For when the kudzu comes,

    The snakes do, and weave themselves
    Among its lengthening vines,
    Their spade heads resting on leaves,
    Growing also, in earthly power
    And the huge circumstance of concealment.
    One by one the cows stumble in,
    Drooling a hot green froth,
    And die, seeing the wood of their stalls

    Strain to break into leaf.
    In your closed house, with the vine

    Tapping your window like lightning,
    You remember what tactics to use.
    In the wrong yellow fog-light of dawn
    You herd them in, the hogs,
    Head down in their hairy fat,
    The meaty troops, to the pasture.
    The leaves of the kudzu quake
    With the serpents’ fear, inside

    The meadow ringed with men
    Holding sticks, on the country roads.

    The hogs disappear in the leaves.
    The sound is intense, subhuman,
    Nearly human with purposive rage.
    There is no terror
    Sound from the snakes.
    No one can see the desperate, futile
    Striking under the leaf heads.
    Now and then, the flash of a long

    Living vine, a cold belly,
    Leaps up, torn apart, then falls

    Under the tussling surface.
    You have won, and wait for frost,
    When, at the merest touch
    Of cold, the kudzu turns
    Black, withers inward and dies,
    Leaving a mass of brown strings
    Like the wires of a gigantic switchboard.
    You open your windows,

    With the lightning restored to the sky
    And no leaves rising to bury

    You alive inside your frail house,
    And you think, in the opened cold,
    Of the surface of things and its terrors,
    And of the mistaken, mortal
    Arrogance of the snakes
    As the vines, growing insanely, sent
    Great powers into their bodies
    And the freedom to strike without warning:

    From them, though they killed
    Your cattle, such energy also flowed

    To you from the knee-high meadow
    (It was as though you had
    A green sword twined among
    The veins of your growing right arm–
    Such strength as you would not believe
    If you stood alone in a proper
    Shaved field among your safe cows–):
    Came in through your closed

    Leafy windows and almighty sleep
    And prospered, till rooted out.

        –James Dickey

Monday Muse: Wayward Wayman Again

For those of you who thought that Wayman’s Picketing Supermarkets was way too political or preachy, I thought I’d share this one, which has nothing to do with gardening, but everything to do the importance of a light touch, and the price of politics out of place. I just love a guy who can laugh at himself.

Wayman in Love

At last Wayman gets the girl into bed.
He is locked in one of those embraces
so passionate his left arm is asleep
when suddenly he is bumped in the back.
"Excuse me," a voice mutters, thick with German.
Wayman and the girl sit up astounded
As a furry gentleman in boots and a frock coat
Climbs in under the covers.

"My name is Doktor Marx," the intruder announces
settling his neck comfortably on the pillow.
"I am here to consider for you the cost of a kiss."
He pulls out a notepad. "Let us see now,
we have the price of the mattress, the room must be rented,
your time off work, groceries for two,
medical fees in case of accidents."

"Look," Wayman says, "couldn’t we do this later?"
The philosopher sighs, and continues: "You are affected too, Miss.
If you are not working, you are going to resent
your dependent position. This will influence
I assure you, your most intimate moments."

"Doctor, please," Wayman says. "All we want is to be left alone."
But another beard, more nattily dressed, is also getting into the bed.
There is a shifting and heaving of bodies
as everyone wriggles out room for themselves.
"I want you to meet a friend from Vienna," Marx says. "This is Doktor Freud."

The newcomer straightens his glasses, peers at Wayman and the girl.
"I can see," he begins,"that you two have problems?"

           Tom Wayman