Occasional Poems for Independence Day

Free-wheeling behavior. What I want / when I want / how I want. Places to see, people to do, things to go. [Yes, I know that’s not quite the phrase ;)]

Do those comments describe independence?

Not quite.

Let’s try “Self Reliance”, an early idea on what a democratic republic nation should be–the ideals of ancient Greece, the best governance of ancient Rome. A pride in viewing everyone the same because we are the same. A willingness to stand up and be counted when it matters.

How about now? Are we describing independence?

Closer.

Independence Day

On the 4th of July America celebrates its beginnings and all the best that this country comes together to be. Yes, we have problems. Who doesn’t? We’re working on them. (Are you working on yours? Good. Haven’t got any? Think again.)

Writing for Independence Day
  1. Find the reason/purpose for writing.
  2. Identify the audience.
  3. Select the images to use. Seven?
  4. Subtract anything too maudlin. Strong memories defeat smarmy emotion.
  5. Determine the focus idea to convey.
  6. Use repetition and alliteration. Audiences listen for key words. Their minds chain the keys together to build sense.
  7. Figurative language works in performance only when it controls the entire text. Extended metaphors will carry more power than simple similes.
  8. Subtract anything too maudlin. Yes, again.
  9. Manipulate the line structure.
  10. Practice before performance.

To celebrate the USA’s Independence, I’ve gathered several poems that meet the requirements of the occasion. A wide-range of poetry, and the last one not even considered a poem by the majority. In looking at these poems, we can see directions for our own attempts to celebrate any patriotic occasion.

All the poems use tight construction through repetition, the time-honored rhetorical device when constructing any writing for performance.

Our first poems are the total spirit of what enables the independent spirit.

Walt Whitman:  Equality, Fraternity, Liberty

Whitman is one of the two great American poets who can be identified by the appearance of their poetic lines alone. Emily Dickinson is the other. Like the USofA, Whitman sprawls across the continent, celebrating all of us. Dickinson writes compact poems with introspective individuality.

Perhaps the most well-known of Whitman’s poems is his “I Hear America Singing”. Free verse with his signature catalog of details, it rejoices in the plain people who began turning America into the powerhouse of industry that it became in the 20th Century.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s Writing

How did Walt Whitman craft this poem? The method he used is called the catalog. He lists the series of workers and what they are doing. These are common people in common jobs, each one vibrant, each one essential for everyone to progress (a lesson we all learned about essential work during the pandemic).

Men and women. Old and young. Owner and worker. Tough work and fine work. Hard work and working at play. Morning, noon, night.

“The day what belongs to the day–at night the party”.

His first two lines present his purpose. He balances every other detail, either by twos or threes (the line about women presents three ages).

Whitman isn’t concerned with the length of the line. The stringencies of the computer screen alter the actual line lengths: the lines for the boatman and woodcutter and the women should stretch to their entire length rather than drop down.

Whitman gives us pure egalitarianism.

The everyday person, working hard to enjoy the harvest of his own hands—this is the person that 4th of July speeches should praise. Picnicking, jumping whole-heartedly into games, glorying in the fireworks—this is the poem to celebrate Independence Day.

Waldo Emerson: Pillars of Independence on the Colossus of the People

I am not a fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Concord Hymn”, the usual read for Independence Day with its famous “shot heard round the world”, leaves me cold. His “A Nation’s Strength” stirs the feelings of pride in our country.

A Nation’s Strength

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

Emerson’s Writing

Emerson writes a simple meter and a simple rhyme scheme (abab). His structure is a simple question and answer format: Is it this? Is it that? No, it is not what you expect. “Sinking sand” and “abiding rock” are allusions to the Bible.

The “red dust” of empires offers another allusion >> “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with the ashes picked up in the next stanza. Money, war, and pride cannot keep a nation strong.

What then? Only a nation’s people. Only those who stand for truth and honor. Only the brave who battle while others sleep.

Coming Up

While others applaud the nation or its elected leaders or its industry leaders, Whitman and Emerson both remind us that nations are nothing without their people standing strong.

These are our first two volleys in the four-post celebration of occasional poems on Independence. Return on July 5th for the next offerings.

Practice Occasional Poems

The summer months offer several opportunities to practice occasional poems. First Mother’s Day, now Father’s Day … and coming soon is Independence Day.

Occasional poems–meant to be read, not perused–usually are light on structural elements and heavy on powerful details and emotional points. Clever ideas–like a time progression–can resonate with our audience. The strongest time progression is Past > Present > Future.

Fathers, like our mothers, connect past to present to future. On the 5th, we had a close examination of a traditional poem by Robert Haydn—the famous “Winter Sundays”—and a free verse from Li Young Lee—“The Gift”.

Here are two more, without the involved examination. All four poems–just as the Mother’s Day poems–offer practice opportunities for new poets. Without concentrating on a complicated structure, we see powerful details. Those details create lingering memories for us.

Fathers Must Let Go of the Past to Give us our Present

Father’s Day poems usually provides the child’s perspective. Cecil Day Lewis’ “Walking Away” provides us the father’s perspective.

This link comes from Genius.com and offers two annotated explanations.

Fathers Give Us the Future Because of What They Lost

Jan Beatty presents “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, a soft-sounding poem until we meet the strong voice of the first lines. The link connects to an archive of The Seattle Times, with a bit of information before and after to explain the father’s viewpoint.

We can hear Jan Beatty asking her father what work is like. How many children and teenagers have wondered the same thing? We see work as the money we earn and what independence that we think that money will give us. Instead, in the father’s hard voice, we get the harsh reality.

The short lines, staccato hard, give us a painful truth–“same thing again. / Nothing more. Nothing less. … All this other stuff you’re looking for — / It ain’t there. / Work is work.”

Once we’re past those sharp words, those of us who have worked years will laugh—and then nod, realizing the truth the father gives his daughter..

Look again at Beatty’s title. Through those words “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, unspoken is the father’s wish and the child’s realization of how to escape such toil and pursue the career that will create happiness in the slavery of work for $$$.

That gift of the future dream, the gift of MORE than the humdrum work world, is the greatest gift our fathers can give to us.

Practice Occasional Poems

Both poems offer memories, just as did Haydn’s and Lee’s poems. In searching for a subject to practice your occasional poems, look into your memory. The details that create your strong memory strongly will transfer to the page and to your audience.

Coming Up

On the 25th, we are past Father’s Day and looking toward the next big occasion of the summer months >> Independence Day.

Join us.

Poems for Father’s Day

June Celebrates Fathers

Father and Son (free stock image from Wiki Commons)

The day that we honor our fathers rapidly approaches. It’s a perfect opportunity to write poems for Father’s Day.

As practicing poets, we might thing that writing poems for our fathers is easy. That is, we think that until we crack open the laptop, fire up a Word app, then realize we can only think of pablum.

We don’t want to give our fathers bland, tasteless, emotionless words.

Unlike Father’s Day, poems for Mother’s Day flood the world. Unfortunately, most of those poems are line after line of overblown sentiments better suited for greeting cards. Or cutesy little poems trying for loud laughter.

Occasional poems should awaken the mind and tug at the heartstrings.

Avoiding the overblown and the cutesy are the two pitfalls for all Occasional Poems, most especially for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. We need our poems to be real, to be personal, and to be touching.

Father’s Day offers another barrier that we stumble against. We don’t think “sentiment” when we consider writing for our dads.

We should.

Yet tossing in emotion after emotion never works. Both Mom and Dad deserve truth instead of watery pathos.

Reminder

We have three chief reasons to practice our poetic craft with occasional poems for all**.

1] Keep to audience requirements. Who are we writing for? Ourselves? Nyah. It’s the fathers we wish to honor.

2] Keep to the 4 Requirements of Song. Remember those? Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. Heartfelt Message. Clear Communication.

3] Keep a focus on structure to stand out from the multitude of other poems swimming in the universal current.

(**Occasional Poems for All. That’s a book, isn’t it? Filled with all the trite, complacent pathos we could want. Let’s not fall back on this or on greeting cards.)

How can we achieve truth in our Poems for Father’s Day?

Consider the role that your father plays in your life. Look to the character archetypes to determine which role we want to celebrate. From there, we ask “What does that role require?” Once we know that answer, we find specific images (especially a dominant image) to represent the role.

Two Views of Fathers

Fathers as Protectors

Robert Hayden gives us the sadness of missed opportunities to express to his appreciation to his father for his sacrifices, sacrifices that were unknown and unrecognized by arrogant and selfish youth.

Here is Those Winter Sundays, on Poetry Foundation

Look at the harsh reality of the first stanza: blueblack cold, “cracked hands that ached from labor.” Strong alliterative B’s and the hard K sound of the C’s emphasize those winter Sundays when everyone else is sleeping, everyone else is free from work, and everyone else snuggles just a little deeper under the bedcovers–because someone else will do the hard thing … just as Haydn’s father did.

The second stanza presents the frozen reality of the world–from the weather, from the difficult emotions between father and son as the son challenges that the father wants … because the father sees his world and doesn’t want that world for his son.

The father drove out the cold of the weather … and the world by giving his son the ability to do more than that hard labor that cracked the father’s hands. And his son can go into the world with newly polished good shoes, putting a shiny clean face on his future … because of his father’s “austere and lonely offices”.

We have fourteen lines in this poem–5 in the first stanza, 4 in the center, 5 in the last. A hidebound traditionalist wouldn’t call this poem a sonnet because it breaks the common sonnet structures. Yet what does a sonnet do? It presents an argument, provides evidence, then through a Volta (a turning viewpoint) it reaches a truth.

Haydn argues that his father loves him–even though the house was filled with “chronic angers”. He gives several details as evidence. Then, in the last two lines (where Shakespeare always turned his Volta to achieve his truth) Haydn gives the rhetorical question “What did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

The question is rhetorical because we know the answer. None of us know about “love’s austere and lonely offices”, not until we have years between event and emotion, years to reflect on what actually occurred, and the wiser understanding of those years to see.

Fathers Teach Lingering Lessons

Li Young Lee, who had an example of a Mother’s Day poem, also presents his father’s love in a rather oblique way, via Lee’s relationship with his wife. Find “The Gift” here on Poetry Foundation.

The poem opens with Lee’s memory: his father draws out a splinter, distracting his son with a story. The second stanza gives us the details of his father’s love: “his voice … a well of / dark water”, his hands “two measures of tenderness / laid against my face”, and “flames of discipline” similar to Haydn’s father with the “chronic angers”.

In the third stanza, Lee moves us from past to present. He invites us into the poem as well as he moves from the literal “planting something in a boy’s palm” to the figurative, for Lee’s father did plant something in his son–the ability to be tender when a necessary hurt must occur. He reinforces this with the repetition of details from the first two stanzas. The “silver tear” is the “well of dark water” as well as the tears on the little boy’s face as he confronts a painful splinter and its withdrawal. The “tiny flame” is the memory of those “flames of discipline”, reduced by time.

Using his father’s technique, he performs the same splinter withdrawal. Then Lee shows us his mark–humor mixed with memory … “Metal that will bury me” and “Little Assassin”, the extremes of childish thought. And he charges the poem with further emotion when he thanks his father with a kiss, doing “what a child does / when he’s given something to keep”.

A memory of his father.

Coming Up

Two more views of fathers, just in time for Father’s Day.

Join us on the 15th.

On Memorial Day, We Remember

Two poems perfectly capture the warning that Memorial Day is, from the soldiers who are gone to the blithe population that never understands.

In Flanders Field by John MacCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

MacCrae’s Poetic Craft at Work

When we glance at this poem, we see the strong rhyme, the opening alliteration, and the juxtaposition of nature with the violence of war, given in the last line of this first stanza.

Deceptively simple, we think, and we are wrong. The power of the first sentence in the second stanza proves it. Lines 2 and 3 of this second stanza connects the Dead with us the Living. So little distance between us, so little separation–that we could also lie there, in Flanders Fields.

He continues his juxtaposition, not only between the LIving and the Dead, but also with dawn and sunset > the span of a day, the span of a life, too short, cut short before we would want it to be.

The third stanza provides the warning. The Dead sacrificed themselves for us. We cannot let the torch they lit be extinguished. If we do, we are cursed, for they will not sleep.

In Flanders Fields Clip Art
Canadian War Bond poster, from https://publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com/2015/07/in-flanders-fields-clip-art.html
Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Brooke’s Poetic Craft at Work

Brooke writes a sonnet, octet and sestet with the accepted ABAB CDCD EFGEFG rhyme.

The Octet

He ties the first and second stanzas together with the word “think” in the first line of each, an obvious connection. Not so obvious is his focus on the physical in the first stanza and the intellectual / emotional of the second. This is working with Plato’s TriPartite Being, body and mind and soul that forms us all.

Mentioning the England of his home, the little dirt of his body that is England in a foreign land, and “English air” and “English heaven” develops the reminder that his death was for his country, for the ideals that his country stood for rather than petty treasure or revenge.

The allusion to the graveside “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” becomes more powerful as he works out the body that gave itself for its homeland: “In that rich earth a richer dust concealed / A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware …”

“Bore, shaped, made aware” is a classic asyndeton, continued on the next line with “Gave”, and the verb introduces the beauty of the country that gave birth to this son who sacrificed himself for her ~

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

The Sestet

The last six lines become all the more powerful, for they capture the person that is lost, not just his body but his mind and heart.

The grouped first three are the mind shedding evil, returning to the universal “pulse” and releasing a connection to the land of his birth. The last three are pure emotion: happiness, laughter, gentleness, and peace ~ those four things that all soldiers long for when the violence of war is all around them.

Remember the Sacrifice

Memorial Day is the day we set aside to remember our soldiers, lost in foreign and domestic conflicts, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation’s continued existence and our citizenry’s continued freedom.

Memorial Day is gradually extending to include more than soldiers on the battle fronts.

We have Independence Day to celebration our nation’s founding and Veteran’s Day to honor our warriors. We have Labor Day to honor the workers who helped America progress and become the dream of every oppressed worker in the world.

And we have other commemorations that offer opportunities for poets to practice their craft.

MacCrae and Brooke are master poets. Emulate the masters (don’t copy; study and model) to improve your own poetic skills.

Coming Up: Poems for Father’s Day

Celebrate a Book Birthday!

On this day in 2017, M.A. Lee published Old Geeky Greeks, third in the Think like a Pro Writer series.

We published with one cover. At the end of 2019, as part of the year-long updates to the entire Think like a Pro Writer series, our cover designers Deranged Doctor Design came up with this wonderful cover.

Here’s information for this book. Click the link to Amazon to purchase.

What do these have in common?

Atonement. I, Robot. The 13th Warrior. The Hobbit. Jurassic Park, in all its iterations.

Harry Potter. Ironman. Perseus. Dudley Dooright. Macbeth.

5 Stages of the Hero and the Monster. Blood tragedies. The scariest woman in all literature. Hubris.

These oddly-matched items all have origins in the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The first storytellers discovered many ways to intrigue and thrill their audiences.  They laid strong foundations for what worked and what didn’t work. Their techniques are still used, re-packaged as exclusive insights, glittery infographics, three-point seminars, and Wham-Pow webinars urging modern writers to Buy Now!

Old Geeky Greeks: Write Stories with Ancient Techniques presents these techniques in a clear, organized method for writers.

Chapters in OGG cover understanding characters, plot requirements and the oldest plot formula (the Blood or Revenge Tragedy), and such concepts as in medias res and dulce et utile and more, all to solve the sticky problem of audience expectations.

The bright minds of Classical Antiquity first explored that problem, and the answers that they developed are applicable in this age of the internet, special effects, and infographics.

Save yourself the hours spent at seminars and in webinars or scanning social media. Spend that time writing—and study the Old Geeky Greeks at your leisure. Whether writing novels or plays, blogs or non-fiction, poems and songs, this guidebook offers information to improve your writing.

Old Geeky Greeks is a seminar in book form, 28,000 words of time-proven techniques.

Writer M.A. Lee has published 25-plus titles under various pen names since she began self-publishing in 2015. She has over 30 years of experience in guiding college and high school students as they examined, analyzed, and applied these techniques.

Two More Poems for Mother’s Day

On May 5th, W.Ink looked at Li Young Lee’s free verse tribute to his mother. Today, we offer two more poems for mothers, appropriate for Mother’s Day. As Shakespeare told us, lines of poems endure long beyond a life span.

Lee’s poem was appropriately nostalgic.

George Barker offers a more affectionate view, love salted with reality, while Judith Viorst provides a mother’s advice to her son.

George Barker :: Sonnet

Click the link to read the poem then return here for our analysis, all to help you write your own occasional poem.

“Sonnet”, Barker announces as his title, and most of us wouldn’t have noticed that he chose one of the most tightly controlled poetic structure if he had not announced it.

“Most near, most dear, most loved, and most far” begins the poem, four hyperboles with the contrasting near and far bracketing the line, letting us readers know that these two words mean more than distance.

The first line sounds like the traditional Mother’s Day greeting card. Surprise comes in the third line. No woman wants to be described “as huge as Asia”. “Seismic with laughter”, yes. Barker gives us the reality of his mother. He doesn’t gild the lily, for it is not the pretty image that makes up the mother he loves:  a woman who helps the weak and hurt, brash but alluring, fascinating and courageous.

These are powerful images that he creates for us, laded with emotion, two of the four requirements of song.

She has her weaknesses, but he bolsters her with “all my love” and a reminder of “all her faith” as she copes with a devastating death, punned into the last line.

By now we are studying the poem, re-reading the strongly written portions.

  • the juxtaposition of the first line
  • the similes and metaphors that complete the first stanza
  • the continued comparison of the second (sestet)
  • followed by the anaphoric “all my faith and all my love”

As we conclude, we nod to ourselves, for this is a woman we know, a person we want to emulate.

And although he has written a sonnet, his rhyming is as atypical as the woman herself.

Surprising poems like Barkers draw us back and back—and isn’t that what we want with our poetry? Readers returning over and again.

Judith Viorst :: Some Advice from a Mother to her Married Son

Off to Poem Hunter again, to read this deceptively simple poem.

Mothers are known for their advice. Teenagers think it’s nagging, but young adults have a comprehension of the wisdom that flows from the mother, advice oft-repeated because we do not understand the simplicity of the truth.

Viorst gives the most important advice for the first years of a happy marriage. She begins by imagining argument-causing statements that she wants her son to avoid. Such comments can HURT, and they awaken common feelings that everyone has had, has, and will have whenever they are in a relationship. Such comments will damage a relationship. And a couple of them will destroy it.

Here is the emotional connection and strong lines of the 4 Requirements of Song. The connection and strength occur because we have all heard these or heard instances of these.

Her son obviously wants to avoid the arguments, and Viorst knows his wife will eventually ask “Do you love me?”

That question always comes at a trying moment, when no one wants to answer any question at all.

The answer to do you love me isn’t, I married you, didn’t I?

Or, Can’t we discuss this after the ballgame is through?

It isn’t, Well that all depends on what you mean by ‘love’.

Or even, Come to bed and I’ll prove that I do.

She continues by describing the typical scene when that “Do you love me?” question will come: burned bacon, messy house, screaming children, and more. These tight little lines create powerful imagery, a third requirement of song.

For Viorst, the answer is simple.

The answer is yes.

The answer is yes.

The answer is yes.

Simple repetition of the truth.

Join us on the 25th, early Morning for Memorial Day and looking ahead to Flag Day, for a first look at examples of patriotic poems.

Occasional Poems for Mothers in May

The Stone Boat: constructed in the mid-1700s. Photograph of the Marble Boat Pavilion on the grounds of the Summer Palace in BeijingChina. Photograph taken on April 172005 by Rolf Müller. Permission to Share from Creative Commons.

Occasions: When Audience trumps Poet

May and June and July are jammed with occasions.

  • Mother’s and Father’s Days ~ May and June
  • Memorial and Flag and Independence Days ~ May and June and July
  • Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days ~ May and June, typically but also constantly

For poets seeking an audience, these occasions are opportunities to practice crafting poems.

Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders

1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.

Many new poets write only when their emotions need an outlet. They require the emotion for the inspiration. Professional poets know that poetry occurs constantly. Poetry is for every day, not just for the days when anger or grief rule.

Occasions are excellent opportunities for poetic growth. Logic drives poems that endure, not just the canonical Shakespeares and Rilkes, e.e. cummings and Dickinsons, Poes Whitmans and Dickinsons, and so many more. Logic forms the enduring songs we hear in popular cultures, those songs on the radio, like the Eagles and Dolly Parton, Cold Play and Joni Mitchell, the Dixie Chicks and Sting, U2 and Chris Tomlin, and on and on.

Logic does not mean that poetry becomes lock-step.

Logic does mean that the poet controls the poetic craft.

Occasions go one step more. Occasional poems require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.

In other words, poets write with other people in mind.

2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song.

The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.

Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged:  a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one. Occasional poems are often read aloud.

Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering. These devices “control” the sequence of thought and must be carefully controlled.

Two Poems to Study

Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples of occasional poems written for presidential inaugurations.

Angelou gives us a free verse poem as sprawling as American cities while Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is tightly focused and structured over its 16 lines. For the audience, this is the difference between a 20-minute speech and a 5-minute one. It’s the Gettysburg Address that we know and love, not the hour-long speech that preceded it which everyone has forgotten.

Angelou’s poem resonates when we can hold it in our hands, peruse it, muse over it. It is a poem for future anthologies.

Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is powerful in the moment yet is then rarely referenced as more than an inaugural poem.

Craft an occasional poem well. It can gain power to reach into the ages.

Intimidated? You can always fall back on a greeting card.

Here is our first poem for Mother’s Day.

Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time

In “I Ask My Mother to Sing”, located here on the Poetry Foundation website, Li-Young Lee presents the connection of the past to present to future.

Go off and read. I’ll wait.

Mothers connect past to present to future for their children in many unconscious ways. They ground their children with who they are (present) and who they come from (past) even as they encourage who they will become (future).

Lee celebrates this ability of his mother and grandmother through their singing. The women’s joy comes across in the second line: “Mother and daughter sing like young girls.” Then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a mother-based poem—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”, another excellent poem of past to present to future. Lee adds a memory of his departed father, reminding us that these two women who give him such joy will not always be with him.

Just as our mothers will not always be with us. A gentle reminder: Be with them in this now, for time will have its cruel way.

Lee’s second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song ::

“I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace / Nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch / the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers / running away in the grass.”

It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the powerful imagery of soothing serenity ::   waterlilies become a bamboo fountain, “spilling water into water / then rock back, and fill with more”.

from Wikipedia, Kuen Ming Lake, spelled there Kunming Lake, at this link.
We finish the poem, but it’s not done.

We read the poem, read it again, basking in the soothing imagery and the wistful ideas. Then, in preparation for moving on with our busy lives, we read the title, those few words that we scarcely glanced over in our rush to read the poem.

Lee has done something wonderful with this title. It is a necessary part of his poem. It pours us into the words, just as the waterlilies pour water into water, from the first line to the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.

Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back, reading the poem a second and a third time, remembering it, connecting it with our lives.

Return on the 15th for another Occasional Poem in Celebration of May for Mothers.