Mountains of wearisome height

We have a poster hanging in our house of Thomas Cole’s “Journey of Life: Youth,” which shows a young person setting off in a boat, looking toward a beautiful castle in the sky. There’s so much between this youth and the castle–water, forests, plains, mountains–and as I looked at it, I recalled the words of Sam Walter Foss:

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead
And mountains of wearisome height;
The road stretches on through the long afternoon
And passes away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice,
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.
(Foss, “A House by the Side of the Road”)

In this month of gratitude, I am thankful for the many people who rejoice and weep with me through all the meadows of sunshine and wearisome mountains. So often, writing is depicted as a solitary venture, one in which the author holes up for months before emerging with an earth-shaking manuscript; but that’s not how it works. You can’t write in a void. You have to have experiences to draw on, personalities to reflect on, people to lean on.

One of the things I love the most about Foss’s poem is that it’s not about lifelong friends or soul mates. It’s about people passing by, crossing paths with him for a brief moment, travelers and strangers and people both good and bad. And yet he reaches out for them, appreciates the light that they bring to his life, seeks to help them in their journey.

And so today I am grateful for my fellow travelers who have touched my life even for a brief instant, who have paused on the path just long enough to share in the joy of our mutual journey towards our castles in the sky.


The fading trauma of poetry

I loved all of my freshman creative writing class except for one section: poetry.

For the first week, I tried really, really hard to appreciate the poems we read and to remember the forms we talked about. But it was pure torture, and by the time I had to write 100 lines of poetry, I was desperate to get it over with as quickly as possible. Among the gems I composed were a free-verse poem about narwhals and a rondeau about the misery of finals week. Instant classics, I assure you.

This was not helped by that class where I was given twenty minutes to read and interpret five German poems and then present to the class. And two of the poems were Rilke, for heaven’s sake! I still can’t face Rilke without wanting to die.

But, Rilke aside, I have grown through the years to appreciate, even enjoy poetry beyond The Cremation of Sam McGee (although that remains a true favorite around the campfire). There are poems that are the perfect mixture of music and words, and those are the ones that have taken up residence in my heart and soul.

For example (with a few favorite lines—click the title to read the whole poem):

The Day is Done (Longfellow)

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

The House by the Side of the Road (Foss)

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish – so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

The Builders (Longfellow)

All are architects of Fate,
Working in these walls of Time;
Some with massive deeds and great,
Some with ornaments of rhyme.

Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.

How do you feel about poetry? What are some of your favorites? Are you one of those daring souls who writes poetry?

The Builder

(author unknown)

I saw them tearing a building down
A team of men in my hometown.
With a heave and a ho and a yes yes yell,
they swung a beam and a sidewall fell.

And I said to the foreman, “Are these men skilled?”
“Like the ones you’d use if you had to build?”
And he laughed and said, “Oh no, indeed…
the most common labor is all I need…
for I can destroy in a day or two
what takes a builder ten years to do.”

So I thought to myself as I went on my way…
Which one of these roles am I willing to play?
Am I one who is tearing down as I carelessly make my way around?
Or am I one who builds with care, in order to make the world a
little better… because I was there?