Poet Profile: Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

maya-angelouBest known for her 1969 autobiography ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, which detailed the good, the bad, and the ugly of her life as a Black woman in 20th-century America, Maya Angelou was deeply steeped in both the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition of the likes of John Donne and Shakespeare and the contemporary work of African-American women poets like Anne Spencer and Jessie Fauset, who are largely unknown today. Perhaps as a result of this, a woman who was an ‘outsider’ by race, sex, and class was able to speak in a way that could reach those who might otherwise have overlooked her, and those like her. In 1993 she recited one of her poems, ‘On The Pulse of Morning’ at the inauguration of US President Bill Clinton. Continue reading “Poet Profile: Maya Angelou (1928-2014)”

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Poet Profile: William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Along with William Blake (1757-1827) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Wordsworth is recognised as one of the greatest of the first-generation Romantic poets. As with the Romantic composers, the Romantic poets reacted against what they saw as the cold intellectualism of the Enlightenment: their work emphasised the emotional, the natural, the voice of the common people, the power of the imagination and the concept of the sublime.

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;
Much favour’d in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
I was transplanted.

– from ‘The Prelude’, 1850

Continue reading “Poet Profile: William Wordsworth (1770-1850)”

Poet Profile: Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Sassoon letter
From ‘Finished With The War: A Soldier’s Declaration’, written in 1917, which Sassoon first sent to his commanding officer. It was subsequently forwarded to the press, then read aloud in Parliament by a sympathetic politician.

Often considered to be second only to Wilfred Owen among the great poets of the First World War, Sassoon’s work stands out for two things in particular: first, for the open way in which he attacks those he considers responsible for the war – military command, politicians, bishops and so on – and secondly because he was one of the relatively few poets who survived the War and continued to write thereafter, branching out into prose with his fictionalised three-part autobiography which began with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, published in 1928. Continue reading “Poet Profile: Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)”

Poet Profile: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

One Crucifixion is recorded—only—
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics—
Or History—

One Calvary—exhibited to Stranger—
As many be
As persons—or Peninsulas—
Gethsemane—

Is but a Province—in the Being’s Centre—
Judea—
For Journey—or Crusade’s Achieving—
Too near—

Our Lord—indeed—made Compound Witness—
And yet—
There’s newer—nearer Crucifixion
Than That—

A year or so ago I had some friends over for dinner and my dear and devoutly-Catholic friend Mary shared the poem above. “What does it mean?” she asked, drawing all of us into a protracted conversation not only of the themes and meanings of this particular poem but of the work of Emily Dickinson, and poetry in general (dinner conversation at my house is not to everyone’s taste). Continue reading “Poet Profile: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)”

Poet Profile: John Donne (1572-1631)

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdom, safelist when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, My Empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee[.]
– ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’

Following the familiar pattern of crappy-childhood-produces-great-literary talent, John Donne (born London, England in 1572) lost his father, also named John, when he was just four. John the Younger gets bonus crappy-childhood points for being born into a recusant Roman Catholic family (i.e. Roman Catholics who refused to convert to Anglicanism or attend Anglican church services) at a time when this could get you killed – as it did, in fact, do for a number of his extended family members. Continue reading “Poet Profile: John Donne (1572-1631)”

Poet Profile: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

Then, when the clouds are off the soul,
When thou dost bask in Nature’s eye,
Ask, how she view’d thy self-control,
Thy struggling task’d morality…

…‘Ah child,’ she cries, ‘that strife divine –
Whence was it, for it is not mine?’…

…’I saw it in some other place.
– T’was when the heavenly house I trod.
And lay upon the breast of God.’

– Matthew Arnold, Morality

Largely forgotten today, Matthew Arnold was once hailed with Tennyson and Browning as one of the great Victorian poets. Continue reading “Poet Profile: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)”

Author Profile: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Tonight I’m off to an open-air performance of Macbeth, so what better time to post a profile of its writer?

Shakespeare first folio
Engraving of Shakespeare from the First Folio.

Over the course of his career The Bard wrote or collaborated on over 30 plays (the usual count is 38, although the authorship of some is contested), 154 sonnets, two longer poems, and an uncertain number of other verses. His keen insight into human nature and the human condition meant that his plays never fell neatly into the Classical divisions of tragedy and comedy: quite apart from his historical plays, his tragedies almost invariably contain moments of comedy, while one frequently encounters moments of tragedy in his comedies. Perhaps because of this, his are the most performed plays in the world, translated into every major language; it is sometimes said that not a single day goes by without one of his plays being performed somewhere in the world. Continue reading “Author Profile: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)”

Poet Profile: A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941)

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.

Arguably the second-most famous of Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s poems, ‘The Man From Snowy River’ appears in anthologies of favourite poems not only in his native Australia but also in Britain and New Zealand. Continue reading “Poet Profile: A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941)”

Poet Profile: Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

It’s hardly applicable to a New Zealand Christmas (as I type this, the sun is shining, the strawberries and raspberries are ripening, and I’m planning a Christmas dinner which includes fresh cherries and salad straight from the garden) but, with its haunting melody and evocative portrayal of the contrast between the lowly circumstances of Christ’s Incarnation and the glories of His heavenly kingdom and coming reign, this is nonetheless one of my favourite carols. Written by Rossetti some time before 1872 in response to a request from ‘Scribner’s Monthly’ magazine for a Christmas poem, ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ gained fame only after her death, when it appeared in the 1906 English Hymnal with a setting by Gustav Holst (1874-1934, most famous for his ‘Planets’ Suite). Continue reading “Poet Profile: Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)”

Poet Profile: James K. Baxter

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

James K. Baxter, ‘High Country Weather’

Continue reading “Poet Profile: James K. Baxter”