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As EcoHealth Alliance's 2016 poet in residence, my verse these days finds inspiration at the intersection of ecology and public health. For my dissertation at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, I'm reappraising the sonnets of E. A. Robinson. Additionally, I teach English at Münchner Volkshochschule, lead the literary circle at Amerikahaus, and tutor composition at LMU's Amerika-Institut, where I also curate its "Fortnightly Poem".


Sonnet to the Reader

by K. Soowthern
from Sonnets to his mystresse Diana, 1584

Thou find'st not heere, neither the furious alarmes,
Of the pride of Spaine, or subtilnes of France:
Nor of the rude English, or mutine Almans:
Nor neither of Naples, noble men of armes.
No, an Infant, and that yet surmounteth Knights:
Hath both vanquished me, and also my Muse,
And were it not: this is a lawfull excuse.
If thou hearst not the report, of their great fights,
Thou shalt see no death of any valiant soldier,
And yet I sing the beauty of a fierce warrier.
And amore alone I must strike on my Leer,
And but Eroto I knowe no other Muse.
And harke all you that are lyke us amourous.
And you that are not, goe read some otherwhere.

Note:  A recitation can be heard here.


The New Colossus

by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Note:  A recitation can be heard here. 

An ocean away, a particularly repugnant brand of vitriol against immigrants has galvanized the Republican electorate; closer to home, Pegida has claimed successes from its ongoing protests as the member states of the European Union have begun to delimit immigration drastically and tack unmistakably toward the politically safer shores of the xenophobic right. 

Such a moment in time is hardly unprecedented:  A century and a half ago, the United States, mostly through the port of New York, absorbed massive numbers of people through successive waves of migration.  And while this dismayed some members of the literati—Henry James, for example, in The American Scene expressed concerns that the country’s resources would be unduly and dangerously taxed—others, like Emma Lazarus, whole-heartedly embraced the cause of the newcomers.

“The New Colossus” was written to help raise funds to build a pedestal of granite strong enough to support the 225-ton gift from France, for the U.S. government offered no financial support whatsoever, so private donations alone—many in the form of pennies from schoolchildren—enabled the project to be completed:  Lazarus’ poem, sold as a broadsheet (and published in an anthology), added both to the fundraising goals as well as the public relations aspect of what came to be known as the Statue of Liberty.

“The New Colossus” is as intricately wrought as Eiffel and Bartholdi’s celebrated, iron-girded design.  Looking at the structure alone, we note that the two stanzas—an octave and a sestet—are comprised of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, making this a classic Petrarchan sonnet.  Traditionally, this asymmetrical pairing, like the two sides of a coin (cf. Rossetti’s “The Sonnet”), offers the reader a silent dialogue, a statement tethered to its own qualification (or even outright refutation).

Lazarus’ inspiration to write of the future sculpture through this storied genre, which was once reserved solely for the expression of unrequited love (cf. Shakespeare’s sonnets), seems two-fold:  The now-anonymous, commemorative poem affixed to the Colossus of Rhodes—a thirty-meter sculpture in bronze of Helios, the Sun god, completed in 280 BCE to become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—which (translated into prose) read:

"To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of   war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land."

And Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (from 1818), itself a famous Petrarchan sonnet:

                I met a traveller from an antique land
                  Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
                  Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
                  Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
                  And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
                  Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
                  Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
                  The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
                  And on the pedestal these words appear:
                  ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
                  Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
                  Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
                  Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
                  The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Brazenly, Lazarus employs only four end-rhymes (/em/, /ænd/; /ɔr/, /i/) in the service of the entire poem and eschews the Petrarchan sestet’s traditional, tripartite pattern (of cdecde for the more cadenced cdcdcd)—thereby enabling the octave to toggle between two voiced nasals that propel the enjambments forward while it complements a sestet proffering a startling pairing of contrastive phonemes.  Read aloud, this artful construction deliberately redoubles the echoes that depict the stately grandeur of the Mother of Exiles while emphasizing her percussive rhetoric’s ascendant power in the apostrophe’s imperative.



by W. S. Merwin

Once only when the summer
was nearly over and my own
hair had been white as the day's clouds
for more years than I was counting
I looked across the garden at evening
Paula was still weeding around
flowers that open after dark
and I looked up to the clear sky
and saw the new moon and at that
moment from behind me a band
of dark birds and then another
after it flying in silence
long curving wings hardly moving
the plovers just in from the sea
and the flight clear from Alaska
half their weight gone to get them home
but home now arriving without
a sound as it rose to meet them

Note:  A recitation can be heard here.


To the New Year

by W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Note:  A recitation can be heard here.


Sounds of the Winter

by Walt Whitman

Sounds of the winter too,
Sunshine upon the mountains—many a distant strain
From cheery railroad train—from nearer field, barn, house,
The whispering air—even the mute crops, garner'd apples, corn,
Children's and women's tones—rhythm of many a farmer and 
of flail,
An old man's garrulous lips among the rest, Think not we give 
out yet,
Forth from these snowy hairs we keep up yet the lilt.

Note:  A recitation can be heard here.


Das grösste Glück auf dieser Welt
ist nicht ein Konto mit viel Geld.
Das schönste ist:
ich wills dir nennen,
das ist ein Mensch wie dich zu kennen.

Note:  A recitation can be heard here.


A Purgatory

by W. S. Merwin

Once more the hills
are made of remembered darkness torn off
and the eye rises from its grave
upon its old
upon its ancient life

but at a wrong moment

once more the eye
reveals the empty river
feathers on all the paths
the despairing fields
the house in which every word
faces a wall

and once more it climbs
trying to cast again
the light in which that landscape
was a prospect of heaven

the vision has just passed out of sight
like the shadows sinking
into the walking stones
each shadow with a dream in its arms
each shadow with the same
dream in its arms

and the eye must burn again and again
through each of its lost moments
until it sees.

Note:  A recitation can be heard here.