Poetry on an April morning

Poetry on an April morning
Lilacs out of the Dead Land

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Those are the opening four lines of Eliot’s poem The Waste Land which you can read in full on the Poetry Foundation’s website. When you open the Foundation’s page, a popup window says this: “In this unprecedented moment, we hope you find solace in reading and sharing poems. If you’re able, thanks for supporting our work to bring poetry to more people, as many more readers now reach for poetry.” Today, I hope you can find solace in reading poetry on an April morning.

In addition, April is National Poetry Month, so with my editorial calendar saying that I’m to write about literature on Fridays, I have decided that I will share some of my favorite poems in the hope that they bring you solace or even joy in these trying times.

Guillaume Apollinaire

My favorite poem is Apollinaire’s Le Pont Mirabeau, which he wrote in 1912. He included it in his 1913 collection Alcools and it quickly became his best-loved work. I memorized the poem almost fifty years ago, and every time I go to Paris, I go to the Mirabeau bridge, stand in the middle, and recite the poem. I’m sure I’m not the only one. As a surprise bonus, here is the youtube recording of Apollinaire reciting the poem. And below, the original poem with a translation by Camille Chevalier-Karfis on the right. Ms. Chevalier-Karfis is a language teacher and the translation is closer to a literal translation than a poetic one. (More on translation below.) Reading poetry on an April morning, I can think of no better poem with which to start.

Le Pont Mirabeau

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
Under the Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine
And our loves
Must I remember them
Joy always followed pain

The night falls and the hours ring
The days go away I remain

Hand in hand let us stay face to face
While underneath the bridge
Of our arms passes
The water tired of the eternal looks

The night falls and the hours ring
The days go away I remain

Love goes away like this flowing water
Love goes away
Life is so slow
And hope is so violent

The night falls and the hours ring
The days go away I remain

Days pass by and weeks pass by
Neither past time
Nor past loves will return
Under the Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine

The night falls and the hours ring
The days go away I remain


Victor Hugo

Most people today know Hugo as the author of Les Misérables, Momma’s favorite novel. Both Les Misérables and another Hugo novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) became important musicals in the late 20th century. In France, Hugo is better known as a poet, although he also wrote plays. Of Hugo’s work, my favorite is a short poem he wrote in 1847 after the death of his daughter Léopoldine at age 19. Léopoldine had just married, and both she and her new husband drowned in the Seine near its confluence with the English Channel (La Manche). Harfleur, which Hugo names in the third quatrain, is a Normandy town, formerly northwestern France’s principal seaport and now a suburb of Le Havre. More poetry on an April morning.

Demain, dès l’aube

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.
Tomorrow, at dawn, in the hour when the countryside becomes white,
I will leave. You see, I know that you are waiting for me.
I will go by the forest, I will go by the mountain.
I cannot stay far from you any longer.

I will walk the eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without seeing anything outside, nor hearing any noise,
Alone, unknown, the back curved, the hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.

I will not look at the gold of the evening which falls,
Nor the faraway sails descending towards Harfleur.
And when I arrive, I will put on your tomb
A green bouquet of holly and flowering heather.

A Pioneer Cemetery in Garfield County, Washington

My own library

My librarything catalog shows 186 volumes of poetry in my own collection. Most of those are French or German volumes, left over from my college days when I studied French and German literature. I find it somewhat telling that many of the catalogued English language poetry volumes are still packed in boxes in my study.

These days, I don’t turn to poetry the way I once did. On the reading table next to my recliner, I do have Richard Blanco’s How to Love A Country. Beacon Press sent me the book as part of Librarything’s early reviewer program, but I’m ashamed to say I have not yet reviewed the book. How do you read a volume of poetry cover to cover, as if it were a novel, or history, or even scientific literature? I pick the book up, from time to time, read a poem or two, then put the book back on the table. Blanco, born in Madrid of Cuban parents, now lives in Maine. President Obama chose him to read the inaugural poem at his 2013 Inauguration. He was the fifth person chosen for that role, and the first gay, Latino, immigrant to do so.

Richard Blanco: Between [Another Door]

Blanco reads his poem BETWEEN [ANOTHER DOOR] on the Advocate’s Facebook page. As poetry is as much an audible experience as a visual one, I offer the link. The poem itself is below.


[the door] Between playing dress-up, parading in his mother’s
pleated skirt, marvelous as her clip-on ruby earrings, or noosed in
his father’s necktie, cuffed by his wristwatch ticking with his pulse.
[the door] Between playing house with his cousin’s Barbie dolls, or
careening his toy truck through backyard mud. [the door] Between
the coloring book prince he was supposed to be, and made to color
in blue, or the princess dress he dreamed of wearing, colored in
pink. [the door] Between the Wonder Woman lunchbox he plead-
ed for at KMart, or the Superman backpack his grandmother chose
for him. [the door] Between his face slapped for putting on a plas-
tic tiara at Craft World, or praised by his grandfather for wielding
his plastic sword. [the door] Between cowboys shooting Indians
with his brother’s cap gun, or sipping make-believe tea with his cat
Ferby. [the door] Between what he could grow up to be: a doctor or
nurse; a fireman or secretary; an astronaut or housewife; but never
both. [the door] Between hula-hooping with the girls at recess, or
dodging the boys who’d trip him, shove him, bruise him. [the door]
Between the razzle-dazzle of pom-poms he longed to shake, or the
boredom of football games he couldn’t follow. [the door] Between
the soft wrist of the first girl he held hands with, or the stubble of
the first man he kissed. [the door] Between mother’s head-bowed
shame at the dinner table and his fear of father’s inch-wide belt on
the hook. [the door] Between their small-talk about his homework,
and their silences about his friends. [the door] Between lying to a
priest upright in his chair, or lying with his truth on a therapist’s
couch. [the door] Between playing it straight, or leaving town for
the rest of his life. [the door] Between loving the only way he could
love, or loving a gun to his head, or opening [another door].

This may well be the most powerful poem I have read. I sit here with tears in my eyes as I read and re-read this work.

School Days

In grade school and high school we memorized poetry. I memorized Poe’s The Bells. Also Noyes’ The Highwayman (although the poem is much longer than I remember it). We read Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha. Even today I can hear the dactylic hexameter beat of the former, or the rhythm of the trochaic tetrameter of the latter. “THIS is the FORest priMEval.” or “BY the SHORES of GITchee GUMmee.” I remember sitting in my Emerging Nations class (it was the 60s, after all), and writing poems set to Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies. (“What are we going to do about the Selma situation” instead of “What are we going to do about the younger generation.”)

College Life

In college, I studied poetry. French poetry, German poetry, even English and American poetry. In grad school, I took two courses in the English Department, writing poetry and translating poetry. Professor Oliver taught us that the goal in translating poetry was to finish with a good poem, not necessarily a good translation. I translated both of the French poems quoted above. I translated poetry by Gabriele d’Annunzio from the Italian. (Hey, Ezra Pound translated poetry from Chinese without knowing that language.) I joined an off-campus group that translated poetry and recited to each other in upstairs rooms while drinking herbal tea. We were definitely reading poetry on an April morning.

For that group I translated a poem by 19th Century French poet Marcline Desbordes-Valmore. Like Hugo would do later, Desbordes-Valmore wrote about her son, dead in the Napoleanic wars. I’ll never forget the collective gasp in the room when I spoke the line “Earth give back my son!” Unfortunately, I have misplaced all my poetry notebooks. They’re over there, in a box, to quote Monty Python, but which box? I cannot even find the three-page free-verse poem I titled “Poem on Finding the Word Kef in the Dictionary.” And that inspite of the fact that having written the poem under my pseudonym, I proceeded to analyze it in my Writing the Expository Essay class. (I never admitted to being the author of the poem.)

One More Thing

For what it’s worth, here’s my translation for the first quatrain of Hugo’s poem:

Tomorrow as the night lights dissipate
I’ll leave, you see I know that you now wait.
I’ll cross the hills and forests drenched with dew.
No longer can I stay away from you.

Recipe of the Day

I can think of little better for reading poetry on an April morning than to have a cup of hot tea and a piece of pound cake in front of me. Today’s Recipe of the Day comes from Bon Appétit: Lemon-Lavender Pound Cake. Enjoy! Lemon-Lavender Pound cake? Sounds like poetry on an April morning to me.

RIP John Prine

To date, I have not had any close connection to the virus that is holding us all hostage these days. To the best of my knowledge, none of my family nor friends have contracted the disease. And while I feel for Tom Hanks and his wife, for Chris Cuomo, even for Boris Johnson (though not so much), it was John Prine’s death that really brought the situation home to me. Originally, I planned on dedicating this entire post to Prine, but couldn’t come up with the words.

So many of Prine’s songs speak to me, and songs are basically poetry set to music. Bette Midler introduced me to Hello In There, but Prine wrote the song. His oeuvre includes heartbreakers like Sam Stone, ballads like Angel from Montgomery, political songs like Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore. The last is one of my favorite Prine songs, along with his semi-lewd Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawai’ian. Today’s Video of the Day is Prine singing one of his last songs, When I Get to Heaven. Listening to Prine sing is just like reading poetry on an April morning.

God Speed, and God Bless, John Prine, October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020