The Grave of Edna St. Vincent Millay

I’ve had a crush on Edna St. Vincent Millay for years. Apparently she gave quite the poetry reading with her musical voice and stunning good looks. She was also a free-thinker, feminist, liberal with her affection to the point of scandal and preferred to be called Vincent.

What a shame that she died fourteen years before I was born.

She wrote the classic “My candle burns at both ends…” whose title First Fig has been all but forgotten. Her Second Fig is similarly aphoristic but when compared to the First, it comes correctly Second.

All I knew about her grave as I drove to Steepletop, her former home in upstate New York, was that she was buried somewhere on the grounds. I had read that it had been a museum dedicated to her but that the museum had closed some time ago. I had hoped that I’d be able to walk around outside and that her grave was just in the backyard or somewhere nearby.

But when I arrived, I discovered that the whole property was closed to the public. There was no legal way to visit her grave so the best I could do was write a poem.

Labyrinth for Vincent

“Ignore the No Trespassing sign,”
she beckoned from the other side.

“Come with me through the forest.
I’ll read my poetry as we travel
barefoot on the mossy path.”

Side-by-side we walked,
the sun enflamed her hair,
her voice like bird song
on the wind tickling the leaves.

And at the center—
gray and lichened
as a standing stone
felled by time—
her grave.

I asked why she hadn’t read
her famous First Fig
or my favorite Spring.

She just smiled,
kissed my cheek
and faded.

Leaving me
to remember my way
back to living.

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Falling Out on Spillwords

I’m proud to announce that another of my poems has been published on Spillwords. Falling Out was written on a dare to use the word “defenestration” in a poem. Check it out and click the little heart button if you approve, no need to log in or even register with Spillwords.

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The Grave of Robert Frost

The Old Bennington Cemetery is doing a great job maintaining their grounds. For more than 350 years, this cemetery has served Bennington, Vermont and includes several governors, lots of Revolutionary War soldiers and the great (maybe the greatest) 20th century American poet, Robert Frost.

For most of my cemetery visits, I’m alone while I walk among the tombstones. I doubt even a popular grave like Emily Dickinson‘s gets more than one pilgrim per day. On my way to Robert Frost’s grave, I passed three families on their way back to the street and they were speaking French. Frost est très formidable, n’est-ce pas?

His grave is neat and tidy, no gifts from fans allowed. There are three large flat stones. The poet is in the middle where he rests with his wife and the four of his six children who preceded him in death. The stone to the left has his two daughters who survived him plus some grandchildren and a son-in-law. The stone to his right is blank. I assume he reserved that space for even more descendants.

In front of two of the stones they posted copies of two of his famous poems, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and In a Disused Graveyard. I won’t question the poetic choices made by cemetery management but my favorite of his work and maybe my favorite poem of all time is Nothing Gold Can Stay. He packs so much meaning into a mere forty words arranged in eight rhyming lines. Brilliant!

I remember once confessing to a girlfriend some envy of the success of a fellow poet and she consoled me by saying, “You’re not competing with them. You’re competing with Shakespeare.” And I think I have a shot against Shakespeare, since I’m writing with 500 years of giant shoulders to stand upon but against Frost, my best hope is to be a pale imitation or a mildly amusing parody.

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The Grave of Wallace Stevens

I must admit, I like the idea of Wallace Stevens more than his poetry. He was another poet with a day job, like me, though he was much more successful in the business world, being a vice president at The Hartford insurance company. He lived in Hartford, Connecticut, for most of his life, not far from where I lived for a couple of years before moving out to the suburbs. Apparently Stevens would compose his poetry while he walked to the office every morning then do his revisions in the evening, which was something I would do before I started working from home.

So, returning to Hartford to visit his grave in Cedar Hill Cemetery was very nostalgic. I also drove past several of my old haunts, had brunch at one of my favorite little diners and was even served by the same waiter who took care of me twenty years ago.

My favorite poem of Stevens is The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Who couldn’t love that title? I find the poem itself rather cryptic but sometimes that’s part of the fun of poetry— puzzling it out.

I call out the Emperor of Ice-Cream (and allude to another poem by Ted Kooser whose grave I haven’t yet visited mostly because he’s still alive) in something I wrote a couple of years ago where I was reacting to poets who assert that the best time to write poetry is early in the morning. This is obviously, blatantly false. If you want to read my Early Birds poem, it was published on Susi Bocks’ blog as part of her Short of It series.

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Fraiku: Night Sounds

An orchestra of raspy wings
almost covers the faint scrape
of paws padding nearby.

Continue reading
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The Grave of Emily Dickinson

Unlike Dr. Williams’ grave, Emily Dickinson‘s is well visited. On top of her stone are some pennies as well as a mug full of pens and pencils. At its base I found rain-soaked poetry books and papers as well as a little snow-globe half buried among the plantings. There’s even a mural featuring her adjacent to the cemetery.

But of the poets I’ll be visiting this trip, I’m least enthused by Miss Dickinson’s poetry. I appreciate that she anticipated the modern free-verse style in which I write and in my workshops I regularly advocate for the use of the Dickinson Dash and she’s got some great lines like: “Because I could not stop for Death– He kindly stopped for me–” and “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul –“.

While reading more of her work in preparation for visiting her grave, I found two poems that I really enjoyed. She didn’t title her poetry (another way she was ahead of her time) so I’ll refer to them by their first lines. Tell all the truth but tell it slant is beautiful little description of how poetry does a better job expressing the Truth than prose. And Wild Nights— Wild Nights! frankly surprised me as being very un-Dickinsonian by being very sexy!

But what’s most impressive about Miss Dickinson is that she produced her poetry in near isolation. This is something I do NOT recommend. While writing poetry is a solitary activity, every poet needs a community, a group to share their poetry with and get honest feedback from. That is the best way to improve your art. There’s only one Emily Dickinson per generation, a poet who can produce masterpieces alone. The rest of us have to work together.

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The Grave of William Carlos Williams

I wonder how many people have walked past William Carlos Williams‘ grave without knowing he was one of America’s greatest poets. Since it was a pretty hot morning, I was first attracted to the shade of the giant oak tree which guards his remains only to discover I was standing next to his stone.

Williams is one of my favorite poets. I love his imagist work. I read aloud The Red Wheelbarrow from memory. (Don’t be impressed. It’s only 16 words.) And was nearly able to pull This Is Just To Say from my head but instead pulled out my phone to make sure I got it exactly right.

Another reason I feel an affinity to Williams is because he had a day job too. He was the Chief of Pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital for nearly forty years. And it’s no coincidence that he’s buried just half an hour’s drive from Ginsberg’s grave. Williams mentored Ginsberg and wrote the introduction to Howl and Other Poems.

Hillside Cemetery has a lovely view of the Manhattan skyline. I imagine it’s quite spectacular at night but couldn’t stay. There are more poetic graves yet to be visited.

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The Grave of Allen Ginsberg

I must admit, I haven’t really read anything Allen Ginsberg wrote besides “Howl”.

Howl” is such a masterpiece, the seminal work of the Beats, that even if he’d put his pen down after it, he would be remembered for as long as humans are speaking English and quite probably longer.

For those who wish to visit his grave, I would suggest flying into Newark Liberty International Airport then take the shuttle to the Hilton Newark Airport hotel. B’Nai Israel Cemetery is an easy walk from there on Mount Olivet Avenue, adjacent to the Gomel Chesed Cemetery.

Mr. Ginsberg’s grave is nearer the back fence than the front gate but still pretty easy to find.

By the way, his epitaph is the final stanza from his poem “Father Death Blues“.

Earlier this year, I wrote a 21st Century Howl, stealing his best ideas in a pathetic attempt to update them for our situation. I’ve also been trying to come up with an edit of “Howl” that I could read in a normal open mic set length of five to seven minutes but I can’t do it. There’s just too much in there that still demands to be heard.

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Fraiku: Uhura

She opened hailing frequencies
to a prismatic future— taking us
where we’d never gone before

Nichelle Nichols, 1932-2022

So it goes…

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He lives in an orangery
protected from harsh winter
by the warmth of inheritance
and orange privilege

Like many citrus scions
he assumes it’s bad luck
or poor planning that leaves
the rest of us out in the cold

The world must seem opulent
with tropical temperatures
year-round so we must remind him

Who fuels the stove and who bled
for the building which allowed
him to grow so very plump

(for this month’s Living Poetry Visual Prompt.)

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