Tag Archives: poet

“O captain! My Captain!..” by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
                         Here Captain! dear father!
                            This arm beneath your head!
                               It is some dream that on the deck,
                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

Walt Whitman enriched American literature with his outstanding creative work; he broke the new ground in poetry. Whitman despised slavery and fought for the ideals of freedom and democracy. Born into a poor family, he did not have a chance to finish school, so his path in literature is often called the path of overcoming. Yet it was probably the lack of formal schooling that enabled Whitman to create a new form of poetry, free verse.

Although the poem “O captain! My Captain!..” seems to possess a certain romantic quality, as well as a tragic element and indifference towards politics, in fact it was written on the death of the US president Abraham Lincoln. The poem is closely related to the drama film “Dead Poets Society” directed by Peter Weir. The movie received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, while the British Academy of Film and Television Arts named it the best film and the best soundtrack. Characters cite the poem more than once, revealing their devotion to the completely new value system opposed to conservatism. Freedom and development are the basic principles of Whitman’s poetry.

This poem was used by the creators of the computer game Mass Effect. Its lines can also be heard in one of the episodes of the Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman series.

Whitman’s verses in general, including “O captain! My Captain!..”, lack common rhythm, fixed meter pattern, and end rhyme. They are, however, rich in inner harmonies and enumerations. The author himself described his verses in the following way: “it should be as natural as human breathing”. The poem is actually based on the uneven rhythm that can be compared to the irregular breathing of a person or a group of people who are going through a great loss. The fact that the captain lost his life neither in a battle nor fighting against the elements, but when the port is already quivering on the horizon, makes this loss even greater.

The seaman on whose behalf the poem is written does not say just “Captain”, but “My Captain”, which emphasizes his devotion to the principles, that were leading the late captain through his life. To give this idea even more emphasis, Whitman used the image of a father: “Here Captain! dear father!” Father is a person whom the son entirely trusts and who would never betray his trust. This image shows that this devotion has no limits. Devotion to the person who led the “ship”, the United States of America, from slavery to the rise of democratic freedoms.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk

‘Blessing’ by Imtiaz Dharker

The skin cracks like a pod.
There never is enough water.

Imagine the drip of it,
the small splash, echo
in a tin mug,
the voice of a kindly god.

Sometimes, the sudden rush
of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts,
silver crashes to the ground
and the flow has found
a roar of tongues. From the huts,
a congregation : every man woman
child for streets around
butts in, with pots,
brass, copper, aluminium,
plastic buckets,
frantic hands,

and naked children
screaming in the liquid sun,
their highlights polished to perfection,
flashing light,
as the blessing sings
over their small bones.

I think this is the second poem by Imtiaz Dharker that I have posted on this blog. I just think she is an extremely exciting poet; she uses such bright, colourful language.

I love the opening of this poem, with its image of skin that “cracks like a pod”. This phrase delivers a strong image of dehydration, of drought, and of cracked earth in the heat. The cracked “pod” brings to my mind a pod of seeds, scorched by the sun so that it will never produce or grow or bear fruit…”There is never enough water.” The simplicity of this second statement to me amplifies the tragic ramifications of its significance. Nothing can grow — nothing can live — where there is no water.

In the second stanza, as the poet invites us to “imagine the drip of it”, I find that the sound of the words here are so cleverly evocative that they even make me thirsty! The sibilance of the “small splash”, and the pleasing clanging of consanants in “echoing”, “tin” and “mug” deliver such a strong image of water that is so needed after the image of the “crack[ed].. pod”… It is significant that the poet describes this sound of water as the “voice of a kindly god” because it emphasises to us that very often the people in such a situation (where water is so scarce), view the advent of such a commodity as a kindly act of god. What else is there to do when you have no possibility to improve your situation? What else is there to believe when you have no possibility of educating yourself? I imagine this poem to be set in India somewhere, because of Dharker’s background.

There is a “sudden rush of fortune” in the third stanza, when the municipal pipe bursts. I think this is very clever, the way the poet draws a parallel between financial wealth and the water. Notice that the water is “silver” — so much more bright and expensive than the “brass, copper, aluminium,/ plastic buckets,/ frantic hands” that scramble to trap just a bit of the precious liquid. I think the fact that the water comes from a “municipal pipe” is important. To me, this evokes the idea of a mistake on the part of the authorities — the pipe burst and so the water got out. When I read this poem it makes me think of corrupt authorities that could help their people, but don’t. And when the pipe bursts, the reaction is a furious scramble to get as much from the happy accident as possible.  The people in the poem are described as a “congregation” here; again we have some ambiguous religious language that (to me) enforces the notion of superstitious, uneducated people, who do not know how wronged they are by the authorities.

For a moment, in the final stanza, the people — “the naked children” — become perfect, even godlike, as everything around them seems to turn to water. They stand in the “liquid sun” and are turned to gold, “polished to perfection”; they are rich as they stand in the world that has come alive thanks to the water. I think this is such a clever, and beautiful image because it really brings home to us the significance of water — how absolutely indispensable a commodity it is — and how a “rush” of water can be a miracle and a gift from god for those who are not fortunate enough to have been born in a country where it is taken for granted.

The final line, “the blessing sings over their small bones” is so very beautiful. I love the use of “sings”, and the “small bones”, and think it just reinforces the idea of the children’s mortality, reminding us that without water, they would certainly die.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘If strangers meet’ by E.E. Cummings

If strangers meet
life begins-
not poor not rich
(only aware)
kind neither
nor cruel
(only complete)
i not not you
not possible;
only truthful
-truthfully, once
if strangers(who
deep our most are
(and so to dark)


I love this poem because of the way it describes a chance meeting between two people, and the connection that can be made between strangers. This poem always makes me think of strangers on a bus, or on a train; it makes me think of the recognition we can find in a chance glance exchanged — the innocence that exists in that moment — before we know anything about the person — before judgement can interfere.

You could also read the poem as showing us a sort of “love at first sight” moment, which is truly touching. In the moment the strangers’ eyes meet, their owners are no longer “poor, not rich/ (only aware)”. The self has been forgotten and each person is only aware of the other and nothing else. The strangers, in this moment, are neither “kind” nor “cruel” but “only complete”. This part is so beautiful because it delivers the idea of how, when we connect with strangers (on a bus for example) we recognise instinctively — in the split second before all our baggage and judgement and personality interferes — a fellow spirit and inhabitant of this world.

The fleetingness and sense of chance that pervades the poem (note the title: “If strangers meet”) reminds us of the rarity of humanity recognising itself in others. It might only happen “once”. But when strangers, “who/deep our most are/ selves” — who are the same as us, at the core — “touch”, then it is “forever”. There is something divine in this recognition that makes it eternal.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘That sanity be kept’ by Dylan Thomas

That sanity be kept I sit at open windows,
Regard the sky, make unobtrusive comment on the moon,
Sit at open windows in my shirt,
And let the traffic pass, the signals shine,
The engines run, the brass bands keep in tune,
For sanity must be preserved

Thinking of death, I sit and watch the park
Where children play in all their innocence,
And matrons on the littered grass
Absorb the daily sun.

The sweet suburban music from a hundred lawns
Comes softly to my ears. The English mowers mow and mow.

I mark the couples walking arm in arm,

Observe their smiles,

Sweet invitations and inventions,

See them lend love illustration
By gesture and grimace,
I watch them curiously, detect beneath the laughs
What stands for grief, a vague bewilderment
At things not turning right.

I sit at open windows in my shirt,
Observe, like some Jehova of the west
What passes by, that sanity be kept.

I loved this poem from the first time I read it, as a teenager. It is a poem I often come back to; I don’t think I ever open my Dylan Thomas book of poems without reading this one.

Its music is, of course, glorious, as with all Dylan Thomas’ poetry. For me, ‘That sanity be kept’ describes the complexity of the role of the poet beautifully. There is, near the end of the poem, a rather exaggeratedly grand description, as Thomas describes himself as a “Jehova of the west”. I find something ironic in the way Thomas describes himself in this way, when he is talking about preserving sanity… by describing himself as a sort of God makes himself sound a little bit delusional. But then, don’t you have to have a certain amount of ego to create poetry, or any form of art for that matter? And poets are God-like in the sense that they are creators. Poets create what Thomas loved to describe as his “craft”; they observe, describe, comment, philosophise, and, on occasion, prophesy.

There also seems to me to be in this poem a sense of ritual — of the religion of poetry. It is almost as though the speaker believes that, were he not to “sit at open windows” in his shirt, making “unobtrusive comment”, then the “traffic” would fail to circulate, that the “signals” would fail to “shine”, and the “brass bands” would fail to “keep in tune”. The writing of poetry becomes a sort of compulsive prayer. Thomas keeps leaving hints to reveal to us the complexity of his relationship to his craft, adding that, as he sits at his open window — that symbolic position of an observer, apart from the world — he is “Thinking of death”.

Another line in the poem that fascinates me is “The English mowers mow and mow”. Why the repetition of such a banal word? I think Dylan is showing us here how sometimes poetry is difficult, and that sometimes the world is dull, leaving him without inspiration (with Thomas, though, this phase is very short-lived.)

I love how the poet describes himself watching the couples “curiously”, watching them “lend love illustration”. This is a very interesting line to me because it seems to suggest that the speaker has only ever read about Love — not experienced it first-hand — and so what he observes in the couples walking “arm in arm” is simply an “illustration” of a theory… he “detect[s]” the meaning behind their behaviour from his high window. This is a very sad image of the poet — he is sort of doomed in his role of observer, apart from the real world. He can make only “unobtrusive comment”, which suggests that he cannot change things. He is a passive observer and commentator, rather than an actor in life’s continuation.

So, in this poem, the poet’s very complicated role is at once that of a passive observer and commentator, a creator with very grandiose (possibly deluded) ambitions or opinions of himself, and that of a sad person who does not connect with others, and who remains apart from the real world… Which is all quite negative and sad. But then I love the image of Thomas sitting at his window in his shirt because there’s something so romantic about it.

As a final thought, I love the idea of the poet doing what he does in order “that sanity be kept”. I love that phrase, and the variation of it — “for sanity must be preserved”. Throughout my life so far, poetry has been a great preserver of sanity for me. Poetry reminds us that we are not alone, it reminds us that there is beauty in this world, and that, even where there is none, we can nevertheless create beauty, through the expression of our experience.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh