I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing by Walt Whitman

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I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

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It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean by June Jordan

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It’s a sunlit morning
with jasmine blooming
easily
and a drove of robin redbreasts
diving into the ivy covering
what used to be
a backyard fence
or doves shoving aside
the birch tree leaves
when
a young man walks among
the flowers
to my doorway
where he knocks
then stands still
brilliant in a clean white shirt

He lifts a soft fist
to that door
and knocks again

He’s come to say this
was or that
was
not
and what’s
anyone of us to do
about what’s done
what’s past
but prickling salt to sting
our eyes

What’s anyone of us to do
about what’s done

And 7-month-old Bingo
puppy leaps
and hits
that clean white shirt
with muddy paw
prints here
and here and there

And what’s anyone of us to do
about what’s done
I say I’ll wash the shirt
no problem
two times through
the delicate blue cycle
of an old machine
the shirt spins in the soapy
suds and spins in rinse
and spins
and spins out dry

not clean

still marked by accidents
by energy of whatever serious or trifling cause
the shirt stays dirty
from that puppy’s paws

I take that fine white shirt
from India
the threads as soft as baby
fingers weaving them
together
and I wash that shirt
between
between the knuckles of my own
two hands
I scrub and rub that shirt
to take the dirty
markings
out

At the pocket
and around the shoulder seam
and on both sleeves
the dirt the paw
prints tantalize my soap
my water my sweat
equity
invested in the restoration
of a clean white shirt

And on the eleventh try
I see no more
no anything unfortunate
no dirt

I hold the limp fine
cloth
between the faucet stream
of water as transparent
as a wish the moon stayed out
all day

How small it has become!
That clean white shirt!
How delicate!
How slight!
How like a soft fist knocking on my door!
And now I hang the shirt
to dry
as slowly as it needs
the air
to work its way
with everything

It’s clean.
A clean white shirt
nobody wanted to spoil
or soil
that shirt
much cleaner now but also
not the same
as the first before that shirt
got hit got hurt
not perfect
anymore
just beautiful

a clean white shirt

It’s hard to keep a clean shirt clean.

Education by Kenneth Rexroth

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Now to the dry hillside,
Terraced with crumbling limestone,
Where there were vineyards long ago,
Evening comes cool and violet
Under the olive trees, and only
The almond blossoms and the first stars
Are alight. Your fine lean hand
Like a spindle of light
Moves as you talk, as if
You were conducting a slow music.
What are you talking about?
You are explaining everything to me–
The abandoned olive grove,
The walls older than the Romans,
The flowering almond tree,
And the twilight darkening
Around the stars and around
Your speaking lips and moving hand.

The Whistler by Mary Oliver

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All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle-
Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

The Trees by Philip Larkin

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The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

from To a Dutch Potter in Ireland by Seamus Heaney

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2. After Liberation

Sheer, bright-shining spring, spring as it used to be,
Cold in the morning, but as broad daylight
Swings open, the everlasting sky
Is a marvel to survivors.

In a pearly clarity that bathes the fields
Things as they were come back; slow horses
Plough the fallow, war rumbles away
In the near distance.

To have lived it through and now be free to give
Utterance, body and soul—to wake and know
Every time that it’s gone and gone for good, the thing
That nearly broke you—

Is worth it all, the five years on the rack,
The fighting back, the being resigned, and not
One of the unborn will appreciate
Freedom like this ever.

Among Women by Marie Ponsot

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What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

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A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.