The Poets

October 10, 2016

An Elegy to Heather Tripler

On October 10th, 2008, a woman entered my life who I've never met, and who I'll never forget.

When I arrived home from work that day there was a story on the news of a woman who was found dead on a park bench in Grand Junction. She was very young, only 34, homeless, and died there alone in the elements. Her name was Heather Tripler.

I can't even begin to explain the overwhelming grief and saddened that hit me after having heard this (a grief and sadness that's fresh with me ...still). A few days later it snowed, and as I stood there near the front door watching it calmly descend, I couldn't stop thinking about her- homeless and all alone in that park. This is when I knew that I had to write about her.

I promised myself that I would allow the poem to come to me on its own, to never force it, and to scribe every word as if Heather were standing there next to me. Two years later the poem was complete.

Initially, I was just going to keep the poem to myself, but something felt wrong about that. So I went online and, by searching the Grand Junction Free Press, found the name of a family member who I might be able to contact. And I did, and explained the how the poem came to be, and asked permission to post it- to my delight I was given permission.

And that's the story and context behind this poem- Heather's poem. As I said, though we've never met, as long as there's breath in this body, I'll never forget her.

Emerson Park
An Elegy on the Passing of Heather Tripler

There’s snow there now where once she lay
Alone that Autumn eve
And though that day seems far away
I still lamenting grieve

For she- a daughter, mother, friend
She pined, I’m sure, in grief
For hard distraught there came her end
By Death, that surly thief

She roamed, she roamed through deepest dark
Alone, no friend to guide
And when she came upon that park
There on a bench she died

No tear went forth, nor word was said
To her who lay asleep
Til angels by her bed were led
In solace ever deep

“Awake, dear child, slumber’s past”
They said in one accord
“Come to the warmth and light at last
For therein is the Lord”

March 31, 2016

Epictetus, the Moirai, and Control: A Poem


What we cannot control, he said
We mustn't fear nor tacit dread
For its becoming, good or ill
Transcends the limits of our will
What we must rather do, he states
Is line our will up with the Fates
And let their hands our lives unfold
And bask serene in peace untold

But let us not in vain pretend
That there is little we can lend
For there is Power in our soul
And there are things we do control


Of the Poem (A Brief Note):

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher whose works I've known for nearly two decades. He was born around 55 AD, in what is now modern day Turkey, and espoused and delineated a philosophical system of ethics that reaches as far back as Zeno of Citium, but whose system of ethics was heavily influenced by Cleanthes and Chrysippus.

Much like Socrates (who in the Stoic tradition was the quintessential ethical standard), Epictetus regarded the pursuit of philosophical contemplation and reason as something intrinsically practical, as a way of actually understanding life and living it in order to attain its highest treasure: Happiness.

It would be overkill for this particular post to review the system of ethics held by the Stoics. Suffice it to say, however, that Epictetus constantly warns that there are things that are in staunch (and sometimes brutal) control of external forces, and that, if we want to achieve anything resembling a happy and content life, we ought to allow Fate to reside over those things.

So when thunderstorms come, or illnesses arise, or death or the conflagration of the world unfolds, we must not shrink beneath them in fear, but rather know that though these things be, there are things that we in fact do have control over- namely, the way we view events, how we respond to them both emotionally and intellectually, what we ought to fear and what not. In short, the interiors of our mental states, which neither thunderstorm, nor illness, nor even death have the power to assail. Hence the poem.

As a side note, while it is true that the ancients believed in the Moirai (i.e. the Fates), it doesn't follow that the Stoics did. However, they most certainly believed that, while we have free will, the universe and all in it are still governed by Fate.

February 09, 2016

Southey's War

There's nothing more horrifying to me than war. That we have it 'in us' to slaughter each other by the billions, without compunction, and with such derelict indifference, is something so unbelievable to me that I've literally caught myself doubting whether warfare ever happens at all- no exaggeration. And yet, to my own dismay- because I find the subject so indelibly intriguing, even mystifying and sometimes morally imperative- I find myself steeped in scruples about it.

I purchased The New Oxford Book of War Poetry recently, and the first poem I flipped to was Robert Southey'sThe Battle of Blenheima poem lauded in England as an anti-war poem ... and yet Southey isn't exactly an anti-war poet like, say, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen (the two of whom, by the way, were soldiers in a war much more brutal than that of Blenheim). 

Byron couldn't peg Southey either. On the one hand, The Battle of Blenheim seems to detest the indifference we have when it comes to the carnage war brings, and yet in another poem of his, The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo, our poet seems to lend a sort of homage it. According to Wikipedia, "By 1820, however, Southey had changed his mind about the Battle [of Blenheim], describing it instead as the most brilliant moment in British arms." And yet, again, The Battle of Blenheim, written in 1796, implicitly, if not directly, condemns the apathetic attitude we have about war.

And so I find myself somewhat akin to Southey's ebb and flow on the topic of warfare, and its aftermath. 

Summary of the Poem

In Southey's poem an old man sits in front of his cottage with his granddaughter as the two watch her brother play by a stream. The brother finds something large and round, which he brings to his grandfather. Turns out, the boy found a human skull. The grandfather, Kaspar, tells young Peterkin that he finds these all the time, sometimes even turns up bones out of the ground when he ploughs. He goes on to explain that there was a great battle in the area between the English and the French, and that many lives were lost- even innocent women and children- but that the battle was nevertheless a great victory. Astonished, the grandson inquires into the reason for the battle, and the grandfather, cognizant only of the great victory and not of the thousands of lives lost, admits that he has absolutely no idea why the bloodshed occurred ... hence the poem's polemic on war as a seemingly unnecessary and unfortunate reality (not to mention our indifference towards it). Below, the poem in its entirety.  

The Poem

The Battle of Blenheim

It was a summer evening,
    Old Kaspar's work was done;
And he before his cottage door
    Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin
    Roll something large and round,
That he beside the rivulet
    In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.
Old Kaspar took it from the boy
    Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
    And with a natural sigh,
'Tis some poor fellow's scull, said he,
Who fell in the great victory.

I find them in the garden, for
    There's many here about,
And often when I go to plough,
    The ploughshare turns them out;
For many thousand men, said he,
Were slain in the great victory.
Now tell us what 'twas all about,
    Young Peterkin he cries,
And little Wilhelmine looks up
    With wonder-waiting eyes;
Now tell us all about the war,
And what they kill'd each other for.
It was the English, Kaspar cried,
    That put the French to rout;
But what they kill'd each other for,
    I could not well make out.
But every body said, quoth he,
That 'twas a famous victory.
My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by,
They burnt his dwelling to the ground
    And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.
With fire and sword the country round
    Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
    And new-born infant died.
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.
They say it was a shocking sight
    After the field was won,
For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that you know must be
After a famous victory.
Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
    And our good Prince Eugene.—
Why 'twas a very wicked thing!
    Said little Wilhelmine.
Nay—nay—my little girl, quoth he,
It was a famous victory.
And every body praised the Duke
    Who such a fight did win.
But what good came of it at last?—
    Quoth little Peterkin.
Why that I cannot tell, said he,
But 'twas a famous victory.

Of the Poem (A Few Notes)

It's not often that we happen upon human skulls or bones in our lives. In the poem, Kaspar has seen many of these, and is quite aware why- the result of a large battle where many thousand men were slain. His outlook on this, and on the aftermath of the battle, seems one of indifference and a sort of 'these things happen' attitude. He's repeatedly justifying or maybe even ignoring the carnage and loss of human life from the perspective of victory, as if the loss of human life through warfare was a normal condition of human existence:

And many a childing mother then,
    And new-born infant died.
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory

Or again, in stanza IX:

For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that you know must be
After a famous victory

Amazingly, Kaspar even glosses over that fact that his own father and mother were directly affected by this war, that as he was a child his parents had to flee for their lives because their home and the town they lived in was set aflame- his parents essentially becoming refugees ... yet still, as Kaspar's refrain declares, "things like that, you know, must be." 

My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by,
They burnt his dwelling to the ground
    And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

Perhaps the poem isn't solely a diatribe against war and our indifference towards it- perhaps it tacitly condemns our affection for vengeance.  I suggest this because it's strange to me that Kaspar knows the finest details of his parent's plight, but claims to know nothing at all about the cause of the conflict, which makes me wonder if his parents might have died as a result of it, and that as a result of deep-seated resentment he praises the routing and slaughter of the French by the English, not caring at all for the reason or 'why' of the war.

To be clear, the battle Southey refers to actually happened historically. In 1704, as the result of a long and drawn out power-struggle with France and Bavaria, Austria and England eventually, and essentially, massacred their enemy. 20 to 40,000 French soldiers lost their lives there by the Danube during this conflict- this compared to a mere (mere?) 5 to 6,000 lives of allied Austrian and English forces (this doesn't include civilian casualties and displacement, by the way, which are almost always higher). 

What I'm saying is that this poem doesn't just center around a story with fictional characters that we can just forget about when we're done reading it- no, real individual humans, thousands upon thousands, actually lost their lives over a conflict that our poet's narrator seems to care nothing about. 

Interestingly, we have the perspective of Kaspar's grandchildren, young Wilhelmine and her brother Peterkin. Horrified would be too strong a word to use, but they were no doubt deeply astonished that events like these occur. Warfare? Young Peterkin didn't even know that what he was playing with was a human skull (he came to ask what he had found, the poem declares). The concept of death itself seemed completely foreign to these children, much less that we inflict this eventuality on each other wholesale! 

Wilhelmine and Peterkin, eager to understand what happened here, and why they were handling a human skull, seemed naturally repulsed by the notion of war. In fact, if Southey's poem directly condemns the idea of war, it's from the perspective of Kaspar's grandchildren. 

The kids didn't care at all about the victory, but rather why such an event could even be possible. Peterkin asks repeatedly in perplexed desperation: Now tell us what 'twas all about ... tell us all about the war / And what they kill'd each other for

Wilhelmine, who seems to be the younger of the grandchildren, without prejudice outright condemns the notion of war, of such tremendous loss of life, and of the suffering of women and children.

Why 'twas a very wicked thing!
    Said little Wilhelmine.

One recalls the phrase: From the mouth of babes ... 

There are so many angles that one can take regarding the anti-war polemics this poem endorses (whether Southey is for or against war), way too many for me to cover here at this time. Still, I'm in scruples. Sometimes some wars seem imperative, and yet, at other times (most times), one of the most despicable evils that we have brought upon ourselves.

You tell me ... 

January 31, 2016

Southey & Seinfeld

 Makes me chuckle ...

I'm working on a blog post for one of Robert Southey's poems, and it just occurred to me, doesn't Southey look like a younger version of Kramer from Seinfeld?

As of April 9th, 2010