beach reads here, though I do
make a few recommendations. The
long days, slow evenings,
vacations, student free time
combine to make summer an
exceptionally good time to read.
Texas, Summer of 1964. I'm ten
years old, between fourth and
fifth grade, and in possession of
my own library card. Henrietta is
a town of around 5200 people, but
it's the county seat so it has a
small library, and one can walk
anywhere. I need to read five
books over the summer to acquire
the coveted bookworm award, a pin
in the shape of a cartoonish
worm. I accomplish this feat the
first week, and all the rest of
that long season, I make the trek
to the library between trips to
the town swimming pool, small
explorations, and, mostly,
sitting on the front porch
reading while my baby brother,
who has just learned to pull
himself up off the floor, leans
on the screen door inside and
watches. A particular favorite is
a series of kids'
biographies of historical figures
that come in matching orange
covers. All summer my fingertips
are stained orange.
"A ten-year-old boy stands
on the side of the street
and looks down to the edge
of town and beyond. Utterly clear
bright blue sky, just one
thin line at the western edge,
maybe a tornado, but for now
the air is still, dry and hot.
He turns and goes back to the porch
where he left his book."
(Excerpt from my poem,
"Henrietta, TX, Summer 1964,"
originally published in Local News: Poetry About Small Towns.)
Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems is a perfect summer poetic companion. It fits into your pocket and contains mostly short poems written during his lunch breaks from his day job at the Museum of Modern Art. "Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations….while never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal." (Jacket blurb of the City Lights Pocket Poets edition.) One of my favorite O'Hara poems—indeed favorite poems—takes place in the summer of 1959.
"It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me//
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I
stopped breathing" (The Day Lady
Died"; full poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42657/the-day-lady-died)
William Matthews captures a
grittier side of summer in the
city in "Morningside Heights,
"Haze. Three student violists boarding
a bus. A clatter of jackhammers.
Granular light. A film of sweat for primer
and the heat for a coat of paint.//
I never meant, she says.
But I thought, he replies. Two cabs almost
collide; someone yells fuck in Farsi.
I'm sorry, she says. The comforts
of loneliness fall in like a bad platoon.
The sky blurs—there's a storm coming
up or down. A lank cat slinks liquidly
around a corner. How familiar
it feels to feel strange, hollower
than a bassoon. A rill of chill air
in the leaves. A car alarm. Hail."
(Full poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42929/morningside-heights-july
The poetry of Walt Whitman
encompasses just about everything
in the American experience of his
time—and much that is
timeless. My very favorite
Whitman poem is "Out of the
Cradle Endlessly Rocking," which
describes a late summer night on
the Long Island shore during
which the fledgling boy poet
begins to find his voice and
confronts for the first time the
great questions that all poets
face, Love, Sex, and Death.
"Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the
fields beyond, where the child
leaving his bed wander'd alone,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing."
The boy has discovered a pair of
Mockingbirds, migrants from the
South in that time, nesting near
the beach. He imagines the male
"Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together."
Then, sadly, the female bird
disappears, leaving the male to
search and mourn. His song
"Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok's shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten'd,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.
He call'd on his mate,
He pour'd forth the meanings which I of all men know."
After listening in rapture to the
Mockingbird's song as it slowly
dwindles from hope to grief, "the
boy ecstatic, with his bare feet
the waves, with his hair the
The love in the heart long pent,
now loose, now at last
The aria's meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,
The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy's soul's questions sullenly timing, some drown'd secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard." The
young Walt is slowly discovering
his vocation as poet.
wish I could simply reprint the
entire poem here instead of this
inadequate summary, but it is
available to the reader here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48858/out-of-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking
said at the beginning that I was
suggesting no beach reads herein,
but it occurs to me that one
could do worse that carry or pack
a copy of Song of Myself on a summer vacation.
Happy Summer all!