Monday, February 14, 2011

Today's poem by Clive James

Whitman and the Moth

Van Wyck Brooks tells us Whitman in old age
Sat by a pond in nothing but his hat,
Crowding his final notebooks page by page
With names of trees, birds, bugs and things like that.

The war could never break him, though he’d seen
Horrors in hospitals to chill the soul.
But now, preserved, the Union had turned mean:
Evangelizing greed was in control.

Good reason to despair, yet grief was purged
By tracing how creation reigned supreme.
A pupa cracked, a butterfly emerged:
America, still unfolding from its dream.

Sometimes he rose and waded in the pond,
Soothing his aching feet in the sweet mud.
A moth he knew, of which he had grown fond,
Perched on his hand as if to draw his blood.

But they were joined by what each couldn’t do,
The meeting point where great art comes to pass –
Whitman, who danced and sang but never flew,
The moth, which had not written Leaves of Grass,

Composed a picture of the interchange
Between the mind and all that it transcends
Yet must stay near. No, there was nothing strange
In how he put his hand out to make friends

With such a fragile creature, soft as dust.
Feeling the pond cool as the light grew dim,
He blessed new life, though it had only just
Arrived in time to see the end of him.

-- New Yorker, November 25, 2010


  1. I had no idea that he wrote poetry..I've listened to his autobiographical tales as an audio book which I think was actually read by him and it was amusing, if a little bawdy at times..although not prudish, there are somethings I don't always wish to
    I found his connection to Joyce Grenfell's life interesting too.
    The poem is a new side ...fascinating... thank you

  2. For some reason my favorite line is "The moth, which had not written Leaves of Grass." I think because it makes me imagine that the moth wishes it could write poetry.

  3. I like this poem. It is sort of sad. Oh no, maybe that is me. ??
    I like to think of Whitman enjoying life to the very end.

  4. Thank you, Nan, for sharing this wonderful poem.

  5. I had no idea that Clive James wrote poetry. What a lovely piece of work. Thanks, Nan.

  6. Val, I read it in the New Yorker and it made me just stop in my tracks. I love this poem. I'm sure I'll post more of his work. I think I remember him being the host of some PBS show years ago.

    Christy, just as perhaps Whitman might have wished he could fly.

    Lisa, well, I think there is a sadness - it is the end of his life. But yet there is the great joy he is experiencing even at that time.

    Maureen, I so love it.

    Hip chick, that says it.

    Cath, he has a webpage where you can read more. Just type his name into google.

  7. Such a lovely poem, such poignancy. Clive James must have mellowed with age, I don't know this side of him, it's nice. Thank you for posting it.

  8. Carole, even his looks have mellowed. :<) I'll be posting more by him. I think his work is wonderful.


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