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This volume is dedicated to:
The delicate blossoms of its femininity,
The tranquil grave of its noble planner,
The joyous canaille who bathe in its fountains,
The rays of sun that beat upon its coliseum,
The majestic spans of the Wilson drawbridge,
The motley detritus that strews its public spaces,
And the other urban jewels that have inspired poets of time immemorial.
Urbem virosque cantant!
Laugh, and the world laughs with you
Weep, and you weep alone
Those famous lines have echoed through the past century. They have been recorded in popular song and appropriated as the title for a 1925 film. To this day, they are known throughout the English-speaking world and inspire sly reformulations. The Daily Show offered one recent twist: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you…unless you’re not in on the joke, or you are the joke.”
Almanacs and encyclopedias will suggest that this timeless morsel was the brainchild of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who published the poem in the New York Sun in 1883. But those accounts ignore the claims of a great soldier and prominent Washingtonian, Col. John A. Joyce.
Joyce, a Confederate veteran and Kentucky transplant, claimed to have tossed the lines off extemporaneously to friends in a Louisville hotel bar more than a decade before they were printed under Wilcox’s name. Aided by his friend, children’s poet and noted prankster Eugene Field, Joyce spent decades promoting his claim. Though no written evidence ever materialized, Joyce took his claim to the grave—he had the lines carved on it.
Joyce’s story has a specious ring, but his copious literary output indicates he was no charlatan. The author, known for his flowing white mustache, was a key figure among Washington literati after settling here shortly after the Civil War, penning more than a dozen volumes of poetry and biography. At his death, the Washington Post hailed him as the “Poet of Washington.”
But Joyce is only one highlight of Washington’s rich poetic legacy; after all, Joyce and his literary descendants trod upon fertile ground, what with the quiet waters of the Potomac, monuments and grand architecture, the sedate verdure of Rock Creek Park, the vibrant legacy of Black Broadway, and a crackling political scene.
Some momentous names have waxed poetic about the District: Walt Whitman, that titan of 19th-century verse, came to Washington from New York during the Civil War in 1862 to search for a wounded brother. Like so many provincial senators who come to D.C. and don’t leave, Whitman ended up spending a decade here, first volunteering in the military hospitals and later working as a government clerk. He left only after a 1873 stroke forced him to move to New Jersey to live with his brother. In his wake, he left numbers of poems about D.C.—most famously, his “Drum-Taps” and his odes to Lincoln.
Since then, other famous poets have passed through D.C., leaving behind scattered verse. Robert Lowell wrote of the city’s plan, how “[t]he stiff spokes of this wheel/touch the sore spots of the earth.” Archibald MacLeish spoke truth to power from a congressional visitors’ gallery: “Have Gentlemen perhaps forgotten this?—/We write the histories.” Elizabeth Bishop offered a tranquil portrait of the Capitol: “Moving from left to left, the light/is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.” Then there are such D.C.-native poets as Reed Whittemore, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Ernest Kroll, whose lines “How shall you act the natural man in this/Invented city, neither Rome nor home?” from his “Washington, D.C.” are etched into Freedom Plaza, just across from the John A. Wilson Building.
But among that litany of Pulitzer Prize winners and other oft-anthologized poets, the John A. Joyces of the D.C. poetry scene are lost—the amateurs, the moonlighters, the dilettantes. The treasures of Washington verse that don’t survive in stone live on in tape-bound open-submission anthologies and thin, self-published volumes. There poems document everything from the essence of Washington femininity to the grandeur of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to sunburns sustained at RFK Stadium.
The sacred guardian of these poems is the D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana Division, where a trove of verse sits idle, largely forgotten, save perhaps in the memories of grandchildren and the odd librarian. Those too recent to be considered lost are headed rapidly in that direction. It falls to this anthology to celebrate the poems and poets of the District that time threatens to abandon.
The image of a librarian poet, jotting down lines between the stacks and forever overshadowed by the books he shelves, is a romantic one. Paul Boswell, who worked nearly 50 years in the Library of Congress as an expert in British government documents, might well have had his verse die with him. A few months before his 1995 death, however, Seven Locks Press published No Anchovies on the Moon: Three Score and Ten Washington Pictures and Poems, which collected decades’ worth of his poems and pen-and-ink drawings. When it was published, his son, Post sports columnist Tom Boswell, wrote that his father had risen regularly at 3 a.m. to write his poetry and sketch his drawings. We can only speculate it was those wee hours of the morning that inspired his musings on an uneven sunburn and his metaphor—half cracker, half Samuel Taylor Coleridge—for our fragile, fragmented city.
City shaped like the larger half
Of a broken Saltine cracker
The size of Xanadu.
City where statues of Neptune
And Abraham Lincoln
Sit forever staring toward each other
From opposite ends of the Mall.
City that has erected
A five-hundred-foot stone
Memorializing the Father of his Country.
At Night, flood-lighted from below,
The ghostly shadows of fifty flags
Faintly flicker the shaft,
While the pyramid on top, unlighted, disappears,
Leaving the lambent obelisk flat on top.
City where at night near Union Station
The velvety train whistles
Sound like the chords of a pipe organ.
City most alabaster of “thine alabaster cities,”
And most black.
City where Ladybird Johnson’s cherry trees
Do more, one week a year,
To beautify the city parks
Than any dozen Presidents of the United States
The rest of the year.
City whose most-frequented monument
Is half-way under ground, a polished trench,
Where survivors see themselves
Reflected in black walls
Through a white curtain of the chiseled names
Of fifty-thousand dead.
My City, ’tis of thee,
Of thee, I sing.
SUNBURN AT R.F.K.
My upper lip
Where my nose cast a shadow, stayed white—
As did the north side of my face
And the top of my neck
Where my chin served as a parasol.
But my collar bone,
South cheek below the shade of my hat
And the right half of my chin
Were red as cooked lobster.
On the beach you turn and cook yourself evenly,
But in the bleachers you are locked into one position,
Like a truck driver who sunburns one elbow.
The piebald red and white record
Of this afternoon in the sun
Will still be inscribed on my face a week from now—
By which time I will have forgotten
That the score was
Col. John A. Joyce
It’s not hard to conceive that a sentiment such as “Weep, and you weep alone” could emanate from the mind of an aging, alienated bureaucrat. By 1885, Joyce was just that; post-bellum, the Ireland native had settled into a job with the Internal Revenue Service. Yet quiet desperation was hardly a common theme in his poetry. Rather, he generally favored a Housmanesque amalgam of light rhyming verse and substantial topics, which ranged from his old Kentucky home to the trappings of society life, as in “The Washington Girl,” from his Complete Poems of 1900.
Joyce apparently had a boundless appetite for poetic language, as the preface to Complete Poems attests: “These rocks of rhyme and pebbles of poetry I throw into the world of thought, trusting that they may macadamize the highway of life with confidence, love and beauty; and as they have sprung spontaneously from my impulsive heart during the past forty years, I leave the Brain Babies to the justice and mercy of mankind.”
Nor could his grave in Oak Hill Cemetery (whose monument features the epitaph “Poet. Soldier. Philosopher.”) accommodate his poetic gifts: Shortly after his 1915 death, the Post reported that Joyce’s will, submitted for probate, was written in verse: “To my daughters, Libbie and Florence,/In equal proportions to share,/I give all my cash and property,/When my spirit is soaring in air./And appoint Mr. James J. Lampton/To execute this, my last will,/When I rest ’neath the bloomy flowers/In lot 444 on Oak Hill.”
THE WASHINGTON GIRL.
I ’m a Washington Girl,
And I live in a whirl
Of beauty and banter and ease ;
With a love for mankind,
And a magical mind,
I study to praise and to please.
I ’m a Washington Girl,
With an auburn curl,
And the light from the flash of my eyes
Is as true as the stars
That sparkle round Mars,
And as bright as the tropical skies.
I ’m a Washington Girl,
And I live in a whirl
Where the palms and the roses entwine,
And one twist of my fan
Can call any man
To laugh and to love o’er the wine!
Wendell Phillips Stafford
Joyce staked a claim to the title “Poet of Washington,” leaving Wendell Phillips Stafford to become known as merely the “poet laureate of the District Court.” Judge Stafford, a Vermont native, sat on the D.C.’s highest court for a quarter-century, publishing his poems in four books, as well as in newspapers and magazines throughout his career; this work sat alongside such legal tomes as his Handbook of Equity. The poems collected here were printed in his final volume, Glimpses in and About Washington, which he self-published in 1950 at age 90.
Also well-known as a public speaker, Stafford regularly spoke at the dedications of Washington landmarks and published a book of speeches in addition to his poetry. His poetry reflects his oratorical gifts, such as in “The City Planner An Unmarked Grave,” a valediction worthy of Mark Antony. His classical influences also show in “In Rock Creek Park A New Path,” in which he stakes his claim as Washington’s Theocritus by penning a pastoral glimpse at the District’s beloved swath of wilderness. The poem also serves as a valuable document for naturalists, documenting a rare District bear sighting.
THE CITY PLANNER
AN UNMARKED GRAVE
A romantic youth he came
From the sunny shores of France,
Shared with us the blame and fame,
Took with us the fearsome chance.
Not a field his soul could daunt—
Gallant Captain Charles L’Enfant.
When the Land, her freedom won,
Turned, her city here to build,
By his brain that warp was spun
Which the weft of years has filled.
Avenue and circle chaunt
“Bravo! bravo! Charles L’Enfant”.
What if nothing mark the spot,
Name, memorial or date?
Such omissions matter not:
There the city stands in state.
Should your tomb a trophy vaunt?
There behold it, Charles L’Enfant!
* His ashes now rest in the National Cemetery at Arlington.
IN ROCK CREEK PARK A NEW PATH
Strange little path in the woodland green
Where do you tell me you run?
Do you plunge to the depth of the cold ravine
Or climb to the hill and the sun?
Do you run straight on with arrowy speed
Or loiter and sideward turn?
Are your banks beset by thorn and weed
Or fringed with flower and fern?
Would vine and flint with sharp distress
Waylay and snare and prod,
Or would only cool, soft mosses press
In hollow of foot unshod?
It may be, you dread the downward rush
Of the owl on his errand grim.
It may be you hear the hidden thrush
Repeating his vesper hymn.
Perhaps you are drawn by the creek in his flowing
As a child may be led by the hand,
In and out of the shadow going
All in a turbulent land.
It may be, you lose yourself at last,
Or end in a hollow tree
Where a bear might break his winter fast
With the sack and spoil of the bee.
Or it may be, you leave the woodland behind
And come to the city again,
To the noisy haunts of humankind
And the trodden trails of men.
Be coy of your secret: ’tis nothing to me!
Wherever I will you shall run.
A short-sighted trader indeed I should be
To part with so many for one.
Like Joyce and Whitman, many Washington poets through the years have written their verse at night, serving as government cogs by day in order to make a living. Paul DePackh was a member of the Federal Poets of Washington, D.C., a still-active circle of poets formed in the ’40s. The Federal Poets’ first anthology, 1948’s Poetry from the Potomac, included this didactic villanelle, a call to pens for bureaucratic bards.
It must be noted, however, that DePackh’s exhortation to “bring ditties profligate” would not have served Whitman well. When his boss at the Department of the Interior learned that Whitman was the author of the sensually charged (and some say homoerotic) Leaves of Grass, he fired the poet.
YE POETS OF THE GOVERNMENT
Ye poets of the Government,
Amid your duties variegate,
Do not forget your real intent!
Your qualities magnificent
In flowing verse perpetuate,
Ye poets of the Government!
What if it sound grandiloquent?
Let fervor not evaporate.
Do not forget your real intent!
Love’s joys will be more evident
When sweetly you exaggerate,
Ye poets of the Government!
A pleasant evening may be spent
In writing odes elaborate.
Do not forget your real intent!
And, if your epic muse is meant
To sing of heroes and their fate,
Ye poets of the Government—
Then write a ballad. If you’re bent
On sonnets, don’t procrastinate.
Do not forget your real intent!
Bring in the songs which oft have rent
Your hearts; bring ditties profligate,
Ye poets of the Government.
Do not forget your real intent!
A fellow member of the Federal Poets, Kathryn Adkisson, in a Yeatsian turn, captured a scene of World War II–era Washington, before the city’s parks-and-recreation budget could afford more widespread summer bathing facilities.
THE FOUNTAINS—WASHINGTON, D.C.
The plashy fountains in the squares
Are swimming pools for little colored boys
Who gather like the blackbirds, droves and pairs,
Climbing on the smooth-curved sides, and poise,
Shouting in their glee to all who pass
Before they plunge in, tumble-frogs in brown,
Their sprawling, skinny arms and legs, en masse,
All angles, diving down, down, down.
George Sanford Holmes
Amid these poet-judges and poet-bureaucrats, George Sanford Holmes was a poet-journalist. He served as a Washington correspondent for the Scripps-Howard syndicate, publishing many of his poems in newspapers; his D.C. poems were collected in “Yes, This Is Washington!”: Shrines and Sonnets of the Potomac Shore, which a Philadelphia vanity press published in 1949, six years before his death. Besides the odes to his hometown, Sanford wrote a poem about his professional frustrations, “Washington Correspondent”: “He learns to know his braid and brass,/No wonder he’s a cynic,/O’er phonies and four-flushers crass/Who make his job a clinic.” But his most prescient verse, “Stepchild of Uncle Sam,” established his rightful legacy as Mark Plotkin’s ideological forebear.
STEPCHILD OF UNCLE SAM
ALAS, D. C., the things men taunt you for,—
Those wartime shacks that mellow on your malls,
The slums that nestle near the Senate door,
The weather,—even starlings on your walls!
But why blame you, instead of politics
And ex-officio “Mayors” from Cap’tol Hill,
Who boss and bully you, while White House picks
Your mute Commissioners with powers nil!
Would you but change a street light you must wait
’Till Congress votes “OK” ’mid loud debate,
And though you house a million souls or more
You send no delegate to either Floor:
Home Rule? Self-government? They’re both a sham
While you remain stepchild of Uncle Sam!
Alexander K. Hancock
Alexander K. Hancock, a native of Savannah, Ga., “began making up rhymes before he could read,” and when he came to the D.C. area in 1930 to audit Montgomery County’s books, he found plenty of fodder for his poetic gifts. Later, he would become the county’s first director of finance, but he still found time to pen a sprawling, polymathic epic of sorts, The City of Sacred Apes:
A Capital Rhymed Review, under his middle name, Kilvert.
Told from the point of view of a visiting “prophet,” Hancock’s classically influenced verse offers a fiery, proto-Libertarian bent. According to the book’s sleeve, “The author is distressed by the continuing inroads of government into the private lives of individuals….[H]e calls for an end to government interventions and for a new growth of individual striving.” The book is dedicated to “NINE OLD MEN/whose repeated disservices to the people have done much toward the creation of the City of Sacred Apes.” Besides his antipathy toward the New Deal, “Two Monuments” proves that Hancock held little love for the Savior of the Union, providing a valuable rejoinder to Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain.”
“For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.”—MARK 10:5
She kissed me when I told her
That our happiness would be
More enhanced as time grew older
Since the truth must
Make us free.
Both spirits waxing bolder
In the heat of our discourse,
She kissed me when I told her
She could have her
(Reproduced with the apologies and permission of the family of Kilvert Hancock.)
“The memory of the just is blessed.”—PROVERBS 10:7
“Pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy.”—NUMBERS 5:15
Two monuments are face to face
Across a rectilinear pool:
One fitting, one quite out of place;
One for the king, one for the fool.
The rigid shaft, erect and proud,
Its dignity reflected deep
Within the pool, would cry aloud
At our plight—if stone could weep.
The other, flaunting frills and froth
Like some obscene bedizened wench,
Is sprayed, by breezes from the north,
With proper perfume—gashouse stench.
Two monuments stand face to face;
One to a man, one to a name;
One to the glory of our race,
One to its infamy and shame.
into the fountain
The chess games
a Hare Krishna
Smell of saffron
at their feet
Over the course of the 20th century, new forms of verse emerged, and Washington’s poets had no qualms about embracing them. A 1977 national-bicentennial commemorative anthology yields this evocative bit of free verse by Barbara Berman, a poet who now lives in San Francisco. Talk about timeless art: Berman’s musings have outlived the tumult of gentrification.
The Horatian Ode is but one form that poetic expressions of civic pride may take, as Joy Jones’ “I’m From D.C.” attests. Included in Bad Beats Sacred Rhythms, a 1993 anthology by the Spoken Word, a D.C. poetry collective, the poem filters the storytelling traditions of West African griots through the contemporary spoken-word culture. Jones, a professional trainer, author, storyteller and “communicator,” makes this statement of a native Washingtonian buzz with her real-D.C. signifiers—the Metro, D.C. General, McDonald’s.
I’M FROM D.C.
No, I’m not from New York.
I never rode no A-train or no B-Train
or no XYZ train till the
subway came to D.C.
And it’s one clean machine.
Why New Yorkers rave
over their rickety chunk of rust
I’ll never know.
No, I’m not from North Carolina
No, my mama didn’t bake
fat, flaky biscuits from scratch
or deep fry chicken legs in batter.
But, I tell you what —
If I’m hungry
and I’m at Mickey D’s at the back of the store
I bet I can
elbow my way to the front
faster than you.
I went to D.C. Public Schools
where I learned to speak
both black and white English.
I know what it is
and what it ain’t.
I was born at Freedman’s Hospital.
Born again at a Baptist storefront
And gave birth at D.C. General.
Yes, I’m from D.C.
If you want to get particular —
I am from D.C.
Not the Federal City
or the City of Washington
or the Nation’s Capital
Where the black folks are
Miles David Moore
The heir to Holmes’ Washington-poet-journalist legacy, Miles David Moore is a reporter for business-journal titan Crain Communications, contributing to such publications as Rubber & Plastics News and Tire Business. He also hosts a poetry-reading series at Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington. This poem, published in a 1995 anthology by the Washington Writers Publishing House, is the only known extant love poem set on K Street NW.
FULL MOON ON K STREET
The moon has your face tonight,
hiding behind black-violet veils
of clouds, coy, intimating nothing.
Like an orange outside the grasp
of a starving child, you stab my heart.
All longing is the same.
No natural light penetrates
this street; the lampposts rule.
The high-rises have mothered
them from their concrete wombs,
bidding us rejoice in coldness,
disdaining the celestial tease.
The moon has phases. Though I pray
not, you might be one. The clouds
pull tight, tight around your mouth.
William J. Dickman
In a city that boasts such majestic spans as the Memorial and Key Bridges, it takes a poet of specialized interests to capture the essential beauty of the widely loathed Woodrow Wilson Bridge. That poet is the decidedly Alexandria-centric William J. Dickman. Like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Dickman wrote in English as a second language. Born in Berlin at the turn of the century, Dickman, a municipal judge in Germany, came to America just prior to World War II to work as an Army lawyer, settling in Alexandria after the war. There he became active in local arts and history groups and developed his interest in poetry.
In 1968, Dickman published Around the Potomac: Verses About Places and People I Love, a watercolor-illustrated softcover volume holding a plethora of gentle odes. “Disdaining the conventional Muses, the author of this slim volume has sought his inspiration in the scenic grandeur, the monumental edifices…that he is familiar with…” wrote Victor L. Summers in the book’s foreword. “He sees with a fresh eye and describes with unabashed fervor the qualities of life that many of us…take for granted.”
Concrete pillars jammed into the ground by giant hammers,
Tons of steel and cement, and the sweat of workmen
Built this mighty bridge over the river,
Carrying a relentless traffic over its broad lanes,
From Virginia’s shores to the Maryland hills,
Hour by hour, day after day, night after night,
In perpetual motion.
Sometimes, when I cross the bridge
Or stand above on the Parkway,
Watching the cars speeding by in hasty succession—
All of a sudden a siren will sound
And red lights will flicker brightly
(Spectacle of “sound and light”),
Causing the cars and trucks to slow down
And gradually come to a stop.
“A ship is in sight!”, the sirens will say;
Rest for a while, and take a long look
Over the mighty river:
Downstream, to where the home of him
Who made us one nation, stands in silent repose.
Upstream, to the white gleaming dome,
The keystone of our system of law and order.
It is on this river that the nation has
Anchored its ship of state;
It is on these shores that history
Built it so solid that it can sail,
In peace and in war,
Onward, to never diminishing goals,
Forward, to ever widening horizons!
Slowly, the bridge’s center will open
Like the jaws of an iron giant.
From behind approaches a freighter,
Carrying goods from faraway lands
And signaling joy when passing the span,
Harbor-bound, ready to land its cargo!
After a while, the sirens again, lights going out,
While the jaws are coming together,
Slowly closing the gap.
In seconds, traffic and life is surging anew,
Restlessly speeding along
Across the majestic river
Over the mighty span—
Symbol of our time.
William Claire, today a Florida rare-books dealer, serves up another portion of inner-city blight from the mid-’90s. Muffins were not offered that day.
THE JELLO MAN ON THE FEAST OF CIRCUMCISION
(Feeding Program, St. Stephen of the Incarnation, Washington, D.C.)
The mendicants shuffle by, accepting, sullen,
Their eyes unable to focus on servers
Whose food, like smelling salts, accentuate
The pain. At the end of the long New Year line
I am the jello man, the jello man,
Slopping generous portions of free church food
With my practiced, institutional scoop.
The necks that gulp like starving chickens
Have slits in them, thin as switchblades
Direct to a vein, yesterdays’
Precise cuttings to the bone.
Lost D.C. poems also come en español. Alicia Partnoy, now an English professor at Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University, came to Washington after several years as a political prisoner in Argentina and stayed for nearly two decades. Her “Instantánea” (“Snapshot”) treats an urban-squalor theme similar to Berman’s, albeit with more metric rigor. Her final lines give the plight of Pigeon Park relevance to a nationwide audience.
No huele a flores la Plaza
de la Palomas, huele a vino,
a latas de cerveza.
Si andás desprevenido te sorprende
el tufo desparejo
de la miseria.
Al borde de la tarde
el camión de la sopa organiza
una fila obediente y resignada.
Este es el corazón
del barrio latino en Adams Morgan.
Apenas a unas cuadras
está la Casa Blanca.
It doesn’t smell like a plaza full of flowers.
Pigeon Park smells of wine,
If you just happen to be walking by there,
the squalid stench of misery
On the edge of dusk
the soup truck organizes
an obedient and resigned line.
This is the heart
of the barrio in Adams Morgan.
Just a few blocks away
is the White House.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Max Kornell.