Ray Bradbury —The Poet
Recently, I posted a note on social media about Ray Bradbury, famous mostly for his science-and realistic fiction, and how he wrote some pretty darned good poetry. He started writing poems when he was 16, joined the Poetry Club of his Los Angeles High School, “where I was one of three boys surrounded and inundated by fifteen girls. I never let anyone in gym class know I was a member…They would have beat the hell out of me.”
There have been enough requests to see some of his poems that I’ve decided to include a few here. All of these poems come from The Complete Poems of Ray Bradbury (Random House). I’m sure the book is still available should your interest be peaked. The Complete Poems includes three sections. “Book One: Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns,” “Book Two: The Haunted Computer and the Android Pope,” and “Book Three: When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”
Did the man contain an overflow of interesting titles, language and humor? You bet. But more than humor, some of his titles refer to his inspirations. Clearly those “Elephants” were inspired by Dylan Thomas. “Emily Dickinson, Where Are You?” echoes Frank O’Hara. He was also a fan of Yeats, Frost, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Other inspirations came from personal relationships as well as the news. His poem “The Nefertiti—Tut Express” for example, was written after reading that trans-Egyptian railroad firemen sometimes used mummies for locomotive cordwood. The poem opens:
Did they do that?
Stoke furnaces with shrouds,
With clouds of mummy-dust and old kings, too?
Across Egyptian sands on railroad paths
Long, long ago when trains were new?
As you can see, Bradbury was no stranger to rhyme. He paid attention to it, as he did to rhythm, metaphor and other muscles that make a poem a poem. He wrote that he tried to use “inner rhyme where it seemed appropriate, and on other occasions have dared to use outright rhyme and cadence when there was no escape.” He went on to say that he had lost respect for magazines that once published the finest poetry in America but turned their focus to what, he said, was actually prose with “chopped up…unbeaten lines, lacking rhyme, reason, or metaphor.”
As you might imagine given Bradbury’s fiction, he was a fan of Edgar Allen Poe. Here, from “Book One: Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns,” is his poem “I Have a Brother, Mostly Dead:”
I have a brother, mostly dead
And angels curled upon his head;
Most of my life, mostly unseen,
And yet I feel with him I’ve been
A cohort playmate friend of Poe
Who tours me where live friends can’t go.
He teaches me his mortal park
And where the firefly stops for spark
And how the shade within the night
Is a most fine delicious fright.
I give him words, he gives me bone
To play like Piper when alone;
And so my brother, dead, you see
Is a wondrous literate company.
Thus if my Muse says: Nevermore!
I hear a tapping at my door;
My brother comes to saviour me
With graveyard biscuit, rictus tea,
That tea in which, perused awhile
One finds a lovely mummy’s smile
And then again, he bids me snuff
Egyptian dusts — one pinch enough
To knock my timbers, sneeze my brain
So Idea Ghosts sit up again
To tap my eyelids, tick my nose
And shape themselves with words for clothes.
All this my long lost brother does,
This sibling spent before my cause.
He moves my hand and Lo! O Lord!
His tombstone my Ouija Board.
He shouts: Stay not in buried room,
Come forth, sweet brother, flower my tomb
With words so rare and phrase so bright
They’ll bonfire burn away the night.
All this to me lost brother is
And I his live sweet Lazarus.
His shout ignore? his cry refuse?
No, no! Much thanks, long-dead fine Muse.
How startling to find inspiration referred to as “Idea Ghosts.” Who else but Bradbury would have come up with that phrase? And “rictus tea!”
Another poem that came from the news is “Satchmo Saved!” Louis Armstrong, while touring South America, had needed a baseball catcher’s-mask to protect himself from the mobs:
They put Louis in a mask;
Save him, Lord, they cried, your task,
Is save Satcho’s limbs and lips —
On his Buenos Aires trips
May his windpipe be protected!
Louis Armstrong genuflected,
Said: “Now duckin’ain’t my style,
But this great piano smile
Needs protectin’ so, instead,
Hang that wire-mask on my head;
Save me from the mad crowd’s sin,
Call the saints and march it in!”
So his grin was nicely caged.
Mobs might pummel, love-enraged,
But that trumpet-playing mouth
Was protected, north and south
By a baseball catcher’s mask.
“Don’t,” said Louis, “please don’t ask
Why I sport this wire lid,
Why my munchy mouth is hid;
Case on other Rio trips,
Nice folks tried to steal my lips;
Mobs around, above, beneath,
Longed to rip off these sweet teeth,
And I feared there might be some
Who might want an inch of gum —
All because those wild folks feel
What old Louis plays ain’t real.
Must be something in his jaw
Sails that Jazz beyond the Law!
So when Satchmo flies a plane,
Rio airport mobs, insane,
Rush to help me off the ship
Then with joy they tear and rip,
Watch out, Louis, no more lip!”
In their seething lunge and grip
Louis yells: “Forget the stretcher!
Lend me mask of baseball-catcher,
Otherwise, no jump, no jazz,
No mouth, no lip? No razzmatazz!
So with catcher’s mask in place
And a sweet smile on his face,
Louis runs the gauntlet through,
Blowing riffs both hot and blue,
Cuts a rug with quails and hips,
And, in midflight, laughs and quips:
“Grab my Jazz, but leave my lips!”
Sadly, I have to limit the number of poems I can include here. Do I want to include the long poem “Emily Dickinson, Where Are You? Herman Melville Called Your Name Last Night in His Sleep?” Yes. Or “Mrs. Harriet Hadden Atwood, Who Played the Piano for Thomas A. Edison For the World’s First Phonograph Record, is Dead at 105?” Yes. But here are the openings of some other poems that always grab me.
First, from the gorgeous “That Woman on the Lawn:”
Sometimes, gone late at night,
I would awake and hear
My mother in another year and place
Out walking on the lawn so late
It must have been near dawn yet dark it was
The only light then in the gesture of the stars
Which wheeled around in motionings so soft
They took your breath to see; and there upon the grass
Like ghost with dew-washed feet she was
A maid again, alone, quite singular, so young.
I wept to see her there so strange,
So unrelated to me….
From “The Boys Across the Street Are Driving My Young Daughter Mad:”
The boys across the street are driving my young daughter mad.
They boys are only seventeen,
My daughter one year less,
And all that these boys do is jump up in the sky
a basketball into a hoop;
But take forever coming down,
Their long legs brown and cleaving on the air
As if it were a rare warm summer water….
The poem ends:
How can I raise my daughter as a Saint,
When some small part of me grows faint
Remembering a girl long years ago who by the hour
And sent me weeping to the shower.
I sense a whiff of Shakespeare in his poem “Touch Your Solitude to Mine.” Here is just a piece of that poem:
Sweetest love, come now to meet me,
Touch your solitude to mine;
Take, enfold, protect and greet me,
Save me from my world with thine.
Give me more than I might borrow,
Much of joy, yet some of sorrow;
Search and find in Love’s high atticks
Toys to prove the simple sums
That honeys, nectars, pollens, gums
Of Love’s taking, giving, grieving,
Sweetly seeding and conceiving
Will thrive our days to myth and lore:
Two separate minds, one flesh the score….
“When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” opens
When elephants last in the dooryard bloomed
Brought forth from dusts and airing attics where they roomed
For many a year and faded out the roses on their flanks
And sucked the dust and trod the ancient grass in ranks
Beyond our seeing, deep in jungles on our parlor floor,
These old familiar beasts we led into the light
And beat upon their pelts and hung them in the sight of sun
Which glorious made the panoplies of thread.
I will close with “Once the Years Were Numerous and the Funerals Few,” one of my favorites by him for the internal rhyme and rhythm. Following the poem, a link to Bradbury reading his poem “If Only We Had Taller Been,” and a quote by Bradbury about the role of a poetry collection.
Once the years were numerous and the funerals few,
Once the hours were years, now years are hours,
Suddenly the days fill up with flowers —
The garden ground is filled with freshdug slots
Where we put by our dearest special pets
And friends: wind-lost forget-me-nots.
Suddenly the obituary notices brim over,
the clover-wine they advertise is bitter in the bin:
Our friends put by from a great year when
The largest sin was the merest vice.
Old rice from weddings litters the autumn lawn;
In handfuls I pick and toss it after some laughing wind
No sooner arrived than gone on an Easter egg hunt
With an echo of daughters in flight. Their joyful hysteria!
In the night a clump of wisteria falls to the lawn in a wreath.
Our old cats underneath in the loam
Cry to come into our home. We won’t let them.
I look out at the street in the deep beyond three
And see going by on a bike the young beast
Who once dreamed he was me and then out to be.
It’s a nightful of ghosts, but then all nights are now.
It’s a long way on until dawn.
I’m afraid to walk out on that lawn though it’s flawless and green
With no holes and no flowers between,
And the morning birds drink the sweet dew
Where a treader might sink and be long lost to view
In those years that were numerous
And funerals few.
Here is the link to Bradbury reading his poem “If Only We Had Taller Been” to a group of scientists:
“A collection of poetry allows one to explore the process not a dozen or so times, as with a clutch of tales, but more than a hundred times. This catch-all anthology gives me a chance to glance over my shoulder and dare to try to intrigue you with the accidents that knocked me flat downstairs into a poem…” — Ray Bradbury
If you enjoyed this post, or if you have questions, I hope you’ll leave a comment below.