Firemen’s Race, Cañon City, Colorado, c. 1900
O divine average!
Warblings under the sun, usher’d as now, or at noon, or setting,
Strains musical flowing through ages, now reaching hither,
I take to your reckless and composite chords, add to them, and cheerfully pass them forward.
—Walt Whitman, out of “Starting from Paumanok” (1860)
You lie in the dark and are back in that light. Straining from your nest in the gorse with your eyes across the water till they ache. You close them while you count a hundred. Then open and strain again. Again and again. Till in the end it is there. Palest blue against the pale sky. You lie in the dark and are back in that light. Fall asleep in that sunless cloudless light. Sleep till morning light.
—Samuel Beckett, out of Company (1980)
That Dada Strain
the zig zag mothers of the gods
of science the lunatic fixed stars
fathers who left the tents of anarchism
the arctic bones
strung out on saint germain
like tom toms
living light bulbs
“art is junk” the urinal
says “dig a hole
“& swim in it”
a message from the grim computer
“ye are hamburgers”
—Jerome Rothenberg, out of That Dada Strain (1983)
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
—T. S. Eliot, out of “Burnt Norton” (Collected Poems 1909–1935, 1936)
A duodene of birdnotes chirruped bright treble answer under sensitive hands. Brightly the keys, all twinkling linked, all harpsichording, called to a voice to sing the strain of dewy morn, of youth, of love’s leavetaking, life’s, love’s morn.
—James Joyce, out of Ulysses (1922)
And then again the instant that I awoke methought I was a musical instrument—from which I heard a strain die out—a bugle—or a clarionet—or a flute—my body was the organ and channel of melody as a flute is of the music that is breathed through it. My flesh sounded & vibrated still to the strain—& my nerves were the chords of the lyre. I awoke therefore to an infinite regret—to find myself not the thoroughfare of glorious & world-stirring inspirations—but a scuttle full of dirt—such a thoroughfare only as the street & the kennel—where perchance the wind may sometimes draw forth a strain of music from a straw.
—Henry David Thoreau, out of the Journal (26 October 1851)
That gnat is orange, I can see its two dark eyes and the famous membranous wings, it doesn’t make me strain at a gnat to think about you, now this other man has come in, you look at the map you can see all these millions of places that might exist, that you could exist in without stories, a place like New York City never told a story I’m sure of it, it’s like a habit and people are separate as a ruse of it . . .
—Bernadette Mayer, out of The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (1994)
We’d strain to touch those lang’rous
Length of thighs,
And hear your short sharp modern
—Djuna Barnes, out of “From Fifth Avenue Up” (The Book of Repulsive Women, 1915)
The stress being opposite the strain
an ouch wintering there.
—Barbara Guest, out of “Savannahs” (Fair Realism, 1989)
. . . the slender nervure, the springing motion of the broken arch, the leap downwards of the flying buttress,—the visible effort to throw off a visible strain,—never let us forget that Faith alone supports it, and that, if Faith fails, Heaven is lost.
—Henry Adams, out of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904)
How about strain, does it mean
a severe trying or wearing pressure or
effect (such as a strain of hard work),
or a passage, as in piece of music?
Does Mercury refer to a brand of oil?
—Charles Bernstein, out of “A Test of Poetry” (My Way: Speeches and Poems, 1999)
So, so, there!
Aches contract and starve your supple joints!
That there should be small love amongst these sweet knaves,
And all this courtesy! The strain of man’s bred out
Into baboon and monkey.
—William Shakespeare, out of Timon of Athens (c. 1605)
Do you pity him? No, he deserves no pity. Wilt thou love such a woman? What, to make thee an instrument and play false strains upon thee! Not to be endured!
—William Shakespeare, out of As You Like It (c. 1600)
I'm not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’'t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar.
—Frank O’Hara, out of “My Heart” (The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, 1971)
I strain to gather my absurdities
He buckled on his gun, the one
Poised like Nijinsky
at every hand, my critic
and when I stand and clank it gives me shoes
—Ted Berrigan, out of The Sonnets IV (c. 1963)
And in a little while we broke under the strain:
suppurations ad nauseam, the wanting to be taller,
though it’s simply about being mysterious, i.e., not taller,
like any tree in any forest.
—John Ashbery, out of “Chinese Whispers” (Chinese Whispers, 2002)
Giorgio frowned at the unwonted garniture on the fruit of the sea soup. “That guy is so dumb he makes me sick,” he said. “Wait—I’ll bring you new bowls and a new bowl of soup.”
“Why don’t we just skip ahead to the rollatine?” Alice said. Her voice betrayed a certain strain. “Marshall, since you are the nearest thing to a father I have, would you make the announcement?”
A bottle of Est Est Est was produced and Marshall, in a speech, informed their startled friends that Alice and Giorgio were married, and had been since the mayor of Palermo pronounced the few necessary words.
—John Ashbery and James Schuyler, out of A Nest of Ninnies (1969)
We talk in careless—and in toss—
A kind of plummet strain—
The other’s one—had been—
—Emily Dickinson, out of #663 (Johnson) / #274 (Franklin), c. 1862
A great effort, straining, breaking up
all the melodic line (the lyr-
ick strain?) Don’t
hand me that old line we say
You dont know what yer saying.
Why knot ab stract
a tract of mere sound
is more a round
of dis abs cons
t r a c t i o n
for the reading of words.
—Robert Duncan, out of “For a Muse Meant” (Letters, 1958)
—I can’t read any more of this Rich Critical Prose,
he growled, broke wind, and scratched himself & left
that fragrant area.
When the mind dies it exudes rich critical prose,
especially about Henry, particularly in Spanish, and sends it to him
from Madrid, London, New York.
Now back on down, boys; don’t expressed yourself,
begged for their own sake sympathetic Henry,
his spirit full with Mark Twain
and also his memory, lest they might strain
theirselves, to alter the best anecdote
that even he ever invented.
—John Berryman, out of Dream Song 170 (His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, 1968)
. . . like those huge terrapin
Each daybreak on the wharf, their brine caked eyes;
—Spiked, overturned; such thunder in their strain!
And clenched beaks coughing for the surge again!
—Hart Crane, out of “O Carib Isle!” (c. 1926)
i greet you, day, with joy, clear
thankfulness, for with what strain
i held the bow, withheld the arrow
you, my heart, only know, you who by the holding lost
how many years
—Charles Olson, out of “all things stand out against the sky. . .”
(The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, 1987)
As much of grief as happiness admits
In Heav’n, on each Celestial forehead sits:
Kindness for man, and pity for his fate,
May mixt with bliss, and yet not violate.
Their Heav’nly harps a lower strain began;
And in soft Music, mourn’d the fall of man.
—John Dryden, out of The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man (1674)
His eyes were the palest blue
A solitude of strain, collected, consumed
He was like a thwarted cocoon
—Lyn Hejinian, out of “Chapter 102: The Blue Man” (Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, 1991)
Lift your flowers
on bitter stems
Lift them up
out of the scorched ground!
Bear no foliage
but give yourself
wholly to that!
Strain under them
you bitter stems
that no beast eats—
and scorn greyness!
—William Carlos Williams, out of “Chicory and Daisies” (Al Que Quiere! 1917)