Lyrical poetry lost a staunch advocate when Leslie Mellichamp died on
December 18, 2001. A longtime editor of The Lyric, the oldest magazine in North
America devoted to traditional poetry, he was the author of scores of poems,
essays, and short stories that appeared in the 1950s and '60s in such places as
the Atlantic, New York Times, Saturday Review, Ladies'
Home Journal, and the Georgia Review. Believing with the gifted
contributors who have kept The Lyric alive since 1921 that the roots of a
living poetry lie in music and the common life, rather than in the fragmented
bizarre, and that rhyme, structure, and lucidity are timeless attributes of
enduring poetry, he offered his own lyrics as tributes to life's ancient
ironies, the earth's patient resilience, the impudence of lovers, the wondrous
eyes of children, and the cunning of that soft-shoed thief, Time. Below are a
few of Leslie Mellichamp's poems, would that there had been more.
Before we explore Leslie Mellichamp's poetry, let it be quickly mentioned that
The Lyric is still in publication, now edited by Jean Mellichamp Milliken,
and that The Lyric has recently reinstated its College Contest. We
encourage all THT visitors to consider a subscription to The Lyric, and
we support The Lyric in its many worthwhile endeavors. —MRB
The Earth and I
The earth and I are troubled friends,
I'm not at home with frosts and winds.
I will not plant this year, I vow—
When April comes I start to plow.
And though I yearly break the land,
The plow seems foreign to my hand.
The earth's indifferent to my needs.
Except to send a crop of weeds.
But though I sulk, I love too well
The thrust and curve, the burst and swell.
Though harvests cost three times their worth,
I like the feel of broken earth.
And since I shall like all the rest
Become the earth's indifferent guest,
Unstirred by mornings gray or painted,
Perhaps it's shrewd to get acquainted.
O singer, sing to me—
I know the world's awry—
I know how piteously
The hungry children cry—
But I bleed warm and near,
And come another dawn
The world will still be here
When home and hearth are gone.
These are the years recorded best with silence,
That promise neither drama nor relief,
That leave no room for grandeur nor defiance,
That overflow with grievances, not grief.
These are the years that scratch a man to death,
That wear the runner down without a race,
That set the mouth and eyes, and chill the breath,
That neither build nor shatter—just deface.
The sunrise summons us like men,
Its tumult fills the eastern sky,
Its promise gives the strength of ten,
But we can't answer to the cry.
For there are things to carry out,
And out, to carry in once more,
And things that we must push about,
Or pull, or tend, or count, or score.
And then there are the cleaning days,
And time to scratch and shave and scent:
In marvelous and godlike ways
The crimson tide of life is spent.
"Come into My Parlor..."
I have no wish at all
To know that flashy gent
(Fame, I think he's called)
To whom all knees are bent.
Is so profound, complete,
Unknown upon occasion
I've passed him on the street.
Yet ignorance breeds danger,
Perhaps I'd better go
And cultivate the stranger
To recognize my foe.
I guess Jim Stevens could have bought and sold
The lot of us—and some men will aver
He had more power than the governor—
Yet when he shook your hand and told
Inconsequential niceties of old
In the slow grave voice of a philosopher,
You knew beneath the chatter and the whir
Of now, was lost an essence more than gold.
And as he stood with evening at his back,
His ample stature crowned with silver hair,
He looked like some descended deity,
Gentle yet just—could this be he
Who scrambling to be topmost on the stack
Scorned no small, dirty trick to get up there?
We wish and work and play,
And all that comes about
The trashman takes away,
The janitor sweeps out.
The glove that sheathes the touch
That breaks men at a whim,
The fought-for prize we clutch
Will come at last to them.
The purchase of our days,
The pale debris of lust,
The books, the songs, the plays
Will fall alike to dust.
And what is left to say,
And what is left to doubt,
The trashman takes away,
The janitor sweeps out.
With all the regions they might grace
And not seem out of place at all,
To choose this earth of flesh and blood,
Of disenchantment, sweat, and gall—
To come without expenses paid
And not hold out for higher price,
But drift upon the summer air
And add a touch of paradise—
These tales of murder, hate, and greed
Are surely rumors, baseless lies—
What evil could befall a world
Whose dusk is lit by fireflies?
Song for November
The crimson leaves are gone now, and the gold;
We've piled them high and burnt them with a will;
Thus comforted, we shall await the cold
To hurl its frozen fury at the sill.
Our days are taut with meaning as we go
Our sorting, sweeping, burning way to bed,
Where autumn leaves, unharried, drift and blow,
The umber and the golden and the red.
I look afar
There is no star.
The temple's black
My pen lies slack.
I guess my muse
Has blown a fuse.
The squirrel has no old age pension,
His life is one of hypertension
And never dull, sir.
He nibbles in a furtive sweat,
I wonder why he does not get
A peptic ulcer?
Yesterday I felt so bad
To carry on took all I had,
And left me lacking strength to shun
Disclosing it to everyone.
The Bright Flowers
Because the day offers
No leisure to look,
We press the bright flowers
Away in a book.
And with them the music
We'd like so to sing,
And with them the wonder,
So fragile a thing.
While waiting for respite
We hoard through the years,
But pressed faded flowers
Are mostly for tears.
Many Voices Clamor
Many voices clamor
As the ship goes down.
The heavy sea pours in,
The hole cannot be found.
Some cry "Man the pumps!"
And some leap for the sea;
Some insist it's normal
And adds stability.
The captain, rumor has it,
Lies cold upon his bed,
And from the hold arises
The odor of the dead.
The dance band on the upper deck
Adds to the eerie sound,
Many voices clamor
As the ship goes down.
And yet again an autumn drops its
As rain drives painted splendor
from the land.
All imagery insists we have grown
Our summer dreams lie in a sodden
And yet the gaunt trees promise
they will stand;
The roots of love will hold us fast
A little boy is made of glass,
You see the passions as they pass.
Tempests gather, pour and break,
Sunlight follows in their wake.
Satan glitters unrepressed;
Envy green as summer's crest.
Joy or wrath distinct, profound;
No confusing middle ground.
In this loyal satellite
Love is swift and clear as light.
He who takes the slightest joy
In earthly man must love a boy.
Time has shown a tiny hitch in
Our modern and efficient kitchen
Where things are placed with studied care
To save milady wear and tear,
And stove to sink is but a step,
And—well, it's wonderful except
Between me always and my goal
are a large collie, two wagons, a velocipede,
a beach ball, assorted dolls, blocks,
and little girls, and a member
of the Junior Space Patrol.
The children do not bother me a speck,
I'm used to someone breathing down my neck.
I could type in Pennsylvania Station,
It all depends on perfetc cnocentration.
The mice are free. A final slap or two
And like a glutted cat, day lets us go.
We had large plans for this awaited pause.
This lull between barrages, this plateau.
All day we wooed this moment. It has come.
We had large plans, but weariness is deep.
And there's tomorrow, and after that, tomorrow,
And barely time to lick our wounds and sleep.
Beyond this room, beyond your loveliness,
Beyond this flame-lit circle lies the dark;
The dark, the rain, the streets, the pitiless
Buildings: draw closer, dare them cross this mark.
But dark seeps in, and though we guard the
Time, the soft-shoed thief, will loot the
And yet of all the taunts we fling at fate,
The impudence of lovers is the best.
Mechanically I make the rounds,
And keep somehow the proper face,
And utter the required sounds,
And sit in the appointed place.
I am as void, as meaningless
As a ruined house, deserted, still:
Return, return, my love, and light the lamp
The hearth is cold, the darkness gnaws the sill.
Indifferent as a stone gargoyle
I watched the scene beneath,
Where in the green-eyed monster's coil
The people gnashed their teeth.
The more they wriggled to be free
The more their complications—
Oh it was ludicrous to see
Their curious gyrations.
I laughed so hard to see the fun
I fell down from my shelf,
And when the dragon grabbed me, none
Danced wilder than myself.
Around each corner of the day
Awaits the alien task
Of moulding yet-protesting clay
To some incongruous mask.
And I because I'm weak and vain
Arrange the garb required;
I'm always with prodigious pain
I wear to please the gods of day
The necessary tags;
With you the masks all fall away
Like Cinderella's rags.
I must put this night with care away;
Morning will murmur none could be so bright,
Noon will bring its anger and decay,
Dusk will add its shadows and its blight.
Years will trample, leaving it to die—
I must put this dream away with care,
To fling it in the teeth of need, and cry
Here are her swift white hands, her raven
By Minute, Unregarded Ways
By minute, unregarded ways
All falls secretly to dust:
The sill in powder to the earth,
The nail in increments of rust.
Unsuspected is the tree
The wind proves hollow in a trice;
Integrity through slenderer flaws
Crumbles at the final price.
By gates unguarded, love goes out,
And who can say the hour it fled?
Time by piling seconds up
Bows at last the bravest head.
Winter comes upon the heart,
But none can point the killing frost:
In minute, unregarded ways
The brightest and the best are lost.
Do Not Ask
Do not press too close the quarry,
You may catch the thing you seek;
Do not question till you're sorry
Whether sunlight crowns the peak.
Do not pull apart the petal
For the secret of the rose;
Do not strive too hard to settle
Just how deep the fissure goes.
Do not ask what beauty borrows,
Nor the laws that love obeys,
Nor how brimming, bright tomorrows
Fade to faceless yesterdays.
Around this island of repose
Beat the city's angry seas,
The sun on marble sentinels
Is softened by the patient trees.
"Amanda, child of seven years
Rests in Christ eternally,"
And those who cradled her and wept
Have also found tranquility.
Vandals breaching mossy walls
Have knocked the ancient headstones down:
Sons of Adam, what requires
The sacking of this gentle town?
We go our casual, violent ways
And scarcely look about at all,
Until, astounded and enraged,
We wake surrounded by a wall.
For some it is a sudden stroke,
Arranged for them by fate or elves;
For others, men build up the bricks—
But we lay most of them ourselves.
No more the lion stalks the land,
The earth is under new command.
No more beyond the fire's eye
Is heard the wolf's blood-hungry cry.
Still are we prey; a beast yet roams
That eats us in our very homes:
Sooner or later, spring or fall,
The Trivia will consume us all.
The Day Was Bleak
The day was bleak, the children screamed,
My head buzzed like a hive;
On opening the closet door
I saw my forty-five.
The steel was cold, the muzzle big—
I drew it from the shelf,
And shook with an insane desire
Not to kill myself.
In the dark
And secret ground
Word that I
Will plant goes round.
The sun is told,
The wind, the rain,
And all that crawls
On grape and grain.
These forces shake
In silent mirth
When I put seeds
Into the earth...
What sun and rain
Allow to flower,
The wind lays low,
The worms devour...
Now there are those
Who claim it's me,
And not a vast
To these kind friends
I say, "Indeed—
Name me a bug
That eats a weed!"
I whittled up the afternoon
And saw the evening through
By feeding fancy with a spoon
Little sips of you.
When midnight finally did arrive
(Several hours late)
I jumped into my Super Five
And hurtled out the gate.
Like a tracer slug I hissed
Through the midnight dead:
Impatient as a child I kissed
Your drowsy tousled head.
And you, my little caramel,
Mumbled from the deep,
"Did you lock the door?" and fell
At five o'clock they flee the town:
Ten thousand men leap up as one—
The hordes that cut the Romans down
Suffer by comparison.
Grim is their mouth, and wild their eye,
As they roar forth, all caution scorning;
Then each alights, takes off his tie,
And acts quite neighborly till morning.
Glimpsed in shadow at the edge of sight
Or in a darkened mirror quickly passed,
Present when the party's at its height,
Silent but relentless to the last.
We tell ourselves it waits for other prey—
Our tally has not reached the ordained sum—
We skitter here and there until the day
It fills the open door and beckons "Come!"
Ten Year Old
When the whirlwind stops for breath
A woman's eye may look at you,
Knowing all it needs to know
To find its mark and run it through.
At other pauses in its course
A child's behind the brimming eyes,
Dressing dolls and gulping love
And filled with insolence and "why's."
Either look can break the heart
Before she clatters off to find
Some more of life to snatch and taste
As lamps spin crashing down behind.
Proudly flash our towers in the sun,
Temples earth has never felt before;
Intricate, aloof—no taint of soil
Desecrates a polished corridor.
Doubtless we will build them to the end,
Forgetting or ignoring that their stem
Rests only upon earth. An earth that may
But shudder in its dream and swallow them.
Song for Bright Days
"Awake and seek!" the sunrise shouts
In flagrant golds and reds,
And foolish blood takes fire and routs
Men from their dream-tossed beds.
"Push on!" the wind cries as it drags
Great clouds across the stage,
And men and trees and sway-backed nags
Thrust with the wind's white rage.
"Endure!" the thunder of the sea
Translates to Turk and tern;
"See how the rock stands up to me,
And I return, return."
Thus trees grow tall and sea cows nurse
And men have goals and strokes,
And sun and wind and sea rehearse
Their vast, outrageous hoax.
Song for a Mountain Winter
It's better to be blown about
And have to cling to frozen land;
It's kinder if the ears drop off—
It tells the tenants where they stand.
There is more truth in Winter hate
Than can be pried from painted fall.
And Spring's a hussy, always was,
And Summer can undo us all.
Coup de Grâce
And so, before we leave the air--
(We see you quivering, cringing there
Like a jello rabbit—
DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL—
Traveler, you've yet a final trial.
You think although you're groggy, blind—
Nerve-ends like a porcupine—
Although your eighteen-hour-day
Has chipped your sanity away
And opened all your battered seams
That you've a chance for pleasant dreams?
Traveler, brace your trembling thews—)
We bring to you the midnight news!
The squirrel-cage was stopped. A
Surely the race was run, the
The bait that hung an inch beyond
Would now be cut, and given us at
But when they took us out and
stripped us bare,
The ribs did not sufficiently
The eyes had not the requisite
The iron gate was shut, the bait
We Thought At least The Roof Would Fall
In final grandeur
Or the end would be as dire
As annihilating fire.
Or a hurricane would hurl it
at the moon.
So we kept our tendons tense
For the final thrill,
And the boards fell off the fence
And the termites ate the sill.
The Duke and I were in correspondence since the late 1950's. I was honored by
his acceptance of three of my sonnets in 1958. He and I never wavered in our
devotion to metrical verse. I met him only once, but feel that I have lost a
close friend. A light has gone out of my life. — Alfred Dorn (in a
letter to Jean Milliken)
Leslie Mellichamp was a distant presence for me, but a kind one. For many
years he stoked the failing fires of our cultural memory. Thanks to him and
others like him, those fires warm us still. — Richard Moore
What a boon it was to poetry, the lifetime of devotion that Leslie Mellichamp
expended on The Lyric! For many years he provided one of the very few venues for the
kind of poetry that both communicates and remembers its roots in song. Here is a
poem by that gifted, generous and unassuming man to whom we owe so much [the
poem, "Plea," appears above]. May his memory continue to sing to us, lest we
forget. — Rhina P. Espaillat
Poet In Summer Garden, for Leslie Mellichamp
by Rhina Espaillat
Slender in shirtsleeves, lean beside the cross
leaning beside him, nodding at the folks
in folding chairs, wobbling on clumps of moss,
he smiles, subdued, remembering the jokes,
ventures a few, sober despite the wine
he himself conjures from the simple water
before him on the lectern. His first line—
meditation like ours, but harder, tauter,
like flesh in training--taps into the code
of lovers among strangers, and then shifts
to sudden song. He lifts his body's load
of bird in transit, and the music drifts
over the trellised green, women and men
waiting to let this happen once again.
A haven for the quiet voice he kept, while fashion praised the "strong," the
breakers. May he rest in peace and in the company of song. — Esther
I never had the chance to meet Leslie, but he was the
first editor who encouraged me and offered helpful suggestions on my early work.
Both the specific suggestions and the symbolism of his effort helped me
enormously, and you have to multiply my experience by thousands to capture
Leslie's impact as an editor. He also had a clear, uncluttered vision that I admired,
and a warm sense of humor that I miss. — Michael Juster
Leslie Mellichamp was the first editor to publish my work. I think everyone will
remember his kindness. His handwritten notes, always personal, always encouraging and
full of warmth. — Mary Rae
Leslie Mellichamp was a gentle man to whom many poets and poetry itself are indebted. — Deborah Warren
Leslie Mellichamp was the first literary magazine editor to accept a poem of mine,
when I was still in high school. He made the suggestion of relineating it, which
made all the difference. His acceptances, and gentle and encouraging rejections,
helped me to persevere with form in the face of the bleak moonscape that was poetry
publication in the late 80s. The Lyric was also where I first encountered the
work of such delightful poets as Rhina Espaillat and A.M. Juster. Leslie Mellichamp
will be greatly missed. — A. E. Stallings
The Poems of Leslie Mellichamp
by Norman Kraeft
In opening the blinds, he showed us sights
and insights unencountered heretofore.
He held our hand in promised lands. What's more,
as night arrived, he lit clairvoyant lights
that sail and soar like spaceships to the heights,
and how these poems can unlock a door!
His simple stanzas tunnel to the core
of things, where he finds candles he ignites.
The notes on Leslie's fiddle are not loud
as lovingly they fashion lyric song.
Not one who longs to stand out in a crowd,
his harmonies coax us to hum along.
He wrote and saw the sun hide in a cloud
and genuflect, for not a word was wrong.
My first published poem appeared in The Lyric (circa 1971), and I owe my
lifelong friendship with Gail White to our mutual discovery in its pages.—Barbara Loots
His patience and courtesy were a huge factor in keeping my courage up as a
new writer (in 1984). I had to submit to The Lyric a number of times
before ... (he) was happy with one of my poems, but he always wrote an
encouraging note on his rejection slips so that I kept on trying until 1992 when
I finally wrote something that was good enough to appear in The Lyric ...
(He) overlooked my gaucheries and ultimately, when the poem was right, he
accepted it. When I received the acceptance letter it was the proudest day of my
poetic career! — Alice Evans
Elegy for an Heroic Man
by Alice Evans
If you must die,
Let it not be in the listless time
Between the winter and the spring
For you've been bold
With the crimson courage
Of those whose hearts shudder at fear's edge;
And not in spring:
Though you are loving
You've had long life—
Long past the time
Of lovers walking petal carpets
And skipping children.
No, if you must die, let it be
Just before the January thaw
When life keeps still
As if in honor of your dignity
And winds with teeth of ice rake bare trees
To match our indignation at your passing.
So I prayed,
And so it was—
The season was a fitting time to grieve you.
Had it not been for the support and appreciation of Leslie Mellichamp, editor, over
quite a span of years—more than three decades as I recall—of
The Lyric, a poetry quarterly founded in 192l ... possibly much of my poetry
would never have been written. Warm, generous, and I might even say
self-effacing, Leslie was a true lover of poetry who perhaps felt it part of his
mission as editor of an
old and reputable poetry magazine to try to keep the spirit of a dying art
alive. In the 1990s he added the words "An Oasis in an Arid Age" to the
magazine's cover, and if The Lyric indeed served as a refuge for many
readers of poetry, for many writers of poetry it represented one of their very
few remaining outlets. Rhymed and metered poetry having, over the course of
several decades, been sidelined, and indeed nearly silenced, by a sort of
insidious literary coup, The Lyric stood, under
Leslie's editorship, as a sort of last bastion of resistance against the overwhelming trend to erase all
trace of the art's tradition from the current poetry scene. – Tom Merrill
A missive from Tom Merrill to THT editor Mike Burch: Mike, The poems of [Leslie
Mellichamp's] I sent you are from his book We Thought At Least The Roof Would Fall.
I don't offhand recall which ones I sent you, but if you would like some more, I can
easily provide them. Did I tell you he once wrote a poem to me? It was in
response to a letter I sent him one spring, in which I probably chirped about
thoughts I was having for the garden:
Merrill's mental garden
Starts a hopeful thrum;
Fern and ghostly dahlia
Tease the cerebrum.
Shadowy rose and pansy,
Thrift and marigold
Titillate the fancy,
End the winter's hold.
Odd I've held this in memory so long. I loved it so much is perhaps why. Somehow
the tone of it reminded me of Vincent Price and I remember it making me laugh. I
probably no longer have the postcard on which he wrote it, probably more than 15
years ago. You could add it to the batch you're planning to publish, if you
didn't mind publishing a poem with someone's name in it. Or maybe you could
change the name to protect the innocent!
To The Singer for Leslie Mellichamp
by Michael R. Burch
The sun that swoons at dusk
and seems to die–bright grace!–
breaks over distant shores.
A child’s uplifted face
takes up a song like yours.
We listen, and embrace
its warmth with dawning trust.
The Wonder Boys, for Leslie Mellichamp
by Michael R. Burch
The stars were always there, too-bright clichés:
scintillant truths the jaded world outgrew
as baffled poets winged keyed kites—amazed,
in dream of shocks that suddenly came true . . .
but came almost as static—background noise,
a song out of the cosmos no one hears,
or cares to hear. The poets, starstruck boys,
lay tuned in to their kite strings, saucer-eared.
They thought to feel the lightning’s brilliant sparks
electrify their nerves, their brains; the smoke
of words poured from their overheated hearts.
The kite string, knotted, made a nifty rope . . .
You will not find them here; they blew away–
in tumbling flight beyond the stars. They clung
by fingertips to words like kites. They strayed
too far to remain mortal. Ever young,
their words are with us still. Devout and fey,
they wink at us whenever skies are gray.
Every poet intends to touch someone he or she never met in a unique way.
Leslie Mellichamp did just that, many times over, both as a poet and as the
editor of The Lyric. I can't describe exactly how I felt when I learned
The Lyric was going to use four of my poems in a single issue, but it was
something akin to jumping off the planet. I can only express my deep gratitude to
Leslie Mellichamp for being Leslie Mellichamp: a champion of poetry and poets. — Mike Burch