Rivers in Literature

RIVER OF POEMS

Guest Blog by Lori Udall

Rivers are an enduring symbol of life and time passing, eternity. We often reference rivers as a metaphor for a life’s journey or for the many journeys we take physically, spiritually and symbolically.  As those reading this blog well know, rivers are the lifeblood of the planet, on which millions of communities depend for their livelihoods, drinking water, irrigation, water for animals, food, hydropower, waterways, fish, as well as their cultural, religious, aesthetic and social needs.  

Here is a collection of poems that interpret the human experience with rivers, flowing waters. (Feature photo above is from India Today, 2019)

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Langston Hughes

NOTE: In the Negro Speaks of Rivers Langston Hughes traces African American ancestry and identity to the ancient rivers of the Africa continent, the Euphrates and the Nile that flowed before human existence, and back to the Mississippi during emancipation, a river where African Americans toiled in the sun loading and unloading barges and boats.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was an African American novelist, poet, playwright, social activist, and columnist.

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
      flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
       went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
       bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Ask Me
By William Stafford

NOTE: William Stafford is known for his accessible and conversational poetry.  In this poem, the poet entertains questions from another about his life and his actions, and the actions that others have had on his life.  The pause when the river is frozen seeks a moment of meditation and gives the answers over to the river.

William Stafford (1914-1993) was a U.S. Poet and pacifist. He was appointed the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress 1970.

Sometime when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say
you and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Copyright The Poetry Foundation

My River Runs to Thee
By Emily Dickinson

NOTE: Emily Dickinson was known for her keen observations of the natural world, love and her unusual syntax. Here the river could be a metaphor for a relationship with another—the river seeking to be accepted by the ocean.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was a U.S. Poet who lived in seclusion in her parents’ house in Amherst.  Little known during her lifetime, she became one of the most influential poets in American history.  She wrote over 1800 poems, but only 10 were published in her lifetime.

My River runs to Thee –
Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?
My river waits reply –
Oh Sea – Look graciously –
I`ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks
Say – Sea—Take me!

River Runner
Jay Udall (For P.J.)

NOTE: In River Runner Jay Udall muses on a river guides soul intertwined with the rivers that he rafts down.  P.J. -who the poem is dedicated to- “knows he is not the river” but we discover how he has learned its ebbs and flows, and its distinctive language and powers.

Jay Udall is a U.S. poet, musician, songwriter, and English professor at Northern Virginia Community College.

He knows he`s not the river,
though he knows that river better
then anyone alive. “Mr. San Juan”
the other guides have named him,
after this many-faced stretch of water
He`s run times beyond counting.

Yet watching him as he catches a chute
just right, matching the boat’s bulk and weight
to the thrashing white edge,
working churning water with oars
to steady ride the river’s muscled back
you know his knowing
comes not from blind repetition
but some sharper, practiced attention
tuned to read the subtle sudden
shifts of current curling over and around
hidden and half hidden stone,
interpreting flow and force
by quicksilver surface,
divining the signs,
The ancient, living language
of water, rock, and canyon.
It`s why the river sometimes seems to speak
through his deep gentle drawl,
why its light seems to shine from within
his freckled skin and silty orange-brown hair.
“The river’s always changing,” he says.
“It’s never the same twice.”

He tells the story of men who threw dynamite
down the mouth of Quartize Rapid,
down on the Salt River in Arizona.
The chances of surviving that rapid
were said to be one in two,
and it had swallowed a handful of lives
willing to try the odds.
Commercial runners would portage around
the beast, a waste of time and money
to some people`s way of thinking
So one night they blew it apart, tamed it
for the sake of easy commerce
He shakes his head at their lack of respect
And says he hasn’t run the Salt since.
“I’m waiting for the river
to answer” he says.
“The river always has the last word.”

At night he sleeps on his boat, tethered
by thin rope to the shore, where the rest of us lie
huddled in sleeping bags on the solid sand,
beneath a river of bright stars
I listen to the lap and lull of the water
and think of the current moving under him,
the river whispering
like mother to child
or lover to lover.

Copyright Jay Udall

Elk River Falls
By Billy Collins

Note: In Elk River Falls Billy Collins imagines what it’s like to be the river in a waterfall, going around islands, running into rocks, and joining its final home in the ocean. The personification of the river lends itself to a person’s life going through changes, evolution, re-inventing, growing, joining other entities. When it joins the ocean “monster” is that the death of the river or life?

Billy Collins is known for his witty conversational poetry.  He was a Poet Laureate. He has published 13 books of poetry. He is professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

is where the Elk River falls
from a rocky and considerable height
turning pale with trepidation at the lip
(it seemed from where I stood below)
before it is unbuckled from itself
and plummets, shredded, through the air
into the shadows of a frigid pool,
so calm around the edges, a place
for water to recover from the shock
of falling apart and coming back together
before it picks up its song again,
goes sliding around the massive rocks
and past some islands overgrown with weeds
then flattens out and slips around a bend
and continues on its winding course,
according to this camper’s guide,
then joins the Clearwater at it northern fork,
which must in time find the sea
where this and every other stream
mistakes the monster for itself,
sings its name one final time
then feels the sudden sting of salt.

Copyright Poetry Foundation

The Niagara River
Kay Ryan

NOTE: In the Niagara River, Kay Ryan, describes a relaxing dinner journey down the Niagara River with others, as she sees the changing scenes on the shore.  The ending questions where the river as symbol of life is going and what it means.  
Kay Ryan is a U.S. Poet and Educator. She has published seven volumes of poetry.

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation
as it moves along,

we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
Know this is
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

Copyright Kay Ryan 2005

River
By Mary Oliver

NOTE: In River Mary Oliver traces her life as the river moves on and expresses wonder at the many trails and roads she and the river have been down and ponders the existential questions in her life journey: where have I been? What have I done?

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) Mary Oliver was a celebrated environmental and nature U.S. poet who won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

The river
Of my childhood
That tumbled
Down a passage of rocks
And cut-work ferns,
Came here and there
To the swirl
And slowdown
Of a pool
And I say myself—
Oh, clearly—
As I knelt at one—
Then I saw myself
As if carried away,
As the river moved on.
Where have I gone?

Since then
I have looked and looked
For myself,
Not sure
Who I am, or where,
Or, more importantly, why.
It’s okay–
I have had a wonderful life.

Still, I ponder
Where that other is—
Where I landed,
What I thought, what I did,
What small or even maybe meaningful deeds
I might have accomplished
Somewhere
Among strangers,
Coming to them
As only a river can—
Touching every life it meets–
That endlessly kind, that enduring.

Copyright Poetry Foundation

The Porch over the River
By Wendell Berry

Note: In Porch Over the River, Wendell Berry muses on the river at nightfall and compares the light and darkness as the evening overshadows the river. The writer observes the natural world as it moves toward night.
Wendell Berry is a U.S. Poet, essayist, farmer, and environmentalist.

In the dusk of the river, the wind
gone, the leaves grow still—
the beautiful poise of lightness,
the heavy world pushing towards it

Beyond on the face of water,
lies the reflection of another tree,
inverted, pulsing with the short strokes
of waves the wind has stopped driving.

In a time when men no longer
can imagine the lives of their sons
this is still the world
the world of my time, the grind

of engines marking the country
like an audible map, the high dark
marked by the flight of men
lights stranger than stars.

The phoebes cross and re-cross
the openings, alert
for what may be earned
from the light. The whippoorwills

begin, and the frogs. And the dark
falls, again as it must.
The look of the world withdraws
into the vein of memory.

The mirrored tree, darkening, stirs
with the water`s inward life. What has
made it so? – a quietness in it.
no questions can be asked in.

The last light gathers
on the face of the river.
Now comes the sound of wings
it has grown too dark to see. 

Copyright Poetry Foundation 2022

“On a Branch….”
By Kobayashi Issa

NOTE: Kobayashi Issa was a great observer of nature and in particular insects.  His detailed observations of insect life are equally entertaining and existential.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) was a Japanese poet and lay Buddhist priest.  He was considered one of the four masters of Haiku.

On a branch
Floating downriver
A cricket, singing
(Translated by Jane Hirshfield)

Lori Udall (loriudall7@gmail.com)

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