Monday, June 1, 2015

Rivers are the subject of many poems published over the centuries. One of the most famous is “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes. It first published in 1921 when Hughes was in his late teens. He became a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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.
~ Langston Hughes
This poem is found on numerous websites and in numerous anthologies. It is the first poem in The Collection Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, avid Roessel, Associate Editor (Vintage Classics, Random House, 1994), p. 23.

The rivers in Hughes’ poem are actual, literal rivers, but he uses them in a symbolic way. Emily Dickinson doesn’t have rivers in many of her poems. The river that runs through number XI is metaphoric:


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!

~ Emily Dickinson

A poem that is more well-known that that of Emily Dickinson, and maybe even better known than Langston Hughes’ poem, features a river experienced in a dream (or drugged?) state:

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
    In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
    And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This is another poem that is found on numerous websites and in numerous collections and anthologies, including The New Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1950, chosen and edited by Helen Gardner (Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 544-546.

I fell in love with the sounds of this poem the first time I heard it read aloud.

As you can see, there are many ways to write a river poem. I’ve included a list of some other river poems you may want to check out; see below.
The June Poetry Challenge: a River Poem

The Challenge for June is to write a river poem. A river poem may be about the poet’s (or narrator’s) personal experience with a particular river—picnicking on the bank, swimming in the river, running the rapids on a ramp. It may be the river in your hometown, one you have seen while traveling, or one you would like to see. It may be about rivers in general or about the role of a river like the Nile, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Rhine or the Mississippi in history, ecology or economy of a nation or continent. The river may be a metaphor (or something else may turn out to be a metaphor for a river). Or it can be an imaginary river.

Submit only one poem. The deadline is June 15. Poems submitted after the June 15 deadline will not be considered. There is no charge to enter, so there are no monetary rewards; however winners are published on this blog. Please don’t stray too far from “family-friendly” language. No simultaneous submissions, please. You will know before the month is over whether or not your poem will be published on this blog.

Copyright on each poem is retained by the poet.

Poems published in books or on the Internet (including Facebook and other on-line social networks) are not eligible. If your poem has been published in a print periodical, you may submit it if you retain copyright, but please include publication data.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send one poem only to wildamorris[at]ameritech[dot]net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for “dot”) . Include a brief bio which can be printed with your poem, if you are a winner this month.

Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner, so be sure that you put your name (exactly as you would like it to appear if you do win) at the end of the poem. Poems may be pasted into an email or sent as an attachment. Please do not indent the poem or center it on the page. It helps if you submit the poem in the format used on the blog (Title and poem left-justified; title in bold (not all in capital letters); your name at the bottom of the poem). Also, please do not use spaces instead of commas in the middle of lines. I have no problem with poets using that technique; I sometimes do it myself. However I have difficulty getting the blog to accept and maintain extra spaces.

Poems shorter than 30 lines are generally preferred. Also, if lines are too long, they don’t fit in the blog format and have to be split, so you might be wise to use shorter lines.

Some Other River Poems:

Susan B. Auld, “Mississippi Water Lights,” in Visiting Morning and Other Quiet Places (Aurora IL: Tradewinds, 2008), p.30.

Robert Bly, “Letting My Eyes Fall to the River,” in Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life (Buffalo NY: White Pine Press, 2015). p. 212.

William Lisle Bowles, “To the River Tweed,”

Billy Collins, “Fishing the Susquehanna in July,” in Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburg Press, 1998), p7-8.

Roberta Feins, “Something Like a River,” in Something Like a River (Kingston WA: MoonPath Press, 2013), 17.

Max Garland, “Lines for the Cape Fear River” and “A Day on the Red Cedar River,” in Hunger Wide as Heaven (Cleveland OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2006), pps. 39 and 42.

William Randolph Hearst, “Song of the River,”

Carolyn Kizer, “Summer Near the River,” “The Meandering River Poems,” in Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960-2000 (Copper Canyon Press, 2001), pp. 91-92, 371-374. “Summer Near the River” is also on the Internet at

Susanna Lang, “River Beds,” in Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013), p. 12.

James Merrill, “River Poem,” in James Merrill, Selected Poems 1946-1985 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 7.

Luis Rodriguez, “The Concrete River,”

Richard Roe, “River Memories,” in Bringer of Songs (Fireweed Press, 1994), pp. 49-51.

Kay Ryan, “The Niagara River,”

Wallace Stevens, “The River of Rivers in Connecticut,”

Robert Wrigley, “The River Itself,” in Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 2006), p. 7.

© Wilda Morris