Tuesday, November 2, 2010

this is just to say

Hey, massive post ahead!

I took a class in grad school called 20th-Century African-American Literary Criticism--hereafter Af-Am Lit Crit, because try saying the full title twenty times fast. This post will not be about the actual class (maybe sometime I'll write about it, though, because it was fascinating), but partially about something my professor said. We were reading poetry at the time, and he said, "You can throw anything at English students and they'll take it, but if you give them poetry, they'll run away screaming."

Yeah, that's totally me. Maybe it's because poetry is sometimes so damn difficult. You got rhyme, you got meter, you got form, and those things matter when you're looking at a poem (yes, they do, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society). 

And maybe it's because poetry's hard to define. Samuel Johnson, in answer to Boswell's question, "What is poetry?" said, "Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is."

I'm also of the opinion--and perhaps this is an unjustified opinion--that very, very few people are good poets. I am not one of them. The best poem I ever wrote was a parody of part of "East Coker" ("Oh dark dark dark, they all go into the dark" got turned into "Oh slush slush slush, they all go into the slush." I was rather sick of winter at the time). For the most part, though, let me stick to prose. I can do prose (I think. I hope). 
Good poetry? It takes my breath away, leaves me speechless, renders me almost unable to think.

All right, that's established. Bring out yer poetry! Or, rather, poems you like (though, if you're a poet, feel free to share).

 My favorite poem--or more accurately, series of poems--is T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. I wrote my undergrad senior thesis on it (it was titled "Intersections with Eternity"), and I still love it. Most people are familiar with Eliot through "Prufrock" and The Waste Land. I like to quote their opening lines, usually rather flippantly: "Let us go then, you and I" when I'm going out, and "April is the cruellest month" during, well, April.
The Quartets come after these, after Eliot's conversion to Anglicanism, so there are often mixed responses to the poems. What fascinates me is not only Eliot's response to Christianity here, but also his response to the looming war. Actually, the response to World War II is one of the things that fascinates me most about the Modernists in general: most of them experienced the Great War and thought, like so many others, that it was the war to end all wars. And then...World War II.
In any case, one of the major themes that runs throughout the Quartets is this idea of language being inadequate--perhaps because language, art, poetry didn't stop the war. In Burnt Norton, we get
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. 
And in East Coker, the feeling of wasted time ("twenty years largely wasted") is paired with the feeling that one is always saying that is not what I meant at all:
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. 
The resolution comes in Little Gidding, with words being "[t]he complete consort dancing together." 
There's so much to say about the Quartets, but in lieu of writing another thesis on them, I'm just going to quote the last few lines of Little Gidding:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I quoted Seamus Heaney's "Doubletake" in my post on 9/11, but I think it's worth talking about again. It's part of an adaptation of Sophocles' Philoctetes. I've never read either, though Troy is on my to-be-read list. Published in '91, the play also subtly references Northern Irish politics as well as Greek history. The most quoted lines of "Doubletake" come from the chorus:
History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

I try to remember this, as well as the next lines: "So hope for a great sea-change/on the far side of revenge." Also, if you're going to check out Heaney, his translation of Beowulf makes me swoon. And "Digging" is a great poem. 

My favorite love poem: Pablo Neruda's "Every Day You Play." The last line? "I want/to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees." 'Nuff said there.
Along with Neruda, I love e.e. cummings's "somewhere i have never travelled," which ends like this:
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and open; only something in me understands 
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
How could anyone resist poems like cummings' and Neruda's? They read like whispers, like longing. They're entrancing.
(Also, with the elections looming, perhaps we all should read next to of course god america i)

I have a soft spot for Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," just because it's so catchy (iambic whatevermeter, people, for the times that you want to get something stuck in everyone's head):
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.
It's a bit of an acid trip--which, wait, is completely appropriate, as Coleridge was probably writing this in an opium-induced trance or something. 

Also in the "catchy" category is Yeats' "The Stolen Child."
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
And, you know, "The Second Coming" cannot be read enough: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." And something rather relevant to today:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And how about some Gerard Manley Hopkins with that sprung rhythm? I love me some "Pied Beauty."
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
     Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                          Praise Him.

And to end, William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say."

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I realize that I've been quite heavy on 20th-century poets here. I apologize for that. But bring me your Shakespeare and Jonson, Dickinson and Whitman. And Dryden and Pope, and Wordsworth and Shelley, and Donne and Herbert. And all those neglected poets that I've, well, neglected, as there is only so much room and so much time to write.


  1. It was my thirtieth year to heaven
    Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
    And the mussel pooled and the heron
    Priested shore
    The morning beckon
    With water praying and call of seagull and rook
    And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
    Myself to set foot
    That second
    In the still sleeping town and set forth.

    My birthday began with the water-
    Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
    Above the farms and the white horses
    And I rose
    In rainy autumn
    And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
    High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
    Over the border
    And the gates
    Of the town closed as the town awoke.

    A springful of larks in a rolling
    Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
    Blackbirds and the sun of October
    On the hill's shoulder,
    Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
    Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
    To the rain wringing
    Wind blow cold
    In the wood faraway under me.

    Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
    And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
    With its horns through mist and the castle
    Brown as owls
    But all the gardens
    Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
    Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
    There could I marvel
    My birthday
    Away but the weather turned around.

    It turned away from the blithe country
    And down the other air and the blue altered sky
    Streamed again a wonder of summer
    With apples
    Pears and red currants
    And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
    Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
    Through the parables
    Of sun light
    And the legends of the green chapels

    And the twice told fields of infancy
    That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
    These were the woods the river and sea
    Where a boy
    In the listening
    Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
    To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
    And the mystery
    Sang alive
    Still in the water and singingbirds.

    And there could I marvel my birthday
    Away but the weather turned around.
    And the true
    Joy of the long dead child sang burning
    In the sun.
    It was my thirtieth
    Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
    Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
    O may my heart's truth
    Still be sung
    On this high hill in a year's turning.

    -- Dylan Thomas

  2. I can never decide whether I think Donne or Whitman is the best, but the above was more appropriate.

  3. Part of the problem I run into in reading poetry - and I, too, am one of those English majors - is that it requires an entirely different way of reading. Give me a big chunk of text, and I can just launch into reading it; but poetry, as a rule, is dense. It requires me to slow down and really focus on the details, and that's not how I'm used to reading.

    But hey, just because (once I'd acclimated myself) I enjoyed it:

    I want a hero: an uncommon want,
    When every year and month sends forth a new one,
    Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
    The age discovers he is not the true one;
    Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
    I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan --
    We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
    Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.

  4. "Bring on your poetry"? Now there's a dangerous invitation!

    And actually, the first thing that sprang to mind was something by another post-war European DWM, but it both reminds me a little of Eliot and seems suitable for the data of your post. (for a young woman's birthday, um, maybe not so much...Happy Birthday, anyway!)

    Bernardas Brazdžionis

    Like a moss-bee, as evening wanes,
    our life will take flight back to the hive, the song
    already fallen still, the white frost still and fallen.
    Like God's thoughts, we shall gather at the threshold.

    On gray moss in a pine wood, her heart turned gray,
    youth tearful for her prayers astray will find redress in heaven.
    And you, beloved, in one night perhaps grown gray with me,
    blossoms of peony no longer in your cheeks...

    Thus we shall see ourselves in distant firelight,
    and for ourselves, from shadows, raise the ruined ancestral home.
    Till the sun gutters, flowers the sphere, the ring gold as a grape
    and we shall see our first love, veiled in white, walk past us.

    Potentates will bestow their wealth and palaces,
    and queens, their emeralds and pearls.
    In your name, Jesus, in the pastoral game of death,
    our sweetest shield, our paradisal consolation.

    And priests and sisters, walled in their cold stone,
    and noble hierarchs and low-born servants
    wandered from moonlight into moonlight,
    O Lord, and have not found the path to your domain.

    Towards it, the echo ever by our side, through fields,
    towards it, one dry juniper needle in our hands,
    bare-headed and without adornments, we shall travel
    along the ice-locked way of All Souls' Day.

    The rivulet of mystery will burst out of the mountain.
    Our souls will bow down, tired, drink their fill, recover,
    more azure than the opal of the rainbow
    garlanded in the holy herbs of the high feast.

    Forget man's vain preoccupations, his wish to forget,
    his promises to you, earth, not to die – and many, oh many dreams!
    For darkness falls, the ship appears already and the waves
    crash, as without rest I draw near our Father's haven.

    Translated from the Lithuanian by Clark Mills

  5. Wait, that published? I thought I was still in Preview! I'll never get the hang of this stuff.

    That was supposed to be "the date of the post."

    And do you know what the captcha word for that comment was?


    At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
    Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
    From death, you numberless infinities
    Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go;
    All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
    All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
    Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
    Shall behold God and never taste death's woe.
    But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
    For if above all these my sins abound,
    'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
    When we are there; here on this lowly ground
    Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
    As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.

  7. Oh, these are all wonderful (and thanks for the birthday wishes and poems).

    @Michael Mock: Definitely, utterly perfectly on topic. And so very accurate.

    How 'bout some Frost? (Long but good)

    When I see birches bend to left and right
    Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
    I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
    But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
    Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
    Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
    After a rain. They click upon themselves
    As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
    As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
    Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
    Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
    Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
    You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
    They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
    And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
    So low for long, they never right themselves:
    You may see their trunks arching in the woods
    Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
    Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
    Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
    But I was going to say when Truth broke in
    With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm,
    I should prefer to have some boy bend them
    As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
    Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
    Whose only play was what he found himself,
    Summer or winter, and could play alone.
    One by one he subdued his father's trees
    By riding them down over and over again
    Until he took the stiffness out of them,
    And not one but hung limp, not one was left
    For him to conquer. He learned all there was
    To learn about not launching out too soon
    And so not carrying the tree away
    Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
    To the top branches, climbing carefully
    With the same pains you use to fill a cup
    Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
    Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
    Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

    So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
    And so I dream of going back to be.
    It's when I'm weary of considerations,
    And life is too much like a pathless wood
    Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
    Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
    From a twig's having lashed across it open.
    I'd like to get away from earth awhile
    And then come back to it and begin over.
    May no fate willfully misunderstand me
    And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
    Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
    I don't know where it's likely to go better.
    I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree
    And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
    Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
    But dipped its top and set me down again.
    That would be good both going and coming back.
    One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

  8. If I may be permitted a second turn, I also wanted to say that your story about your English professor's opinion of students and poetry reminded me of this pair of poems.

    From the seventeeth-century Irish poet, Anthony Raftery, as translated by James Stephens:

    I am Raftery the poet.
    Full of hope and love.
    My eyes without sight,
    My mind without torment.

    Going west on my journey
    By the light of my heart,
    Tired and weary
    To the end of the road.

    Behold me now
    With my back to the wall.
    Playing music
    To empty pockets.

    Frpm the 20th-century Derek Mahon (a contemporary and countryman of Seamus Heaney), apparently after one too many graduate seminars or faculty receptions:

    I am Raftery, hesitant and confused among
    the cold-voiced graduate students and inter-
    changeable instructors. Were it not for the
    nice wives who do the talking I would have
    run out of hope some time ago, and of love.
    I have traded in the 'simplistic maunderings'
    that made me famous, for a wry dissimulation,
    and imagery of adventitious ambiguity dredged
    from God knows what polluted underground spring.
    Death is near, I have come of age, I doubt if
    I shall survive another East Anglian winter.
    Scotch please, plenty of water. I am reading
    Joyce by touch and it's killing me. Is it
    empty pockets I play to? Not on your life,
    they ring with a bright inflationary music --
    two seminars a week and my own place reserved
    in the record library. Look at me now,
    my back to the wall, taking my cue
    from an idiot disk-jockey between commercials.

    Hope your birthday was happy, and full of hope and love!

  9. @Amaryllis: That second poem made me want to laugh out loud (and I'm at work, so that would not do at all). Thank you! :)