Poem of the week: Autumn at Taos by DH Lawrence

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains

 
Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico.

DH Lawrence wrote that, in New Mexico, a “new part” of his soul “woke up suddenly” and “the old world gave way to a new”. In Native American religion he discovered there were no gods, because “all is god”. In a related way, America, in the shape of Walt Whitman, liberated his poetic landscape.

This week’s poem, “Autumn at Taos”, seems to occur in real time. The speaker is encountered while out riding, and the poem’s rhythms let us experience the small, muscular, intimate “trot-trot” movement of the pony through the contrastingly immense sweep of landscape. Repetitions slow the pace, acting as reins. For instance, when “the aspens of autumn” of line one immediately reappear in the second line, the narrative seems to pause and look around. Lawrence is not an unselfconscious poet, whose brilliancies happen by chance. His judgment is nowhere more apparent than in these repetitions. Look at “mottled” in stanza three. At first we see distantly a mottled effect; then the speaker makes it clear that the mottling is produced by cedar and pinion. No sooner have the trees come into focus than, out of the blue, out of the idea of “mottled”, comes that amazing otter. The word acts as a little visual bridge.

Earlier, aspen and pines formed the stripes of a tigress, and the grey sage of the mesa, a wolf-pelt. The otter, at first, seems only its sleek self, but it’s clear from later in the poem, when the speaker is relieved to get back to “the pine fish-dotted foothills” (curious but effective elision) and “Past the otter’s whiskers”, that this liquescent, “silver-sided” creature embodies another variation of the landscape.

The otter is as fierce as the previous creatures, if less hairy. “Fish-fanged” suggests the slender length of the teeth, and, inevitably, the impaled fish. We get, in effect, a fish’s view of its looming predator.

With the introduction of the mythical hawk of Horus the man on the pony himself becomes mythic. “Behold me” he says, biblically, “trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden/ Great and glistening-feathered legs…” For a moment, we might think of Christ, mounted on an ass, entering Jerusalem. Horus was an Egyptian god represented by the sun as a winged disc but Lawrence may be conflating him with the feather-clad Mexican sun-god, Huitzilopochtli. Whatever his provenance, this bird gets royal poetic treatment. A duller writer might have gone for the “natural” word-order of his trio of adjectives: “great, golden, glistening-feathered…” Lawrence’s arrangement, split by the line-break, redeems the full force of words (“golden”, “great”) that are almost poetic clichés. The tarnished adjectives are suddenly made to tower and flare.

There’s a sexuality in these movements and positions, the rider bestrid by Horus or moving slowly under pines that are like the “hairy belly of a great black bear”. They might even imply different states of being. In Lawrence’s anti-democratic view of society, there were sun-men, an elite, and lesser mortals to be “thrust down into service”. Perhaps here he enacts a passage between both states: at any rate, the speaker is “glad to emerge” from the bearish pine-wood, and celebrates his release with a fresh, sunlit vision of the aspens, which, “laid one on another”, remind him of the hawk-god’s layered feathers.

Looking back on the “rounded sides of the squatting Rockies” unleashes more big-cat imagery, landscaped into metaphor. Possibly the speaker is a little unnerved by the “leopard-livid slopes of America”, comforting himself as he reassures the pony that all these predatory “fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes/ Are nerveless just now”. That “just now” implies only a temporary reprieve. The land, and the sensuous life-force it embodies, will triumph over its colonisers, artists included.

“The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers” a new world within the known world,” DH Lawrence wrote. The effort of attention here is also an effort of painterly imagination and out of the two he has made a strikingly original landscape poem. The creatures in it are not meant to emerge with that vivid, individualised presence of the different beasts of Birds, Beasts and Flowers: even the otter is a quick sketch. But the vision of natural integration between the land and these subliminally-present creatures could not be more alive. And, as so often in the animal poems, part of the charm lies in watching the amused, earnest, marvelling, deeply affectionate man who is watching the animal. Among the creatures in this poem is that small human figure on the pony, not a sun-god, but an English poetic genius, printing in his own way the new paths of technique which the American genius, Walt Whitman, has cleared before him.

Autumn at Taos

Over the rounded sides of the Rockies, the aspens of autumn,
The aspens of autumn,
Like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines.

Down on my hearth-rug of desert, sage of the mesa,
An ash-grey pelt
Of wolf all hairy and level, a wolf’s wild pelt.

Trot-trot to the mottled foot-hills, cedar-mottled and pinion;
Did you ever see an otter?
Silvery-sided, fish-fanged, fierce-faced, whiskered, mottled.

When I trot my little pony through the aspen-trees of the canyon,
Behold me trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden
Great and glistening-feathered legs of the hawk of Horus;
The golden hawk of Horus
Astride above me.

But under the pines
I go slowly
As under the hairy belly of a great black bear.

Glad to emerge and look back
On the yellow, pointed aspen-trees laid one on another like feathers,
Feather over feather on the breast of the great and golden
Hawk as I say of Horus.

Pleased to be out in the sage and the pine fish-dotted foothills,
Past the otter’s whiskers,
On to the fur of the wolf-pelt that strews the plain.

And then to look back to the rounded sides of the squatting Rockies.
Tigress brindled with aspen,
Jaguar-splashed, puma-yellow, leopard-livid slopes of America.

Make big eyes, little pony,
At all these skins of wild beasts;
They won’t hurt you.

Fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes
Are nerveless just now.
So be easy.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/14/poem-of-the-week-d-h-lawrence

Poem of the week: Trenches: St Eloi by TE Hulme

British troops marching to the trenches

 
British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the western front during the first world war. 

The author of this week’s poem is remembered today chiefly for the anthology-favourite, “Autumn”. TE Hulme published only six short poems in his lifetime. Without Ezra Pound’s faintly ambiguous championship, he might not be known as a poet at all. Though omitting his work from the official Imagist anthologies, Pound added Hulme’s five earlier poems to his own 1912 collection, Ripostes, “for good fellowship: for good custom, a custom out of Tuscany and Provence… and for good memory…”, as he put it in the preface.

No original manuscript of “Trenches: St Eloi” remains. According to some accounts, Hulme recited it from memory to his fellow Imagists at the Poets’ Club while home on leave from the front (he served with the Royal Marine Artillery). Pound’s epigraph suggests the even more informal origins of a conversation. The poem was transcribed either by Pound himself, or by Hulme’s lover, Kate Lechmere. Pound admired the poem sufficiently to include it later on in his Catholic Anthology, in the august company of Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Yeats, among others. If Pound had made revisions or “abbreviations”, Hulme must have approved them.

It’s arguably the most radical of any of the English first world war poems. (Isaac Rosenberg and Herbert Read are the writers who come closest.) The style and structure are casual, but a stringent craft underlies the appearance of improvisation.

The opening scene-setting needs some effort of imagination. “Flat slopes” could imply naturally low slopes, slopes flattened in battle, or even the trenches of the title. The image of the sandbags is contrastingly precise and arresting. To this disturbed pastoral is added one further detail – “night”, set on its own line, so that it seems to expand into the surrounding space. Hulme had a romantic predilection for nightfall in his earlier poems, but this night, unembellished, is absolutely unlike the others.

The poem illustrates the unceremonious way the routines and horrors of warfare coexist. The depiction of the men walking about casually, “as on Piccadilly” is a brilliant novelistic stroke. We can just about see them, “making paths in the dark”, instinctively feeling their way. And then the scattered horses and the dead Belgian’s belly are introduced not simply in the midst of these casual comings and goings, but virtually underfoot. Juxtaposition is everything. Hulme adds no grisly detail. He trusts the shocked listeners, including those non-combatant poets, to imagine it for themselves.

Despite the superb imagist technique, the poem is interested in something besides the visual. The later stanzas head for the psychological interior. The flat reportage of “The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets” seems childishly naive, and verging on self-pity, perhaps, but is perhaps intended to mime the obsessive, simple litany of despair. The image of the cannon, “lying back miles”, resembles the earlier wall of sandbags, only on a vaster, breathtakingly intimidating scale. Then the single abstract noun, “chaos”, declares what lies ahead: the defeat of the image by the indescribable.

Hulme’s speaker repeats twice the grammatical structure of the line about the rockets. The first line of this modernist couplet is completely unexpected: “My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.” The word “corridor” evokes emptiness, in utter contrast with the busy pottering and walking to and fro of the earlier scene. It originally meant a place for running. What runs through the hollowed-out mind might be the vague, impossible thought of running endlessly away. The stoic, Beckettian last line rebuffs it. “Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.” Hulme might be thinking about the poem, his sense that there is nothing more to say. But the whole horrible war must often have aroused a similar hopeless thought among those on the ground.

An aesthetic philosopher, influenced by Henri Bergson, Hulme seems to have arrived at an imagist theory independently of Pound, and perhaps earlier. He was a pugnacious character, sent down from Cambridge, allegedly, for brawling, and he became fascinated by military strategy. Possibly he thought war would be his métier.

“Trenches: St Eloi” reflects innocence transformed. In the previous poems, the images are a little whimsical. The moon is “like a red-faced farmer” in “Autumn”. Then there is the “old star-eaten blanket of the sky” that the fallen gentlman wishes could provide a warm cover in “The Embankment”, and the moon as a lost balloon in “Above the Dock”. The free-verse structure, and the brevity, make such poems seem fresh, but there is romanticism, or at least aestheticism, in the nocturnal air, and, sometimes, an anachronistic flourish: “Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy…” None of that fiddling obstructs the chilly line of “Trenches: St Eloi.” The poem is as stark as the period’s cubist art.

Pound wrote that Hulme “set an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say”. Had Hulme not been killed in action in 1917, and had he continued to write poetry, the category “War Poets” might have had far wider connotations.

Trenches: St Eloi
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
Night,
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/10/poem-of-the-week-t-e-hulme

Poem of the week: Square One by Roddy Lumsden

City workers walk across London Bridge

 
City workers walk across London Bridge.

Several commentators on recent books blogs have said they’d like to see a discussion of Roddy Lumsden’s poetry, and PotW’s own MeltonMowbray posted a request earlier this year. So for this week’s poem, I’ve chosen one of my favourites from Lumsden’s latest collection, Terrific Melancholy (recommended if you haven’t already got a copy). I hope aficiandos and new readers alike will enjoy the elegiac virtuosity of “Square One.”

Panning shots of the razzmatazz of contemporary London begin with an unnaturally motionless River Thames, which contrasts with the surrounding fluidity of endless construction and self-invention. The location is mirrored in spirited, slangy diction, and a repetitive device that stitches all together in bright gold lamé thread. On the page, you almost see the green light. Read the poem aloud, and you hear the gunning of engines in the repetition of the hard “g” – described in phonetics as a voiced, velar stop.

This technique recalls the generative devices of the poets and novelists of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) who choose specific verbal constraints as a means of triggering ideas. The most famous, and diabolically complicated, is probably the “story-making machine”, set in motion by Georges Perec in the construction of his novel, Life: A User’s Manual. Poets have experimented with lipograms, palindromes, etc. Whereas these techniques need not, and mostly do not, emerge from the material, the “go” device in “Square One” connects directly to the poem’s theme and rhythmic energy-supply. It also echoes the dominant phonemes in the names of the two mythological giants who’ll emerge in the poem’s last line – Gog and Magog.

This is the London of Boris, bendy buses and bad bankers, but it’s also a tumult of lives harder to record, more slippery and edgy. As well as “the emos, indie kids/ Goths and ravers melting down the day” in stanza one, the prefix nets a jolly haul of “gowks”, “gonzos”, “gorillas” and “gomerils” to flesh out the “city’s multiplicity of fools”. Food is a vivid class-indicator: the “retired politicians” feast on dumplings and meggyleves (Hungarian sour-cherry soup) as well as scandal, while others “stare at bangers and bubble, tea/ gone cold … “. But the poem seems to imply freedom of choice. I like the fact that the power-brokers are simply given their space in the gorgeous, rotted tapestry, without comment. Brand- and place-names, from Gossamer to Gospel Oak, add further texture.

Are any other Oulipan devices used in the poem? I had a subliminal sense that further patterns were sometimes employed, but without being able to put a finger on them. I even wondered about the game of Go, which can be played with a 13 x 13 board (the stanzas are all 13-liners here), but drew a blank.

The title might suggest the Square Mile, or any of London’s many squares: it also recalls Larkin’s famous reference in “The Whitsun Weddings” to “postal districts, packed like squares of wheat”, a curious simile, since, contrary to northern myth, London has many postal districts nearer the breadline than the cornbelt. “Square One” might be anywhere, but it implies return, a reluctant new start. While elegising a lost Albion, the poem knows that new mythical creatures are constantly being born.

Perhaps the day of the poem represents a vaster historical period, one stretching from an almost-absurd respectability (“gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs” to start the day and “dawn trains given the/ go-ahead at suburban junctions”) to the present social chaos. The poem’s author is a Scot, but an end-of-empire regret seems hinted. The accumulation of details evokes the thrill of change and movement, together with a despairing sense of being swept away into anonymity. Yet there’s no question that the speaker loves the city. The sun rises and sets almost romantically in images of the “gold tide,” the “slant shadows” of the high-rises, and the “misted moon.” Noted for its stillness in the first stanza, the river remains obstinately static, but, at the end of the poem, it seems to have found a voice, and utters a punning command to “own torn myths”. And this is exactly what the poem so exuberantly does.

Square One

Going steadily, rowed out from east to west, concrete
gondolas brink the Thames, which is still – it’s the land which is
googled by gravity, thrown around – an optical illusion
good enough to fool the city’s multiplicity of fools:
goons and gomerils who labour under Mammon’s lash,
gowks and golems who queue to flash their lips and lids in
god-forsaken church halls, reeking basements and seeping
Golgothas, clamped blithe to ardour: the emos, indie kids,
Goths and ravers melting down the day we launched with
gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs, skirted girls at Nonsuch and
Godolphin thronging in corridors, dawn trains given the
go-ahead at suburban junctions, the first trace of the sun’s
gold tide as it washes back to our side of the sphere, but now,

 going for lunch, you swing between delight and throwaway,
gourmet and grease, dither between syrah in a silver
goblet or Tizer from a sprung can; you might stare over roasted
goose at the Gay Hussar, at your companion’s bowl of
goulash, as retired politicians two tables over whisper scandals,
gossip through dumplings and meggyleves, hissing the latest
Gordon or Boris anecdote, Obama’s honeymoon months,
government soap; you might stare at bangers and bubble, tea
gone cold; evening settles in at Kilburn, down Battersea Park;
Golders Green wanes; high-rises throw slant shadows over
Gospel Oak; students breathe the soot of a bendy revving on
Gower Street; in the doorways of basement strip joints,
gorillas strike stances; toms swap fat packs of Fetherlite and

 Gossamer, hitch into their tangas and fishnets waiting for the
gonk to finger a phone box card, the way a kid fingers what he
got from the kitchen drawer; evening touches Camden where
gonzos sup Stella; dancers shift in the wings of the opera;
goluptious girls slip into slingbacks, swim into creamy
gowns, or swash out of them, as that misted moon plays
go-between in a city of secrets, crimson or bilious – what
good will come of us, falling in the dark, our names
gouged into plane-trees? – we are becoming history,
godmothers to our own torn myths: twisted and crazed,
gorgeous giants, we hang spinning over the still river:
Go on! it murmurs – own torn myths – and midnight mentions
Gog and Magog – sweet, towering boys, long gone.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/17/poem-of-the-week-roddy-lumsdent

Poem of the week: Stone by Janet Simon

A stone

 
‘A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone’.

“– Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye,” Zbigniew Herbert concluded in “Pebble”. This week’s poem by Janet Simon, “Stone,” recalls the political-parable style of much central and eastern European 20th-century poetry, and seems to share Herbert’s sense of the stone as a point of moral reference.

There are four characters in Simon’s fable: the speaker, the addressee, a passerby and the stone itself. The addressee, as epithets such as “creamy” imply, is well-fed, well-washed, and, evidently, authoritative. This person is not initially unpleasant. He emphasises the stone’s smoothness, because he (or she) is an expert on smooth. Handing the stone to the speaker seems well-intentioned.

But the speaker’s ironical tone (“You sanction me …”) alerts our suspicions. The stone is identified with authority. Perhaps the speaker threw the stone in the first place? At any rate, it’s a difficult gift to receive. A “defence” is needed, one that proves an impossible compromise. Now an “outsized pebble” in the speaker’s mouth, the stone seems to implicate language – language as fixed and made “frigid” by those in control.

The spitting out of the stone is rejection, but certainly not malicious; nobody is meant to get hurt. The passerby misinterprets it, however, and sees, and uses, the stone as a weapon. The suave, creamy-skinned authority figure takes fright, becomes violently discoloured, bolts the door, rings the police – self-betraying reflexes that prove the power was hollow all along.

The crux of the poem comes when the speaker picks up the hurled-back stone. In six short, sparely-written lines the truth of the parable is laid out: the stone is neutral, uncoloured by its misinterpretations. Yet the stone seems to have a frailty of its own: it “pleads” for understanding.

The last stanza is more generalised, building from the situation narrated earlier. The “you” may be the same addressee, or a plural “you” that embraces everyone caught up in cycles of attack and revenge. The destruction is incomprehensible to the speaker, but there’s a clear insistence on the innocence of the stone. “And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone,” Simon concludes, echoing her earlier notion of “stoneness” and, of course, alluding to Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”.

Stein herself said that her sentence was an attempt to escape the particularity of the Romantic “rose” and recover the universal. Incidentally, the line was parodied rather unkindly by Ernest Hemingway, reminding us that “Stein” can literally mean “stone” in German: “A stone is a stein is a rock is a boulder is a pebble.”

Simon’s stone may be all these things, too. And the hinted pun returns us to the idea of the stone as language, even voice – a difficult voice, a tongue you might have to hold. The act of holding the stone, in fact, seems mirrored in the poem’s shape.

This shape is one of enclosure around a central “core”. The exterior stanzas spread themselves. The first seems to mirror the spacious home, the easy hospitality of privilege. The last, conversely, suggests open air, lawlessness, danger, with the speaker needing to assert her eloquence.

These stanzas are like cupped hands. In the middle, the shorter-lined, indented core-stanzas focus on the stone, its adventures, and the cost of engaging with it.

It has been a consolation and a weapon, represented homeliness and the destruction of home. Personified, the stone seems not only a touchstone or neutral mineral, but an unreliable mortal. If it pleads guiltlessness and sings, even metaphorically, it must have about it some human quality. It’s not innocent, then, but perhaps it represents what Václav Havel called “Living in Truth”.

Janet Simon has published one full collection, Victoria Park (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1995). “Stone” is from her pamphlet, Asylum, where its distinctive presence is underlined by realistic and moving poems reflecting the poet’s experiences working with asylum seekers and the homeless. Asylum was published by Hearing Eye in the Torriano Meeting House Poetry Pamphlet Series, of which number 62, “Protest” by David Floyd, will appear in November.

Stone

You would reduce this stone to something homely.
Set in the palm of your soft hand,
it rests as if it wouldn’t harm a fly.
In your pink fingers, it is a generous stone.
You offer its smooth surface as the best
of possibilities in the best possible of worlds.

      You pass this stone to me
      with pleasing manners.
      You sanction me to hold it
      for a few minutes
      and to speak uninterrupted
      in my own defence.
      Your gracious patronage
      reduces me to gibberish.
      To avoid stuttering
      I place this outsized pebble
      in my quivering mouth.
      Its frigid texture
      is cold, impenetrable.
      I cannot chew on it.
      I spit it out.

      An angry passerby
      picks up this stone
      and hurls it
      through your window.
      Your creamy skin
      turns puce-vermillion,
      and as he runs away
      you bolt your doors
      and ring for the police.

      I bend down and pick up
      this stone.
      It hasn’t changed
      its shape or colour.
      Its unrelenting stoneness
      pleads with me.

I do not understand what force of hatred
makes a man destroy your house,
what speed of terror grabs you to defend it,
but I accept this stone, I hear its silent plea
of guiltless being. It sings to me
in my own ignorance, I am a stone.
And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/24/poem-of-the-week-janet-simon

Poem of the week: Tiny Pieces by Billy Mills

Broken glass

 
Broken glass.

This week’s poem is by Billy Mills, and comes from Lares/Manes: Collected Poems, published by Shearsman in 2009. While the title of the collection suggests concerns with hearth and home this is only part of the story: the vast and flowing home of the poems belongs to geological time. These poems are not confined to questioning language. They combine the musicality and intensity of poetry with the precision of scientific method, and the collection has the intellectual capaciousness of the bigger literary forms: it contains data of all kinds, found poetry, philosophical enquiry, and a variety of landscapes and cityscapes, including Ireland. While Mills is associated with a group of experimental Irish poets claiming independence from the traditional emphasis on identity politics, his poetry is fully alive to location. The fact that it doesn’t sing rhetorically about Ireland doesn’t mean that Ireland is excluded from the “important places” it considers.

 A poem in sections, “Tiny Pieces” forms part of a larger work, “What is a Mountain?” There is a trio of epigraphs: a brief report on the three car-bombs detonated in the centre of Dublin with the likely connivance of British Army intelligence, a quotation from Oscar Wilde (“All art is entirely useless”) and a verse by Godfraidh Fionn O Daláigh: “If they ask questions/ skilful poets will know; / bright this art you hear of: / questions the door to knowing.”

 The imagery of mountain-formation is introduced in a further, untitled prelude. “What is a mountain?” asks the fifth line. “Stone flows; folds. A name. It rises.” In the miniature-scale delicacy of the “Tiny Pieces” which follow, we find the inverse of the mountain and its associated cataclysm. What gradually emerges (each tiny piece has its own page in the collection) is tenderly consoling – a love poem more intimate and more spacious than such poems usually are.

 The first section considers both fragmentation (“scattered/ this glass”) and reintegration. “Folds” is a key word which will later give rise to three poems described as folds (“The First Fold,” etc). Fold mountains are formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, and the compressed material both rises and descends. “Folds” in the earth’s crust “determine” the shape of a mountain. “Folds” as sheltering-places also form our allegiances, and thus our blind-spots and our wars. Paper and poems are folded into shapes: lovers enfold one another. As the second poem suggests, tact and precision might inform and transform relations. With “Follow the lines” we move from particulate and scattered to particular and enclosing.

 The imagistic third section seems to excavate memory. Vividly present, the shining leaves (more tiny pieces) somehow lead back as well as up to the “boxroom/ window”. “Window” resurrects the scattered glass. The images suggest to me a child’s room, looking down on a small garden fronted with privet: safe containment, but with a view outwards. The symmetrical syllable-count 1/3/3/1/2/2 gives this poem the balance of a miniature sonnet.

The next segment stays with the natural world: it’s the most haiku-like of the pieces, and the depth of the stanza break seems to stand for the “cutting word” – often not a word, but a punctuation mark heightening the significance of a juxtaposition. Here, the thrushes emerge from the “various greens” and the printless space with the magical suddenness of actual birds seen suddenly close up, and with all the potential offered by “a pair”.

 Perhaps the thrushes help attune the reader to the sense of new young life, which is implicit in the next piece. The rift between the world and the word, the “imperfect charting,” after all begins with our earliest speech. Aligning word and world as accurately as possible is our first and life-long human concern.

 Exactness of language can at least find out the question and glimpse “the door to knowing”. In the sixth poem it finds song. This four-word invitation is a perfect musical phrase: “close/ now// slowly/ come.” Its unexpected, Latinate syntax, culminating in the verb, takes us from word to word, pause to pause. Having once read the sentence in this initially curious structure, it becomes impossible to imagine it otherwise.

 The lines in “Tiny Pieces” are themselves tiny. I counted 30 single-word lines out of 38, half of which are monosyllables: the longest line is “a pair of thrushes”. But their very shortness, emphasised by their separate pagination, insists on attentive reading. The tempo, in music, would be adagio. Words assert their primary meanings, but the silence around them allows us to hear other tones and resonance. So in the next poem, the simple verbs (perhaps imperatives) give the reader memory-room. We’re guided, told that the verbs represent “simple pleasures”, but the exact associations of “touch”, “call” and “remember” are gifts for private unwrapping.

 By the end of the poem, the shimmer of scattered glass is distant. The last segment might complete the sentence of the previous one: “here/where// all/is// tiny/ pieces” could denote the intimate space of a body or a room, the words of the poem itself, or the location of particles created by destruction. It could denote all these things simultaneously. And still the poem has a lightness and brightness with its images of leaves and building birds, its careful looking and touching. This sense of abundance and flourishing will continue throughout “What is a Mountain?”

 Singling one poem out of a collection inevitably distorts the poem to some degree. This is particularly true of “Tiny Pieces”. “What is a Mountain?” is conceived almost as one poem, its voices interrelated and recurring, as in a fugue. In fact, the whole of Lares/Manes is a voluminous web of connected images and themes.

 Tiny Pieces

scattered
this glass
reconstitutes

folds
determine

  

*

 

follow
the lines

come
again

*

sun
after rain

luminous
leaves

boxroom
window

*

various greens

a pair of thrushes

*

first
the world

next
the word

imperfect
charting

*

close
now

slowly
come

*

touch
call
remember

simple
pleasures

*

here
where

all
is

tiny
pieces

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/07/poem-of-the-week-billy-mills

Poem of the week: All Souls’ Day by Frances Bellerby

Day of the dead

 
Mexicans mark the day of the dead in San Gregorio. Bellerby’s poem likewise seems to melt the borders between life and death.

Frances Bellerby, who died in 1975, was born 112 years ago in Bristol. She wrote fiction, essays and poetry. Much of Bellerby’s verse is set in Devon and Cornwall; her first, 1946, collection is named after Plash Mill, her cottage near Upon Cross, on Bodmin Moor. Charles Causley praised, among the many other qualities he admired in her work, her ability to evoke “the ambience and essence of place”.

 Bellerby’s poetic locations are coloured by the changing seasons, and may respond to the church calendar, as here. All Souls’ Day, from her Selected Poems, weaves together imaginary and remembered conversation in a hushed, precisely-realised late-autumn setting. The sky is colourless, the “day draws no breath”. Such an atmosphere has an intense, mystical quality for Bellerby. And yet, although a Christian poet, she treats religious experience unconventionally, and seems to have an intuitive grasp of space-time, and the possibility of other dimensions, in those wishful lines: “what the small day cannot hold / must spill into eternity.”

 All Souls’ Day itself, usually celebrated on 2 November, is the day set aside for remembering and honouring the “ordinary” dead. In Mexico, on El Dia de los Muertos, the dead, and death itself, are made welcome among the living. Bellerby’s poem, too, though deeply English, seems to melt the borders between life and death, past and future: “Let’s go our old way …”

The brother she lost in the first world war may be the figure in All Souls’ Day. This otherwise taciturn person knows about butterflies; he has a poet’s eye as he compares their colours with those of the leaves. He is clearly a soulmate.

Psalm 42, in a metrical translation, begins: “Like the deer that thirsts / for running streams / my soul is thirsting / for you, oh God”; in a later verse, God’s might is imagined in terms of the sea. Similar images occur in Bellerby’s poem: the rustling of kicked leaves has “the rhythm of breaking waves”, and there’s a stream, though it’s almost stationary. Could the poem be alluding to this psalm, often included in the Office of the Dead?

Bellerby appears just as much a traditionalist in technique as she does in her subjects. Yet even in this poem of familiar-looking quatrains, there are unexpected touches. Half-rhymes (“moth”/”lost”, “together”/”November”) mingle with more conventional couplings (“breath” / “death”, “walk” / “talk”). The rhythm ebbs and flows informally: syllables sometimes crowd around the stresses (“witnessing the variousness of light”), or they may be suddenly thinned out (“enter the year’s night”). Nothing is fixed or rigid.

 The speaker is confidently intimate with her addressee, but, at the same time, the companion is present, however vividly, only in her imagination. There is a tremor of premonition in stanza seven. The walk is a memory, and the companion dead, but it’s as if – with sufficient care – the past could be relived and the future made safe.

 The poem increasingly vacillates: the companion is close, but, as always, “leaf-light” – and then not present at all. The last stanza sends a shiver up the spine: “and the leaves where you walk do not stir”. Death is feared in the poem, but the dead themselves are “scatheless” (harmless). The ghost is no Halloween horror: it is frail and sad and no sooner conjured than lost.

 Bellerby’s work reminds me of other quiet-voiced, independent-minded female writers of a similar era: Anne Ridler, EJ Scovell, Ruth Pitter. Gender, I think, is relevant to the way we read this generation as writers. Because of their particular, English experience of the early 20th century, it was inevitable such poets stayed with the pastoral and/or religious subjects and traditional forms they had always known. Although they increasingly had educational opportunities and paid jobs, they remained keepers of the emotional home fires. From our later perspective, we can see how Bellerby’s work claims continuity with the past (Charlotte Mew seems an important immediate forebear) and also begins to change shape and become coloured by the new century. It makes a bridge to the present, because the sensibility and diction, although not quite ours, are still close to ours.

 I’m grateful to the poet Maurice Rutherford, a regular reader of the printable version of poem of the week, for suggesting we take a look at the work of the underappreciated Bellerby.

All Souls’ Day

Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.

 This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.

 Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost

if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…

 The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.

 Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.

So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.

 Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.

 And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/01/poem-of-week-frances-bellerby

Poem of the week

Apollo’s Archaic Torso translated by Sarah Stutt

A Greek statue of Apollo at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
A Greek statue of Apollo at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
_____ 
This week’s poem is a new English translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet “Archäischer Torso Apollos”. “Apollo’s Archaic Torso” is by a young Yorkshire writer, Sarah Stutt, who recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Hull. Sarah, a fluent speaker of German, has produced two translations, one fairly close to the original, the other looser. I’ve included both.

While the more literal version is stately and slow-paced, I like the colloquial touch of “incredible” for the torso’s head, and the brevity of the description of Apollo’s eyes, “ripened like apples”. Neither the literal “eye-apples” nor the generic “fruit” that other translators have used is so immediate. The comparison of the gaze to a candelabrum, or chandelier, whose flame has been lowered, is detailed in the original. Here, the treatment is straightforward and exact. Conversely, the description of the “curve” of the torso’s chest as a “bow” adds complication, suggesting the metaphor of a weapon. This literalises the idea that the “curve” has the power to blind the viewer.

The movements in the next three lines are swift and graceful. Now the writer introduces the word “curve” which most other translators have already used in describing the torso’s chest. The image of Apollo’s smile being “steered by the gentle curve of his loins” and gliding to “the centre of procreation” is subtle and humorous.

The past subjunctive “If this were not so” is perhaps more formal-sounding than the German original, but it seems preferable to the un-idiomatic “else” that some translators choose. Stephen Mitchell’s “otherwise” is a slightly more colloquial solution.

The construction is repeated in the original, but “were it not so” would be ungainly to repeat. Stutt’s neat solution is to carry on the argument by using the conjunction “and” after the close of the octet. The sestet flows beautifully. Sensuous violence suffuses the phrase “glisten like a predator’s pelt”. Stutt adds the verb “radiate”, which convincingly anticipates “star”. Similarly, “angle” is a good addition, a word whose visual-art associations place it in the context of the torso. The last half-line is simple and stunning. The construction “you have to” is far stronger than “you must”, generally the translators’ favourite.

This closer version of the sonnet is still quite bold, and introduces some new elements to the original. The looser version below is more impressionistic. The preoccupation now is with creating a soundscape by using assonantal rhymes, often quite distant ones. The lines are shorter, the movement brisker. Rhythmically, the brevity works well. I find the last three lines of the second stanza effective, even while liking the more elaborate imagery of steering and gliding in the first translation. “A lump of rock with no vision” is particularly striking, a jolt that thrusts us up against the raw material as it was before the artist transformed it. We seem to meet a younger Apollo in this version, a decisive, sexy god whose “lion’s mane” reminds us he is a god of the sun.

Rilke is the most popular foreign-language poet in the English-speaking world, according to Art Beck, who has written an interesting essay on American translations. The essay includes the original “Archäischer Torso Apollos” so you can check out Rilke’s poem and Beck’s own translation as well. Beck points out how important it is that Rilke should be re-translated in every new generation by writers who “return to the text – and themselves – rather than their predecessors”.

This is similarly true of ekphrastic poetry: it’s a popular contemporary genre, but only worth the poet’s while if the end-product is something more than a poetic “translation” of the picture or object in question. Rilke’s poem is a real encounter with the sculpture, and these two translations adhere to the spirit of that encounter, and engage thoughtfully with Rilke’s legendary sonnet.

Apollo’s Archaic Torso

We cannot know his incredible head,
where the eyes ripened like apples,
yet his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
from which his gaze, however dimmed,

still persists and gleams. If this were not so,
the bow of his breast could not blind you,
nor could a smile, steered by the gentle curve
of his loins, glide to the centre of procreation.

And this stone would seem disfigured and stunted,
the shoulders descending into nothing,
unable to glisten like a predator’s pelt,

or burst out from its confines and radiate
like a star: for there is no angle from which
it cannot see you. You have to change your life.

(Looser translation)

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth –
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,

incandescent light radiates
from his torso, and in the curve
of his loins, a smile turns
towards the centre of creation.

Or else this body would be disfigured –
a lump of rock with no vision,
unable to glisten like a lion’s mane.

It would not burst out of its skin
like a star: for its searing gaze
penetrates your soul, the way you live.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/nov/15/apollos-archaic-torso-sarah-stutt

Poem of the week

The Black Guitar by Paul Henry

guitar
Striking an emotional chord … The Black Guitar by Paul Henry.
_____
The late UA Fanthorpe said an interesting thing when she described Paul Henry as a poet who “gets the maximum effect from minimum language”. Her words are quoted on the back of his recent New and Selected Poems, The Brittle Sea, as well as those of Sheenagh Pugh, referring to Henry’s “musicality, his use of back-story and his ability to create the most haunting resonance”. These descriptions point to the reasons why Henry’s poems are such a pleasure to read and hear. Henry is not a minimalist poet, exactly, but there is a beautiful economy to his writing, as exemplified in this week’s poem The Black Guitar.

The Black Guitar originally published in his fifth collection, Ingrid’s Husband (Seren, 2007) is a sonnet, one of the more impressionistic of its kind. It includes lines that are barely lines – phrases on the edge of silence. Two of these fragmentary lines are set to the right of the text, reminders, perhaps, of the bilateral art of the musician.

To begin with, the territory feels fairly solid and familiar. The wardrobe-clearing might be the start of a comfortable little narrative journey into a gently poignant past. But the wardrobe conceals a further, more unsettling set of memories. The guitar is not named in the body of the poem, except in terms of the pronoun, “its” in the first quatrain and “it” in the last. There is no detailed description. The reader’s eye instead is directed to the name, “Joe”, and the “squiggled seagull or two”.

We see the name once, and then, insistently, twice (as it was written), and perhaps we imagine the childish letters aslant on the instrument’s black wooden surface, outlined in pale dust. But “Joe, Joe” is not only a visual device: it’s the beginning of an address to the child. The emotion builds.

In the next three lines the intensity comes from the moral re-focusing, the dismissal of “a man’s tears” beside the “life’s work” of a child’s name, written in dust and, on another occasion, in sand. The term, “life’s work”, ordinary enough but made striking by its context, encloses an immeasurable set of processes – the life-work of conception, birth, growth. How much has to happen mentally and physically for a child to learn to write his name? And how much for a life to make its mark in a world of dust and darkening?

The guitar, being dusty, must have already fallen into disuse when the boy wrote his inscription. Perhaps this is why the emotion is so painful. Before the solitary father unearthed the guitar, a solitary child performed the same action, signing an ownership and connection that perhaps felt tenuous.

“Two” is the essential number in the poem. It evokes separated lives, as well as the two hands that play music. That the name is written twice suggests the doubled identity one name might contain. In the ninth line, the phrase “two strings” introduces the idea of disharmony. Being out of tune, the strings’ relationship with each other is distorted.

The few end-rhymes are delicate and unforced. Particularly effective is the internal rhyme of “touched … much” in line 9, like a tentative plucking of the guitar’s strings.

The final repetition of the child’s name in line 12 marks a calming down, a turn into a more conversational register. The poem’s forestalled climax, however, is the reference to the sea and the child’s voice, memories which would be brought to life if the speaker played the instrument. A resonance so painful has to be deferred. There’s relief when the memories and their sounds are shut away, un-summoned.

I find the whole poem strangely mimetic, as if the sonnet itself had mysteriously turned into the guitar. Its sound-box is left vibrating with emotional chords that, once touched, linger a long time in the reader’s mind.

The Black Guitar

Clearing out ten years from a wardrobe
I opened its lid and saw Joe
written twice in its dust, in a child’s hand,
then a squiggled seagull or two.

                                                    Joe, Joe

a man’s tears are worth nothing,
but a child’s name in the dust, or in the sand
of a darkening beach, that’s a life’s work.

I touched two strings, to hear how much
two lives can slip out of tune

                                                then I left it,
brought down the night on it, for fear, Joe
of hearing your unbroken voice, or the sea
if I played it.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/nov/08/poem-of-the-week-paul-henry

Poem of the week

The Snow-Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Snow storm
‘Whited air’ … a snow-storm.
__________
This week’s poem, “The Snow-Storm” by the American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, aspires not only to rugged grandeur but to irony. Emerson knew the English Romantic poets, and I think quite possibly “The Snow-Storm” is a response to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”. “Tumultuous privacy of storm” and “the frolic architecture of the snow” carry an almost parodic echo of Coleridge’s “secret ministry of frost.”

Emerson’s poem, for all the sturdy authority of its blank verse, relishes the snow-storm’s gothic abandon, its subversive, “savage” disregard for “number or proportion”. Nineteenth-century American poets were determined to create a body of literature distinct from that of Europe, and there’s a suggestion that the primitive snow-storm could invent shapes at least as interesting as the “slow structures” of deliberate artistry. Conversely, the human architect might, in terms of geological time, amount to no more than a snow-flurry.

The first stanza is stately, smooth-flowing and picturesque, the faintly Biblical touches reminding us that, before rebelling against organised religion, Emerson had been a minister. The snow has an apocalyptic quality in that it blurs the usual life-or-death distinctions. Movement is halted. Boundaries are blotted out – even the boundary between earth and heaven. The scene then shifts to a friendlier indoors, where that unexpected word “radiance” emphasises the vivid contrast with the lightless landscape. Again, a scriptural note is struck, and the old-fashioned fire, or glowing stove, seems to burn with an almost sacred incandescence.

And then, it’s as if, in the white space between stanzas, the speaker had ventured outside. The shortened opening line of the second stanza increases the dramatic effect, the immediacy, of the summons, “Come see …” And the subsequent description convinces us there is something worth seeing.

The “fierce artificer”, the snow-storm, has carried out an entire building-project, from the quarrying of the tiles to the decorative marble drapes of the “Parian wreaths”. It’s only when he comes to the end of this extended conceit that Emerson seems to struggle. “Retiring” must be the subject of “leaves” but it’s hardly obvious. The qualification, “as he were not”, is confusing, to say the least. Clearly, the poet is still talking about the snow-storm. Perhaps he wants to convey that winter is far from over, and the snow’s retirement merely apparent, and temporary.

But I still like the poem, and have no objection to a little puzzlement. Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance is partially carried over into his poetic technique. His diction here is mainly down-to-earth, with a dash of medieval (“steed”, “maugre”). The syntax, like his treatment of conventional forms and meters, dimly aspires to a more organic shape, although he stops short of real innovation. He recognised it when he saw it, though, and when Walt Whitman sent him a copy of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Emerson wrote back an exalted fan-letter: “I give you joy of your free and brave thought …”

Emerson and Thoreau, though important thinkers and writers, were not great poets, but it’s a pity that their work is not better known in Britain. They have as much claim as the Romantics to be the ancestors of today’s eco-poets and nature writers. The current obsession with rivers, rain and water among British poets, for instance, surely has a source in Emersonian metaphor.

And it’s not only the poets who echo the Transcendentalists. For many people, the natural world has become the focus of morality. We sense our obligation to nature also in terms of an obligation to ourselves to become more “natural”. Emerson was prophetic when he said, “Civilised man has invented the coach, but lost the use of his feet” and, less cheerily, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.”

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

  Come see the north wind’s masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/nov/01/poem-of-the-week-ralph-waldo-emerson

Falling Back

Six poems to mark the end of daylight saving time.

Light Verse

It’s just five, but it’s light like six.
It’s lighter than we think.
Mind and day are out of sync.
The dog is restless.
The dog’s owner is sleeping and dreaming of Elvis.
The treetops should be dark purple,
but they’re pink.

Here and now. Here and now.
The sun shakes off an hour.
The sun assumes its pre-calendrical power.
(It is, though, only what we make it seem.)
Now in the dog-owner’s dream,
the dog replaces Elvis and grows bigger
than that big tower

in Singapore, and keeps on growing until
he arrives at a size
with which only the planets can empathize.
He sprints down the ecliptic’s plane,
chased by his owner Jane
(that’s not really her name), who yells at him
to come back and synchronize.

VIJAY SESHADRI, author of “The Long Meadow”

Parable

First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated
pilgrims rather than wanderers: in our minds, the word translated as
a dream, a something-sought, so that by concentrating we might see it
glimmering among the stones, and not
pass blindly by; each
further issue we debated equally fully, the arguments going back and forth,
so that we grew, some said, less flexible and more resigned,
like soldiers in a useless war. And snow fell upon us, and wind blew,
which in time abated — where the snow had been, many flowers appeared,
and where the stars had shone, the sun rose over the tree line
so that we had shadows again; many times this happened.
Also rain, also flooding sometimes, also avalanches, in which
some of us were lost, and periodically we would seem
to have achieved an agreement; our canteens
hoisted upon our shoulders, but always that moment passed, so
(after many years) we were still at that first stage, still
preparing to begin a journey, but we were changed nevertheless;
we could see this in one another; we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth, felt it had been revealed.

— LOUISE GLÜCK, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “A Village Life”

How It Happens 

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing
I was looking up and I said
I thought you
were supposed to be doing that
the sky said Many
are clinging to that
I am giving you a chance
I was looking up and I said
I am the only chance I have
then the sky did not answer
and here we are
with our names for the days
the vast days that do not listen to us

 — W.S. MERWIN, poet laureate of the United States and author, most recently, of “The Shadow of Sirius,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2009

The Green Flash

le rayon vert

And the sea’s skin heaves, saurian,
and the spikes of the agave bristle
like a tusked beast bowing to charge
tonight the full moon will soar floating
without any moral or simile
the wind will bend the longbows of the arching casuarinas
the lizard will still scuttle
and the sun will sink silently with a stake in its eye
bleeding behind the shrouding sail
of a skeletal schooner.
You can feel the earth cooling,
you can feel its myth cooling
and watch your own heart go out like the red throbbing dot
of a hospital machine, with a green flash
next to Pigeon Island.

DEREK WALCOTT, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 and author, most recently, of “White Egrets”

Free

I was always thinking about her even when I wasn’t thinking. Days went by when I did little else. She had left me one night as a complete surprise. I didn’t know where she went. I didn’t know if she was ever coming back. I searched her dresser and closet for any clues. There wasn’t anything there, nothing. No lotions or creams in the bathroom. She had really cleaned out. I thought back on our years together. They seemed happy to me. Summers on the beach, winters in the mountains skiing. What more could she want? We had friends, dinner parties. I walked around thinking, maybe she didn’t love me all that time. I felt so alone without her. I hated dinners alone, I hated going to bed without her. I thought she might at least call, so I was never very far from the phone. Weeks went by, months. It was strange how time flew by when you had nothing to remember it by. My friends never mentioned her. Why can’t they say something? I thought. I remembered every tiny gesture of her hand, every smile, every grimace. Birthdays, anniversaries — I never forgot. But then something strange started to happen. I started doubting every memory. Even her face began to fade. The trip to Majorca, was it something I read in a book? The jolly dinner parties, were they a dream? I didn’t trust anything any longer. I searched the house for any trace of her. Nothing. I started asking my friends if they remembered anything about her. They looked at me as if I were crazy. I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?

JAMES TATE, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “The Ghost Soldiers”

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

MARY OLIVER, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “Swan: Poems and Prose Poems”

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/opinion/poems-for-fall.html

Poem of the week

Poem by John Cornford

Madrid during the Spanish civil war
 
The heartless world’ … Madrid during the Spanish civil war.
_____
John Cornford was one of the first British volunteers for the Spanish civil war. Born in 1915, he was the son of the classicist, Francis Cornford and the poet, Frances Cornford. They christened him Rupert John in memory of their great friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, but the first name was later dropped, as his father explained, because it seemed too romantic. John Cornford joined the Young Communist League at the age of 18, and became a full Party member at 20. Newly graduated from Cambridge, with a “starred” first and a brightly promising future, he left for Spain to fight for the Republican cause in August, 1936, and joined the anti-Stalinist POUM (The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). He fought in the battles for Madrid and Boadilla, and was killed on the Cordoba front in December, either on or just after his 21st birthday.

“Poem,” this week’s choice, addresses the poet’s girlfriend and fellow political activist, Margot Heinemann. It owes nothing to Rupert Brooke, nor, surprisingly, to WH Auden. Cornford begins dramatically, as if to invoke some great, abstract power. His innovative stroke, the repetition of “heart” three times, is wonderfully successful. A surge of emotion is created with each repetition, and, every time, the word earns its place by acquiring a faintly different meaning, and tracing a movement from impersonal register to intimate. The “heart of the world” is certainly a romantic notion, with a Yeatsian echo, but the depiction of the world as “heartless” is closer to realism than romantic exaggeration, given the immediate context of war, and the wider background of the rise of fascism. Cornford then shifts attention finally from the general to the personal and particular. “Dear heart” tenderly singles out the addressee, and it defines the poem. This is not to be a poem centred on war and politics, like his other great literary achievement, “Full Moon at Tierz,” but a love poem.

The newly intimate tone suggests, also, a love letter. From now on the poem will be concerned with confiding immediate experience, especially inner experience. The voice is calm, candid and direct, brave but without bravado. This bravery is not wholly connected to war: it is about confronting emotion. “The pain at my side” reminds us that war’s injuries are not only physical, not only in the body. Yet the absence of a loved one is felt so acutely it’s like an accompanying physical presence.

This idea recurs in the third stanza, where the speaker suggests a childlike device by which to transcend the absence. He uses the same rhyme-word, “side”, and the sad, high-pitched sound of stanza one is repeated, but now there is “pride”, and the hope of an intense, visionary comfort. The idea that love can be communicated telepathically, and the beloved’s presence conjured by her sufficiently “kindly” thinking, is so simply and touchingly put that it seems neither arch nor fanciful. Once more, Cornford brings the addressee into the poem with an endearment – this time, simply the familiar, informal “dear.”

The second stanza expands the sense of chill introduced by the “shadow”. Those first two lines, with the fluttering rhythm and the favourite “i” sounds of “rises” and “reminds” convey premonition and sighing loneliness. That the main verb, “reminds,” is used intransitively compounds the feeling of dislocation.

With its strong, often trochaic, rhythm, the poem invites us to hear the footsteps of marching troops. Even love is like a ghostly soldier who trudges beside the poet on that “last mile.” The death that he fears is embodied almost alliteratively by name of the town, “Huesca”. Constant little rhythmic adjustments ensure there is not a trace of monotony, but the ebb and flow of complicated feeling – fear, and the fear of fear, conviction, courage, longing for comfort – like a landscape flowing past.

The passionate apostrophe at the poem’s beginning is what moves us, and draws us in, but something else keeps us reading, something less dramatic and more truthful, almost matter-of-fact. This quieter tone is sustained to the end, where the last wishes are simple, declared with exemplary plainness.

In fact, after its first romantic flourish, the poem demonstrates many of the classical virtues: proportion, self-discipline, the integration of mind and body. You feel as if you have been presented with a photograph of a young soldier’s inner life. He is a passionate lover and a passionate warrior: these qualities are held in perfect psychic balance. And they are timeless. The speaker could be one of Homer’s heroes. He could be a Spartan at Thermopylae.

It is impressive that such a stately and achieved lyric should have been written under such pressure, and by a writer still only 20. As a “last letter” it is neither raw nor prosaic, and, with or without the reader’s knowledge of Cornford’s sacrifice, it stands as one of the most moving and memorable 20th-century love poems.

Poem

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

__________

The Raptures of a Tragic Visionary

The Wanderer’s View: The ‘scattered ruin’ of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius looming in the background in an 1870 oil painting by Robert Scott Duncanson

Sometime in the fall of 1821, the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, then 23 years old, composed an ode for his beloved younger sister Paolina’s upcoming wedding. As a later critic observed, the poem is more a dirge than a hymn in honor of the bride. Paolina probably knew better than to expect mindless cheer from her melancholy brother. She was well aware that Giacomo wouldn’t be heading up the conga line at the wedding banquet.

Still, she must have been taken aback by the brutal tactlessness of such lines as these, in Jonathan Galassi’s new translation:

The children that you’ll have will

either be

cowards or unhappy. Let them

be unhappy.

You could easily conclude that the young Leopardi had precious little sense of occasion. But you might also conclude that this was a poet who cultivated a fierce regard for the truth, however harsh. On both counts you’d be right.

Leopardi, for most of his short life, felt himself to be not only trapped in a stifling household under the rule of his fanatically pious mother and feckless father but also isolated in the moldering backwater of Recanati, a provincial town where nothing of significance occurred. Worse, his beloved Italy lay in shambles, its ancient glories forgotten or despised. What future might any child of his sister look forward to in a broken country where, as he saw it, only “cowards” could find happiness?

Still worse, existence itself, for Leopardi, seemed poisoned at the source. Hope was an illusion, but a lack of hope was unbearable. Nature, for all its beauty, was brutal and despotic. “The day we’re born,” he later wrote, “is cause for mourning.”

For all his glowing promise, Leopardi seems to have cultivated such dark thoughts from his earliest years. He was an intellectual prodigy as a child. By age 10 he had mastered the standard academic curriculum. He went on to teach himself Hebrew and ancient Greek, becoming so proficient in Greek that he forged ancient poems and passed them off to unsuspecting scholars as authentic. Before Leopardi was out of his teens he had consumed much of his family’s library—his father’s sole distinction was as a book collector—and read through the Greek and Latin classics as well as the works of the Church Fathers. By age 15, he had written a history of astronomy. Two years later he completed “Popular Errors of the Ancients,” a work of enormous erudition.

Not surprisingly—given the intensity of his reading—Leopardi’s eyesight began to fail. He also developed curvature of the spine, a deformity that he found humiliating and that, together with his shyness, made it hard for him to approach women. But he kept falling in love at a distance, often with married women who remained unaware of his feelings. He became something of a virtuoso of the most excruciating and unrequited love. The memory of a voice or a glance fed his imagination for years.

Leopardi’s bleak outlook, which he elaborated at obsessive length in his vast “Notebook” (or “Zibaldone”), can become monotonous simply because he allowed himself so few illusions. It is hard to imagine him whispering sweet nothings into a beloved’s ear. On April 22, 1826, he wrote: “Everything is evil. All that is, is evil; the fact that each thing exists is an evil.” And he concluded: “Existence is an imperfection, an irregularity, a monstrosity.”

It’s not so much what he says that’s shocking. In such passages he is simply inverting the Roman Catholic teachings of such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, who held that existence is intrinsically good. Rather, it’s the icy neatness of the phrasing that disturbs. If existence is monstrous, shouldn’t we lament the fact? At times there is something glib in Leopardi’s nihilism.

Leopardi has long occupied a hallowed place in the history of European pessimism, often alongside Schopenhauer, a contemporary. But his dour credentials may not be quite as impeccable as they seem. Especially in his “Canti”—his masterpiece, consisting of 36 poems composed over 20 years—there are moments of what can only be called rapture. Take “Infinity,” his most famous short poem. In Mr. Galassi’s translation it reads, in full:

This lonely hill was always dear

to me,

and this hedgerow, which cuts

off the view

of so much of the last horizon.

But sitting here and gazing,

I can see

beyond, in my mind’s eye,

unending spaces,

and superhuman silences, and

depthless calm,

till what I feel

is almost fear. And when I hear

the wind stir in these branches,

I begin

comparing that endless stillness

with this noise:

and the eternal comes to mind,

and the dead seasons, and

the present

living one, and how it sounds.

So my mind sinks in this

immensity:

and foundering is sweet in

such a sea.

It is characteristic of Leopardi that he glimpses “the infinite” best from an impeded point of view, a hilltop on which a hedge obstructs the horizon. As Mr. Galassi observes in a note, most of Leopardi’s poems take place by moonlight. Here, for once, it is broad day. Two centuries earlier, Pascal, with whom Leopardi is sometimes compared, wrote that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” The same spaces drown Leopardi in a sweetness of immensity. We are reminded that hardly a generation before, though a world away, William Blake had urged us “to see a world in a grain of sand,” not so different perhaps from finding the silence of infinity beyond the thin voice of a hillside wind.

As it happens, this poem, in Mr. Galassi’s new edition of the complete “Canti,” displays his strengths as a translator along with a few of his weaknesses. His translations are always clear and direct, stripped of rhetorical flourishes as well as of verbal padding, and they are scrupulously accurate. With the help of his detailed notes—he seems to have read everything about Leopardi in several languages—Mr. Galassi’s versions offer the reader without Italian the surest possible grasp of Leopardi’s poems.

Since Mr. Galassi says nothing in his otherwise informative introduction about his approach to translation, it is not always clear how he expects his versions to be read. I take them as faithful renditions of the originals that hope to stand on their own in English—in other words, the usual impossible undertaking.

My reservations about Mr. Galassi’s translations have to do with a certain flatness of tone. Of course, Leopardi rejects the extravagant bombast of so much overwrought Italian verse; that is part of his great distinction. His vocabulary is simple; he avoids conceits and elaborate metaphors; he is delicate and rigorous in his placement of words. But he does have his sly devices. And these Mr. Galassi tends to ignore.

In “The Infinite,” for instance, Leopardi achieves maximum effect by inversions of normal word order, and the result is electrifying. Consider lines four through seven. Taken word by word, while keeping Mr. Galassi’s individual word choices, it would appear this way:

But sitting and gazing, unending

Spaces beyond what’s here, and

superhuman

Silences, and depthless calm,

I fashion in my mind . . .

It reads strangely in English. But it reads strangely in Italian too. It is meant to read strangely. This is, after all, a sudden but gathering glimpse of the infinite from a desolate hillside, not a Sunday picnic. Mr. Galassi’s syntax is smoother and more conventional but, for that very reason, it fails to give us the shiver we feel in Leopardi’s verse.

Even in the darkest of Leopardi’s “Canti” there is a sense of some rhythmic crosscurrent at work, as though the harsh message were being uplifted by the stately surges of the lines. It is not that Leopardi is using the considerable beauty of the Italian language to soften his stern views. Just the opposite. Mr. Galassi catches some of this double music at moments, as in this passage from “Broom or The Flower of the Desert,” where Leopardi evokes Pompeii:

Extinct Pompeii

returns to the celestial light

from her immemorial oblivion

like a buried skeleton

that greed or piety has raised

out of the earth

into the air, and from the

empty forum

the wanderer, gazing

down the rows of broken

colonnades,

contemplates the distant

double peak

and its smoking crest,

still menacing the scattered ruin.

In this passage, as in his version of the entire poem, Mr. Galassi gives us a sense of what Leopardi was aiming at. Pompeii is indeed extinct; there are only “broken colonnades.” And yet the dead city arises again in the lines with a passionate exuberance. If Leopardi praises the broom-plant on its arid slopes, that is because the humble weed possesses a cosmic modesty that we humans lack. It had no sense that its “fragile generations were immortal.”

This subtle perspective, it seems to me, is yet another way in which Leopardi steps away from pessimism, with its facile formulations. His is a tragic vision. The late D.S. Carne-Ross, a classicist steeped in the ancient world, believed that Leopardi embodied the Greek spirit to the full. His “Canti” bow to the inevitable even as they sing out against it. He despises nothing except the hubris by which we exalt ourselves “by senseless pride up to the stars.” His poems stand as a melodious corrective to such impulses of self-aggrandizement.

But he wasn’t a preachy poet, a moralist in meter. He was closer to the bone than that. He could have said, with Rimbaud, “I am of the race that sings under torture.”

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London.

__________

Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304741404575563403980737436.html

Where Time and the Timeless Intersect

The influence of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) on poetry and criticism in the 20th century was immense. His work was so original in terms of style and technique that no less a Modernist icon than Ezra Pound declared that Mr. Eliot had “actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” While Mr. Eliot’s early poems, most notably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), had brought him considerable attention in literary circles, it was “The Waste Land” (1922), a fragmentary and highly allusive verse epic, that gave him his central position in British and American poetry.

Although Mr. Eliot would labor assiduously in several genres, it would be more than 20 years before he completed what critics and poets alike regard as his magnum opus—the exquisite “Four Quartets.” Comprising four long poems of five parts each, “Four Quartets” incorporated a number of themes that had been essential to Mr. Eliot’s earlier work. However, the length and structure of the poems—combined with a mastery born of maturity and perseverance—enabled Mr. Eliot to address these ideas in greater depth and far more coherently.

American-English poet and playwright T.S. Eliot

Each of the poems was named after a place that had deep personal significance for Mr. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis, and had spent the first two decades of his life in America before immigrating to England.

“Burnt Norton” (1935) was named after a house and garden on the edge of the Cotswold Hills in southwest England that the poet had once visited, the extraordinary beauty of which had left a lasting impression on him; “East Coker” (1940), after a Somerset village in which the poet’s family could trace its lineage to the late 1400s; “The Dry Salvages” (1941), after a group of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Mass., that the poet had navigated by as a young sailor summering in the Northeast; and “Little Gidding” (1942), after a humble chapel steeped in history to which the poet, a convert to Anglicanism in 1927, had made a pilgrimage.

But these are more than works of personal reflection. Mr. Eliot called on a vast store of images, symbols and allusions that, deployed in a historical context, enabled the poet to keep his readers’ focus on such themes as the redeemability (in the Christian sense) of the individual and the complex relationship between existence, reality and time. Indeed, the setting of the entire work seems to be “the point of intersection of the timeless / With time.” (“The Dry Salvages,” V, 201-2).

Despite the obvious affinities between the poems, at the outset Mr. Eliot did not plan a series. In answer to a scholar’s query, Mr. Eliot wrote: “The idea of the whole sequence emerged gradually, I should say during the composition of ‘East Coker.’ Certainly ‘Burnt Norton’ was a solitary experiment, and I had nothing in mind for the next step.” In fact, “Burnt Norton” developed out of a dozen or so lines Mr. Eliot had discarded from “Murder in the Cathedral,” his verse play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Becket.

The end result of more than eight years’ work was a sequence of skillfully interwoven poems that correspond with autumn/air, summer/earth, spring/water and winter/fire, respectively. The poems were first published together as “Four Quartets” in America on May 11, 1943, and in England on Oct. 31, 1944.

A house in East Coker. Mr. Eliot’s family could trace its lineage in this Somerset, England, village back to the late 1400s.

While it employs a number of symbols, “Four Quartets” is generally recognized as a “post-Symbolist” work. Helen Gardner, the author of “The Composition of Four Quartets” (1978), the definitive work on the poems, wrote that “literary echoes and allusions are less fundamental as sources than places, times, seasons and, above all, the circumstances in which [the poems] were written.” Mr. Eliot himself was quick to point out that a number of the things that were presumed to be “merely” symbolic were in fact based on observations and experiences.

Mr. Eliot tried hard to keep the poetry—even at its most philosophical and abstract—tethered to reality. “We had the experience but missed the meaning” (“The Dry Salvages,” II, 93), he wrote. In the end, conveying the precise meaning in “Four Quartets,” no matter how difficult an undertaking, was of primary importance to the mature, world-weary Mr. Eliot. Obliquity was acceptable; obscurity was not.

While the poems were intended to be read in the order in which they were composed—and, like suites, “heard” straight through—”Four Quartets” also has a perpendicular quality that enhances its integrity. More than a few scholars and devotees of Eliot’s oeuvre have gone to great lengths to convey that certain generalizations can be made regarding the natures and functions of the corresponding sections of the poems. But, in truth, the affinities of the sections to one another can be quite easily apprehended by any close reader of the poems.

Mr. Eliot was modest and reserved. In his early essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), he wrote: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” Since the publication of “Four Quartets,” Mr. Eliot has been, in no small measure, that which poets as diverse as Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney and Louise Gluck know or have known.

In recognition of his contributions to poetry, drama and criticism, Thomas Stearns Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He continued to write well into old age (but produced no poetry) and gave numerous public readings in both Europe and America, on several occasions to many thousands.

I came to these poems as a young man, an aspiring poet with little knowledge of either the wide world or the variety and depth of human experience within it. The poems took me immediately and forever to a deep, mysterious and timeless place where insights seemed as plentiful as stars. I’m more than half a century old, and yet their brilliance impresses, informs and inspires me still.

Mr. Eliot died in London on Jan. 4, 1965, and his ashes were interred at the Parish Church of St. Michael in East Coker. Shortly thereafter, a cenotaph honoring him was dedicated at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. It bears the inscription: “The communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” The lines are from “Little Gidding” (I, 50-1), which Mr. Eliot regarded as the best poem of his best poetical work.

Mr. Zinsmeister is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

__________

Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704300604575554340680809152.html

Poem of the week

Dragon Talk by Fleur Adcock

‘My echo, my parrot’ … a dragon statue in London.

Many apologies for the late arrival of this week’s Poem of the Week. My internet connection was in meltdown for a few days, rather appropriately, as you’ll see, because I’d chosen a playfully mocking address to a computer program. It’s the title sequence from Fleur Adcock’s most recent collection, Dragon Talk, and the “Dragon” persona derives from the program’s full title: “Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software”.

Behind the rueful humour lurks a writer’s nightmare. Ten years ago, after a stint of intensive typing, Adcock found herself with a severe case of RSI. While, happily, she is still able to write longhand, and to continue her practice of taking every poem through a meticulous re-drafting process, she has had to learn how to use (and train) the voice recognition program so as to make final publisher-ready copies of her text.

The icon that originally appeared on the desktop, Adcock tells me, was actually a small red dragon’s head. (It’s since been replaced by a less appealing green flame). Powerful beasts, even mythical ones, have always attracted advertising (and branding) agencies. The recycling process hinted at here is fascinating: old myth into brand-name, brand-name into new myth, enabling the poet to give a digital “airy nothing” bodily and symbolic presence.

The poem begins at the beginning, almost in “once-upon-a-time” fashion, with a friendly nudge to the Dragon, as if inviting reminiscences. It recalls the choice of Alice in Wonderland as the training text – because, Adcock says, “it seemed to me that the mythological creatures in that book would feel at home with a Dragon as part of their crew.”

With no fiery breath of its own, and only metaphorical claws and wings, the virtual dragon proves a little slow-witted. “If you pause between individual words the Dragon is less likely to understand them,” Adcock says. “It works by context – or at least that’s the theory.” In the poem, the Dragon’s difficulties with its imaginative context are comically and engagingly drawn. Its mistakes can clearly be infuriating but its docility, though merely that of the machine, arouses the poet’s, and the reader’s, sympathy.

The Dragon’s transcription errors occasionally verge on the sinister. It’s one thing to confuse “flirtation” with “flotation”, and another to mishear a child’s name as Death. Crisp, short lines, regular stanzas, occasional rhyme-patterns enhance a tone that is light and glancing, refusing self-pity. But perhaps there is a suggestion of parable. The idea of a “verbal being” that cannot understand laughter is rather frightening, and perhaps prescient.

The speaker scolds her tame beast but overall remains affectionate and teasing, flirtatious at times, and insistently curious. What gender is the Dragon; what is it made of? It takes various shapes. It becomes, among other things, parasite, slave, bird, drug-dealer (it’s an expert in pharmaceutical products), lover, and, perhaps, a kind of god (“Are we into theology?”). When the Dragon changes “wren” into “rain” or “ring”, Adcock momentarily turns it into a poet. Finally, the beast emerges from its tidy cage of quatrains, to be spotted “cresting the gable/ of someone’s roof” – only now it becomes a mere “graven image” without the poet’s voice to give it life. Words are the Dragon, and the poem itself, long and slim and elegantly draped over the pages, resembles a live, if mythic, creature, animated by the poet’s breath, and exhaling imagination’s fire.

Dragon Talk

How many years ago now
did we first walk hand in hand –
or hand in claw –
through Alice’s Wonderland,

your favourite training ground,
peopled with a crew
of phantasms – Mock Turtle, Gryphon –
as verbal as you?

Your microphone, kissing my lips,
inhaled my words; the machine
displayed them, printed out
in sentences on a screen.

    *

My codependant,
my precious parasite,
my echo, my parrot,
my tolerant slave: 

I do the talking;
you do the typing.
Just try a bit harder
to hear what I say!

I wait for you to lash your tail
each time I swear at you.
But no: you listen meekly,
and print ‘fucking moron’.

    *

All the come-ons
you transcribed as commas –
how can we conduct a flirtation
in punctuation? –

Particularly when,
money-mad creature,
you spell doom to romance
by writing ‘flotation’.

   *

I can’t blame you for homonyms,
but surely after a decade
you could manage the last word
of Cherry Tree ‘Would’? 

Context, after all,
is supposed to be your engine.
Or are you being driven
by Humpty Dumpty?

    * 

I take it amiss
when you mis-hear the names
of my nearest and dearest;
in particular, Beth.

Safer, perhaps, if I say Bethany.
Keep your scary talons
off my great-granddaughter:
don’t call her ‘death’.

    *

You know all the diseases
and the pharmaceuticals:
bronchopneumonia,
chloramphenicol

are no trouble to you,
compulsive speller,
hypochondriac,
virtual dealer.

    *

You’re hopeless at birds:
can’t get wren into your head –
too tiny, you try to tell me:
it comes out as rain or ring. 

Let’s try again: blackbird, osprey,
hen, (much better), kingfisher, hawk,
duckling. But I have to give up
and type Jemima Puddleduck. 

   *

What am I thinking of,
dragon bird?
How could I forget
that you too have wings?

Fly to me;
let me nuzzle your snout,
whisper orders, trust you
to carry them out.

    *

Do I think of you as “he”? –
Beyond male or female;
utterly alien,
yet as close as my breath –

invisible, intangible,
you hover at my lips –
am I going too far?
Are we into theology?

    *

Animal, vegetable or mineral?
Who’s playing these games? –
Abstract, with mineral connections
and a snazzy coat of scales.

Gentle dragon, stupid beast,
why do I tease you?
Laughter’s not in your vocabulary:
all you understand are words.

    *

Today I saw you cresting the gable
of someone’s roof: a curly monster
smaller than me, but far too large
to hide yourself inside a computer.

They’d painted you red – was that your choice?
But this was only your graven image.
Your private self was at home, waiting
for reincarnation through my voice.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/oct/20/poem-of-the-week-fleur-adcock

Poem of the week

Bethsabe’s Song by George Peele

This time, an Elizabethan reading of a Biblical story hot with dangerous sensuality

Bathsheba with David's Letter by Rembrandt van Rijn
Detail from Bathsheba with David’s Letter by Rembrandt van Rijn (1654). 

George Peele (1557-1596) was a gifted playwright, whose work some critics consider prepared the way for Shakespeare. Contemporaries praised the effortless smoothness of his blank verse. The more flexible metres of his poetry show his dexterity. Peele is one of those Elizabethan writers whose verse has a grace and euphony that bring the spoken word uncannily close to the condition of music.

This week’s poem is, in fact, a song. Sometimes known as “Hot Sun, Cool Fire”, otherwise “Bethsabe’s Song”, it comes from a play Peele based closely on the Biblical account of King David’s adultery with the wife of “Uriah the Hittite”, The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe.

The song occurs immediately after the Prologue, headed by the stage direction: “He draws a curtaine and discovers Bethsabe with her maid, bathing over a spring. She sings, and David sits above, viewing her.” The lyrics have an incandescent quality appropriate to this erotic scenario, seeming to fuse the excitement of both the voyeur and the young woman who is his target, and who feels acutely aware of her own attractiveness and vulnerability.

The American poet and critic WD Snodgrass wrote that Peele “probably intended to imitate classical meters based on syllable-lengths, but actually creates a stress pattern.” The first two lines have an undertow of iambic pentameter, and these are followed by four (roughly) four-beat lines, but, overall, the rhythms of the sestet seem shimmeringly unstable and at odds with conventional metrical counting.

The opening words are like chords. “Hot sun” and “cool fire” are both spondees. Their evenly distributed monosyllabic weight gives them a strong presence, although their grammatical position is unclear. They are simply there, relished, dangerous. On the page, you can almost see the sun’s white-hot disc. The fierce heat recedes in the oxymoron of “cool fire”, and is followed by the effect of a gentle breeze with that little rhythmical tremor, “tempered with”. The mood is nakedly sensuous, and the great unwashed Elizabethan audience is surely meant to register Bethsabe’s tingling physical pleasure in her open-air bath.

But, of course, images of heat and coolness inevitably suggest metaphorical parallels: intense, ardent feeling versus the restraint that King David, as Peele’s audience would hardly have needed to be told, is not about to exercise. The moral dilemma is underlined by the strong physical and pictorial contrasts.

There are even sharper contrasts in the next line: “Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair.” As the stage direction indicates the presence of a maid, we can suppose here that Bethsabe’s command is directed at a human “fair nurse”, although the lyric is equally effective if the “black shade” is itself personified as the protective nurse. That Bethsabe’s hair is “white” suggests an additional danger: she is blond and particularly unsuited to direct sunlight. Although the shade is kindly, the word “black” carries a reminder of burning and charring.

The Elizabethan love of paradox fuels this play of antithetical ideas (“shroud me and please me” is another striking example) and also creates an almost delirious, shivery dazzle of shifting sensations. In its compressed, impressionistic syntax, the writing seems almost modern but for the rhetorical devices that enrich the argument and heighten emotion. The chiasmus in line six emphasises the impending complications. A pun on “burning” in line four may imply that Bethsabe suspects she is being watched and is in danger both of arousing passion and of herself being aroused. (In line three, after all, she has demanded “shine sun, burn fire …” ). The heartbeat of the poem seems to quicken with the foreshortened lines and feminine endings.

The tempo increases again in the last four lines, where the pace of the iambic trimeter suggests that danger is now imminent. In fact, that “bright eye” suddenly seems to bring the voyeur into the speaker’s line of vision: at the very least, she has allowed herself vividly to imagine and anticipate the moment of intimate challenge.

Some commentators have interpreted the play as a satire on the relationship of Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. In the song’s final quatrain, Bethsabe’s summary recognition of her “beauty’s fire” certainly has a regal, imperious air. In owning up to her erotic power, she does what royals have done since the Pharaohs, and probably long before: she identifies herself with the sun.

Bethsabe’s Song

Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair:
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me;
Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me:
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of mourning.
   Let not my beauty’s fire
   Inflame unstaid desire,
   Nor pierce any bright eye
   That wandereth lightly.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/oct/11/poem-of-the-week-george-peele

Poster poems

Epigrams

Dorothy Parker
Getting straight to the point … Dorothy Parker.
______

The epigram is one of the briefest of poetic forms, but, as the derivation of the name might suggest, it is also one of the most enduring. Originally a Greek stone inscription, the form found its feet in Rome, especially in the frequently risqué works of Martial. In common with many short forms, the epigram looks easier to do than it is. A good epigram demands that the poet masters two of the most difficult things to achieve in verse, brevity and wit. A successful epigram will both encapsulate its subject in a few short lines and add a witty twist that makes us see it in a new light.

Given its origins, it’s hardly surprising that the epigram has appealed to English poets of an Augustan bent. Alexander Pope’s “You know where you did despise” meets both of the main criteria for a good epigram while simultaneously being as scabrous as anything that Martial managed. Walter Savage Landor’s Dirce is more explicitly classical in imagery than Pope’s poem, but more Victorian in its handling of the theme of lust. Fine as these poems are, I feel the need to place beside them a more tender, romantic epigram of love, Sara Teasdale’s Faults.

During the century or so before Pope, the Metaphysicals and the 17th-century songwriters were also fond of epigram writing. Donne’s distich, “A Lame Beggar” operates almost at the level of a riddle or puzzle poem while “But Men Loved Darkness” by Richard Crashaw is a fine example of that all-too-rare genre, the witty religious poem.

It may seem an odd conjunction, but I can’t but hear an echo of Crashaw in Hemingway’s “Chapter Heading”; it’s a shame that Ernest didn’t write more epigrams as the form seems ideally suited to his terse style.

In fact, it is interesting to see how writers have made this short poem their own: “Resumé” could only have been written by Dorothy Parker, “‘Faith’ is a fine invention” is unmistakeably an Emily Dickinson poem and “Fire and Ice” has Robert Frost written all over it. These poems are all excellent examples of the epigram, but equally they serve to show how even the slightest and most conventional poetic form can be moulded by an individual voice.

And so, this National Poetry Day, I invite you to share your own brief and witty epigrams. As with satire, the range of subjects the world around us offers up for epigrammatic treatment is broad indeed, so go on, have a go. It’s only a few words, after all, just a couple of lines. Well, maybe four. Or so.

And especially to mark the day, I’d like to finish up with a particularly apt epigram by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/oct/07/poster-poems-epigrams

Poem of the week

What mystery pervades a well! by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson
Sending postcards to the future … Emily Dickinson.
_____
Shamefaced confession: I’ve been renewing my library copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson for more than a year. It’s the perfect dipping-book, utterly reliable for a moment’s, or an hour’s, refreshment. There’s no poet who’s so consistently disconcerting, fascinating, odd-angled. Like Stephen Hawking, Dickinson takes you to the edge of the cosmos – which may be billions of light years away or at your back door. And it’s the cosmos in microcosm, of course – another advantage. Dickinson’s brevity convinces you that poems were never meant to be long or ostensibly complicated.

So it’s high time I faced my chronic indecision and made a choice of Dickinson Poem of the Week (and, yes, bought my own copy of the Complete Poems). From a possible 1,775, I’ve picked number 1,400, the one that begins “What mystery pervades a well!”

It’s a strange poem, “floorless”, in a sense, and perhaps not flawless. The well appears to be a real one, not a metaphysical source of spiritual refreshment, but Dickinson’s first stroke in the poem is to defamiliarise it, transform it into a kind of black hole. There’s no friendly face at the bottom as there is for Seamus Heaney, another poetic well-fancier. The startling personification of the water as “A neighbor from another world / Residing in a jar,” may briefly conjure thoughts of the genii in the bottle – but only briefly. The “lid of glass” takes us down further into the unfathomable depths of the jar, bringing the realisation that only the surface of the water would be visible. There’s a lot more beneath. In a jaunty tone, Dickinson offers us the “abyss”.

The grass beside the well, buoyantly undisturbed, leads to an analogy with sedge which is growing near the sea on much shakier ground. “Floorless” is such a brilliantly unsettling word, it seems that Dickinson wants to stop us in our tracks with it. So she shortens that line, making it the end-word, and adds the leftover foot-and-a-bit of “and does no” to the next: “And does no timidity betray”. Note that the grass and sedge are personified, like the water, and are also masculine. Nature remains traditionally feminine.

The repeated “e” rhymes in the third and fourth stanzas sound awkward. A run of four (he/me/be/sea), the last two unexpectedly consecutive, must be deliberate. Like the sedge as the waves break over it, the fourth stanza struggles for foothold, and seems designed to remain a little unfinished.

There’s an earlier poem that begins, “Bring me the sunset in a cup, / Reckon the morning’s flagons up / And say how many Dew, / Tell me how far the morning leaps – / Tell me what time the weaver sleeps, / Who spun these nets of blue!” Nature here is as immeasurable as in the “well” poem, but “she” is still resplendently present and active. Dickinson is a poet of vivid sight: her work records innumerable sunsets, flowers and bees in glowing, specific colour. The well, by contrast, is colourless; sinister and still.

The fact that the well is a man-made object doesn’t deter Dickinson from identifying it with the natural world. But the images by which Nature is evoked – a haunted house, a ghost – are disturbing. The Nature that impinges on the human world, and interests the speaker, remains a stranger. Is it only a shadow, like the shadows in Plato’s cave? Haunted houses are best avoided, of course. But “ghost” has a bigger theological meaning than mere spook. To “simplify” Nature’s ghost might be to “know the mind of God.”

Ultimately, the experience broached seems incomplete. The poem withdraws into a warning against arrogance: the arrogance of science, perhaps, and the arrogance of poetry. The narrator surely includes herself among those who know Nature, but whose knowledge turns out to be insufficient. The aphoristic last lines are a little lesson on humility.

The further the poem moves into abstraction, the deeper it seems to plunge into a well where words reflect no light. It admits defeat. And yet, by making deliberate imaginative “mistakes” – like seeing the water as a neighbour who lives in a jar – the speaker surely has presented us with a wonderful replica of her well. She is not Stephen Hawking, but a Martian, sending postcards to the future. Her bold comparisons and personifications may explain nothing, but they bring us thrillingly close to her sense of awe. And science has never yet shown us that awe at our surroundings is inappropriate.

What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar

Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!

The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

__________

Poem of the week

Easter, 1944 by John Lucas

Fork in country road
‘I am kept to a road / under a lowering sky and I can’t tell / which way the children took or when they left’
_____
Childhood recollection is one of contemporary poetry’s favourite genres. It seems to replace unsettling notions that even poems may have fictional or unreliable narrators with a guarantee of frankness, freshness and, sometimes, a certain period charm. For the senior generation of poets who grew up in Britain, the memories may have less charm and more historical resonance. Gerda Mayer and Peter Scupham are among those who have powerfully re-imagined their very distinct childhood experiences during the second world war.

John Lucas, poet, scholar and publisher, is another writer haunted by “the pity of war”. This week’s poem, “Easter, 1944” comes from the “In the Wars” section of his latest, ninth collection, Things to Say (Five Leaves Publications).The section begins in the summer before the Great War, with predictable intimations of shattered innocence, and ends with “Fragments of an Imagined War Requiem”, a short sequence dated April, 2003, and culminating in the invasion of Iraq (“Satire’s Masterpiece:/ Bush. Blair. Rumsfeld. Straw.”). .

Connecting a festival of renewal and a date that signals the fifth year of the second world war, “Easter, 1944” is a title that alerts us to possible ironies. Chief of these is the fact that the child in the poem seems less innocent, or at least less deluded by false hopes, than the soldier-father.

The adult speaker sets recollection in motion with his opening, terse comment, referring to the Easter of the title: “A cold one.” This lack of expansiveness, as much as the weather itself, prepares us for the inarticulate distance between father and son. Even as the poem’s narrator, the son is unable at first to describe his feelings, and filters them through the gesture of his sister “holding hard” to his hand, as if he formed a protective shield between the dangerous male adult and the younger child.

That a tramp sleeps in the old tin bath the father has “innocently” pointed out is the boy’s big secret. It tells us he knows more than his father about the local landscape. But he is not going to share his wisdom. He clutches it to himself, as if it were too important, or slightly shameful. This reticence holds up a mirror to that of the father.. As a soldier, he must have undergone experiences that he cannot share with his son. For both, communication is blocked by the inexpressible. There is even a disconcerting hint of a parallel between the father, frightening the children who barely know him, and the tramp who (unwittingly?) scares “little girls”.

The poem is permeated by understatement. Its lines sometimes unexpectedly run on, minimising natural emphasis, creating odd jolts. A mixture of numbness and discomfort rules the rhythmic landscape as well as the emotions. As for the actual landscape, this is miserable but dramatic. Images of howling wires and bare branches thrashed by the wind bring battlefields to mind. If the description touches on pathetic fallacy, it’s still convincing. English Easters are often wintry. The anti-pastoralism is not necessarily exaggerated.

“Easter, 1944” looks as if it might be in terza rima, but it isn’t. There are hints of rhyme (howl/tell), and a repeating hiss of the s-sound as a final consonant (was/girls/face/eyes). The one strong chime is that of “walk” and “talk”. The two activities traditionally go together, as in the sentimental old song, “In the Twi-Twi-Twi-Light.” Walking and talking are elements of modern pastoral, symbolising the leisurely intimacy of lovers or friends. Here, though, we have the hollow, physical shell without the inner meaning, the walking without the talking, and so the old rhyme acquires new irony.

The emotion continues to be underplayed even as it builds into the clear distress of “I swerved from him, would not see his face.” That emphatic “would not see his face” suggests more than childish petulance. By refusing to “see”, the child is helplessly rejecting the possibility of understanding.

The adult speaks again at the end of the poem: “Father, forgive my dry, incurious eyes”. “Dry”, of course, has a double meaning, and both cynicism and lack of emotion are implied. “Incurious” negates the supposed natural condition of childhood, curiosity. The plea may point to a failure of father-son communication that reaches beyond the moment of the poem. Perhaps by now the father is dead. There is nothing in the poem to say that he even came “home for good.”

Before this concluding “prayer”, though, a new perspective has been attained. As if between stanzas, the child has grown up and become a father himself. The haunting, painful dream in which he literally loses his own children expands “Easter, 1944” beyond its wartime setting, opening out to reflect a more universal sadness between children and parents. The child eventually appreciates the parent’s point of view, but usually, by then, there really is an unbreakable silence between them.

Easter, 1944

A cold one. My father, home
briefly on leave, took me a promised walk.
My sister came too, holding hard to my hand.

There was a wind thrashed bare branches, made wires howl,
the flat, grey sky held no hope of sun. He was
strange to us and we did not talk.

In Lane End spinney he pointed to an old
tin bath half-hidden among weeds. I didn’t tell
him a tramp would sleep there, scaring little girls.

Trudging back, he spoke of walks we’d take
“When I am home for good.” But
I swerved from him, would not see his face.

There are dreams now in which I am kept to a road
under a lowering sky and I can’t tell
which way the children took or when they left.

Father, forgive my dry, incurious eyes.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/27/poem-of-the-week-john-lucas

Poem of the week

A Mind of Winter by Martha Kapos

This time, a striking contemporary poem whose apparent clarity conceals some intriguing mystery as it pays homage to Wallace Stevens

Snow-covered window

Cold thoughts … a window covered with ice.

This week’s poem, “A Mind of Winter”, is by Martha Kapos, and comes from her most recent collection, Supreme Being (Enitharmon, 2008). As one of the reviewers who admired the collection, I liked its combination of linguistic nuance and emotional intensity. The poems often seem to be acts of mourning, but under such strong, imaginative pressure that absence becomes presence. To borrow that transformative pun from George Barker’s little masterpiece, “To My Mother” they “move from mourning into morning.”

Helen Vendler has pointed out that many American poets in the second half of the 20th century wrote in response to their modernist predecessors. Women poets, in her view, are excluded from this project, partly because of the want of female role models. Kapos, an American poet, though long settled in Britain, is proof, if any were needed, that gender does not dictate a poet’s choice of mentor.

For Kapos, the presiding spirit is Wallace Stevens. His influence can be felt occasionally at a technical level, in stringent craft and sonorous phrases, but, more importantly, it colours her imaginative philosophy. Poetry for Stevens was, famously, “the supreme Fiction”: in fact, it was the most sublime fiction of all. “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place in life’s redemption.” However, while Kapos is profoundly serious about poetry’s powers of transformation, she registers a 21st-century challenge, and, for her, untidy and recalcitrant humans may also enter the poem’s heart-room as the Supreme Being.

“A Mind of Winter” looks solid, with its firmly-packed six- or five-line stanzas, but it’s mysteriously hard to pin down. At first, it seems to have a clear agenda. The title comes from the opening line of Wallace Stevens’s almost Zen-like ars poetica, “The Snow Man” (“One must have a mind of winter/ To regard the frost and the boughs/ Of the pine-trees crusted with snow …”), and the epigraph is dedicatory: “For Wallace Stevens in March.” Then things get difficult. The “he” of the poem is not necessarily Stevens. The syntax is puzzling in the first stanza: it’s as if the poem does not want to divulge exactly who or what has been “silenced and sent outside/ as if the world was a child/ he wanted out of the room,” There’s no punctuation to guide us. It’s possible, if unlikely, that “he” in the third line is the sentence’s subject, and that “he wanted out of the room” means he wanted to get out of it. Elsewhere, the narrative clearly concerns a “he.” But here, there’s a snowball of nouns, compressing the logic of syntax to white and inescapable atmosphere.

The second stanza is arresting, with that strange image of the “mind” taking hold of the trees, an act both destructive and creative. The trees seem to be manipulated by a gigantic poetic intelligence. They might resemble letters on a blank page. And then the image of the banished child seems to hover again, when the winter sun, memorably “glowing like a pearl,” becomes the means of summoning that “small face on the pillow.” At the same time, this seems a very adult, even god-like child: an artist-child. Or perhaps it’s not a child at all, but someone withered by age? Does death, like poetry, demand a creative mental act?

No symbol in the poem, no metamorphosis, is water-tight or conclusive. The “one white quiet thing” suggests finality, but then, seemingly, life continues, the page of the book the protagonist holds containing an “icy scene” described as “pitiless and horizontal”. Is this death, a graveyard, or simply winter and the wintriness of the mind that gives itself up to seeing with such selfless clarity?

Another poem may be evoked here: “The Sun this March.” It marked a break-through for Stevens in 1930, his first poem after 6 unproductive years. Is creative stasis also part of the winter Kapos’s narrative evokes? There’s certainly a sense of liberation at the end, though accompanied by images of wounding, the “footprint gaping open in the snow” and the faintly terrifying idea of a “key-hole to the heart.” What happens to a snowman in spring, of course, is that it melts. A mind of winter in thaw, however welcomed that “holiday” might be, could dread the loss of grip.

There are plenty of seemingly non-symbolic objects in the poem: window, pillow, bed, blankets, a book, a page. It has a stoicism, too, which seems to follow Stevens’s aesthetic and moral injunction “not to think/ Of any misery in the sound of the wind,/ In the sound of a few leaves.” We seem to be in the presence of human experience as well as a symbolic death and recreation. March, the month before Eliot’s “cruellest month,” is the true crux of the year, but also, in this particular March, the turning-point for an individual who, I think, must go into the snows of death to find his spring.

A Mind of Winter

for Wallace Stevens in March

Silenced and sent outside
as if the world was a child
he wanted out of the room
the view from the window showed
only those cold thoughts
that tended to comply with white

a glaring region where his mind
took hold of trees and bent
their shoulders until they sighed
made them sag knee-deep
here and there like melted candles
stuck to a table in an empty house

and glowing like a pearl
placed a hard white sun low
in a windswept sky imagining his own
small face on a pillow in a new-made bed
then becoming one white quiet thing

draped thick blankets across his knees
so that the book he held
lightly in his hand was spread
open to a page where the icy
scene was set pitiless and horizontal

until his footprint gaping open in the snow
became a shape he no longer recognised
letting through a patch of green
and it was like a holiday
he’d been looking forward to for months
and a keyhole to the heart.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/20/poem-of-the-week-martha-kapos

Poem of the week

Wind by Sydney Dobell

This week’s poem has often been cited as an example of the most entertainingly awful verse. But is it really that bad?

Tawny owl

Wold gold … A tawny owl swoops to catch a mouse. 
Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English, edited by James Camp, XJ Kennedy and Keith Waldrop (Collier Books, New York, 1971), does what the label says, and brings us bad poetry at its most entertaining. The editors’ witty head-notes and the assorted cartoons of a charmingly overweight, daft-looking Pegasus add to the pleasure. Extracts are trimly selected, and Kennedy, endearingly, includes an early effort of his own. Whether fustian or flimsy, homely or highfalutin’, these bad poems seem overwhelmingly innocent, and their unselfconscious comedy provokes a merry grin rather than a groan or a yawn.

The range is broad – from irredeemable doggerelist William McGonagall to the great and good in their wobblier moments – Browning, Wordsworth, Hardy and Emily Dickinson among them. The editors have a brilliant nose for rubbish, but, now and again, the cautious reader may be lured back to a poem to wonder if it really was as bad as all that.

At first, I was almost knocked unconscious by the hammer-blows of repetition in this week’s poem “Wind” by Sydney Dobell. Then I gave it another chance. I imagined hearing it recited in a flickeringly gas-lit auditorium by Sir Henry Irving, the actor who once reduced Bram Stoker to a state of collapse with his rendition of “The Dream of Eugene Aram”. And I wondered if “Wind” might not qualify as an enjoyably spine-chilling, though probably inescapably comic, Victorian performance poem.

Dobell, a prolific writer, was one of a group of poets dubbed the Spasmodic School (other members included Alexander Smith, Gerald Massey and Ebenezer Jones). The characteristics of their style have been variously described: “violent meter, egoistic disregard for community”, and, according to Coventry Patmore, “tawdriness, bombast and imbecility”.

Some critics have been kinder. Jason R Rudy writes in Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics that “Rhythm for Dobell expresses metonymically the physiological conditions of the human body – its pulses either harmonise with or strain against the throbbing of our physical beings – and poets communicate most readily through a reader’s sympathetic and unmediated experience of these rhythmic impulses. Only with the Spasmodic poets does the physiological shock of electricity approach literal enactment in poetic form.”

“Wind” is perhaps best read as a gothic sound-poem. At the core of each stanza, there seems to be the hint of an unfolding story – a ghost story. By Dobell’s vague standards of coherent narrative, this one is intelligible. It builds by means of a series of impressions, from some initial scene-setting (“winter stark”/ “level dark”) to “the mystery/ Of the blasted tree” and then, after the de rigueur owl (well, owlet), a horrid materialisation, finally and dramatically evoked as “the white sight”. Of course, the poem could simply be a depiction of a wild, moonlit night, and all the horrors could be natural phenomena, de-familiarised. But I like to think that Dobell’s wold had a grisly secret.

Meanwhile, the wind relentlessly howls “On the wold, the wold, the wold!” The repetition divests the word of meaning, but does it divest the reader of interested attention? Is “Wind” really a bad poem or a curious little gem? And, whatever you think of “Wind”, are there any Sydney Dobell poems that you feel should qualify him for a place in the serious anthologies, instead of those dedicated to the “best bad verse?”

Wind

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the winter stark,
Oh the level dark,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the mystery
Of the blasted tree
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the owlet’s croon
To the haggard moon,
To the waning moon,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the fleshless stare,
Oh the windy hair,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the cold sigh,
Oh the hollow cry,
The lean and hollow cry,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

Oh the wold, the wold,
Oh the wold, the wold!
Oh the white sight,
Oh the shuddering night,
The shivering shuddering night,
On the wold, the wold, the wold!

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/13/poem-of-the-week-sydney-dobell

Poem of the week

Lycidas by John Milton

This time, a remarkable supple kind of pastoral that makes room for a number of unexpected and daring fusions

John Milton

Complex passions … John Milton.

Dr Johnson, while recognising Milton’s genius, took a famously dim view of this week’s poem. “Such is the power of reputation justly acquired that its blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could have fancied he read ‘Lycidas’ with pleasure had he not known its author.”

Most readers since have united in disagreement with Johnson about the stature of “Lycidas.” But does his argument have any points in its favour?

One of his accusations is that the poem is artificial, and therefore lacks passion. The artifice can’t be denied. That’s the nature of pastoral. Theocritus, who provides the model for Milton, didn’t portray real shepherds, either. Whether all-singing, all-dancing, engaging in a dialogue of the dispossessed, or bewailing a lost companion, the shepherds and nymphs of pastoral poetry were figments of imagination from the start. Yet many poets, Virgil not the least of them, struck gold in the pastoral play-pen – reminding us, perhaps, of Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”.

The narrator of “Lycidas” is an unnamed shepherd, an “uncouth swain.” Maybe that description is a little in-joke. Lycidas himself represents Edward King, Milton’s fellow-student at Cambridge, and also an aspiring poet, drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Anglesey. King had planned to take Holy Orders, and Milton uses pastoral allegory in the religious context, too. When, in the voice of the Pilot of the Galilean Lake (St Peter), Milton angrily tackles the unfit “shepherds” of anti-Protestantism, his pastoral becomes far more harsh and realistic: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,/ But swol’n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,/Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread …”

The poem was commissioned for a memorial anthology for King. It begins with the author claiming reluctance to start work because he feels unready: his poetic garlands have no ripe fruit, only “berries harsh and crude” I don’t think this is just a conceit. Milton is expressing a reluctance he really feels, and perhaps (though he wasn’t directly involved in the shipwreck) a trace of what today we call “survivor’s guilt”. As he told another friend, he longs to be an immortal poet. He hesitates – and yet, what if death intervenes before he can achieve anything? The composition of “Lycidas” is a heavy challenge. There are many themes in the poem, but this implicit “memo to self” is finally the most significant – true fame is decided by heavenly, not earthly, judges, so gather your forces, lucky poet, and carry on. One thing is clear: Milton’s passions are complex and, as Johnson intuited, not dictated purely by simple grief for his friend.

“Lycidas” isn’t as difficult at it looks. Good footnotes will unlock plenty of its secrets. Milton is vastly learned, of course, but he’s also a ready communicator. One of his aims is “to justify God’s ways to man” and you, the reader, catch the urgency. He is a performer, and a performer, despite the masks, always seeks to fire an audience with imaginative empathy. The poem, a canzone, has verse-paragraphs of varied shape and size; sometimes they resemble mini odes, with uneven line-lengths and unpredictable rhymes (another cause of Johnson’s grumbles) but the fluidity is energising. Milton always knows where to pause, take a breath, and so keep us interested. His procession of eloquent gods is not stagey: it’s cinematic.

One of the most beautiful passages is a digression concerning the flowers to be strewn on Lycidas’s “laureate hearse”: “the tufted crow-toe and pale jessamine,/ The white pink, and the pansy freaked with jet,/ The glowing violet.” Then the dreamy fantasy is halted, and the poet confronts what has actually happened. King’s body is irrecoverable. The flowery coffin is a “false surmise.” The mood darkens with a lamentation (“Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas/ Wash far away…”) and culminates in the famous cry to the mariners’ patron, St. Michael: “Look homeward Angel now and melt with ruth …” This is followed by the most tender of cadences: “And, O ye dolphins waft the hapless youth.”

Even in that single couplet you can read Milton’s daring fusions: elegy and foreign politics, Christian and classical imagery. It all seemed an indecent mix-up to Johnson, and his own piety got in the way of his response. But the harsh discords of one age or one ear are often the rich harmonies of another. Immune to piety but affirming “relativism”, our period is well-placed to appreciate the 17th-century “modernist” phenomenon that is “Lycidas.”

To whet your appetite, I’ve chosen the concluding strophes to represent this week’s poem. The whole work, with useful annotations, is here.

From Lycidas by John Milton

   Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor,
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with newspangled ore,
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low but mounted high,
Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves,
Where other groves, and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the saints above,
In solemn troops and sweet societies
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears forever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more;
Henceforth, thou art the genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.
   Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals grey;
He touched the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay:
And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropped into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

__________
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/06/poem-of-the-week-lycidas-john-milton 

Poem of the week

Pier by Vona Groarke

Filled with vitality and physical exuberance, this week’s bank holiday choice is that rare thing: a happy poem

Pier in Southwold

“Gulp cloud; / fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa … “

This week’s choice, “Pier”, by one of today’s most interesting younger Irish poets, Vona Groarke, seems to be that comparatively rare thing: a happy poem. It centres on the thrill, in the author’s words, of “jumping into the sea from a high fishing pier.”

It might stir your own nostalgia for childhood and teenage derring-do, but if you’re lucky – and wise – you won’t have outgrown such experiences, nor save them only for bank holidays. “Pier” isn’t designed to deliver a message, but it nevertheless says something about the nature of the good and happy life. Our muscles, extensions of our minds, have “a need for joy”. Fascism exploits that fact, as regretted in the Auden sonnet which provides the poem’s epigraph. But the “sport” here has a different goal. It’s private and it’s fun; an act not of conformity but rebellion.

Vona Groarke was born in Edgeworthstown in the Irish Midlands, but, as she says in this too-brief interview, she thinks of the west of Ireland as her home. “Pier”, from her 2009 collection, Spindrift, is set in Spiddal in County Galway. Initially, what’s noticeable is that there’s no direct first-person narrative. This emphasis on active verbs turns out to be an excellent device, recreating how it feels to be fully absorbed in physical activity, the mind, that often unwieldy “organ”, streamlined into unity with the body. The body of the poem – its rhythms and syntax – is not a container, but a sinewy consciousness.

The poem begins with a series of signposts or instructions. The abbreviated style helps focus process and movement. The speaker seems to be doing something she’s done before – remembering, as well as reporting, a familiar sequence as she moves steadily to her goal. Each point of the landscape has its associated physical accompaniment. Past, present and future seem uncannily fused.

The noun “snout” suggests the shape of the land, and maybe the speaker’s orientation: the nose leads when you are following an instinct. It’s a nice, gristly, Germanic word, contrasting with the limitless space evoked by the latinate “America”. The diction is taut and spare: “flip-flop over/ tarmac” economises, possibly, by compressing foot-wear into verb-of-motion; “exchange the weather” wastes no time on chit-chat. Movement and purpose, are all outward-directed, a brisk negotiation with solid facts such as the “gangplank rooted barge”. The pier is seen as a workaday place, without charm or grandeur.

There’s a sense of arrival in line seven, but only a moment’s hesitation, enacted by the caesura, the full-stop, after “up to the ridge”. There’s no trembling on the brink. “And then let fly,” the poem commands. Airborne now, it opens up imaginatively with the idea of “blue nets” (not literal fishing-nets, I think, but impressions of the sky and the light-patterned water below). Altitude and vastness are conveyed by the dizzy, fantastical instructions to “gulp cloud” and “fling a jet-trail around your neck like a feather boa.”

A “you” has entered the poem, and with it a stronger mood of self-determination. No, the poem’s not simply about “fun”. The physical commands hint at a spiritual exercise. When the poet says “Enter the tide as though it were nothing, /really nothing, to do with you” the command is to deny encroaching consciousness. The sea-leaper has to work at her prophylaxis. If you “go with the flow” the fear recedes; the danger itself is reduced.

For the poet, this may also sound a reminder to beware the tense search for epiphany. How often, if you write poetry, or even fiction, do you find yourself ultimately writing up those very aspects of an experience which you didn’t record eagerly in your mental (or actual) notebook? Writers learn to duck in and out of manipulative states of mind – athletes, too, perhaps? But this is not a poem about the virtue of being passive. It’s more about achieving the active-passive balance.

As the narrative develops, so does the willed action. There is an almost violent wrestle with the water, which has to be “slit” and “dragged” open for the jumper to surface and breathe again. “You” need to “kick back”, escape from the tide’s “coiled ropes” and then “Haul yourself up into August”. This is the joyous free-fall in reverse, an ascent that demands deliberate hard work, fighting water and gravity to make the wide sky visible again, and the next jump possible. Yes, of course, there must be another jump! And this time, the speaker will set herself a bigger challenge.

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

“Pier” is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and Gallery Press. Enjoy – but if you’re inspired to jump into the sea from a height, please do it with due care.

Pier by Vona Groarke

Speak to our muscles of a need for joy

                      • W H Auden, “Sonnets from China” (XVII)

Left at the lodge and park, snout to America.

Strip to togs, a shouldered towel, flip-flop over

the tarmac past the gangplanked rooted barge,

two upended rowboats and trawlers biding time.

Nod to a fisherman propped on a bollard,

exchange the weather, climb the final steps

up to the ridge. And then let fly. Push wide,

push up your knees so the blue nets hold you,

wide-open, that extra beat. Gulp cloud;

fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa,

toss every bone and sinew to the plunge.

Enter the tide as if it were nothing,

really nothing, to do with you. Kick back.

Release your ankles from its coiled ropes;

slit water, drag it open, catch your breath.

Haul yourself up into August. Do it over,

raucously. Head first. This time, shout.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/30/poetry

 

Poem of the week

A Trace of Wings by Edwin Morgan

A very unusual elegy this time, to Basil Bunting, which will also serve as a tribute to the vivacious inventiveness of its author

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan at his home in Glasgow in 2003.

The mood of elegy does not have to be Gray. This week’s poem laments the death of Basil Bunting (1900 -1985) while reflecting the versatile and playful spirit of its maker, Edwin Morgan, who died last week. “A Trace of Wings” is wholly characteristic of a poet who delighted in whirling the goodie bag of tradition and innovation, and so often magicked forth blends and mixtures never seen before.

With its strict, economical patterning, “A Trace of Wings” has something in common with Morgan’s concrete poetry. Its structure might recall an old-fashioned sort of bird-book, with coloured pictures and friendly captions besides the more detailed and grammatically formal entry – the sort a child would enjoy. It’s almost a crossword puzzle without the puzzle, the answers preceding a three-part cryptic clue.

These “clues” in turn suggest the Anglo-Saxon/ Old Norse kenning reminding us that Morgan was a fine translator of Beowulf. The kenning, a metaphorical compound-word or phrase, is a descriptive stand-in for a noun. “The joy of the bird”, for example, means the bird’s feather, and “the dispenser of rings” is the prince. Anglo-Saxon listeners would be familiar with the metaphors, so “feather” and “prince” go unsaid. Morgan’s poem borrows the technique, but also names the names.

The core-idea of the poet-as-songbird is hardly new. But it is expressed through such shining technical originality, and gathers round it so many other shared attributes, that the common metaphorical coin seems diamond-faceted.

Morgan’s seven varieties of bunting bustle with birdy life. Conjured by swift phrases, they seem to flitter past as we watch, but leave indelible impressions of movement and colour. They are elusive: words like “shy”, “perky”, “scuttler”, “darter” evoke their quick, barely visible movement. “Find him!”, “What a whisk!” the speaker exclaims, surely glad that the birds are so fleet and wary. We catch, too, a moment of anger and fear when we reach the unfortunate Ortolan Bunting who “favours” (and flavours) gourmet tables, and has been hunted to near-extinction. The metaphorical associations continue to thicken. The poet might himself be an endangered species, like the ortolan, as well as a generous “grain-scatterer” like the corn-bunting. As a northerner, Basil Bunting could qualify, perhaps, as “blizzard-hardened.” It seems fitting that the Snow Bunting is the last bird named before the poet himself appears.

“A Trace of Wings” is full of lovely sounds, and the stop-start rhythms leave room for savouring their effects. The longer closing line, in which the poem uncovers its true subject and occasion, introduces a mournful cadence. A rise and fall of lamentation, it climaxes with the sharp assonance of “prince of finches” and dies away with the monosyllables of the colloquial understatement, “gone from these parts.”

Morgan was a writer who cared about a poem’s visual impact as well as its sounds. The extra spacing between the bird-name and the “kennings”, for instance, reflects the gulf between ornithological category and the elusive, living thing. Even the semi-colons seem to have a bird-like look, each a tiny pictogram of wing and eye.

In an essay in The Poet’s Voice and Craft (edited by CB McCully, Carcanet, 1994) Morgan talks about the need for a poem to be both “deliberate” and “open”. Particularly in some concrete poems, he says, “the danger would be that not enough space, not enough interstices, might be left for the spirit of inspiration to slip in”. This poem is a beautiful example of how Morgan negotiates a disciplined structural arrangement without fencing off the places where “inspired accidents” occur. In fact the poem’s very seed is an inspired accident – the fact that the superbly musical poet of Brigflatts should share his surname with a species of bird. It needed only a poet of Morgan’s genius to notice – and whip up a miraculous, sparrow-quick elegy that is tender, funny, sorrowful, Anglo-Saxon-ish and modernist, mimetic and metaphorical, all at once – and all in eight lines. “What a whisk!” indeed.

“A Trace of Wings” appears in Edwin Morgan’s Themes on a Variation (1988) and Collected Poems, and is reproduced here by kind permission of Carcanet. It’s a poem to sweeten and sharpen our sorrow for two great makers, now “gone from these parts” but placeless, and timeless, in their bright plumage and full-voiced song.

A Trace of Wings

Corn Bunting             shy but perky; haunts fields; grain-scatterer

Reed Bunting            sedge-scuttler; swayer; a cool perch

Cirl Bunting               small whistler; shrill early; find him!

Indigo Bunting           blue darter; like metal; the sheen

Ortolan Bunting         haunts gardens; is caught; favours tables

Painted Bunting         gaudy flasher; red, blue, green; what a whisk!

Snow Bunting            Arctic flyer; ghost-white; blizzard-hardened

Basil Bunting             the sweetest singer; prince of finches; gone from

                                   these parts

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/23/poem-of-the-week-edwin-morgan

 

Poem of the week

From Longfellow’s translation of the Divine Comedy

This time, a poignant excerpt as Dante meets his muse Longfellow’s Victorian version of the great medieval allegory

Dante

Detail from Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem, by Domenico di Michelino. 

“You look like the Wreck of the Hesperus,” my mother used to exclaim irritably, when I came in from play looking particularly dishevelled. No, she wasn’t a literary lady: she enjoyed “the flicks” rather more than books, and preferred knitting patterns to poetry. But, like anyone else who had gone to school in the first quarter of the 20th century, she’d been introduced to verse by the venerable Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). As for me, I loved the swashbuckling sound of “Wreck of the Hesperus”, but years passed before I met the poem.

Longfellow’s verse was swept long ago from the school curriculum, but he was once, after Tennyson, the most popular poet in the English-speaking world. He wrote prose as well as poetry, epics as well as lyrics, was a master of metre, and fluent in many languages. Although hardly an iconoclast, he was no less concerned than later American poets with the project of forging a national literary identity. The much-parodied “The Song of Hiawatha” (which Longfellow called “the Indian Edda”) is a dull plod to the modern ear, but try instead the rangy dactylic hexameters of Evangeline, still a wonderfully readable “tearjerker” of a romance, set in Nova Scotia. Longfellow sometimes reminds me a little of Charles Dickens (whom he met in London in 1842). He can be sentimental, like Dickens, but he too is a master story-spinner and conjuror of atmosphere.

Longfellow began translating Dante’s La Divina Commedia at a sombre point in his life, after the death of his second wife in a fire. Instead of attempting hendecasyllables, the American poet uses blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He follows Dante’s syntax when he can, and writes compactly in unrhymed tercets (the “Mountain”/”fountain” rhyme here would appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante’s sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow’s verse flows not un-melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. In general, the style is plain rather than florid.

I’ve chosen as this week’s “poem” an extract from Canto XXX of the Purgatorio. It describes an intensely emotional moment. Dante has reached the Earthly Paradise at the summit of Mount Purgatory. Having witnessed the Pageant of the Sacrament, he at last sees Beatrice: almost simultaneously, he discovers, to his dismay, that his guide, Virgil, “sweetest of all fathers,” is no longer at his side. For the first time in the whole Commedia, Dante’s name is used – and by Beatrice herself. But Beatrice’s address is stern and even a little sarcastic, her purpose not yet to welcome the poet but admonish him.

Subsequently, the Angels’ song reduces Dante, the pilgrim, to sobs. But Dante, the narrator, never loses control of pace or structure, and Longfellow’s style, too, is economical, though not always wholly natural-sounding.

Most, if not all, of the ellipses (“e’en”) and Latinate inversions (“continued she”) are inevitable for a translation of the period (the first edition appeared in 1867). The archaisms, in Beatrice’s speech, for example, would have seemed fitting in so deeply sacred a context. Today, translation’s “rules” are more flexible. And we prefer our English Dante in an earthier language, one which is perhaps closer, in spirit at least, to the poet’s Tuscan dialect. However, for a faithful translator of the Commedia, some formality is still unavoidable; Dante’s sentences are frequently complex, demanding, for instance, a spectrum of conjunctions not wholly natural to the terser poetic styles we use today.

Perhaps you prefer a different translation of the Purgatorio: you may even have worked on your own. Be copyright-conscious, but, otherwise, bring them on!

from Canto XXX, Purgatorio

“Dante, because Virgilius has departed
Do not weep yet, do not weep yet awhile;
For by another sword thou need’st must weep.”

E’en as an admiral, who on poop and prow
Comes to behold the people that are working
In other ships, and cheers them to well-doing,

Upon the left hand border of the car,
When at the sound I turned of my own name,
Which of necessity is here recorded,

I saw the Lady, who erewhile appeared
Veiled underneath the angelic festival,
Direct her eyes to me across the river.

Although the veil, that from her head descended,
Encircled with the foliage of Minerva,
Did not permit her to appear distinctly,

In attitude still royally majestic
Continued she, like unto one who speaks,
And keeps his warmest utterance in reserve:

“Look at me well; in sooth I’m Beatrice!
How dids’t thou deign to come unto the Mountain?
Dids’t thou not know that man is happy here?”

Mine eyes fell downwards into the clear fountain,
But, seeing myself therein, I sought the grass,
So great a shame did weigh my forehead down.

As to the son the mother seems superb,
So she appeared to me, for somewhat bitter
Tasteth the savour of severe compassion.

Silent became she, and the Angels sang
Suddenly, “In te, Domine, speravi:”
But beyond “pedes meos” did not pass.

Even as the snow among the living rafters
Upon the back of Italy congeals,
Blown on and drifted by Sclavonian winds,

And then, dissolving, trickles through itself
Whene’er the land that loses shadow breathes,
So that it seems a fire that melts a taper;

E’en thus was I without a tear or sigh,
Before the song of those who sing for ever
After the music of the eternal spheres.

But when I heard in their sweet melodies
Compassion for me, more than had they said,
“O wherefore, lady, dost thou thus upbraid him?”

The ice, that was about my heart congealed,
To air and water changed, and in my anguish
Through mouth and eyes came gushing from my breast.

Notes:

“Car” – chariot

“Foliage of Minerva” – Beatrice was wearing the wreath of olive leaves associated with the goddess of wisdom

“In te, Domine, speravi…pedes meos” – The angels are singing Psalm 31, which begins, “In Thee, O Lord, have I placed my trust.” They stop at Verse 8: “Thou hast set my feet in a spacious place.”

“Living rafters” (“le vive travi”) – the pine-woods on the Apennines. The trees are frozen by the north wind from “Slavonia”, and thawed by the south wind from Africa.

(The text from which the extract from Canto XXX is taken is Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, illustrated by Gustave Doré, edited by Anna Amari-Parker, and published by Arcturus, London, 2006).

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/16/poem-of-the-week-longfellow-dante

Poem of the week

The Sorrow of Love by WB Yeats

This early masterpiece combines great symbolic resonance with pin-sharp observation of the natural world

WB Yeats

WB Yeats.

This early poem by WB Yeats comes from his second collection, The Rose (1893). Superficially, it may look like a typical, heady-scented 1890s love-poem, but “The Sorrow of Love” is actually a challenge to fashionable conventions. Its bold reach and simplicity anticipate Yeats’s mature style. While rich in symbolism, it has a persuasively realist grain.

There’s the first line, for instance. What a stroke of genius – to begin the artistic ascent with a modest, domestic sparrow. Few words could better convey the little bird’s noisy activities than “brawling”, with its suggestion of territorial and sexual combat. The line might intentionally reference John Donne’s “Epithalamion” and “the sparrow that neglects his life for love,” but it remains a true depiction of ordinary bird behaviour. That draughtsman’s gift of exact, unfussy observation would be fully developed in such later works as “The Wild Swans at Coole”.

The second line leads the eye farther upwards and onwards. But, however archetypal the images of the moon and starry sky, we’re still within the bounds of natural observation. While “brawling” appeals to the ear as well as the eye, the impact of the new line, thanks to the beautifully contrasted epithets “brilliant” and “milky,” is luminously visual.

Yeats now signals that mere description was not his goal, and in the fourth line he passes judgment on his own, increasingly splendid list. It seems that the sparrow, the moon, the milky sky and “all that famous harmony of leaves”, placed in such knowing juxtaposition, have overwhelmed human experience. “Harmony of leaves” suggests laurels and lyres. A god may be inferred – Apollo, perhaps, the supreme musician. “Blotted out”, applied both to “man’s image and his cry”, is a phrase that could be associated with pens and writing. Is the young poet who wants to create a unique new voice for Ireland hinting that he is oppressed by the power of classical stories and symbols? Possibly, but I think it more likely that this is intended as a critique of shallowly cosmetic 1890s aestheticism.

Yeats was already mining Irish myth and folklore. The Rose includes “Fergus and the Druid”, “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea”, “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” and the glorious “To Ireland in the Coming Times”, the latter containing the poet’s solemn avocation: “Know that I would accounted be / True brother of a company / That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong/ Ballad and story, rann and song.” At the same time, the classical tradition was embedded in his imagination and would bear important fruit. Here, in the second stanza, Yeats squares up with grand self-confidence to both Irish and classical myth-making.

“A girl arose” – the trope is that of an ancient storyteller. Of course, there is also an actual girl in Yeats’s autobiographical picture at this time: Maud Gonne, who will later be compared to Helen of Troy. But the figure here is more than human. She belongs to the aisling genre, and, with those “red mournful lips” evoking the symbolic “rose” which for Yeats has erotic, mystical and nationalistic connotations, she is both the idealised beloved and the vision of Ireland.

What but Ireland itself could embody “the greatness of the world in tears”? This image conveys nationhood as simultaneously magnified and tragically “blotted out”. If, by itself, the phrase seems a shade overblown, its audacity is affirmed by the two subsequent comparisons, in which Odysseus, the heroic Greek wanderer, and Priam, the defeated Trojan King, are fused in this strange, mythic-human woman with the sensuous mouth. It seems significant that these are male heroes, a reminder that Maud Gonne’s political activism challenged feminine stereotype – and often disturbed her poet-lover.

And now Yeats performs a syntactic miracle. Instead of closing the second stanza, he pauses on a semi-colon and repeats the main verb, “arose”, at the start of the third, to carry on an extended, sinewy, almost Miltonic sentence. The woman strides on, asserting her power, although in a devastated setting in which she seems an agent of despair.

The rhyme-words from the first stanza recur in the last, emphasising the change of tone. The eaves are still “clamorous,” but the moon is “climbing upon an empty sky” (my italics). “Clamorous” and “climbing” seem to intensify the upwards-striving movement; in fact, the near-homonym, “clambering,” is additionally suggested by “clamorous”. The same powerful epithet, creating a similar combination of sound and movement, will recur in “The Wild Swans at Coole” when the birds “All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings.”

At the end of “The Sorrow of Love”, the man and his cry are re-framed. No longer obliterated, they are “composed”, in the pictorial sense of being held together, and perhaps somewhat pacified. Painful experience has redeemed shallow aestheticism. “The Sorrow of Love” proclaims that the young poet has found one of his major themes, and begun the transformation of failed relationship into imaginative triumph.

The Sorrow of Love

The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.

A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;

Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/09/poem-of-the-week-wb-yeats

Poem of the week

Schubertiad by Fiona Sampson

Details of the composer’s life are weaved together with themes from his work and echoes of his music in Fiona Sampson’s deft sequence, Schubertiad

Out of time … Franz Schubert.

This week’s poem, the four-part sequence, “Schubertiad”, by Fiona Sampson, seems, at first glance, a kind of translation – of music into text. As the epigraph tells us, it is written “After the String Quintet in C, D956” and, if you know the quintet, you might hear an echo, in the first poem, of the mysterious opening of the Allegro, or recall the Adagio’s pizzicato passages in those very short lines at the end of the second. But the translation analogy doesn’t take us far. What these small, song-like poems seem to do is create a parallel world. They are impressionistic, and, in their swift movement and glancing, sun-and-water imagery, they realise the essential, mercurial quality of Schubert’s music.

It’s a quality demonstrated in the way the composer can take a single song through such varying tonalities it seems almost to encompass the emotional range of an opera. Sampson is a poet who shares something of this legerdemain. “Schubertiad” also weaves in a biographical thread. In the Quintet, an unusual second cello adds gravitas. In the sequence, darker harmonies arise from the conflict of the composer’s time-poor life with the power of his genius to re-make time on its own terms.

The Quintet was completed during Schubert’s final illness in the autumn of 1828. His deathbed forms the closing image of the poem. “Schubertiad” begins, though, by tracing an uncertain miracle closer to birth. “One moment before it starts – / one breath.” This is the pause before the music happens – before the composer writes down the first notes, before the ensemble, poised to breathe as one, begins to play. But the opening stanzas are not tied down to a particular narrative, and the reader might equally see a love affair unfolding, or any emotional event that tunes anticipation to concert pitch.

The risk of being out of time, in both senses, fades in the second poem, where there is a gorgeous, sensuous present tense. The Schubertiaden were organised by Schubert’s devoted friends to promote his work and fund its publication. They could be sumptuous affairs: after the performances (entirely of Schubert’s compositions) there would be food, drink and dancing. At the party imagined by the poet, there is a Turkish flavour (lokum is the sweet we call Turkish Delight) reflecting the Austrian fascination with Turkish culture after serious threat from the Ottoman empire had receded. The sense of abundance is confirmed by the shift from two to three-lined stanza, though the writing is still spare and delicate, with touches of assonance and one strong internal rhyme (“throws/rose”).

The singing girl seems casual and fluent, like the river (a recurrent motif) and like Schubert himself. It’s said he once composed eight songs in a day. This ease of composition perhaps connects to the allegorical figure of the wanderer, often found in German romantic poetry and in Schubert’s music. “Das Wandern” (wandering) is a delightful freedom celebrated in the earlier part of Die Schöne Müllerin. Conversely, “Der Wanderer”, one of Schubert’s greatest songs, sets a poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt in which the exile faces up to permanent estrangement: “There, where you are not, there is your happiness.” A similarly sombre mood shadows the third poem, the most fully rhymed of the sequence, with its opening apostrophe, “Wanderer”. It hints at the aberration which exiled Schubert from his own life, through venereal disease, and “kiss” finds the darkest rhyme imaginable: “Dis”.

In the last section, the patterns described are architectural rather than musical. The river of melody, blocked in the previous poem, strains impotently to flow again. We are brought very close to Schubert when the elaborate metaphor of the “spring ice/ yawing on its tethers” gives way to the colloquial intimacy of the exclamation, “You poor soul.” The man is “quite bare” and painfully visible in those quickly sketched details: the spectacles, the “soiled bed”. There is no sentimental suggestion that, because he has written transcendental music, his death doesn’t matter.

Schubertiad

After the String Quintet in C, D956

One moment before it starts –
one breath.

Light stills
in the meadow,

stalls at oaks
and the river’s silver line.

For an instant
your stomach turns over –

as if you missed yourself

and this minute
and the next

were already a memory.

    *

Sometimes,
world slips from beat to beat
like a song.

The afternoon fills
with lokum’s evasive scent,
deep notes of cherry,

and there are saucers of honey
and peaches and a girl
who leans on a cushion to sing –

Open your notebook,
catch
how she throws out the tune

as if she tongued
a rose
between her lips –

    *

Wanderer, the wide river
shines in the morning sun.
Between the country and the city –
                          see it run.

You’d like to run with it
to a quiet place, in fields
time and sickness never visit
                      and joy shields.

Too soon the flood and battened sluice,
the detritus of a life
that’s been turned adrift
                      on this tide

which now seems beautiful and bright:
the river’s backdrop to the kiss
you borrowed from daylight
                     and bring to Dis.

    *

Waiting (stateliest of the modes)
among Greek key, acanthus,
shuttered glass
and the light snagged in stucco –

where each façade rises
in stillness
and stone grows
infinitesimally –

you feel a creak and strain:
spring ice
yawing on its tethers.
You poor soul.

Without summer’s garlands and girls
you’re quite bare,
bespectacled and alone
in that soiled bed.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/02/schubertiad-fiona-sampson-poetry

Poem of the week

Two in the Campagna by Robert Browning

Published a few years before The Origin of Species, Browning’s paradoxical love poem seems to anticipate the Darwinian outlook

The Italian countryside

Robert Browning’s “Two in the Campagna” is a study in paradox. It’s a love poem that deconstructs love, a pastoral that has seen not only death but bio-diversity. Conversational, daringly sexual, it remains a soliloquy. There may be two in this campagna but two are not one, and the poet has no hesitation in admitting it.

By 1854, Browning had been married long enough to admit it, of course. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, according to an early biographer, regarded the poem highly, and a sense of complicity is sustained. The speaker frequently turns to his companion for verification. If he is more interested in thought than sensation, he never gives up on the desire for transcendent union. The burning question with which the poem begins, and which will be re-examined thoroughly in its later stanzas, is about shared experience: “… do you feel today / as I have felt …?”

The first paradox is that the pair of lovers sits down in order “to stray / In spirit better through the land”. “This morn of Rome and May”, the spacious, sunlit fields with their “endless fleece / Of feathery grasses” are to be thought about, rather than luxuriantly enjoyed.

But the train of thought is immediately elusive, “like turns of thread the spiders throw”. It can only be temporarily pinned down by the poet’s mastery of rhyme, not permanently secured. The second stanza evokes the tentative initial process of composition. Rhymes can’t always be found, or can’t always be trusted with ideas, and the poem seems to fear that the ideas it wants to explore will somehow escape.

The speaker is something of a naturalist, intently observing not only his own thoughts but the wandering gossamer of an actual web. It leads his eye from the fennel to the ruined tomb to the minutiae of the flower whose “orange cup” contains five small beetles. The beetles provoke a new thought about perception: “blind and green, they grope” and, by implication, the poet in his world is blind and groping, too.

Although Darwin’s The Origin of Species was not published until 1859, four years after Men and Women, the collection in which “Two in the Campagna” appears, new biological findings were certainly in the mid-Victorian air. “Such life here, through such lengths of hours” expresses awe not only of time, but of diversity. The ensuing four lines seem to attempt a Darwinian reconciliation of the universe, apparently free to get on with its own evolutionary processes, and the designer who watches the plans unfold: “Such miracles perfumed in play, / Such primal naked forms of flowers, / Such letting nature have her way / While heaven looks from its towers!”

At this point, the speaker remembers his companion and again the questions of union and separation begin to tease. The desire for sensuous hedonism is expressed with a touch of defiance, but the poet knows that this is not the whole answer. “Unashamed of soul” though these unconventional English lovers may manage to be, a perfect union is impossible; they cannot fuse into one self.

The problem of space turns into a problem with time. There is the almost-captured “good minute” and, then, the question, “Already, how am I so far / out of that minute” – perfectly timed to occur, if not exactly a minute later, after the single beat of the stanza break. To be in the moment, purely present to experience, is only fleetingly possible. Its achievement would mean an existence outside time, and that, as the poem recognises, is beyond possibility.

“Two in the Campagna” is one of the most sombrely honest of love poems, but its doubts and questions are so scrupulously recorded and so beautifully, coherently woven together that it reassures us. For most of the scientists of Browning’s day, the designer of the universe was still “in his Heaven”, and the poet, by analogy, still at the centre of his twisting, turning, but reassuringly symmetrical web of a poem. Random, meaningless and incoherent modernity is still many decades in the future.

Two in the Campagna

                   I

I wonder do you feel today

     As I have felt since, hand in hand,

We sat down on the grass, to stray

     In spirit better through the land,

This morn of Rome and May?

                   II

For me, I touched a thought, I know

     Has tantalised me many times,

(Like turns of thread the spiders throw

     Mocking across our path) for rhymes

To catch at and let go.

                   III

Help me to hold it! First it left

     The yellowing fennel, run to seed

There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,

     Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed

Took up the floating weft,

                   IV

Where one small orange cup amassed

     Five beetles, – blind and green they grope

Among the honey-meal: and last,

     Everwhere on the grassy slope

I traced it. Hold it fast!

                   V

The champaign with its endless fleece

     Of feathery grasses everywhere!

Silence and passion, joy and peace,

     An everlasting wash of air –

Rome’s ghost since her decease.

                   VI

Such life here, through such lengths of hours,

     Such miracles performed in play,

Such primal naked forms of flowers,

     Such letting nature have her way

While heaven looks from its towers!

                   VII

How say you? Let us, O my dove,

     Let us be unashamed of soul,

As earth lies bare to heaven above!

     How is it under our control

To love, or not to love?

                   VIII

I would that you were all to me,

     You that are just so much, no more,

 Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!

     Where does the fault lie? What the core

O’ the wound, since wound must be?

                   IX

I would I could adopt your will,

     See with your eyes, and set my heart

Beating by yours, and drink my fill

     At your soul’s springs, – your part my part

In life, for good or ill.

                   X

No. I yearn upward, touch you close,

     Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,

Catch your soul’s warmth, – I pluck the rose

     And love it more than tongue can speak –

Then the good minute goes.

                   XI

Already how am I so far

     Out of that minute? Must I go

Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,

     Onward, wherever light winds blow

Fixed by no friendly star?

                   XII

Just when I seemed about to learn!

     Where is the thread now? Off again!

The old trick! Only I discern –

     Infinite passion, and the pain

Of finite hearts that yearn.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/26/robert-browning-two-in-the-campagna

Poster poems

Sapphics

Get your Greek thinking caps on: your challenge is an ancient verse form beloved of Sappho, Alcaeus – and Ezra Pound

Sappho Holding a Stylus, a fresco painting from Pompeii

Doyen of dactyls … detail from a Pompeii fresco of Sappho holding a stylus.
_____
There aren’t many verse forms that are named after their originators; poetry doesn’t seem to work much like biology in that respect. There’s the Clerihew, the Horatian Ode and Sapphics. I’m tempted to say that’s that, but I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting and that I can depend on you to remind me of.

This month, the challenge is to write a poem in Sapphics – the form favoured, unsurprisingly enough, by Sappho. Rather than tying ourselves up with longwinded explanations involving trochees and dactyls, let’s look at a Sapphic stanza in schematic form using “-” for long (in English, stressed) syllables, “u” for short (unstressed) syllables and “x” for an anceps (a syllable that can be either stressed or unstressed):

– u – x – u u – u – x
– u – x – u u – u – x
– u – x – u u – u – x
– u u – x

Easy, isn’t it? Maybe the way to look at it is as a quatrain with three long lines followed by a short one.

Of course, Sappho isn’t the only poet to have written Sapphics; another Greek poet, Alcaeus of Mytilene produced some fine examples of the form. As you might expect, Catullus, a fan of Sappho’s, also wrote excellent Sapphics, including the poem beginning “Ille mi par esse deo videtur” (“He seems to me to be equal to a god”), also known as Catullus 51.

Sapphics entered English with the Renaissance: a particularly interesting example, The English Sapphick, appears in Thomas Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Captain Thomas Morris of Carlisle is probably less familiar to poetry lovers than Campion, but his Sapphics: At the Mohawk-Castle, Canada. To Lieutenant Montgomery is both a fine poem and a fascinating insight into 18th-century native American life as seen by an officer in the British Army. If Morris’s Sapphics deal with a subject that is public in nature, Lines Written During a Period of Insanity by his contemporary William Cowper is concerned with much more personal matters.

Perhaps the most celebrated English exponent of the form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne wrote many Sapphics, but my personal favourite is the one simply titled Sapphics.

It is, I suppose, understandable given his interest in all things Greek and his admiration for the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that a young Ezra Pound would try his hand at the form. His poem Apparuit has all the strengths and weaknesses that you might associate with his early work. Allen Ginsberg would have been the first to recognise his poetic debt to Pound, but the casual reader would be forgiven for thinking that this debt was confined to what he learned about free verse from the older poet. But Ginsberg, too, dabbled in the old Greek form in a very fine poem that begins “Red cheeked boyfriends tenderly kiss me sweet mouthed”.

And so, it’s time to get your ancient Greek thinking caps on and get cracking. Don’t worry too much about the finer points of the trochees and dactyls: focus on the antic spirit of the thing. Most of all, have fun with it.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/02/poster-poems-sapphics

Poem of the week

The Candle by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield brings a touch of her prose writing into her poetry, while creating a ‘direct line’ to sharp, unmediated experience

A candle

 ‘By my bed, on a little round table, the Grandmother places a candle’.Katherine Mansfield is rightly praised for her short stories. As a poet, however, she is virtually forgotten – ignored even – by the 20th century anthologists dedicated to the recovery and re-evaluation of neglected women poets. That’s why I didn’t expect much more than a literary curiosity when I picked up an elegant little 1930 edition of Poems by Katherine Mansfield in my local Amnesty bookshop.

Although the editor of this volume chose to remain anonymous, it seems to have been put together shortly after her death in 1923 (the date of the first edition) by her second husband, John Middleton Murry. The introduction refers to “a cottage on the shore of the Mediterranean where we lived in 1916”. This was the Villa Pauline, where “for the whole of one week we made the practice of sitting together after supper at a very small table in the kitchen, and writing verses on a single theme we had chosen”.

Mansfield had written poetry since the age of 19, much of it fed by the bright springs of her childhood in Karori, New Zealand. While the diction is sometimes childlike, even in her maturer poems, their “direct line” to sharp, unmediated experience guarantees them against affectation, and the reader warms to their sensuousness and apparent candour. They resemble no other poetry of their time, notwithstanding odd hints of the influence of D H Lawrence. Some, like In the Rangitaki Valley, are unguardedly joyous, , while others are sad and chilled, as the lament she wrote for her brother, Leslie Beauchamp, killed while training soldiers in the use of hand grenades, To L.H.B. (1894-1915).

The Candle is an early poem, interesting in its own right, and also because it clearly comes from the same imaginative space as the short story Prelude. Begun in 1915, and printed by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press as their debut publication three years later, Prelude is a third person, multiple viewpoint story – it is not told entirely from the point of view of the sensitive rebel child, Kezia, although this character forms the emotional touchstone. The Candle, which dates from 1909 or 1910, might almost be a practice run for Kezia’s interior monologue, and we can fairly assume the voice to be Mansfield’s own. Here, too, is the much-loved grandmother from Prelude – and the setting is surely the same mysterious, rambling countryside house to which, in the story, the family has just moved.

Mansfield sometimes uses regular rhyme schemes, but for The Candle she prudently chooses free verse. The narrative is spare, vivid and well paced, its many one-line sentences creating an effect of dramatic pauses. At first, the atmosphere is reassuring. But the shadow of an end-rhyme – “tucked/shut” – suggests the final click of the bedroom door, and signals a shift of atmosphere between lines four and five. Once the Grandmother has left, danger seems to seep into the room, leaving the child wondering if she has given away her three dreams in the form of three kisses. The idea is not perhaps merely fanciful: it could be the potent warning of a feminist myth. A woman who opts for the comforts of domestic love may have to relinquish her imaginative journeys.

The handling of the subsequent metamorphosis, in which familiar objects acquire menace in slightly comical, almost cartoonish ways, is masterly. Is the danger outside or in? The child, as a future writer, decides it’s “better to know” and bravely opens a slit in the blind.

The conclusion might seem to have a consolatory, faintly sentimental touch, but there is something a little off-key about the consolation. The stars are like candles “in remembrance” of the frightened children, an odd phrase which could suggest the children had died. The dreams start “singing a little song” – which is not quite what dreams are supposed to do. Are they perhaps deceptive, like the smiling jug on the water stand?

Mansfield’s stories avoid comfortable closure, and this poem, I think, just manages to pull off the same trick. Despite its cosy title, it seems to focus on the final intractability of childhood fears. Imaginative play shape-changes them, but the shape is never secure.

Ultimately, Mansfield is by far a greater poet in her prose, but her poetry has a special quality of its own, not least because the prose writer is there too, adding realistic details and rhythms that have the breath of life in them.

The Candle

By my bed, on a little round table,

The Grandmother placed a candle.

She gave me three kisses telling me they were three dreams

And tucked me in just where I loved being tucked.

Then she went out of the room and the door was shut.

I lay still, waiting for my three dreams to talk;

But they were silent.

Suddenly I remembered giving her three kisses back.

Perhaps, by mistake, I had given my three little dreams.

I sat up in bed.

The room grew big, oh, bigger far than a church.

The wardrobe, quite by itself, as big as a house.

And the jug on the washstand smiled at me:

It was not a friendly smile.

I looked at the basket-chair where my clothes lay folded:

The chair gave a creak as though it were listening for something.

Perhaps it was coming alive and going to dress in my clothes.

But the awful thing was the window:

I could not think what was outside.

No tree to be seen, I was sure,

No nice little plant or friendly pebbly path.

Why did she pull the blind down every night?

It was better to know.

I crunched my teeth and crept out of bed.

I peeped through a slit of blind.

There was nothing at all to be seen

But hundreds of friendly candles all over the sky

In remembrance of frightened children.

I went back to bed …

The three dreams started singing a little song.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/19/katherine-mansfield-the-candle-poem

Poem of the week

Jasmine by John Eppel

John Eppel explores the duplicities of the word freedom while, in characteristic style, evoking the odours and symbolism of flowers

Winter jasmine flowers

 ‘The sweet / mingling of woodsmoke and jasmine / with dust’ … winter jasmine flowers.John Eppel was born in 1947 to a miner father and housewife mother, both originally from South Africa. His first language was Fanagalo. When he was four, the family settled in Matabeleland, and here he still lives and works, teaching English at the Christian Brothers’ College in Bulawayo. A prize-winning novelist and poet, Eppel is currently collaborating with Julius Chingono on a compilation of fiction and poetry by both authors, Together. It’s a project that seems to be foreshadowed in the childhood memory explored in this week’s poem, Jasmine.

The poem first appeared in Eppel’s 1995 collection, Sonata for Matabeleland, a book whose very title signals cross-cultural transaction – a fertile but uneasy seed-bed. While written in English poetry’s favourite traditional structure, quatrains, “Jasmine” begins impressionistically, almost synaesthetically, with an odour that merges into cinematic images. The Zimbabwean garden of memory quickly becomes a charged political space.

Eppel’s poems, it is worth pointing out, specialise in close, sensuous descriptions of flowers, often in un-flowery settings. In “Star of Bethlehem”, he recalls how, as a young soldier, he found a single brave specimen of the eponymous plant while digging a bunker, “and stuffed it in my combat/ jacket on top of a phosphorous bomb”. He is particularly interested in capturing odours. Try to get your imaginative nostrils around this description of the marigold: “a pungent,/ khaki odour of crushed beetles, soil,/ old men, hat linings, ointment and dung” (“A Flower Poem, No. 2”). Eppel’s flowers smell of death and war as well as nectar, and, as in Jasmine, allow him imaginative access to a complex identity.

There is a hint of irony (as well as future tears?) in the opening phrase, “When they cried freedom”. The film Cry Freedom was shot in Zimbabwe, with many white extras inevitably cast as bad guys. Eppel writes about this elsewhere, and also considers the duplicities of the word, freedom: “again we are told of a free press/ a free state, free will, freedom of speech” (“The Coming of the Rains”).

“Wrists” in line four seem to salute the freedom but twist it into something else; “the colour of blood” shadows the second stanza. But the poet finds the integrity of his own vision of freedom by going deeper into his personal past: he finds in fact the opening lines of that magnificent African anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika and weaves them into his fifth stanza. When sung by a choir, these lines are usually performed fortissimo, but in the poem, we’re asked to imagine them as sung by two children, perhaps rather softly at first, until the learner, the white boy, gains confidence. Is he receiving a political lesson from the black child, Sibanda? Perhaps, subconsciously. At the same time, the emphatic rhythms make this a good work-song as the boys share uncomplicatedly the task of polishing the family’s shoes.

The memory for the adult poet denotes equality. He underlines this visually by describing the children’s identical dress. One child, we know, is historically privileged, but privilege is mutable and, anyway, a relative term: Eppel’s parents “never owned one square inch of this land”. “Jasmine” the poem, like jasmine the white-flowered plant, claims the land with gentle defiance. It says: your song is also my song and your earth is also my earth.

The poem is not ultimately ironic. The transcendence of race and class is its vision. The political reality has been very different in Zimbabwe, but the poem does not give up hope. The song is passed on. Their cheeks “pinched” by a “chill” that implies something colder than cold weather, the next generation joins in the hymn of blessing to Africa. And we do, too.

Jasmine

When they cried freedom, when the sweet
mingling of woodsmoke and jasmine
with dust – grass, granite, antelope
bone – gathered into wrists which turned

light the colour of blood, darkness
a memory of the colour
of blood – when their voices lifted
that song and sent it echoing

across Africa, I knew it.
Sibanda had taught it to me,
polishing the family’s shoes,
squatting outside the scullery

door. We both wore khaki trousers
many sizes too big; no shirt,
no shoes. I spat on the toecaps
while he brushed: and while he brushed

we sang: ‘Nkosi sikelel’
iAfrika…’ over and over
till the birds joined in. August birds.
‘… Maluphakanisw’ udumo lwayo …’ *

It comes back to me, this August,
now that the jasmine is blooming
and the air is stilled by woodsmoke;
how they cried freedom, and how I

knew their song. A lingering chill
pinches Zimbabwean sunsets
into the cheeks of my children
squatting beside me as I write.

It is their song too. I teach it
to them, over and over, till
my tired eyes are pricked with tears
held back, sweet smoke, dust and jasmine.

*(Zulu) “God bless Africa … Raise up her spirit.”

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/12/jasmine-john-eppel-poetry