Monday, January 6, 2020

Fog - Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Sometimes, it's enough that a poem simply conjure to mind one specific feeling or image with clarity.  To so clearly communicate what something so amorphous as fog feels like, rather, behaves like, is an achievement, and the direct statement of such is what I admire about Carl Sandburg's poetry.  Fog touches lightly, and comes and goes without making a commotion like rain, or snow.

Sandburg himself once defined poetry as, "a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes."  That's appropriate, I think, for this little gem of a poem, which captures the feeling of fog.  In a way, it's as if Sandburg has taken the image of fog as a keepsake for himself.  I know that the next time I wake to a foggy morning, I won't be able to help myself but to remember fog as coming on "little cat feet."  In that sense, Sandburg has given us, too, a little, invisible keepsake.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Amoretti LXII: "The weary yeare his race now having run" - Edmund Spenser

The weary yeare his race now having run,
The new begins his compast course anew:
With shew of morning mylde he hath begun,
Betokening peace and plenty to ensew.
So let us, which this chaunge of weather vew,
Chaunge eeke our munds and former lives amend,
The old yeares sinnes forepast let us eschew, 
And fly the faults with which we did offend.
Then shall the new yeares joy forth freshly send,
Into the glooming world his gladsome ray:
And all these stormes which now his beauty blend,
Shall turne to caulmes and tymely cleare away.
So likewise love cheare you your heavy spright,
And chaunge old yeares annoy to new delight.

In advance of the new year, I thought it only appropriate to look at a poem welcoming the new year, a Spenser sonnet which deliberately seeks to liberate the reader and poet from the bonds of the old.  Spenser here is writing in an English which is somewhere in between Middle English and Early Modern English, and as such, uses spellings and words that are unfamiliar to our modern eyes.  This was deliberate on Spenser's part, an affectation meant to sound "old" in the same way that an American author today could try to evoke a sense of time and place by modeling their language on Melville.  Don't think too hard about it, though, and just sound the words out loud, slowly, and it should be clear.  

Summarized, the poem, in our modern English, more or less means:

The weary year, his race now run,
The new year begins his compassed (set, fixed, planned) course anew:
With a show of mild morning he has begun,
Betokening peace and plenty (more) to ensue.
So let us, with the change of weather,
Change also (eek is a lovely Middle English word for "also") our minds, and amend our own lives,
Eschew the sins of the old year,
And let go of the faults with which we offended.
After that, the new year will send forth fresh joys
Into the glooming (gloomy) world with a gladsome (cheerful) ray.
All these storms that blend (obscure) the year's beauty
Will turn calm, and clear away in time.
So, likewise, love (you, the subject), clear away your heavy spright (spirit)
And change the old year's annoyances to new delight.

Hopefully that's easier to read!  The poem is an entreaty to recognize the old year's storms, sins, annoyances, and grievances, and to turn towards the new year, and to "chaunge eeke our mynds and former lives amend."  The new year always seems to inspire in us the opportunity for a fresh start, to turn a page, and to live better, with more love, and just as storms clear away in time, we too can find a calmer, better life.

On a personal note, I've long been annoyed with celebrations of the new year.  It has always seemed so terribly arbitrary to me, and I confess, even in the face of a beautiful poem like this, I remain unconvinced.  But, in the spirit of this poem, I'll put away my quarrel with celebrating the new year, and instead, try to cheer my heavy spirit, and change my old year's annoyances into new delights.  This poem was certainly a delight for me, and I hope it was for you, as well.

I hope this poem, and the new year, find you well.  I recognize that I've posted precious little in the way of poetry these past two years, but I assure you, I've not forgotten it.  I have been amazed for years now at the sheer volume of readership of my tiny little blog, and am humbled that others take the time out of their days to search for poetry, and maybe even read what little I may have to add.  Thank you.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Eight O'Clock - Sara Teasdale

Supper comes at five o'clock,
At six, the evening star,
My lover comes at eight o'clock-
But eight o'clock is far.

How could I bear my pain all day
Unless I watched to see
The clock-hands laboring to bring
Eight o'clock to me.

More than a poem, I think of this beautifully rhythmic and metrical Sara Teasdale poem like a song.  And just like a song, its directness is its strength.  Through her use of conventional rhyme and rhythm, the poem falls off the tongue easily.  The repetitions of various "o'clock[s]" build anticipation for eight o'clock, when as she tells us, her lover comes.  The anticipation is such that she can't help but watch the clock, hoping for it to bring her lover with each hand's stroke.

There isn't much to say here, but I like the way Teasdale sets up the schedule of her afternoon and night to us in the first stanza.  It helps cement, to me, at least, our relationship with time, and touches very accurately on how things we desire and anticipate always seem to take a little longer to arrive.  It's a lovely little song of a poem, and I hope you enjoy it, and think fondly of happy times that you couldn't wait to arrive.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Although the wind..." - Izumi Shikibu

translated by Jane Hirshfield

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Izumi Shikibu was a Heian era Japanese poet (late 10th century, early 11th century), and her poetry frequently combines romantic, erotic longing with Buddhist contemplation.  This poem comes to us courtesy of Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani's 1990 book, The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan.  I do not typically feature poetry in translation, but this gripped me for the way it frames nature and our perception of it through an ephemeral human lens.

Wind and moonlight, in this poem, act like invaders.  The wind blows terribly, and the moonlight leaks through roof planks.  The house is ruined.  That said, the wind and moonlight didn't ruin it.  If anything, the house was the invader.  The framing of familiar poetic elements through the slats of a house falling apart is inherently romantic, and instills a sense of longing into the poem.  It does so with great economy, being only five lines.  It's also an incredibly clear image, despite having so little detail.  I know it certainly got my imagination racing.

I hesitate to go much further in analysis, given that this is in translation, and I have no personal ability to compare it to the source material.  I don't know if there are shades of meaning that are lost to translation, or if I am reading into the text things that aren't there due to Shikibu's biography, but I can also think of this poem as a reaction to a love that has fallen apart.  The house would be the relationship itself, and the wind that blows so terribly through it the falling out of love of the participants.  I don't think that's textually supported, but it's a romantic thought nonetheless.

Monday, May 14, 2018

'Out, Out-' - Robert Frost

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood behind him in her apron
To tell them 'Supper.' At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant.
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap-
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all-
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart-
He saw all spoiled. 'Don't let him cut my hand off-
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!'
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then - the watcher at his pulse took fright.
Little--less--nothing!--and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

From time to time, I like to remind myself that poetry can be truly awful.  Not awful in the sense that it is poorly written, or low quality, but awful in the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking sense, like this Robert Frost poem.  There's little for me to explain.  Frost uses plain English, and starkly little in the way of poetic technique to tell the gruesome, awful tale of a boy who loses his hand, and his life, to a buzz saw.  A boy too young to rightly be called a man, so precisely described as "big boy, /Doing a man's work, though a child at heart."

What stands out, apart from the truly terrible story at the heart of this poem, is the specificity of detail within.  From the number of mountains, to the size and smell of the planks of wood being cut, the account is vivid in the extreme.  Who among us who has seen tragedy has not had the specifics of the scene burned into their minds?  For my parents' generation, everyone remembers where they were when they heard that JFK had been assassinated.  For my generation, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001.  So it is with this poem. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Usual Subject - Simon Darragh

One grows used to the loss itself;
it is the details catch, and scourge:
the extra tea-cup on the shelf;
the kitchen table, grown too large.

Not in sorrow for wasted days
of love unspoken,
but by trivia such as these
the heart is broken

I came across this poem courtesy of Conor Kelly, proprietor of the excellent Poem Today Twitter feed, in which he posts tweet sized poems.  It's an excellent daily feed, and a wonderful way to find new poetry.  If you search @poemtoday you will find his Twitter, and he also has a blog, which you can find here.  Conor Kelly is a poet as well, and perhaps with his blessing, I will post some of it here in the future.

This poem from Simon Darragh speaks to the realities of loss in practical terms, much like the excellent Roo Borson poem, "After a Death."  In Darragh's excellent short poem, it is not "sorrow for wasted days" that makes loss so hard.  Rather, it is the details left behind by someone's loss.  As he so expertly puts, it is the "extra tea-cup" or the now too spacious kitchen table.  It is the void left in our practical, material reality that stands out most.  What I appreciate about this poem in comparison with Borson's is that this speaks to a more general sense of loss.  While I do feel that this speaks to death more than anything, it could just as well apply to a traumatic romantic loss.  Reading the poem with both senses in mind causes different images to come to mind.  The "trivia" that breaks the heart is unique to each of us, and that is the power of the poem.  What I picture will be different than what you picture, and I like that Darragh avoided too many specifics, preferring instead to give examples.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Wood - Richard Brautigan

We age in darkness like wood
and watch our phantoms change
     their clothes
of shingles and boards
for a purpose that can only be
     described as wood.

What sort of purpose is wood, exactly?  I can't pretend to know, but I find this short poem from Beat poet Richard Brautigan a fascinating sort of riddle to chew on.  I've been thinking about it for a few days now, and I am happy to report that I am no closer to understanding it than I was when I first read it.  More than any sort of understanding or hidden meaning, I think frustration wrapped in a fascinating image is sort of the point here.  Let's unpack a little and see what we can find.

Being in the first person plural, Brautigan is including us in this poem.  "We" is inclusive, and therefore we ought to think of ourselves as we read and try to make sense of this poem.  The first line, "We wood."  What exactly does that mean?  Well, as wood ages, it can harden, but it can also rot.  It depends on how it's treated.  Nice parallel with people, there, yes? 

What then, are our phantoms?  That's personal, isn't it?  But what's more important is that the wood parallel continues.  Our phantoms, facsimiles of ourselves, perhaps our fears, clothes themselves in shingles and boards, continuously renewing by changing their clothes.  They are like us, but without the full body of substance.  What purpose, then?  Wood.  That's just how we are.  That's my take-away, at least.  I think more than anything, this is just a reflection from Brautigan on our state of being, and how our phantoms take on a form like ours, continually renewing.  There's tantalizingly little solid about this poem, but I hope my brief explication has helped, reader.  If you read it differently, please leave a comment and let me know!  I feel like this is so open a poem that most interpretations are completely valid.