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.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

An Inscription - Ambrose Bierce

     For a statue of Napoleon

A conqueror as provident as brave,
He robbed the cradle to supply the grave.
His reign laid quantities of human dust:
He fell upon the just and the unjust.

While Ambrose Bierce's mysterious disappearance and uncertain fate remain a mystery even today, it is no mystery why he is still held in high regard in the world of American literature.  His short stories are held in esteem nearly to Poe's, and his first-hand accounts of the American Civil War.  While other authors wrote movingly about the American Civil War, Bierce fought on the front lines for the Union for the duration of the war, including some of its bloodiest battles.  From all accounts, he acted heroically, rescuing wounded men despite being under heavy gunfire.  He spent the duration of the war in almost continuous combat, and he said of himself, "When I ask of myself what has become of Ambrose Bierce the youth, who fought at Chickamauga, I am bound to answer that he is dead."  His essays detailing his experiences in the War are essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.

This poem, written in 1910, three years before his disappearance,  shows the world weariness and cynicism that marked much of his writing.  Speaking on Napoleon, he casts harsh indictment upon the strife and violence he brought to the world.  "He robbed the cradle to supply the grave" is as damning a line as I can imagine.  Napoleon is spoken of here almost as a plague, laying down "quantities of human dust" upon the just and unjust alike.  I am not certain, but I imagine that this is in reference to Napoleon Bonaparte, not Napoleon III, though it seems fitting for both men.

I admire short form poetry that manages to have such a strong impact in so few lines.  Bierce may be best known for his essays and short stories, but his poetry remains modern and worthwhile, and I encourage you to look up more of it if you had your interested piqued by this little poem, or the brief biographical information I provided.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802 - William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Is there anything more magical than a huge city completely silent?  That's what Wordsworth, in his breathlessly excited account of London in early morning, as viewed from Westminster Bridge, captures so perfectly.  I have actually seen this scenario myself, though about 212 years after this poem.  I have to agree, in that early dawn hour, it does seem as though "the very houses seem asleep."  I can only wonder what Wordsworth would think of things like the London Eye if he marvels so at "ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples" that line the river Thames.

There really isn't much to this poem, but given the title, I like to imagine that Wordsworth was passing by and was so taken by the beauty of the scenery that he had no choice but to compose a poem right then and there.  It's a very Romantic idea, and Wordsworth is one of the architects of Romantic poetry.  Read the poem slowly and luxuriate in its illuminating imagery and language.