Thursday, June 30, 2011

[The Brain -is wider than the Sky-] - Emily Dickinson

The Brain - is wider than the Sky-
For - put them side by side-
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You- beside-

The Brain is deeper than the sea-
For - hold them - Blue to Blue -
The one the other will absorb -
As Sponges - Buckets - do -

The Brain is just the weight of God -
For - Heft them - Pound for Pound -
And they will differ - if they do -
As Syllable from Sound-

This poem makes a number of interesting comparisons, which are quite intelligible, if unusual.  The image of the brain compared to the sky, and how easily the brain can contain something such as the sky (or at least the concept of it) and all within the world.  It's a great mental comparison as well, as the image forces one to imagine the finite space of a brain versus the seemingly infinite space of the sky.  In doing that, you've essentially proven the truth of that first comparison.  You can fathom the seemingly unfathomable on a level that is understandable, even if without experience.

Taking the concept of something understandable yet unfathomable, Dickinson applies that same thought to God.  Her assertion is that your the sky is to your brain as your brain is to God.  That is to say, you can contain the infinite sky in your head, just as easily as God contains all of infinity in Him.  The simile, "As Syllable from Sound" is a great example.  Looking at a syllable, one knows how it is pronounced.  But the sound itself cannot be contained wholly within the syllable.  They are so closely related, but the difference is in tangibility.  We can contain and bind a syllable, but not a Sound.  So too, Dickinson asserts, is God.  It's a lovely and thought provoking image, and applies to human life in general, whether one believes in God or not.

Does the comparison speak to you in any way, or is Dickinson just repeating what people have always intuitively understood?  Let me know.

As an added bonus, if you sing nearly any Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song, it works perfectly.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Song - John Donne

Go, and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me, where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou beest born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear
No where
Lives a woman, true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know;
Such a pilgrimage were sweet.
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet:
Though she were true when you met her,
And last til you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Donne's scathing account of women's loyalty (or shocking lack thereof) is interesting to me because of its title and structure.  Donne entitles his poem, "Song" and this begs a number of questions:  In what formal and structural aspects is this a song?  Why sing such an angry account of infidelity?  Who is Donne speaking to?

In setting his poem as a "song" Donne creates an expectation in the reader.  Generally, readers expect poetry as song to be melodious, and beautiful.  This, however, is a harsh poem, full of irregularly cadenced lines.  This is not counter intuitive to the idea of song in Donne's time.  Madrigals, a through-sung form meant to express in music the meaning of a text, were popular and plentiful.  This text would work very well as a through-sung (nothing repeated) work, and there are many musical features that could highlight the irregular cadence of the poem.  It would heighten the sense of betrayal and uncertainty that permeates the text.  Donne names his poem "Song" to play with our expectations, and then bring us around to the realization that songs, like love, are not always beautiful.

Donne seems to be responding to a friend, who is, perhaps telling him of a love he found, who is fair, and true.  Donne, seemingly deeply resentful towards women (some seriously bad experiences, I imagine) breaks down, point by point, how women fit none of the traditional ideals of values ascribed to them.  While I can't agree with Donne's outlook on women and fidelity, I do appreciate the strength of emotion that comes through in this poem.  His bitter, bitter angry flows, in a way (seemingly) backed by reason and experience.  While it's an unreasonable view, Donne is, perhaps, speaking out of experience, and that pain he has felt is clearly captured.  Even if his friend found a true woman, and wrote Donne about it, Donne would not go, for he is sure that she would have been untrue by the time Donne arrived.  What harsh words!

By placing his anger in the form of a "song" Donne plays with our expectations and reverses our idea of what a "love song" is and how we view women.  While I don't agree with Donne's appraisal of women (and I hope you don't either!) his setting of the text as "song" is very thought provoking.  What do you think?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Flock - Billy Collins

It has been calculated the each copy of the Gutenberg Bible...required the skins of 300 sheep.
-from an article on printing

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

For some reason, I find this poem particularly striking, mostly for the dark humor of the ending sentiment.  To a sheep, the shepherd must seem a lordly figure, guiding them through their entire lives.  It's rather funny, though in a somewhat dark way, when you consider the outcome for the sheep.

That's not to say that I pity the sheep.  They are sheep, their meat was probably well used, and their skins formed the vellum used to print one of the most important books of all time.  I don't think Collins takes away from the extraordinary achievement that is the Gutenberg Bible with this poem.  It would certainly be somewhat inappropriate for him to do so, as his livelihood is made in the printing of his works.  From the poem's very inception, we are reminded of the importance of printing, as Collins cites an article he read (presumably in print, about the history of print).  No, I do not think Collins intends us to feel for the sheep in the poem.  Rather, I think he wants to call our attention to the importance that they played in the printing.  He's emphasizing here, as he does in many of his poems, the unimportant aspects of daily life that are often overlooked.  In printing, we rarely think of the process, just the outcome.  Collins puts a unique twist on something we now regard as mundane, if we regard it at all.  Obviously, the process has changed over the years, but a little history now and then is always a good thing.

Do you agree that Collins did not mean us to pity the sheep?  Do you feel for those sheep whose hides were transformed into the medium for printing?  Let me know.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Parodic Poems - Chris Hart

This post requires a bit of a preface.  When I'm writing a paper, and it's late into the night on the last day, whether I be finishing the last few pages, or editing, or revising, I usually need to find a way to distract myself.  When I start feeling burnt out, I like to take a break, and one way I do that is to write a parodic poem, usually on the subject of my paper.  I apologize if these hold little humor value for you, dear reader.  They require either a knowledge of the original poem, or of the particular class I was in, as both of the following examples reference professors at my school.  Either way, I hope you find some enjoyment in them!  Following are two examples of my procrastination poetry:

A Parody on Milton's Sonnet XIX:
When I consider how my time is spent,
Ere half my days, in this lib'ry big, bright,
And that one paper which is death to write
Lodged with me useless, though my mind more bent
To serve therewith Prof. Morse, and to present
My true paper, lest he returning chide,
"Doth I exact day-labor, night denied?"
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur soon replies: "Morse doth need not
Your insufficient paper.  He who best
Revise well his writ, serve him best.  His might
Is Kingly; students at his bidding jot
And work all night and day without rest;
They also serve who only sit and write."

Writing a parody on Milton's Sonnet XIX, which I believe I shared in an earlier post, was fun, because I was forced to work within the rhyming and metrical structure of a sonnet, while still working to deliver a humorous message about how I was up all night working on a paper for my professor, Prof. Morse.  I showed him this poem, and he thought it was hilarious.  You, reader, may find it somewhat less so, since Milton is not your career, and you aren't directly referenced as having kingly might.  Either way, the poem stands on its own as a functional, if uninteresting sonnet.  I kept much of Milton's language intact, sometimes even whole lines, because I was able to work them into a coherent parodic narrative.

Parodic Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Wan hem clepe Kee with his breo sote
We scolers of bokes hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every-wight in swich trauail,
Of which vertu engendred is the weyle;
Whan Kee eek with his stronge warke
Inspired hath in every scoler irke
And frustir, al-wat the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
We slepen nan the night, with open ye-
So priketh hem James in our corages-
Than longen we to gooon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes,
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Worceste to ouren endes we wende,
A holy blisful reste for to seke,
That wille us holpen, encombred seke.

Writing a parody of the introduction to the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales presented three unique challenges:
1)  The General Prologue's introduction is perhaps the most well known 18 line chunk of poetry in the English language.  So many people are familiar with it, even in its Middle English format, and in translation, that a parody of it must keep a general feeling of the original intact, so that its source may be clearly understood.  Basically, writing a parody on something so well known is intimidating.

2)  I had to maintain the prose of the original while somehow still making it about how our professor, Prof. James Kee, had assigned us a very challenging paper (on, if you so chose, some facet of the Canterbury Tales.  As an aside, my paper was about how the structure of the Canterbury Tales itself, and the structure of some of the tales, namely the Nun's Priest's tale, represented Chaucer as an ironic narrator, who realizes through his poetic career, moving from dream visionary poetry to the Tales, that self-emptying love is the highest ideal of Christian love, and he then proceeded to represent it in literature, etc, etc this is way too long a paranthetical aside) and how we all spent many nights finishing it.  I worked that idea into how we, the students, would like to go on pilgrimage, from Worcester (where we all go to school) to our own "ends," meaning, our homes.

3)  I chose to write it in Middle English, rather than in Modern English.  Middle English is a beautiful language, though it was one that at this point, I only had experience reading.  What reading experience I had was also fairly limited.  It's a challenging language, and it's hard to believe, at times, that it is still English.  I pulled up several reference guides online, and in print, to enable me to write this 18 line parody.  In the end, what was supposed to be a small distraction from my paper ended up taking me nearly two hours, though I would say the end product is worth it.

Now, with both of these parodies as a whole, the only question they really raise is "Why do I spend my time doing this when I should be writing a paper?"  The answer is pretty simple, and pretty silly.  Because I enjoy it!  I know that it's not a terribly productive or smart way to spend time that should be spent in other academic pursuits, but I find it fairly fulfilling, and enjoyable.  As a procrastination technique, it usually revs my brain back up into high gear, so when I finish these poems of procrastination, I'm fired up and ready to continue my real work!  And I get to share these poems with friends who are going through similar situations, and that's fun for me.

What are your procrastination techniques?  Anyone else write poetry?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ode on a Grecian Urn Summarized - Desmond Skirrow

Gods chase.
Round vase.
What say?
What play?
Don't know.
Nice, though.

Following last night's satirical poem, I remembered this, a humorous (but provocative) summary of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."  In summarizing the most basic elements of the poem (the gods chasing around the round vase), Skirrow then poses questions about the poem itself.  What is Keats saying with his poetic examination of a (likely fictional or idealized) Grecian urn?  What's at play, in the poem itself, or on the vase?  Skirrow comes to the conclusion that he does not know, but still, rather enjoys the poem.

This is the experience many people have with poetry.  It's incomprehensible, and often leaves the reader with very little to say about the poem.  The reader may comment that "it was nice" or that "I liked it" but rarely do we find the words to express that.  Skirrow highlights that incomprehensible nature of poetry in simple language, indicating that Skirrow believes that poetry is not inaccessible, but rather, can express deep ideas and thoughts in a simple and easily accessible manner.  The humor of the poem only bolsters that notion, making the poem pointed and memorable.

Do poems often seem inaccessible to you?  Do you often label them as "nice" and walk away?  Do you think Skirrow is reflecting a larger cultural distance from poems, or is he merely being funny?  Let me know!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Quaere - George Farewell

Whether at doomsday (tell, ye reverend wise)
My friend Priapus with myself shall rise?

This extremely short poem is a serious question hiding behind a humorous quip.  The obvious meaning is, "Tell me, preacher, at the end, will I get a rise (erection) as I rise (to the afterlife)?"  Funny as this is (and based in fact of mortuary erection), it is, I think, a defense mechanism that we all employ when facing an uncomfortable subject, in this case, the end of times.

How many times do you catch yourself laughing at something not funny, or laughing in the face of fear, solely to not be afraid?  How often do we all dodge uncomfortable questions with humor?  That is, in effect, what this poem is doing.  It's taking the question of, "What will the end of times be like?" and subverting it, asking "Will I get a boner when I die?" instead.  It's funny, but belies a deeper unease with one's place in the world.  This is, I think, intentional, evidenced by the almost mocking tone the poet takes (ye reverend wise, being an example).  In the end, there's really not that much to say about this poem.  It's a great and funny example of a common defense mechanism that we all share.  I just thought the poem humorous enough to share.

Friday, June 24, 2011

We Real Cool - Gwendolyn Brooks


We real cool.  We
Left school.  We

Lurk late.  We
Strike straight.  We

Sing sin.  We
Thin gin.  We

Jazz June.  We
Die soon.

The most obvious feature of this poem is how none distinctly un-cool the poet thinks the subjects of the poem are.  The pool players in the poem are, presumably, free loading men, dropouts, contributing nothing to the world but a few occasional dollars to the local liquor store.  They think themselves the height of cool, drinking, playing pool, when in fact, they are portrayed very unfavorable in the poem.  This is all obvious and clear, and to me, is not the most interesting part of the poem.

For me, the interesting rhythmic patterns of the poem are the most noteworthy feature.  Their cadence mimics phrases of an improvised jazz solo.  The short bursts are like little melodivitic ideas.  Combining them into two line stanzas creates a small "idea" that mimics motives jazz artists weave into their solos.  They all contribute to a coherent whole, which, like a jazz solo, carries some sort of artistic expression, and meaning.  For me, this poem is useless unless read aloud.

So do yourself a favor:  read this poem out loud, dramatically.  We reeeaaalll cool.  We left school.  Ham it up.  Play with it.  This is jazzy, and needs speak.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

To Autumn - John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lined by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady they laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with a patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring?  Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, bourne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Last night's Tennyson put me in a Romantic mood, so I fished up one of the most touching Keats poems I know.  Written within a year of Keats' death, the poem is characterized by death and acceptance, with hints of the beauty of it all interspersed throughout.

In the first stanza, Keats describes autumn as a season of "mellow fruitfulness."  While we tend to associate autumn as a time of ending, Keats does well to remind us of harvest time, which is perhaps the most fruitful time of the year.  The trees are bent with apples.  The imagery throughout is lush, and inviting.  Autumn is a giving season, blessed by bounty.  Why, then, does Keats move away from pastoral imagery and into images of neglect and death?

"Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find/Thee sitting careless on a granary floor," are the third and fourth lines of the second stanza, characterizing the stanza.  Autumn as found, careless, among the scraps of harvest time.  It's a stark contrast to the bounty imagery of the first stanza.  Fall is half dead, rather than a mellow fruitfulness.  This contrast brings to mind thoughts of Keats' own impending mortality, of which he was very much aware.  Moving into the third stanza, Keats reintroduces the beauty of the season, suggesting that there is something beautiful about endings.

As Keats says, think not of the songs of Spring, for Autumn has its music, too.  Even though it be a "wailful choir" it is still music, and still beautiful.  The poems ends on images of natural songs, and overall, on I feel, an optimistic note.  Singing into the twilight of the season, Keats is realizing that his own mortality doesn't need to be an ugly thing.  Even if it is painful, and will be greeted by "wailful choir" at least he leaves this lovely legacy behind him.

Do you feel the same vague optimism that I do at the end of the third stanza?  Is there beauty in something fading away quietly?  Or has Keats subverted the autumnal harvest into his own funeral dirge?  Does he ultimately accept his untimely death?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ulysses - Lord Alfred Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crag,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the less.  All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on share, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea.  I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known-cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all-
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life!  Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone.  He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas.  My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads0 you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are-
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses' final lines are among the most inspirational lines of poetry I've encountered.  While I know a few people who cannot stand the notions of Romanticism in poetry, the plain language of men past their prime still seeking to seek more is very powerful, I think.  The notion that the journey is never over, and that there is nobility in pushing beyond one's time and means is breathtaking.  The last line in particular, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." always excites me, making me want to seek out my own fortune.  While I'm not about to sail off into the sunset, the message applies to any life.

I'm no classicist, so I can't properly speak about Tennyson's appropriation of the Ulysses figure for his poem, though it still strikes me as somewhat problematic.  While the Homeric hero is a symbol of exploration, he is not a good life model.  The character of the Homeric hero and the Ulysses in the poem are very different.  I do not think that this matters so much in the overall scheme of the poem, however, and think that Tennyson titled the poem Ulysses to give it an air of grand adventure, of facing the unknown, and of approaching the mythic.

I'm a sucker for inspirational Romantic poetry.  What about you?  Are you moved to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield?  Or do you gag at the prospect of the elderly king seeking to live new glory days?  Let me know.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sir Patrick Spens

The king sits in Dumferling toune
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
"O what will I get guid sailor,
To sail this ship of mine?"

Up and spake an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king's richt knee:
"Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the sea."

The king has written a braid letter
And signed it wi' his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick rad,
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his ee.

"O wha is this has done this deed,
This il deed done to me,
To send me out this time o' the year,
To sail upon the sea?

"Make haste, make haste, my merry men all,
Our guid ship sails the morn."
"O say na sae, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm/

"Late, late yestre'en I saw the new moon
Wi' the auld moon in her arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm."

O our Scots nobles were richt laith
To weet their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang owre a the play were played
Their hats they swam aboon.

O lang, lang, may their ladies sit,
Wi' their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land.

O lang, lang, may the ladies stand
Wi' their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain dear lords,
For they'll see them na mair.

Half o'er, half o'er to Aberdour
It's fifty fadom deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
Wi' the Scots lords at his feet.

Narrative poetry presents an interesting challenge: clearly communicate a story without letting the poetry interfere in its telling, ideally, letting the poetry enhance the experience.  In this old (13th century) narrative poem, we're presented with a retrospective on a series of events.  The narrator of the tale, by telling it in retrospect, is granted a degree of control over how we read the events.  Doom is foreshadowed early on in the poem with the phrase, blood red wine.  When the action of the ship sinking comes, it's skipped over, perhaps to show how the sea swallowed the men up without a trace.

To me, narrative poetry represents an attractive way of chronicling events, real or fictitious.  It serves as memorial and enactment, and is very satisfying and engaging to read.  Maybe for next week, I'll try to write a narrative poem.

Monday, June 20, 2011

William Carlos Williams - XXII

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I deliberately avoided titling the post "The Red Wheelbarrow," for the poem has no title other than XXII, which denoted its place in an anthology.  Giving it a title is giving the reader a crutch that they should not used, for it is also a lens which may inappropriately color one's reading of the poem.

For me, the main fascination I have with this poem lies in its precision and brevity.  It is strictly representational, offering a clear picture of a real scene.  By speaking in the plainest terms possible, Williams conveys an easily imagined scene.  In doing so, he also uses as few words as possible.  Too many words would interrupt that space he created, between strict representation and imagination.  We can all picture "a" red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water.  Williams realizes that it is impossible to convey to us "the" red wheelbarrow.  So much depends on that scene, as he says, because that scene he describes is reality itself.  Reality depends on reality, and tautological as that may be, it is the idea that Williams conveys.  It is subjective experience, clearly displayed in a way everyone can understand, and yet, no exact duplication can occur.  That is why "so much depends" upon that scene.  It's a scene presented in such a way that allows us to experience our joint unique natures.

For some reason, short form poetry is very attractive to me.  To be able to say something profound with precision, clarity, and beauty is truly remarkable.  It's something that is recreated in other art forms as well.  In music, I think of Webern and his bagatelles, which are so short, but say so much.  Expect to see many other short poems discussed at length in the future.

What do you think of short form poetry?  Does Williams' Imagist writing seem pointless to you, or do you see, as I do, a slice of subjective real life?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

e.e. cummings - [l(a]


This poem by e. e. cummings fascinates me, because it exists outside of the aural dimension we usually associate with poetry.  It functions like visual art, but sticks in the head like poetry.  The words we can extract from the poem are "loneliness", and "a leaf falls."  Interestingly, "a leaf falls" is embedded within "loneliness."  This is a meaning that can only exist in a visual mode that relies on visual arrangement of words.  A short film of a leaf falling may suggest loneliness, but it can't carry the same impact as this poem, which literally embeds a leaf falling into the image of loneliness.

The other image, "oneliness" is a declaration of solitude and wholeness.  I feel like Cummings is making a differentiation between being lonely and being alone.  "Oneliness" to me sounds like a condition of being whole, being one with something.

In terms of content, the statement, "a leaf falls" is active.  It's a statement.  The physical structure of the poem enforces that, forcing the eye to dart back and forth across the hyper-short lines, much as a leaf zigs and zags towards the ground.  It's a perfect representation of a leaf falling.  But why must a leaf falling be lonely?  The poem conjures such a strong image of solitude that any other mood would be inappropriate.  It's a lonesome death, but somehow beautiful and thoughtful.

Does the image of the poem carry weight for you in a way that words cannot?  Do you disagree with my assertion that the active nature of reading is perfectly suited to reflect the act of a leaf falling?  Are there any ways to convey the same activity without resorting to a visual arrangement?  And is it poetry, if it relies on its visual medium so heavily that it cannot be properly pronounced?  Let me know your reaction.

Monday - Billy Collins

The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.

They are at their windows
in every section of the tangerine of earth-
the Chinese poets looking up at the moon,
the American poets gazing out
at the pink and blue ribbons of sunrise.

The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down in their mines,
and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.

The proofreaders are playing the ping-pong
game of proofreading,
glancing back and forth from page to page,
the chefs are dicing celery and potatoes,
and the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.

Which window it hardly seems to matter
though many have a favorite,
for there is always something to see-
a bird grasping a thin branch,
the headlight of a taxi rounding a corner,
those two boys in wool caps angling across the street.

The fishermen bob in their boats,
the linemen climb their round poles,
the barbers wait by their mirrors and chairs,
and the poets continue to stare
at the cracked birdbath or a limb knocked down by the wind.

By now, it should go without saying
that what the oven is to the baker
and the berry-stained blouse to the dry cleaner,
so the window is to the poet.

Just think-
before the invention of the window,
the poets would have had to put on a jacket
and a winter hat to go outside
or remain indoors with only a wall to stare at.

And when I say a wall,
I do not mean a wall with striped wallpaper
and a sketch of a cow in a frame.

I mean a cold wall of fieldstones,
the wall of the medieval sonnet,
the original woman's heart of stone,
the stone caught in the throat of her poet-lover.

As a sort of follow up to my own effort yesterday, I present Billy Collins, who was the inspiration for the frank style I attempted to emulate.  Needless to say, my effort does not capture what I think makes this poem, and most of Billy Collins' work, so magical, and that is the effortless and indescribably powerful tone shift that takes place in the last three stanzas of the poem.

Throughout the entire poem, the tone is somewhat playful, aloof, and tongue in cheek.  The constant joking reminder of the window being the station of the poet, coupled with the many stereotypical "poetic" images create a really light, carefree, breezy sort of mood.  Collins flips that mood on its head at the end, my bringing in the image of a wall.  The wall of the medieval sonnet, as he said.  This image, and this complete switch to earnesty in tone, is so effective.  As I read it, I feel a lump in my throat, and it's the image of that stone, caught in my throat, that comes to mind.  The first time I ever read this poem, I realized I was crying, and I couldn't understand why.  I was laughing and there were tears coming down.  It was a beautiful moment.  If I can come close to Collins' level of tone manipulation in my own poetry, I will be very happy.

What do you think?  Is Collins' tone shift effective, or am I just a sentimental baby?  Let me know!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mutually Deaf - Chris Hart

Late last night I listened
to the sounds of the house
wondering if it might have ears
with which to hear me.

Air vents exhaled their climate-controlled breath
as I heard the metallic clink
of the bathroom lock snapping shut behind
my naked form under the squeaking shower head.

Pattering down, the water whispered to me,
or so it seemed.

Puzzled by this unexpected speech
I cracked a half-smile
wondering if perhaps it was I
who had lacked the ears to hear you.

In talking about my own poem, I am going to take a two-fold approach: I will talk about the things I wanted the poem to convey, and I will talk about what I wish I could better convey.  I think it's somewhat inappropriate to break the poem down in the same way I would with another poet, since in this case, I am fully aware of the author's intent.  If someone else would like to offer an alternate interpretation to my own, I would really appreciate it.  I could think of no higher compliment than a poem speaking to another person in a way I could never imagine.

When I wrote this poem, I hadn't experienced anything coming close to heartbreak.  I had experienced breakups, or disappointments, but never anything that really shook me as a person.  I wondered what it would feel like to have, effectively, part of your identity wrestled away from you, and the conclusion I came to was that it must be a very stark feeling of loneliness.  I saw a shower as a good expression of solitude and as a good place to capture thoughtful sadness.  I transformed the lover, who was now out of the picture, into the house, whispering various things to the solitary figure.  The figure cannot hear these whispers, much as, I imagined, a couple on the verge of dissolving must be unable to hear one another clearly and fully.  In a moment of sad revelation, the figure understands the house's whispering as that of his lover, and realizes all too late that he equally deaf as his lover.  The only thing to do in such a situation is to smile, even if it is a rueful, painful smile.  The poem is paced as moving through tenses continually, with irregular or absent punctuation to control the flow.  I want a real sense of motion right up until the water of the shower coming down.  I think this was best achieved in the second stanza.

The regrets I have with this poem are split between formal characteristics and content.  Formally, I wish I could have been somewhat more strict in structuring the poem.  I had been reading a lot of Billy Collins while I wrote this poem, and I tried to imitate his flow, though I don't think I succeed on his level.  And being free from any formal structure, the poem cannot fall back on structure to convey meaning, level the words very much to speak for themselves.  I do not think I approached anywhere near Billy Collin's level of profundity, and as such, perhaps utilizing a stronger traditional format would have been more suitable.  Additionally, I would have liked to utilize a stronger element of rhyme.  Sonically, the most interesting thing I have going are alliterative passages and contrasting consonant and vowel sounds.  I do not think rhyme is dead, or cliche, or trite, but rather, that it can be very powerful when used to draw attention to particular words or rhythms.  Content-wise, looking at the poem after having experienced some degree of heartbreak, I realize that the picture I painted was incomplete.  To be sure, solitude is an element of heartbreak, but I feel that I failed to capture the agency of heartbreak.  The active participation one puts oneself through.  You are never the only one hurt in a situation like this, and I wish I could have captured better the awful feeling of knowing that your actions and words hurt someone.  It's a feeling that everyone knows, or will know, and I wish I had found the words for it.  Because taking that solitary shower and realizing what an idiot you are for being unable to hear has a flip side, and that flip side is realizing how very worthless your words had been.

Does this poem speak anything to you apart from those things I identified?  Is it successful, or as I fear, an uninteresting slice of something everyone is already familiar with?  Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

XXVIII- James Joyce

Gentle lady, do not sing
Sad songs about the end of love;
Lay aside sadness and sing
How love that passes is enough.

Sing about the long deep sleep
Of lovers that are dead, and how
In the grave all love shall sleep:
Love is aweary now.

Today, being Bloomsday, seemed an appropriate time to share some of James Joyce's severely overlooked poetry.  Joyce, most known for his radical prose, also wrote two collections of poetry.  This poem, XXVIII is excerpted from his first ever published work, "Chamber Music" which is a collection of poems.  The poems are very lyrical in content, and should be considered musically.  Joyce himself did so, going so far as to set one of them to music.  I have a very personal investment in the project of interpreting Joyce musically, and I find the lyricism of these early poems of his laudable and inspiring, and think it a shame that they are often dismissed as simply "not as good" as his later works.

Poem XVIII, in particular, is very lyrically present.  It reads almost as a reaction to the type of folk song it references.  I can almost see this poem as a reaction to "Black is the Color of my True Love's Hair."  The last two stanzas of that song read as follows:

I go the Clyde for to mourn and weep
But satisfied I never can sleep.
I'll write her a letter, just a few short lines
And suffer death ten thousand times.

I know my love and well she knows
I love the grass whereon she goes.
If she on earth no more I see
My life will quickly fade away.

Joyce is asking us, in a way lyrically comparable to folk song, to move on, beyond self-indulgence and self-pity. Love that passes is enough. It cannot always be time for love, Joyce tells us. This seems like a very measured response to heartbreak, or perhaps, in response to unfulfilled longing. When he wrote this poem, Joyce was a young man who was very much in love with Nora Barnacle, though the two could not be together. Perhaps this poem was a response to those feelings. Either way, for me, the poem is comforting. It reminds me that I have been loved, and that is enough. Even if now is not the time for love, its remembrance is still beautiful, so long as it is not tainted by self-pity. I implore any readers to reconsider how you may think of Joyce. When Joyce comes to mind, it is for his dense, intimidating prose. However, he had a lyrical side, expressed in his poetry, which is captivating and beautiful. It should be enjoyed, rather than critically dismissed in the canon of Joyce studies, as it too often is.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sonnet XIX- John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wife,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.  His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Milton's sonnet, reflecting on his blindness, his aging, and his function in relation to God and the world at large, is so personal, yet I find it relevant even to my own life.  Now, I couldn't be much further from Milton as far as situation goes.  He was the most hated man in Europe, having written a defense of what was widely considered regicide.  He was blind, and halfway through life, unable to (without assistance) exercise his tremendous gift for the written word.  I'm a college student, hopefully nowhere near halfway through life, but despite all of that, the personal aspect of the poem cuts through time, reaching me (and I hope, you).

The line that sticks with me most from this poem is the final line, "They also serve who only stand and wait."  Oftentimes, if I feel crippled by inaction, I remind myself of this line.  As frustrating as it can be to do nothing but stand and wait for an opportunity, that in itself is an action that can be laudable.  There needs to be differentiation between inaction and standing in service, but I think it's a good line to keep in mind.  I know it helps me get by sometimes.

What about you?  What strikes you most about Milton's sonnet?