Thursday, February 27, 2014

Found Poem - Howard Nemerov

after information received in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 v 86

The population center of the USA
Has shifted to Potosi, in Missouri.

The calculation employed by authorities
In arriving at this dislocation assumes

Te the country is a geometric plane,
Perfectly flat, and that every citizen,

Including those in Alaska and Hawaii
And the District of Columbia, weighs the same;

So that, given these simple presuppositions,
The entire bulk and spread of the people

Should theoretically balance on the point
Of a needle under Potosi in Missouri

Where no one is residing nowadays
But the watchman over an abandoned mine

Whence the company got the lead out and left.
"It gets pretty lonely here," he says, "at night."

My favorite poems are often ones wrapped in a dry humor with some sort of salient, sentimental point.  This one fits that model perfectly.  It makes the metric of population center sound absolutely ridiculous by explaining it in simple terms.  By outlining the nation as a perfectly flat plane where every single person weighs the same, and then calling those "simple presuppositions" we are invited to laugh at the silliness of the way we calculate things like population center as if they have any relevance or meaning.  Then the poem segues humorously to the topic of loneliness, when we learn that no one, in fact, bar one man lives in Potosi.  With humility and honesty, we're told that the population center of the USA "gets pretty night."

It's a disarming line, and to me, it brings to mind the sensation of being alone in a crowd.  I know that when I'm among huge crowds of people, generally huge crowds of strangers, I suddenly feel even more alone than I do when I'm by myself in my small house in the middle of a small town.  I know when I spent a day or so by myself in Seoul, despite being surrounded by millions of people within a few square miles, I felt very alone.  Now, the loneliness of the man in the poem is a different sort, but the idea of the center being a lonely place is something that I think applies to more situations that literally being alone.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Layers - Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I feel like here, Kunitz (a Worcester native!) explores a few issues we all confront now and again, mostly dealing with questions of self-identity.  The paradox of looking back at the past and seeing the mark of otherness on your past self, yet knowing that it is still you is confusing.  "I am not who I was" is a sentiment we have probably all shared at some point.  Certainly, I'm a very different person than I was five years ago, but I am still "me" whatever that means.  I think that's what Kunitz means by "some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray."

Life as a straight line, dotted with the refuse and remnants, "campsites" of our former selves is a striking image.  When Kunitz says he sees "milestones dwindling towards the horizon" I am not sure if he is looking forward or backwards, but I little think it matters.  The lines, "How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?" stands out to me for its directness.  Also, we generally view loss as the removal of something, so to imagine our heart feasting on our losses is a reversal from the usual.  In a way, it's very true to my experience.  We brood on our losses and heartbreaks, we stew in them.  Feast sounds accurate.

Kunitz goes on, though, to answer how it is we reconcile our heart to that feast.  We turn, and somehow maintain our "will intact to go wherever I need to go" keeping the world sacred.  "Every stone on the road precious to me" is the right way to view a journey, with wonder and renewed vigor.  A spectral voice, a whisper on the clouds, advises Kunitz to not live in the litter.  Though somewhat fatalistic, Kunitz knows that there will be more changes to his life.  It's uplifting to know that we are not done with our changes.

excerpt from Pearl

Perle, pleasaunte to prynces paye
To clanly cos in golde so clere;
Oute of orient, I hardly saye.
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So small, so smothe her sydes were,
Quere-so-ever I jugged gemmes gaye,
I sette hyr sengely in synglere.
Allas!  I leste hyr in on erbere;
Thurgh gresse to ground hit fro me yot,
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of that privy perle wythouten spot.

Sythen in that spote hit fro me sprange,
Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele,
That won was whyle devoyde my wrange
And heven my happe an al my hele.
That dos bot thrych my hert thrange
Mr brest in bale bot bolne and bele.
Yet thought me never se swete a sange
As style stounde let me stele,
For sothe there fleten to me fele,
To thence hir color so clad it clot,
O moul, thou marres a myry juele,
My privy perle wythouten spotte.

The poem commonly referred to as Pearl is a long Middle English semi-romantic devotional poem thought to be written by the same poet as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in the same hand on the same manuscript).  Less famous than Gawain, this is still a beautiful poem, though very difficult to read.  The Middle English of the Pearl poet is much more difficult than that of Chaucer, but I think when read aloud, it is still reasonably understandable.

These are the first two stanzas of the poem, in which the scene is set.  A pearl, so fine as to please princes, our of the Orient, which brings much pleasure and love, is lost to the poet in a garden.  It was a pearl without spot or blemish.  It's fairly clear that the pearl is a romance object, a metaphorical stand in for perhaps a lady love, or ideal of Holy love.  The pearl is referred to as "hir," the feminine pronoun, constantly.  When the pearl has disappeared, the narrator talks of how his heart in enthralled "in bale bot bolne and bele" which means in great misery.  At the end of the second stanza, the lamest is that the earth has marred and sullied that perfect pearl without a spot, presumably because it has been lost to the ground.  To me, this puts me in mind of the death of a loved one.

I would love to post the whole poem, but as I type these out rather than copy or pasting, and given the powerful difficulty of the text un-translated, I'll abstain from doing so.  It is beyond my ability in Middle English to read the entire poem un-translated.  Just these two stanzas took me an hour or so to get a good handle on, and I'm sure there's much I missed.  It's been a few years since I read Pearl.  Still, I find the sounds and imagery of this poem to be endlessly delightful.  For those adventurous readers among you, I highly recommend trying to read this aloud.  Middle English vowels are pronounced like Latin vowels (no dipthongs) and you generally pronounce every consonant.  Give it a shot, you might be surprised at how understandable and delightful it sounds. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Something Childish, but Very Natural - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Written in Germany

If I had but two little wings
And were a little feathery bird,
To you I'd fly, my dear!
But thoughts like these are idle things,
And I stay here.

But in my sleep to you I fly:
I'm always with you in my sleep!
The world is all one's own.
But then one wakes, and where am I?
All, all alone.

Sleep stays not, though a monarch bids:
So I love to wake ere break of day:
For though my sleep be gone,
Yet while 'tis dark, one shuts one's lids,
And still dreams on.

Written in Germany, presumably while far from his love, Coleridge dreams of his lover.  The almost literal flight of fancy in the first stanza is something we've almost all felt at some time.  "I wish I could go to you" is the basic idea, but sadly, none of us can turn into birds and fly to our lovers.  Coleridge well knows this, hence those thoughts are "idle things" and yet he cannot help but thinking them.

Starting his second stanza with "but" Coleridge is acknowledging that yes, it is a childish sentiment (as indicated in the title) but regardless, the world of dreams is a magical place, where separated lovers can once again be together.  Just as in the first stanza though, there is a snapback to reality.  The narrator wakes from his dream, still alone.

Like so many of us do when waking from a pleasant dream, he closes his eyes once more, and pleasantly continues to dream of his lover.  I wonder though, why Coleridge feels the need to identify the dream flight to one's lover as childish.  Yes, it is impossible to take wing and speed away to one's beloved, but that is more an affliction of the adult condition than the childish one.  I do not think he means to be dismissive by calling something childish, though.  There seems to be an intrinsic wonder and value to these dreams, justified by both Coleridge's narrator's indulgence in this fantasy while he wakes, and also by Coleridge calling this phenomenon "very natural" in the title.  There seems to be a real veneration of nature and of our propensity towards dreaming silly thoughts.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Late Fragment - Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

I've been a fan of Raymond Carver's short stories from the first I picked them up.  His direct, un-sentimental views into the lives of average people and their desperate struggles are endearing and heartbreaking without being cloying or preachy.  That said, I had never explored his poetry.  I'm delighted to find it as direct and unvarnished as his short stories.

Structured somewhat like a dialogue between two people, the poem asks us, the reader, to really think about what it is we want from life.  To feel beloved is Carver's answer.  What else could we want, really?  I particularly like the way the line break lends an almost double significance to the last two lines.  When I read it, "to feel myself" and "to feel myself beloved on the earth" both stand out.  To feel oneself is powerful.  A sense of wholeness and self is critical to being a full person.  Maslow called it self-actualization, and I think that's what we all seek and need, ultimately.  Asked, out of all things in life, if he got what he wanted, Carver knew that he had, because he could call himself beloved.

To "call" oneself beloved has a hint of ego about it, but I don't see it as vain.  Here it seems like an affirmation of love, of belonging, and of wholeness of self, rather than vanity or pride.  The answer, a short, content, "I did" is plain and powerful.  Carver's language is not flowery, but common and shared.  The sentiment is beautiful rather than the language.  Reading the poem aloud, it's not particularly pretty, but it is calming.  I've always had an affinity for short form poetry, because I feel like economy of speech and directness of sentiment can make a poem very disarming, and here, with a mere six lines, Carver simply and directly states what he got out of life.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bowery Blues - Jack Kerouac

The story of man
Makes me sick
Inside, outside,  
I do not know why
Something so conditional
And all talk
Should hurt me so.

I am hurt
I am scared
I want to live
I want to die
I do not know
Where to turn
In the Void
And When
To cut

For no Church Told me
No Guru holds me
No advice
Just stone
Of New York
And on the Cafeteria
We hear
The Saxophone
O dead Ruby
Died of Shot
In Thirty Two,  
Sounding like old times
And de bombed
Empty decapitated
Murder by the clock.

And I see Shadows
Dancing into Doom
In love, holding
TIght the lovely asses
Of the little girls
In love with sex
Showing Themselves
In white undergarments
At elevated windows
Hoping for the Worst.

I can not take it
If I can not hold
My little behind
To me in my room

Then it's goodbye
For me
Girls aren't as good
As They look
And Samadhi
Is better
Than you think
When it starts in
Hitting your head
In with Buzz
Of Glittergold
Heaven's Angels


We've been waiting for you
Since Morning, Jack
Why were you so long
Dallying in the sooty room?  
This transcendental Brilliance
Is the better part
(of Nothingness
I sing)  


In all honesty, I have never been one for the poems of the Beat generation, but I imagine that reading this out loud could be quite dramatic.  I am a firm believer in poetry as performance, but for some reason, I have never become enchanted with the romance of the Beat generation as I know so many others have.  I do particularly like the terse and strong feeling of the last four lines, though, they convey anger and frustration really well to me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Monk and His Cat - adapted by W. H. Auden from an 8th or 9th century anonymous Irish text

Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are
Alone together, Scholar and cat.
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me, study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art
Neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever
Without tedium and envy.
Pangur, white Pangur,
How happy we are,
Alone together, Scholar and cat.

This poem, perhaps most famous for its setting in Samuel Barber's "Hermit Songs" which I have attached, creates a lovely and warm image of a monk and his cat.  The poem itself was scribbled in the margins of a text the anonymous monk author was either copying or illuminating.  It's the product of a moment's inspiration, likely dashed off and soon forgotten, only to be rediscovered nearly a thousand years later.  It's remarkable how little our lives have changed, really.  This could be any college student admiring his cat.  I know I certainly think of my cat, Yoda, and how he would curl up on my lap as I read.

The phrase "alone together" is strangely comforting to me.  Being alone does not mean one must be lonely, and though a cat and a person may never truly connect, we can co-exist in great happiness.  The monk is happy to watch the cat go about his business, and in some ways, he notes the similarities between the two of them.  They both rejoice in their small daily victories and they both find happiness in their simple lives.  Just like that, alone together, in happiness.

The famous musical setting of this piece by Samuel Barber, taken from his hermit songs, seems so natural, lilting along with the bizarre grace of a cat's leaps, mimicked by the wide leaps of 6ths in the vocal line.  Also, and it may just be my imagination here, the ascending 2nds in the piano part are almost like a cat walking gingerly across the keys.  Barber is one of my favorite composers to sing because of how natural his vocal lines sound.

A Haiku - Christopher McKenna

2:05 AM
Gotta work in the morning


A sleepless mind's fevered writings, the depths of anger and despair reached when unable to sleep, the frenzied mental self-cries to SHUT UP BRAIN, JUST SHUT UP ALREADY AND LET ME SLEEP only further exacerbating the sleeplessness problem - clearly, a modernist masterpiece.  An obscenity to God punctuated by more obscenity, this poet shows clear and blatant disregard for pious tradition, instead preferring to go into a Godless night where perhaps he can find some sleep.

Or it's just a funny haiku.

Sleep - Charles Anthony Silvestri/Eric Whitacre

The evening hangs beneath the moon
A silver thread on darkened dune
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon

Upon my pillow, safe in bed,
A thousand pictures fill my head.
I cannot sleep, my mind's aflight,
And yet my limbs seem made of lead.

If there are noises in the night,
A frightening shadow, flickering light...
Then I surrender unto sleep,
Where clouds of dream give second sight.

What dreams may come, both dark and deep
Of flying wings and soaring leap
As I surrender unto sleep
As I surrender unto sleep.

I know this text from the Eric Whitacre piece, "Sleep."  It's a sublimely beautiful piece which I have had the pleasure of performing in the past.  What I did not know was that originally, the piece was meant to be a setting of Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."  Apparently refused permission to use the seminal poem for his setting, Whitacre turned to a poet friend of his who has written lyrics for many of his compositions, and the result is wonderful.

The simple rhymes of the poem and its lilting cadence mimic the feeling of falling asleep, particularly the repeated final line, spoken almost like the last, trailing off words of a person slipping into sleep.  The simple rhymes put me in mind of a lullaby.  The rhyme scheme, AABA, BBCB, CCDC, DDDD, is very predictable and comforting. 

The only line that trips me up is the brief Hamlet quote, "What dreams may come."  In Hamlet, this is a reference to "But in that sleep what dreams may come?" where Hamlet ponders the eternal sleep we all face.  This poem seems almost too calming and too innocuous to be about the great After, but maybe that's the point.  If "clouds of dreams give second sight" then surely the afterworld would fit that bill as well.  The music is of course brilliant, creating a peaceful atmosphere despite strong dissonances throughout.  That is Whitacre's gift, which I will now let you enjoy.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sad Steps - Philip Larkin

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.

Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate -
Lozenge of love!  Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory!  Immensements!  No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Listen to an audio recording

The moon somehow manages to be both mundane and exceptional, all depending on one's mood.  Larkin, here portraying an older man stumbling back to bed after taking a piss (mundane, vulgar) sees a perfectly poetic scene, the moon presiding over a sky strewn with clouds, and finds comedy in the romance so many others see.  Giving the moon a number of ridiculous epithets, Larkin mocks the poetic conceit with which the moon is regarded by the young.  Even given that, he does give us the funny turn of phrase "lozenge of love" for the moon, as if it is something young lovers swallow at night to ease their heartbreak.

Rather than the somewhat ridiculous love images, Larkin instead thinks of the great cold stare of the moon as it looks over the night world.  Reminding him of youth, and its passions and pains, Larkin seems to ultimately take solace in the fact that somewhere out there, someone else, someone young, is looking at the moon with un-jaded eyes.  I cherish the "strength and pain" that I am so fortunate to have as a young man.  Maybe someday in the future, as I groggily stumble back to bed after taking a leak, I'll see the same moon Larkin saw here, and join in his laughter.