Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spitwads - Michael McFee

Little paper cuds we made
by ripping the corners or edges
from homework and class notes
then ruminating them into balls
we'd flick from our fingertips
or catapult with pencils
or (sometimes after lunch)
launch through striped straws
like deadly projectiles
towards the necks of enemies
and any other target where they'd
stick with the tiniest splat,
I hope you're still there,
stuck to unreachable ceilings
like the beginnings of nests
by generations of wasps
too ignorant to finish them
or under desktops with blunt
stalactites of chewing gum,
little white words we learned
to shape and hold in our mouths
while waiting to let them fly,
our most tenacious utterance.

Here's my reading!

A charming account of classroom tomfoolery, this poem's larger thrust seems to me to be that as we grow up, we hope that there is still some childishness within us, and certainly hope that it exists in the young people of the world.  The author's hope that the spitwads are "still there" like the "stalactites of chewing gum" under a desk is the hope that we never become too serious.

I don't have much to say, really.  It's a light and fun poem, with just a hint of serious expression.  The images are familiar and fun to say, and its lack of caesura or punctuation conjure an atmosphere of nervous excitement, akin to the feeling of getting ready to let your spitwad fly at one's "most tenacious utterance."  It's the knowledge that right now, your friend is not expecting an attack, but in one moment, they'll be pulling your spit and paper out of their ear.  It's a childish sentiment and it's reflected well in the structure of the poem.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Dirty Face - Shel Silverstein

Where did you get such a dirty face,
My darling dirty-faced child?

I got it from crawling along in the dirt
And biting two buttons off Jeremy's shirt.
I got it from chewing the roots of a rose
And digging for clams in the yard with my nose.
I got it from peeking into a dark cave
And painting myself like a Navajo brave.
I got it from playing with coal in the bin
And signing my name in cement with my chin.
I got it from rolling around on the rug
And giving the horrible dog a big hug.
I got it from finding a lost silver mine
And eating sweet blackberries right off the vine.
I got it from ice cream and wrestling and tears
And from having more fun than you've had in years.

Here's my reading!

Shel Silverstein was a favorite of mine as a child, and according to my mother, I had many of his poems committed to memory before I could even read them.  They're full of a joyful energy, wacky childhood images, wild imagination, and evoke the great sense of exploration and discovery which are the hallmarks of childhood.

This poem in particular, filled with its laundry list of face dirtying fun, captures that sense of madcap fun and adventure.  What kid doesn't want to find a lost mine, to roll around in the dirt, explore a cave, get into some sort of horseplay with friends?  It's the most natural fun in the world, filled with the sweet freedom of youth (sweetness highlighted by the image of blackberries fresh off the vine).

The question that begins the poem highlights the difference between adult and child.  Whereas the adult sees a dirty face on the darling child, what it represents is all the fun that adults never seem to get up to anymore.  That's precisely the child's retort at the end, and to me, it seems like Silverstein is telling his adult readers to not be afraid of childish fun.  I'm sure this poem can make anyone nostalgic for childhood, and to parents, this may be a nice reminder that your kids will have the same face dirtying fun you once had.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Milton's God - Nate Klug

Where I-95 meets the Pike,
a ponderous thunderhead flowered;

stewed a minute, then flipped
like a flash card, tattered
edges crinkling in, linings so dark
with excessive bright

that, standing, waiting, at the overpass edge,
the onlooker couldn't decide

until the end, or even then,
what was revealed and what had been hidden.

This poem caught my eye for two main reasons: the title and the first line.  I've long found Milton and his writing on religion interesting, particularly his brilliant attempt to "justify the ways of God to man" (Paradise Lost, Book 1).  The second reason is that I know exactly where Klug is referencing.  I'm a CT native who spent four years of education in Worcester MA, and have traveled along I-91, I-95, and I-90 (more colloquially known, as Klug knows, as the Mass Pike) countless times.

After that, the magnificent cloudburst held my attention.  My favorite phrase in the poem is the wonderfully descriptive "linings so dark with excessive bright."  I imagine a dark, heavy thundercloud, illuminated magnificently from behind with all the light of the sun.  The language used to describe this cloud is all very active, making it seem like a living thing, almost like a massive animal in the sky.  It "stewed", it "flipped."  It's easy to imagine the wisps of a cloud roiling and shifting, but that bit about its linings, "dark with excessive bright" is what really brings the image to life in my mind.

We, the reader, are one frame of reference removed from the event.  We are relayed this image largely by the "onlooker" in the poem, who even after witnessing the entire event, "couldn't decide...what was revealed and what had been hidden."  My natural inclination is that the things hidden and revealed are the gloriously bright dark nature of the cloud, and the sun's light, here taking on a revelatory connotation as a symbol of God's might.  It might seem easy to say that the cloud hides the sun which then reasserts its glory and power, but I think that may be too simple.  Like the observer in the poem, it seems to me that the sun also reveals the complex beauty of the cloud.

Given the title of the poem, it seems that indecision at the wonder of Creation and God's power lie at the core of the image.  It's perhaps too much to ask that a poet "justify the ways of God to man" but still, attempt is all we can ever really do.  Nature, for all that we can catalog and understand it, is still fundamentally mystifying to us, occupying a special pull and power over our hearts.  This is understood by many as religious and spiritual experience, and while I am unsure what I believe, I find this poem to be a lucid and empowering image of great beauty.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Epitaph - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Stop, Christian passer-by! - Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast.  Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise - to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ.  Do thou the same!

In composing an epitaph for himself, Coleridge exhorts the reader to offer a prayer for peace and rest, and to ask forgiveness for themselves so that they too may find "life in death."  Most interesting to me is the way in which Coleridge imagines himself and his posthumous image.  Specifically, the image that Coleridge "found death in life."

Through much of Coleridge's poetic canon, he is concerned with the imagination, and often takes flights of fancy, rising from some sort of grounded reality into a world of dream and possibility.  The ultimate flight of fancy is trying to imagine what sort of, if there is any, afterlife exists.  Coleridge, a devout man of Anglican upbringing and some Unitarian bent, imagines that as an existence of peace and Mercy after the body is buried.  Indeed, in this poem Coleridge disassociates the body with the self.  "Beneath this sod a poet lies, or that which once seemed he."  The body beneath that soil used to be a poet, but it is no longer him is the essential message.

Coleridge also sets up a struggle between the effort of life and the peace found in death.  As a poet, he labored "many a year with toil of breath."  For him to find "death in life" was a struggle, a burden, but now that he imagines himself under the ground, he finds life, Mercy, and peace.  Overall, the message of the epitaph is the eternal hope of a better existence beyond the grave.  The trappings here are of Christianity, but also of some sort of larger inclusiveness, for he addresses the reader as "child of God."  It seems like a broad net Coleridge casts in addressing the reader, because he cuts himself off after saying "Christian passer-by" and widens his scope to "child of God."  While the poem is undoubtedly rooted in Christian ideals of salvation through Christ's Love, the humanistic sentiment at its core is that we remember our fellow man and wish for their peace and new life after their struggle upon this Earth is over.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Edges - Allen Tate

I've often wondered why she laughed
On thinking why I wondered so;
It seemed such waste that long white hands
Should touch my hands and let them go.

And once when we were parting there,
Unseen of anything but trees,
I touched her fingers, thoughtfully,
For more than simple niceties.

But for some futile things unsaid
I should say all is done for us;
Yet I have wondered how she smiled
Beholding what was cavernous.

Listen to an audio recording

On the surface a poem about the failure of potential lovers to connect, Tate's poem contains both circular and enigmatic qualities that make it difficult to place.  I think "wonder" is a good place to begin.

The poem begins and ends with the narrator "wondering" about the actions of a woman.  She laughs at the narrator's wonder at the start, and he wonders at her smile in the end.  A general sense of "wonder" pervades, the poem, I think.  The woman's hands, "long white hands" are treated like objects of great beauty, clearly inspiring the narrator.  He desperately wants to touch them, and indeed does, "for more than simple niceties," when he presumably expresses his love and desire for her.

The relationship does not work, as but for "some futile things left unsaid...all is done."  And this brings us back again to "wonder."  The enigmatic part of the poem for me is "what was cavernous."  I have to wonder at what exactly was cavernous that caused the woman to smile and the man to wonder how at that she could possibly smile.

I think one sense is that what was cavernous was the emotional weight between them, perhaps a void or maw of love left wide open by their failure to connect.  He is aghast that she laughs and smiles at love's failings, and she wonders how he can fail to understand.  It's that massive gap in communication that so often we all fail to bridge when expressing our feelings to and for another.

The only real moment on connection in the poem is when he touches her fingers.  The gap is bridged there, but as we know from the first stanza, the hands were not to stay together.  It seems a waste to Tate that contact between two people can be so fleeting.  What is there to do but laugh?  Maybe not a mirthful laugh or smile, but a rueful one, that bittersweet smile one wears when parting from another?  Even though I cannot fully understand what Tate means by "what was cavernous" I still feel an extraordinary sense of melancholy about the poem.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Unthinkable - Simon Armitage

A huge purple door washed up in the bay overnight.
its paintwork blistered and peeled from weeks at sea.
The town storyteller wasted no time in getting to work:
the beguiling, eldest girl of a proud, bankrupt farmer
had slammed that door in the face of a Freemason's son,
who in turn had bulldozed both farm and family
over the cliff, except for the girl, who lived now
by the light and heat of a driftwood fire on a beach.

There was some plan to use the door as a jetty
or landing-stage, but it was all bullshit, the usual idle talk.
That's when he left and never returned.  Him I won't name -
not known for his big ideas or carpentry skills,
a famous non-swimmer, but last seen sailing out,
riding the current and rounding the point in a small boat
with tell-tale flashes of almost certainly purple paint.

Armitage's straightforward, slightly profane style strongly reminds me of Philip Larkin, and I mean that as a compliment.  Managing to capture serious sentiments while stile maintaining the mode of humor, this poem, to me, is about how we assign objects with their own lives, endowing stories to the environments and objects around us, often getting swept up in those stories we weave.  In this case, the event is the beaching of a large purple door from parts unknown.

Immediately, the "town storyteller," a beguiling title, began to spin yarns about the genesis of the driftwood.  He tells a romantic story that makes us, the reader of the poem, feel some degree of attachment to the door.  We feel like it must have a story to tell us, and lacking real knowledge, we supply our own.  The story invented here is almost circular in nature.  A young girl, evicted from her home by a spurned suitor, has her house demolished, turned into driftwood.  With a pleasing circularity, we learn that she survives "by the light and heat of a driftwood fire on a beach."  We feel bad for her, but still, the story is neatly self-contained and fits with the door's sea-born arrival.

The question of what to do with the door is summed up by Armitage as "the usual bullshit."  The smalltalk we make, plans without intention, are shared and dismissed in the space of two lines.  It's what I've often heard called "shooting the shit," idle talk with no real weight behind it.  What is actually done with the door in answered by the sudden departure of a nameless figure who it seems has likely built a boat out of the door, and gone to sea on it, despite being a poor carpenter, small thinker, and non-swimmer.

This is the hardest part of the poem for me to understand.  This enigmatic man driven to what sounds like a suicidal journey by the arrival of this mysterious, romantic door.  It's hard to fathom, but I think it relates to the stories we tell about objects.  Maybe this man, entranced by the town storyteller's tale of intrigue, love, and anger, felt the deep need to set out into the unknown.  At the end of the day, it is almost impossible to every really know what someone is thinking.  I suppose that's why this poem is called "The Unthinkable."

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Shrubbery - William Cowper

Oh happy shades - to me unblest!
Friendly to peace, but not to me!
How ill the scene that offers rest,
And heart that cannot rest, agree!

The glassy stream, that spreading pine,
Those alders quiv'ring to the breeze,
Might sooth a soul less hurt than mine,
And please, if any thing could please.

But fix'd unalterable care
Foregoes not what she feels within,
Shows the same sadness ev'rywhere,
And slights the season and the scene.

For all that pleas'd in wood or lawn,
While peace possess'd these silent bow'rs,
Her animating smile withdrawn,
Has lost its beauties and its pow'rs.

The saint or moralist should tread
This moss-grown alley, musing, slow;
They seek, like me, the secret shade,
But not, like me, to nourish woe!

Me fruitful scenes and prospects waste
Alike admonish not to roam;
These tell me of enjoyments past,
And those of sorrows yet to come.

Cowper's poem juxtaposes images of nature that one would normally find soothing with intense personal trauma and suffering.  Instead of finding relief and calm in the idyllic scenes of nature as one would expect, Cowper's narrator instead only has his personal trauma amplified by their beauty.  His suffering is so immense that it "shows the same sadness ev'rywhere, and slights the season and the scene."

Effectively, nature has completely "lost its beauties and its pow'rs" in the face of his suffering.  These images only "nourish" his woe.  Instead of finding peace in "the scene that offers rest" he sees "sorrows yet to come."  It's an extreme state of mourning and woe, and he does not let on what exactly caused it.  However, that does not matter.  The poem's aim, I think, it to set up in the reader's mind a scene of perfect natural beauty, and alongside it, an image of suffering so dreadful that the scene becomes dull and loses its power.

The first two stanzas are largely concerned with the beauty of the scene, a "glassy stream" and trees "quiv'ring to the breeze."  Though these scenes would "sooth a soul less hurt" than the narrator's, his pain is so great that he feels nothing before these images.  To relate this to a current event, the terrible ferry tragedy in Korea currently comes to mind.  All those connected with those directly impacted by this tragedy, how can they possibly look at the sea's beauty and take solace?  How can nature's beauty reach a soul pained by the worst grief imaginable?

I think it's a very effective duality that Cowper sets up, and a relevant idea, even today.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

[We grow accustomed to the Dark-] - Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark -
When Light is put away -
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye -

A Moment - We Uncertain step
For newness of the night -
Then - fit our Vision to the Dark -
And meet the Road - erect -

And so of larger - Darknesses -
Those Evenings of the Brain -
When not a Moon disclose a sign -
Or Star - come out - within -

The Bravest - grope a little -
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead -
But as they learn to see -

Either the Darkness alters -
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight -
And Life steps almost straight.

Having just been at a major crossroads, this poem seems to address the issues of uncertainty I've been dealing with myself in trying to make a decision.  Groping out into the "Dark" is always frightening, but as this poem shows us, we can adapt to any situation, and even if there are mis-steps, moving forward with bravery is noble and right.

"Dark" and "Light" in this poem are states of being, but are not moralized like they are in so many other poems.  Light is not some state of goodness and purity, Dark is not mired in immorality and Sin.  Rather, they are much closer to their literal counterparts, light and its absence.  Here, Dark is more the unknown, whereas Light is what is known and familiar.

Venturing into the unfamiliar is brave, here represented by the idea of "The Bravest" who wander out into the Dark.  They may "hit a Tree/ Directly in the Forehead", that is, stumble in their way, encountering hardships, but gradually, they can adjust, and "Life steps almost straight."  Things work out sometimes, which is what I take "almost straight" to mean.  We can make order out of the unknown by venturing boldly into it, just as our eyes adjust to a dark room.

The idea that we "fit our Vision to the Dark" is compelling, because besides mirroring real experience (who hasn't felt their eyes adjust to dim light?) it's a good metaphor for how we ought to approach the unknown in our lives.  Rather than fearing it, and seeking to stay in the realm of the known, we should do our best to adjust to it, and meet it head on, "erect."  The "Dark" of this poem is not some moral quality, and it is not treated with fear or suspicion.  It's something to be explored.

This poem came to me at a good time, as I was dealing with a lot of uncertainty over what to do in the coming year.  I was presented with the option to renew my contract and keep teaching in South Korea for another year, or to return to the US and seek work and move on with my life.  Both choices were equally attractive and either decision would have been equally bittersweet, and this poem, along with the idea of bravely pressing into the future, helped me to know that regardless of the choice I make, what matters most is how I act going forward.  I hope it helps you out, reader, if you've been struggling with any "Dark" of your own.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Trying to Remember - Chris Hart

for the alone suffering from want of loneliness

What can possibly be more
pathetic pitiful
than sitting at a desk
pen pad paper
at the ready
wishing wailing wanting
to remember what it feels like to be
loved loving longing losing
your mind, becoming
sick slavering slaveminded
completely enthralled with ardent
desire dedication desperation
over some Athena Adonis Aphrodite
flawlessly featured face?

Yet here I am, with my pen,
No great trauma upon my mind,
Alarmed more by my content state
Than by any great bout of discontent,
Trapped in my temperance of emotion,
Wishing to know what it really means to
Suffer sweetly in the feverish
Grip of Love.

I want to preface any analysis of what I tried to do with this poem by stating that I am not depressed, not lonely, and not suffering from a chronic lack of love in my life.  I don't want anyone to think this is a cry for attention or help.  For me this poem is a meditation on how we treat love in poetry versus life.  I feel like it is easy to forget that so much of what we consume, be it poetry, tv, film, novels, are essentially dramatizations of real life.  I feel like we often expect our lives to mimic them in some way, when reality is often much more mundane.

I wonder how many people feel like I do, content in being single, but desirous of the passions of Love we read about in poetry or see in every day media.  It's a disembodied, unplaced emotion, and it can be occasionally unsettling, hence why I needed to write something.  The Keats I posted earlier in the year, he so suffers from his passions that he'd rather take a potion to forget them, and to banish Women from his mind.  I don't really feel that.  I never have, if I'm honest.  I'm not prone to fall for people quickly, and my emotions are rarely bombastic or overly passionate.  I like myself and like how I feel and experience the world for the most part, but I sometimes wonder what it must feel like to feel such Love that you'd try to move the heavens and Earth for need of it.  I am often alone, but seldom lonely, rarely driven mad by passions.  Is it pitiful to wish to experience that which so many others ardently express?  I don't know if pitiful is the right word, but my mode of expression is often self-deprecation (I blame Catholicism).  I think it's pretty natural to want to experience such things, and I suspect that a lot of the poems which are so passionate are greatly embellished for the sake of melodrama and poetic expression.

In the first stanza, I tried to capture the madness associated with passion with run-on thoughts, highly alliterative, as if the mind is hopping from idea to idea, in an almost free association sort of way.  It's a frenzy of thoughts, the mind so overwhelmed by the idea of being a slave to Love.  That idea of being "enthralled" is so present in so much Love poetry that I wanted to try to construct that by creating a narrator whose thoughts are jumbled.

I tried to make a sudden tone shift in the second stanza.  I re-introduced ordered thought, regular punctuation and capitalization at the start of each line, as if to show that the narrator has come to his senses.  He's not madly in love with Love, he's sitting at a desk trying to imagine what that is like.  I think it's an effective change, and I hope you agree with me.

I'm still unsure about the title and dedication at the start of the text.  This poem is not for lovers.  It's not for the lonely, either, because they suffer for lack of Love.  This is for the somewhat indifferent, the ones who wish they were more passionate than they are.  Alone and lonely are not synonyms, and I wanted to make that distinction.  The title, "Trying to Remember" is because I think at some level, we've all felt, even for a brief moment, some passionate spark.  I'm not convinced that's true, but I like to think that it is.

Is this a pitiful sentiment, or one you can relate to?  I'd really like to know.

I Was Never Able To Pray - Edward Hirsch

Wheel me down to the shore
where the lighthouse was abandoned
and the moon tolls in the rafters.

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
and see the stars flaring out, one by one,
like the forgotten faces of the dead.

I was never able to pray,
but let me inscribe my name
in the book of waves

and then stare into the dome
of a sky that never ends
and see my voice sail into the night.

Hirsch's poem is filled with beautiful and haunting images of mortality set against timeless, infinite scenes.  It addresses our mortality and ephemeral nature while still suggesting that we are part of a much larger, less temporary existence.

I imagine the poem as narrated by an old man, someone bound to a wheelchair ("wheel me down...").  In their confinement, presumably at death's door, they seek out places where the temporary world of Man and the eternal meet.  The first such image in the first stanza is an abandoned lighthouse, where the moon "tolls" like a bell through its rafters.  A man-made building, left alone, becomes home to the eternal moon, where it rings for us as a bell, brighter and above our mortal lives.

In the second stanza, the stars are, to the narrator, like the "forgotten faces of the dead."  It's a strange image to me, because the stars are certainly never forgotten, but they are so many in number that I can imagine them being hard to remember.  I think what Hirsch means is that the dead become part of our existence, even if we do not know them anymore.  The stars can be like a gallery of all the energy that has ever been and ever will be.  The "wind paging through the trees" is the very essence of temporary existence, but it's a scene that we can imagine having happened two thousand years ago and happening again in two thousand years.  It's the strange intersection of flowing, active time and immortal imagery.

"I was never able to pray" sounds like a somewhat sad statement, made by a dying person, but, and "but" is key, the narrator feels that he or she is still part of something larger than themselves, even if they do not feel an explicit connection to the Divine.  They see a clear spiritual value in the persistent images of nature.  Like so many others, they feel enchanted by the sea.

In the fourth stanza, the narrator looks up at "the dome of a sky that never ends" and desires to set themselves, or more specifically, their voice, into the night, to see it "sail" away.  In that sense, a poem is like a message in a bottle, set adrift through time.  You never know who it may encounter or when.  In many ways, I think we all wish to add our voice or face in some way to the world, to feel ourselves part of some whole.  Even if you were never able to pray, some awareness of the cosmic whole seems universal.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lake Isle of Innisfree - William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattle made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-lour glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

The scene is simple and enchanting: your own personal paradise hermitage on a pristine island in the middle of a lake.  Innisfree is a real place, situated in Loch Gile.  While it is true that Yeats wanted to establish an inherently Irish form, and to break away from English cultural fetters in the realm of the poetry, I do not think the actual location of the island is of much consequence today.  For sure, it mattered to Yeats that the poem expressed a longing for an Irish pastoral scene, but I think it has resonance far beyond that.

Who among us has not felt some desire to return to nature?  The escape to a countryside cottage, the trip to the lake, camping in the woods.  These are all very desirable leisure activities in the modern age.  For me personally, this poem may as well be about Lake George in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  There is no better place to which one can escape, I think, and for me, when I read this poem, that is where my mind goes.

The last stanza is something to which I think everyone can relate.  Deep within our hearts, we long for, even "hear" the sound of our desired paradise, our retreat, our Innisfree.  Yeats feels compelled to go because "night and day/ I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore" even when he is "on the roadway, or on the pavements grey."  He hears it "in the deep heart's core."  This place is the call of his heart, his pure desire.

Apart from the (I hope) universal sentiment of the poem, the imagery itself is wondrous.  Self-sufficiency with your own food and honey, shimmering midnight scenes, dew-drop mornings, evening filled with the wings of small birds.  Even writing this now, despite living in a lovely countryside area of Korea, I feel myself longing for the tall pines and clear waters of Lake George.  These images root in your mind and transform, speaking to that small part of each of us which seeks autonomy and peace in nature.  I hope you are thinking of your personal Innisfree, reader.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Something I've Not Done - W. S. Merwin

Something I've not done
is following me
I haven't done it again and again
so it has many footsteps
like a drumstick that's grown old and never been used

In late afternoon I hear it come closer
at times it climbs out of a sea
onto my shoulders
and I shrug it off
losing one more chance

Every morning
it's drunk up part of my breath for the day
and knows which way
I'm going
and already it's not done there

But once more I say I'll lay hands on it
and add its footsteps to my heart
and its story to my regrets
and its silence to my compass

This is one of the most achingly acute depictions of regret and fear I've read.  The old adage, "you regret what you didn't do more than what you did" seems to be the kernel of truth at the heart of this poem.  The idea that the things we most regret having not done follow us, with heavy, loud, footsteps is tremendous and also somewhat haunting.  What is chasing me?  What do I regret not doing?  Why have I not done it yet?  These are all questions raised by the poem.

This regret consumes us.  It drinks "part of [your] breath for the day" as if it is a living thing, eating us alive.  No matter where we go, we cannot escape it, for "already it's not done there."  Every time we "" the opportunity to correct our regret, to do that thing, we lose one more chance.  The chance is to live deliberately, and as the poem makes clear, it is up to us to do or not do that.

The more we say that we will "lay hands on it" the further away from us all the elusive thing not done gets.  "I'll do it tomorrow" is among the greatest lies we can ever tell ourselves.  If not now, when?  Why do we hesitate to act even in pursuit of those things we want most?  I think that it is human to fear achievement, to a degree.  To do the thing not done is deeply frightening, which is why it chases us, weighs us down.

What weighs you down?  What have you "not done again and again?"  Think about it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

November for Beginners - Rita Dove

Snow would be the easy
way out - that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield.  No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won't give.

So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline.  We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,

a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool.  Pour,
rain!  Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!

November 1981

Full of seasonal images, Dove's poem captures well the feeling of anticipation that we often feel when on the cusp of something new.  Depicting a rainy November, not yet snowy, the narrator of the poem and his or her partner prepare themselves for a winter that has not quite arrived, while holding out for the eventual hope of spring.

November sky here is depicted as being heavy, laden with the weight of eventual snowfall.  It groans under the weight, and snow would be a "softening sigh of relief at finally being allowed to yield."  However, not yet, "no dice."  Stockpiling fuel seems pointless, because it is too wet to use, "the rain won't give."  It's a scene familiar to almost anyone who has lived in New England before, that cold, rainy November.

It's true, we do wait.  I love the idea of sitting down "in the smell of the past."  We all dwell in the past to some extent, and I can see that concept being tied to the seasons quite easily.  Spring very naturally seems a time for new beginnings, for us to "act the fool" and be merry.  Fall, though?  The tipping point between fall and winter, November, doesn't seem the time for that.  We cozy up under blankets, we "ache in secret" for change, but we do not engage in generative activities.  Memorization, like in the poem, seems "gloomy" but it is what we do in November, we deal with that that already is.

The charge at the end of the poem is my favorite bit.  It's like a challenge to nature - bring it on!  The thought of wind sailing, a cargo of zithers, is a really cool aural image.  It's like a whistling or howling, wind rasping along strings, a constant drone.  Try to imagine what a steady wind sounds like to you.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Piano - Dan Howell

Her wattled fingers can't
stroke the keys with much
grace or assurance anymore,
and the tempo is always
rubato, halting, but still
that sound - notes quivering
and clear in their singularity,
filing down the hallway-
aches with pure intention, the
melody somehow prettier
as a remnant than
whatever it used to be.

One of the pitfalls with poems about music, as I've encountered this week, is the association of poetic content directly with a specific piece of music.  Tying the two together, unless the poem is very specific about its relationship with the musical content, can drag an otherwise good poem down, as it did earlier this week.

Thankfully, Howell's poem, titled "Piano" deftly avoids that pitfall by making the poem about our relationship to music rather than about a specific piece or person.  In the scene, an elderly woman, presumably a once great pianist, possibly arthritic, is sitting at the piano, attempting to play.  Her playing is shaky, she cannot play in steady rhythm, and there's little grace to it.  Yet for all that, it is achingly beautiful, the notes clear, wafting down a hallway, little fragments that somehow eclipse the whole.

The title is a bit of a pun, in that a piano is being played, and in music terms, piano also means to play softly.  I certainly get the impression that pianist in this poem isn't hammering on the keys, but rather stroking them tentatively, lightly.  It's not a laugh out loud funny pun, but rather a small smile sort of pun.  The poem overall is like a small smile with sadness and happiness in almost equal measure.

That a fragment of the whole can be more beautiful than the whole seems strange at first.  How can that be?  I think a big part of that has to do with how we perceive the world around us.  We are emotional beings.  We think of the old woman struggling at the piano, pouring her soul through her "wattled" fingertips, into each note, and even if she can only play snippets of it, it seems all the more beautiful for her effort.  That sound, the desperate sound of the aged artist's struggle, is romantic and touching.  It's the faded master playing one last tune, knowing that it can never be as beautiful as when they were young, and somehow, we love it all the more.

I've always thought there is a sort of beauty in unfinished things.  A sketch will always have the potential to be anything, it remains an ideal.  The same is true of hearing a brief bit of music.  It entrances us, and then as quickly as it came, it leaves us.  This poem captures that sensation wonderfully, and of all the poems about music I've posted this week, this has by far been my favorite to read, because it understands what it is that makes music so meaningful to us.  It is the struggle to find art and beauty despite all adversity.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Borodin - Donald Revell

When the world was loveliness I was
A composer, Borodin, my left eye
Level with the floor beside toy men.
Wild work and havoc they made,
Being glad.  I could draw a line
Would run straight through the minds of men,
Being a sociable angel,
Music before and after, blushing.

Heaven is a nonsense entirely sensible.
I was a child on the floor beside you,
Making music, becoming small in the rosy
Embrace of God's best messenger.
I loved your havoc and your hair.

Continuing with my musical theme this week is a poem from Donald Revell, which takes its name from Alexander Borodin, a Russian Romantic composer.  Borodin's music is famed for its sweeping melodies, lyricism, and thick, rich harmonies.  In this poem, I think I see some of those elements in the images of play war and Heaven.  Let's unpack some of those images!

The narrator of this poem imagines himself as a child, a boy Borodin, playing with toy men.  They made "wild work and havoc" which I interpret as a war-like image.  It's the image of life happening all at once, and it is the business of "being glad."  That is both the business of the child playing with the toys and the imagined business of those toys themselves.  "I could draw a line/ Would run straight through the minds of men" to me is talking about the power the manipulator has in this situation.

That image of manipulation is then tied to music, a "sociable angel."  Music can run straight through the mind and make us feel and experience a great many things.  Music is referred to in the second stanza as "God's best messenger" and I think this is appropriate.  There's a sort of deep piety associated with the act of making music.  Making music here is an act of love, religious love.  It is "havoc."  I do not know whose hair Revell loved, but I see it like a child watching their father or mother work, being mystified by the work, but loving it, and loving everything about that figure, right down to the hair.

For your enjoyment, the exciting and sweeping symphony no 2 of Alexander Borodin.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Catchy Tunes - Robert Thomas

It's not just this.  Every written word is a suicide note.
And a love letter, too.

There may be no one to talk to who would get it,
but if you write it down maybe someone will get it after you've left the room,

or in five hundred years, or maybe someone from Sirius, the Dog Star,
will get it.  The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen

claimed he was born on Sirius.  You remember him:
the genius who said the crashing of planes

into the World Trade Center was the greatest concert ever held,
although he later conceded the audience had not been given the option

to not attend
and that somewhat diminished its perfection.

I heard Stockhausen interviewed at Davies Symphony Hall
before the orchestra played one of his works

that sounded to me like the voices of the parents
in A Charlie Brown Christmas if they'd been arguing about real estate.

No, I was not impressed by Karlheinz.
His daughter Christel was a flautist in the orchestra,

and she joined him for the interview
and said her father would take her and her brother out on the lawn

of their summer house outside Cologne
(this was years before he was on the cover of Sgt. Pepper)

and teach them to read each constellation
as notes on a stave and to sing

the words of their favorite nursery rhymes to the stars'
melody:  "The dog ran away in the snow" and

"Go get the sleigh in the cellar."  It was a game
but it was hard:  work and play at once.

Their father explained to them,
"God does not write catchy tunes."

You could tell she meant it to be a charming story,
but the audience sat in silence.

Suffer the little children.

I don't think I've ever taken such umbrage with a poem since I read Gerard Locklin's "The Iceberg Theory."  From Thomas' misrepresentation (and I believe outright lying) of Karlheinz Stockhausen and his decidedly anti-artistic anti-intellectual Philistine view of art and artists, to the structure and diction of the poem itself, I find almost everything about this poem to be appalling to artistic integrity and sensibility.

To begin, some context.  Within the week of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Stockhausen was asked his opinion before a concert.  His response was widely condemned and for many in the public, has overshadowed his immense body of art and achievement (more on that later).  Today, they remain some of the most controversial remarks about the attacks, and I think they are extremely provocative.  I urge you to refrain from a knee-jerk reaction lest you make a fool of yourself like Robert Thomas and so many other in the media have done already.

Here is the quote:

"What happened there is, of course - now you all have to adjust your brains - the greatest work of art that has ever existed.  That spirits achieve in one act something we could never dream of in music, that people practice like mad for ten years, totally fanatically, for one concert.  And then die.  And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos.  Just imagine what happened there.  These are people who are so concentrated on this single performance - and then five thousand people are driven into resurrection.  In one moment.  I couldn't do that.  Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers that is."

Take a moment to grapple with that.  It is horrifying and radical.  It is also not his entire statement.  In Stockhausen's own words:  

"At the press conference in Hamburg, I was asked if MICHAEL, EVE and LUCIFER were historical figures of the past and I answered that they exist now, for example Lucifer in New York. 

In my work, I have defined Lucifer as the cosmic spirit of rebellion, of anarchy. He uses his high degree of intelligence to destroy creation. He does not know love. 

After further questions about the events in America, I said that such a plan appeared to be Lucifer's greatest work of art. Of course I used the designation "work of art" to mean the work of destruction personified in Lucifer. In the context of my other comments this was unequivocal. 

I cannot find a fitting name for such a "satanic composition". In my case, it was not and is not my intention to hurt anyone. Since the beginning of the attack onward I have felt solidarity with all of the human beings mourning this atrocity."

An allegorical answer, provocative nonetheless.  Reactionary pundits were quick to call this backpedaling, despite having heard the quote in its abridged format.  I do think Stockhausen's comment was poorly considered, but I think there is something there worth real consideration.  It was an inconceivable act that irrevocably changed the entire world, and there is an awe to that.  In Stockhausen's context, it is the ultimate performance art for Man, driven not by a Divine Love, but by the pitfall of our own beliefs and intelligence.  It is deeply abhorrent, which Stockhausen does not deny.  Thomas' view of Stockhausen's comment is so far twisted from its original meaning that the reader think he means it made a nice noise, and that it's mildly regrettable that five thousand people died.  That's an outrageous claim for Thomas to make, one that is vapid and morally indignant without even a surface attempt to understand.

A very good perspective on Stockhausen's quote comes from Terry Castle of New York Magazine.  In his piece, Castle argues with himself about the concept of the Sublime: something which by its size, grandeur, danger to man, instills in us a base terror and awe.  Waterfalls, volcanoes, massive predators, these all fall under the umbrella of the the Sublime.  As Castle explains, "Certain natural objects, philosophers like Kant maintained, were necessarily sublime: erupting volcanoes, tempests, huge waterfalls, ferocious beasts, racing floods, swiftly enveloping darkness, and so on. But man-made phenomena could also be sublime: ancient ruins, grim fortresses, the interiors of great cathedrals, colossal towers, pitch-black dungeons, and the like."

Viewed from a place of safety, these events and things inspire in us a rush of adrenaline.  In the same way, Castle argues that there may be something of the Sublime in the tragedy, as Stockhausen seems to think.  I encourage you to read his full piece here.

Brecht Savelkoul of Distilled Magazine goes one logical step further in this debate.  He claims that Stockhausen was right in treating the attacks like performance art.  To Savelkoul, the intent of terrorism is to convince us to fear them and their power.  They do this through acts designed specifically to evoke an emotional response in us.  That is performance art, and the answer to that appears to be stoicism, to not let the terrorists' art win rave reviews.  However, as Savelkoul rightly notes, that is completely impossible, and against every fiber of our emotional beings.  He concludes that we must not take them seriously if we are to make them powerless.  While I'm not sure I agree with his assessment of terrorism, his thoughts on Stockhausen (and other composers with notorious reputations, like Wagner) are interesting and valid.  Read them on Distilled Magazine's website.

Moving on to some other claims Robert Thomas makes in his poem, I'd like to talk about his attempted character assassination of Stockhausen.  He writes, "There may be no one to talk to who would get it,/
but if you write it down maybe someone will get it after you've left the room,/ or in five hundred years, or maybe someone from Sirius, the Dog Star,/ will get it.  The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen/ claimed he was born on Sirius."

Fairly clearly attempting to paint Stockhausen as a loony before ever talking about his music or his controversial quote about the tragedy on 9/11, Thomas is also lying.  Stockhausen claimed that his ancestors came from the stars and that he was educated on Sirius.  He did not literally believe himself to be an alien, but rather spoke in metaphysical terms about an education informed by the natural world, and a shared lineage with all of space and time.  Thomas, only too happy to take things at face value, turns this into an affront against him, as if he is someone's crazy uncle and deserving of ridicule.  What a farce!

Then there is the matter of Thomas' impression of Stockhausen's music (and parenting, more on that later).  Thomas writes, "I heard Stockhausen interviewed at Davies Symphony Hall/ before the orchestra played one of his works/ that sounded to me like the voices of the parents/ in A Charlie Brown Christmas if they'd been arguing about real estate./ No, I was not impressed by Karlheinz."

In what strange fantasy world does Thomas live wherein Karlheinz is expected to impress, as if he is a sideshow entertainer?  Moreover, I looked for record of an interview of Stockhausen as Davies Symphony Hall, and found nothing.  I would not be surprised if the story here is fabricated given the license Thomas feels comfortable taking with facts and quotes, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt.  I can understand someone not enjoying Stockhausen's work, but Thomas' intent here seems to be to make Stockhausen seem ridiculous, like a cartoon parody of a man (hence the Charlie Brown reference).

In the part where Christel Stockhausen relates a story of her childhood, singing the stars, Thomas concludes with the line, "Suffer the little children."  I take this to mean that Stockhausen's children suffered for having been his, for having to sing the un-catchy music of the stars.  After all, "God does not write catchy tunes."  If I suspected higher thought out of Thomas, I would have though that a reference to Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünlinge, or, the Song of the Youths, the first great masterwork of electronic music.  In that piece, we hear the story of how Nebuchadnezzar throws three young boys into a terrible oven, and yet they are unharmed, for they sing praises to God.  It was a landmark piece, because it blended the human voice with electrically created and synthesized phonemes for the first time.  It's emotionally intense and creative, and it feels as though we are in the fire with them.  However, I do not think Thomas intended to put that image in our heads.

His opening assertion, that all written words are suicide notes and love songs, is actually the part of the poem I like best.  It hinges on the assumption that we can separate art from its original context, that it can change meanings, and that it is our thoughts and views that make things so or not so.  How he was able to go from this rational, clear artistic thought to judging a man's music based on his character and what he has said, I do not know.

The poem strikes me as being deeply anti-artistic and anti-intellectual.  I place much of that on his assessment of Stockhausen's quote about 9/11, because it feels uncritical and reactionary.  It reeks of a false moral grandstand, where Thomas acts outraged on the behalf of others.  Stockhausen's quote is unmistakably outrageous, but that is part of its great value, and it remains one of the most articulate things said about that tragedy, and certainly is a great starting point for conversations about what art is and the ethics of art.  I think the quote offers really interesting perspectives on terrorism and its effect on us, and the knee-jerk reactions people had to Stockhausen's quote show that it underscores our fear and apprehensions at other people, in this case, terrorists, being able to make us feel a certain way.

It is a great shame that so many people ignore Stockhausen's incredible work, or let that quote color their perception of his work.  It is unfair legacy to a man who helped bring a new form of music to maturity, just as it is a crime against music to disregard Wagner's staggering achievements because of his repugnant anti-Semitic views.

I hope this poem has given you much food for thought, and if you felt some form of strong emotion, outrage, anger, be it at the poem itself, at Stockhausen's quote, at the reactions people have had to it, or indeed, what I've said about all of this, good!  Let me know!  I'd love to continue this dialogue further.

As a parting gift, I leave you with two of Stockhausen's masterworks.  The first is Gesang der Jünlinge.

The second is his Mantra for two ring-modulated pianos.  Mantra is a very long work, but when you have time, I highly recommend listening to it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

"Gymnopédies No. 1" - Adrian Matejka

That was the week
          it didn't stop snowing.

That was the week
          five-fingered trees fell

          on houses & power lines
          broke like somebody waiting

for payday in a snowstorm.
That snow week, my daughter

& I trudged over the broken branches
           fidgeting through snow
           like hungry fingers through
           an empty pocket.

Over the termite-hollowed stump
as squat as a flat tire.

            Over the hollow
            the foxes dive into
when we open the back door at night.

That was the week of snow
           & it glittered like every
            Christmas card we could
             remember while my daughter

poked around for the best place
to stand a snowman.  One

with a pinecone nose.
              One with thumb-pressed

         eyes to see the whole
picture once things warm up.

I really enjoy the imagery of this poem, of a father-daughter trip across snow, after a full week of storms, to build a snowman, something somewhat hopeful to look towards the eventual coming of spring.  I particularly like the image of someone "fidgeting through snow like hungry fingers through an empty pocket," a sort of plaintive, fitful, unclear walk.

What I do not understand is why the poem is given the title of Gymnopédies No. 1.  Arguably Erik Satie's most famous piece, it's a beautiful piece, but I never got a sense of winter out of it.  Listening to it while writing this, I can hear some of the ideas, like a wide, barren, featureless landscape.  The small dissonances in the piece, characterized by 7ths, are not jarring, but rather, they enrich the fullness of the sound.  The light, delicate modal melody could certainly characterize snowfall, but I have trouble reading that into the piece.

I think more than anything, the association with Satie's piece drags this poem down a bit.  It saddles it with expectations to which I'm not convinced the poem can live up.  I like the poem quite a bit, I think the imagery is lovely, and that it's very evocative, but I think the title is preventing me from embracing it on its own terms.  I forget where I heard it (I think it may be Billy Collins), but the transition from the title of a poem to the body of the text is like disembarking from a boat; anything can go wrong.  I think something has here, because I can only compare this poem to the piece of music, and I think that's a shame.

Here is the piece.  I'll let you be the judge of if the textual content of the poem is a match for the musical content of the piece.  I hope that my interpretation has not colored your hearing of the music too much!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Romantics - Lisel Mueller

Johannes Brahms and
     Clara Schumann

The modern biographers worry
"how far it went," their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone's eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility.  Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

The love between Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms is the stuff of Romantic legend.  With Robert fading in health and going insane, the young Brahms, only 21, came to the side of Clara, at the time 35, who was raising her and Robert's seven children.  Their love, likely never consummated (which, as Mueller points out, we all seem rather obsessed with) was fiery and painful.  The social mores of the day strongly condemned affairs, and even when after Robert's death, they did not marry.

Their love is much talked about, probably overly so.  To be sure it is an incredible story, and I implore all of my blog readers to learn about it (you may do so here).  However, the degree to which we obsess over "how far it went" as Mueller tastefully puts it, is silly.  The idea that we can quantify depth of love by some metric of physical passion is idiotic.  The images of longing in the poem, particularly "a hand held overlong" fill my head with the warmth of another's touch, and the sadness of knowing that that touch can only be temporary.  That glow of warmth and sadness permeates much of Brahms' music.  As I write this, I am listening to the Intermezzo no. 2, A Major op. 118.  It is easy to imagine Mueller's scene of the two of them, friends, lovers, teachers, students, in a flower garden, shaded by the wide leaves of a tree, as rich and full as the deep chords of Brahms' piano writing.

"letting the landscape speak for them, leaving us nothing to overhear" is a great aural image.  Other than imagining the background noise of a garden, I like the idea that love can be private and silent.  Nothing needs to be said, it is enough to let the silence and gazes speak.  We are awfully rude about the private lives of the famous, particularly when the relationship was so famous and fascinating as that between Johannes and Clara.  Perhaps it is a good thing that we cannot know exactly what their love was like.

Here is the recording of the Intermezzo that I listened to.  It's played by the masterful Glenn Gould, and I hope that you enjoy it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

After a Greek Proverb - A. E. Stallings

                     Ουδέν μονιμότερον του προσωρινού

We're here for the time being, I answer to the query-
Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

We dine sitting on folding chairs - they were cheap but cheery.
We've taped the broken window pane.  TV's still out of whack.
We're here for the time being, I answer to the query.

When we crossed the water, we only brought what we could carry,
But there are always boxes that you never do unpack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Sometimes when I'm feeling weepy, you propose a theory:
Nostalgia and tear gas have the same acrid smack.
We're here for the time being, I answer to the query -

We stash bones in the closet when we don't have time to bury,
Stuff receipts in envelopes, file papers in a stack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Twelve years now and we're still eating off the ordinary:
We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack.
We're here for the time being, we answer to the query,
But nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

"Nothing endures but the provisional" is what Google translate tells me for the Greek at the start of the poem.  I think it is a version of the Heraclitus "nothing endures but change."   I suppose that Stallings' repeated "Nothing is more permanent than the temporary" conveys the same idea, only much more eloquently than Google translate.  The idea that the most permanent things in our lives are those we intended to be temporary is two-fold.  On one hand, we often make plans and never realize them, with temporary solutions becoming de-facto permanent.  On the other hand, there is nothing more constant in life than the idea of the temporary.  It's like how the present is always the present, always new.

"Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back" captures the thrust of the poem quite well.  We are always making plans that we never keep.  There are always boxes, literal or metaphorical, luggage that we never fully unpack.  We attach so much value to memories and material things that they cease to be part of our lives ("We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack") and make temporary things permanent.

Honestly, I think there's a sort of rueful humor about the poem.  Sure, we sometimes regret the things we let become permanent, but at the same time, there's a good-natured humor in the "permanent" solutions in the poem.  It's silly to eat dinner on folding chairs, but how many of us do something equivalent?  I know that I put a blanket over my luggage in my apartment and now use it like an extra table or storage.  How many times do we do a quick patch job to "hold us over" rather than fixing something properly?  It seems in our nature to make permanent what we think will be temporary.  Maybe we're all just short-sighted, but the fact that this is an ancient notion implies that this is not a symptom of modernity.  I like to imagine some ancient, maybe a farmer at Skara Brae, patching the wall of his house with a bit of wattle and daub, saying to his wife that he'll fix it later.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Lady Dressed By Youth - Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish

Her hair was curls of Pleasure and Delight,
Which on her brow did cast a glistening light.
As lace on her bashful eyelids downward hung:
A modest countenance o'er her face was flung:
Blushes, as coral beads, she strung to wear
About her neck, and pendants for each ear:
Her gown was by Proportion cut and made,
With veins embroidered, with complexion laid,
Rich jewels of pure honor she did wear,
By noble actions brightened everywhere:
Thus dressed, to Fame's great court straightaways she went,
To dance a brawl with Youth, Love, Mirth, Content.

This brief poem is a picture of youth, described as a young lady.  The idea that we are all clothed in youth is nice, and the images here are certainly radiant.  My favorite image is that we all go out to "dance a brawl with Youth, Love, Mirth, Content."  Fighting, dancing, all in the bright glow of youth.  It's a very attractive image, and I like that.  There's not much more to say, really.  The poem is straightforward rhyming couplets with simple language.  I just like the thought of us dancing a brawl, of seizing our happiness.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Landscapes Imagined Before Man - Chris Hart

What did places look like
before they were
over run run over
by and with

Diverted rivers?  Where would you run,
river if you ditched the irrigation
into which you were forced?
Forest, were you once plain?

Plainly, all I know
as I look over the patchwork farms
geometrically growing before me
is that the mountain has been there all along,
looking over the silly people
or not
with their temporary homes,
chimneys lightly sighing smoke,
briefly appearing
on the gentle slopes
of a green valley.

Is it egotistical to share my own poetry and analyze it on my own blog?  Probably, but no one's going to stop me.  I've no delusions of being a good poet, but I keep writing the stuff anyways, so may as well share some!  I rarely share my poems, not because I think they're bad, but because I think people couldn't possibly be interested in them.  I hope it does not bore, dear reader!

A thought I often have, particularly as I walk among places where nature and humankind are in sharp contrast, is "What did this place look like before people were here?"  It's tantalizing to imagine a landscape untouched, because there are very few of those, if any that are truly untouched left on the whole planet.  There are, however, many gorgeous landscapes that bear the mark of man.  For me personally, I've been thinking of this idea ever since I came to Korea.  In my town here, there is a mountain, not terribly tall or grand, but distinctive nonetheless, a constant and permanent feature of the landscape.  Apparently, about two thousand years ago, there was a minor kingdom in this part of Korea, the Jomun Kingdom.  They lived on the plains at the foot of this mountain, and the mountain appeared to hold some sort of quasi-religious reverence among them.  It was said that anyone creating their family's burial mound on the slopes of the mountain would be rich beyond measure, but doom everyone else in the area to terrible drought.

This is still a very rural area of Korea, with small patchwork farms scraping out livings all along the river.  In part of my town, the river runs through a man-made channel, for irrigation.  Where did it run before that?  Were there forests, or were these farmlands always plains?  What mark has man made geographically?  What did it look like before we came and settled?

In terms of poetic functions, I tried to keep a fairly steady flow coupled with wordplay and punning.  Word pairs like "forced/forest, plain/plainly, over run run over" are meant to keep things moving, and to set up some light puns, and to make the poem fun to read out loud.  Apart from those, I sought to use alliteration rather than rhyme to give the poem distinct features.  As much as I enjoy rhyme in poems that aren't mine, I never feel like I can rhyme things very naturally.  I'm comfortable with some slant rhymes, like "smoke/slopes" but that was an unintended consequence of my diction.  Unless I am willing to strongly commit to a formal structure from the poem's outset, I don't think deliberate rhyme makes sense.

I hope as a thought experiment, this has been valuable!  I know I've enjoyed looking with scrutiny at one of my own works, even if I'm not fully convinced it has value.  I do enjoy reading it out loud, though, and I am proud of a few of the turns of phrase ("geometrically growing") as I feel they provide a vivid image of the way humans spread and conquer a landscape with their funny little farms and lives.