Thursday, July 23, 2015

Lessons - Sara Teasdale

Unless I learn to ask no help
   From any other soul but mine,
To seek no strength in waving reeds
   Nor shade beneath a straggling pine;
Unless I learn to look at Grief
   Unshrinking from her tear-blind eyes,
And take from Pleasure fearlessly
   Whatever gifts will make me wise -
Unless I learn these things on earth
Why was I ever given birth?

These are some hard lessons that Sara Teasdale seeks to learn.  Independence, fearlessness, gratitude, bravery.  All are on display here.  This poem is about confronting all of the good and the bad that lives around us every day.  Teasdale want to recognize the very heights of Grief and Pleasure, and to encounter them both "unshrinkingly" and "fearlessly."  Taking Pleasure without fear or guilt is as hard as facing naked Grief without shrinking from it.  Teasdale will not hide in the tall grass or shelter herself beneath shade, instead she will ask "no help from any other soul but mine."  It's an intoxicating self-reliance and strength of will on display.

If I can't do these things, asks Teasdale, why was I even born?  That's a good question, indeed.  Are these "Lessons" necessary?  Teasdale's narrator in this poem certainly craves these lessons, as she feels they will give her meaning and validate her existence.  I'm not convinced those lessons are necessary, because I feel that the capacity to ask them is enough.  Still, these questions are essentially the directed formation of the Self from within, and it speaks directly to each of our sense of ourselves as individual.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

To Asra - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Are there two things, of all which men possess,
That are so like each other and so near,
As mutual Love seems like to Happiness?
Dear Asra, woman beyond utterance dear!
This love which every welling at my heart,
Now in its living fount doth heave and fall,
Now overflowing pours thro' every part
Of all my frame, and fills and changes all,
Like vernal waters springing up through snow,
This Love that seeming great beyond the power
Of growth, yet seemeth ever more to grow,
Could I transmute the whole to one rich Dower
Of Happy Life, and give it all to Three,
Thy lot, methinks, were Heaven, thy age, Eternity!

Coleridge's rapturous love poem "To Asra" is probably best known for its last line: "Thy lot, methinks, were Heaven, thy age, Eternity!" It speaks of a timeless love beyond all comparison, which has lived forever in a Heavenly state.  There are so many other wondrous lines in this poem which overflows with love, though, and I'd like to point a few out to you, reader.

"This Love that seeming great beyond the power / Of growth, yet seemeth ever more to grow" is a favorite of mine.  His Love for Asra, the love she inspires, seems to be so great as to be beyond the point of growth, still grows constantly, always outpacing itself.  The love is "overflowing" and "pours thro' every part" of his frame, filling him, changing him.  The love is so transformative that it is like spring waters breaking through the snows of winter.  I hope you can all feel love so wonderful as this, reader.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Day You Are Reading This - William Stafford

The planet of Nothing fills the sky, and
a philosopher goes out and admires that
greatest of all discoveries in the heavens.

Even the rest of us, now and then we
fall outward and on into that glorious
hole where all of us really are.

But mostly we look steadily at the
stars, and when we meet someone
we say, "Have a good day."

There is nothing greater than Nothing.  I get a strong sense of peace from this Nothing that Stafford writes about.  The core of this poem is realization that everything is together.  That "Nothing" is a realization.  As he puts it, "now and then we / fall outward and on into that glorious / hole where all of us really are."  That Nothing is absence of ego and of any worldly connection.  It reminds me of a great many spiritual concepts across cultural traditions of becoming at peace with oneself and the world.

Mostly, when we look up, we "look steadily at the stars" and miss the great Nothing enveloping them, that "planet of Nothing" which fills the sky.  We make small talk with one another instead of sharing the world's beauty and wisdom.  We say "How are you?" without ever meaning it and "Have a good day" without caring if the recipient does.  I think Stafford wants us to see and notice that "Nothing" all around us and embrace it.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Insomniac Perdition - Chris Hart

Guide me, Virgil!
What stratum is this,
That deprives me of
Energy and sleep both.

A wearied mind,
Running Sisyphean
Circles around rings
Downward into my pillow

Sinking deeper and
Deeper drowning
But no breath comes

Just choking awake
Wakeful with worry
About awake
Why why why

Abyssian architect,
Who gave you the right
To deprive my mind
Of clearest sight?

Why do I wait and awake
Again awake cannot form
Firm the hate awake hate
Self world you hate awake

Let me sleep slip away from
This awful nightmare
By lapsing finally
Into sleep deep sleep.

So, reader, this is an unusual poem, even for me.  I sometimes suffer from insomnia, or at the very least, symptoms of insomnia.  For the past week or so, I've had real trouble falling asleep.  I typically get into bed between 12am and 1am, and lay awake for at least four hours, sometimes up to six hours.  Laying awake in such a state, exhausted, but unable to find the sweet respite of sleep, is a special sort of hell.  Earlier this week, as I grappled with these demons, I wrote this in a stream of consciousness at 5:00 am.  I had been lying awake for nearly five hours at that point, unable to shut my brain up, or to shut my body down.

It felt like I was drowning in wakefulness, choking on air, and unable to sleep (and find wakefulness and clarity in my dreams, ironically) no matter what I did.  I invoked Virgil, as if I was on my own journey into the Inferno.  What hell can there be apart from utter denial of respite?  In the third to last stanza, I deliberately wrote clearly, to underscore the difficulty I had creating cogent thought in that torturous state.  I think when contrasted to the rest of the poem, its clear rhyme and meter form an effective "breath of fresh air" amidst the confusion and struggle of the rest of the poem.

I deliberately did not edit this poem in order to make it more authentic.  I'm unsure how many of you can relate to this form of mental torture, but I felt compelled to write the poem anyways.  I assure you, this was genuinely written under duress in the wee hours of the morning, after an unbearably sleepless night.  If you, reader, like me, occasionally suffer from insomnia, I hope that you find rest soon, and sleep well.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Obsoletion of a Language - Kay Ryan

We knew it
would happen,
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
sudden. Words
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
on earth.

Kay Ryan's ability to present a complex and provocative topic, with ruthless economy of word, and peerless craft, is a true gift, and I am unashamedly envious.  I hope to learn from her example in my own work, and someday learn to place words as carefully as she does.  My adoration is already longer than her whole poem, though, so maybe I'm just making a "chewing" motion with my jaws, and I am unheard.

What happens who two people are fundamentally unable to understand one another?  Is it an accident that this happens?  No, that's too innocent an assessment.  Obsoletion is active, systematic.  It's the eradication of indigenous tongues by political process ("one of the laws") and the erosion of meaning.   It is planned.  "We knew it / would happen,"  It was not an accident that this language was obsolesced.  It is sudden.  A few lifetimes, and that's it.  One speaker left, mouthing meaningless words at an uncomprehending world.  The short lines and terse breaks contribute to the sudden aspect of the poem, to its chopped up feeling.  How can one speak when no one is there to understand?

Mutual isolation is how I frame the image of two people with no means to communicate.  They may as well not be on the same planet if they cannot communicate meaningfully.  For a language to be made obsolete is a hate crime against the richness of human experience.  There's a heartbreaking list of languages that have gone extinct in recent years.  Most, with the death of one person, "the only other / citizen there was / on earth."  There are language conservation efforts, but for most languages that go extinct, there is no revival.  It's hard to imagine your whole method of framing your experience and life being made impossible to communicate by outside forces, and it's terrifying.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Lay for the Troubled Golfer - Edgar Albert Guest

His eye was wild and his face was taut with anger and hate and rage,
And the things he muttered were much too strong for the ink of the printed page.
I found him there when the dusk came down, in his golf clothes still was he,
And his clubs were strewn around his feet as he told his grief to me:
"I'd an easy five for a seventy-nine - in sight of the golden goal -
And easy five and I took an eight - an eight on the eighteenth hole!

"I've dreamed my dreams of the 'seventy men,' and I've worked year after year,
I have vowed I would stand with the chosen few ere the end of my golf career;
I've cherished the thought of a seventy score, and the days have come and gone
And I've never been close to the golden goal my heart was set upon.
But today I stood on the eighteenth tee and counted that score of mine,
And my pulses raced with the thrill of joy - I'd a five for a seventy-nine!

"I can kick the ball from the eighteenth tee and get this hole in five,
But I took the wood and I tried to cross that ditch with a mighty drive-"
Let us end the quotes, it is best for all to imagine his language rich,
But he topped that ball, as we often do, and the pill stopped in the ditch.
His third was short and his fourth was bad and his fifth was off the line,
And he took an eight on the eighteenth hole with a five for a seventy-nine.

I gathered his clubs and I took his arm and alone in the locker room
I left him sitting upon the bench, a picture of grief and gloom;
And the last man came and took his shower and hurried upon his way,
But still he sat with his head bowed down like one with a mind astray,
And he counted his score card o'er and o'er and muttered this doleful whine:
"I took an eight on the eighteenth hole, with a five for a seventy-nine!"

Anyone who has ever golfed, or been similarly myopically focused on one challenging goal, can understand the somewhat comical pain of the golfer, or of the man who failed (thankfully at something largely inconsequential, no offense, golfers).  The poem is entirely written in heptametric (seven beats per line) couplets.  I only mention that because you may have been wondering why the poem has such a charming meter, and is so naturally suited to telling a story.  There's little else to explain here, as the poem explains itself just fine.  Enjoy!

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General - Jonathan Swift

His Grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that mighty warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he's gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He'd wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we're told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
'Twas time in conscience he should die
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that's the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink.
Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widow's sighs, nor orphan's tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of his hearse.
But what of that, his friends may say,
He had those honours in his day.
True to his profit and his pride,
He made them weep before he died.

   Come hither, all ye empty thing,
Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride by taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing's a Duke;
From all his ill-got honours flung,
Turned to that dirt from whence he sprung.

Jonathan Swift certainly pulled no punches here.  The famous satirist held little love for the military of his day, and in this mock elegy, does so with humor.  The first few lines are shocked exclamations.  What's that?!  And old person died!?  How could it be!  I like how he pretty immediately moves on from his mock concern to, "Well, since he's gone" and just goes on with it.  "'Twas time in conscience he should die / This world he cumbered long enough" is an excellent line.  The warring general is not missed by Swift.  When his candle snuffed out, it made an awful stink.  It's almost like a celebrity roast, and even though he's ostensibly talking about the deceased, you can't help but smirk.

Swift points out that typically when one dies, there are crying widows and orphans: those left behind by the death of a loved one.  For this general?  None.  In his lifetime though, he left, "true to his profit" (profession) a great number of weeping children and orphans behind: the victims of those he killed in war.  No one mourns his death and he caused immense heartbreak.

In the last stanza, Swift directly addresses other generals, "bubbles raised by breath of kings."  People who are hollow shells, raised by someone's power other than their own, "who float upon the tide of state."  The dead general's funeral procession is their lesson:  "Let pride be taught by this rebuke, / How very mean a thing's a Duke."  Mean here means low, lowly.  No matter what "ill-got" honours this general attained, he now is "turned to that dirt from whence he sprung."  No matter how exulted in life, he's just dirt now, and good riddance, one thinks Swift would have added.  Swift's humor is biting and pointed: critical of oppressive power structures, especially in a time when the common person had none of their own.  None but words, at least.

Monday, July 6, 2015

White Head - Sophie Jewett

Prone on the northern water,
   That laps him about the breast,
Like the Sphinx in the sand, forever
   The giant lies in rest.

The sails drive swift before him,
   And the surf beats at his lip,
But the gray eyes look out seaward
   Noting nor wave nor ship.

The centuries drift over,
   He marks not with smile nor frown,
Drift over him cloud and sea-gull,
   Swallow and thistledown.

I, of the race that passes,
   Quick with its hope and its fear,
Lean on his brow and question,
   Plead at his senseless ear:

"What of thy past unmeasured?
   And what of the peoples gone?
What of the sea's first singing?
   What of the primal dawn?

"What was the weird that bowed thee?
   How did the struggle cease?
Out of what Titan anguish
   Issued thy hopeless peace?"

Nothing the pale lips utter,
   What hath been, nor what shall be;
Under the brow's stern shadow,
   The gray eyes look to sea.

The blue grows round and over,
   Thin-veiled, as it were God's face;
I feel the breath, the spirit,
   That knows nor time nor space.

And my heart grieves for the giant
   In his pitiful repose,
Mocked by the vagrant gladness
   Of a laggard brier-rose;

Mocked to his face from seaward
   By the flash and whirl of wings;
Mocked from the grass above him,
   By life that creeps and sings.

I care not for his wisdom,
   His secret unconfessed;
I yearn toward rose and cricket,
   Ephemeral and blest.

Ah! if he might, how would he
   Quicken to love and to tears;
For my immortal minute
   Barter his endless years!

He rests on the restless water,
   And I on the grasses brown,
Drift over us cloud and sea-gull,
   Swallow and thistledown.

After posting early 20th century poet Sophie Jewett last week, I knew I had to revisit her and post more of her poetry, because to me, it is absolutely wonderful in both its craft and content.  The natural feeling of her lines and their rhyme is enchanting, and it reads easily without ever sounding preachy.  The subject of her poem also reminds me my native New England coastline.

Here, Jewett describes and talks to an ancient rock, presumably one just off the coast, surrounded by the foaming waves.  The rock may perhaps be on shore as well, but regardless, is by the coast.  The rock itself is immortal, immovable, endlessly gazing out to sea, as "cloud and sea-gull / Swallow and thistledown" drift overhead.  Jewett asks of this rock many questions that I've wondered myself when I look at some ancient natural feature.  What was the past of this place?  People who used to live here?  "What of the sea's first singing? / What of the primal dawn?"

Of course, the rock never answers; it's a rock.  What really sets this poem apart for me, and what makes it magical, is that Jewett does not envy the rock its permanence and knowledge of eons untold.  She embraces the human condition of transience and impermanence.  "I care not for his wisdom, / His secret unconfessed; / I yearn toward rose and cricket, / Ephemeral and blest."  Moreover, she supposes that the rock would "barter his endless years" for just one of Jewett's "immortal minutes" full of feeling, and love, and tears.  It's a wonderful affirmation of human existence, of our brief, beautiful time here on earth, beneath the "cloud and sea-gull, / Swallow and thistledown."

This poem's moving past envy of the rock's knowledge, of nature's untold eternal secrets, is almost like a revelation for me.  I've asked similar questions myself, in poetry, but was never fully satisfied with the asking.   I was concerned with transience, but of people in general, not of myself or of beauty.  I wondered what a place looked like rather than what it experienced, though the two questions are closely linked.  My own poem looks quite amateurish next to this masterstroke, and I've never been happier to say that.

Friday, July 3, 2015

To the Poet Before Battle - Ivor Gurney

Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;
Thy lovely things must all be laid away;
And thou, as others, must face the riven day
Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums,
Or bugles' strident cry. When mere noise numbs
The sense of being, the sick soul doth sway,
Remember thy great craft's honour, that they may say
Nothing in shame of poets. Then the crumbs
Of praise the little versemen joyed to take
Shall be forgotten; then they must know we are,
For all our skill in words, equal in might
And strong of mettle as those we honoured; make
The name of poet terrible in just war,
And like a crown of honour upon the fight.

Ivor Gurney is known best today as a composer rather than a poet, but his poetic output was significant all throughout his life.  This is a poem of the Great War, the first world war, of which Gurney was a participant.  There were many poet soldiers in that war, and he seemed very concerned with the reputation of the poet not suffering from any sort of cowardice.  This is addressed to all poets before they fight, that they "Remember they great craft's honour, that they may say / Nothing in shame of poets."  Fight with bravery he says, and let your might and mettle be equal to those you honor in poetry.

Poets and poetry of the first world war run such a wide range of attitudes, styles, and goals.  Gurney seems to revel in the poetic glory of mass conflict.  There's very little of the grim description of battle that one might find in Sassoon's poetry or the misty eyed optimism of Rupert Brooke.  Rather, Gurney seems to acknowledge that war is indeed a terrible time, and yet for all that, he presents war in dramatic poetic terms.  Rolling drums, bugles' strident cries, these all stir the blood.  That's the point, I suppose.  I feel as though Gurney knew full well how terrible war was (he fought it, after all) but he did not want anyone to think of poet soldiers as anything less than heroes in their own right.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

To a Child - Sophie Jewett

The leaves talked in the twilight, dear;
   Hearken the tale they told:
How in some far-off place and year,
   Before the world grew old,

I was a dreaming forest tree,
   You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
   Because the north wind stirred;

How, when the chiding gale was still,
   When peace fell soft on fear,
You stayed one golden hour to fill
   My dream with singing, dear.

To-night the self-same songs are sung
   The first green forest heard;
My heart and the gray world grow young -
   To shelter you, my bird.

A lovely flight of imagination, published posthumously a year after Sophie Jewett's passing, this poem contains a wonderful tenderness expressed from an adult to a child, though not necessarily that adult's child.  Jewett never had children of her own, but she was a professor at Wellesley College, where she had lots of children (young adults) to take under her wing.  The real takeaway of the poem comes in the last two lines:  "My heart and the gray world grow young / To shelter you, my bird."  Harboring and protecting a child brings youth, strength, and vitality back to the narrator of the poem, who is represented as a "dreaming forest tree."  The tree loves nothing more than to protect the bird from all the winds and dangers of the world, and in return, gets a "golden hour" of singing.

For Jewett, who taught writing, that hour of golden singing must have been reading the work of her students, about whom I am sure she cared deeply.  Having taught, if only briefly, I can recall few prouder moments than reading poems composed by my students.  Even though I am not a parent, I feel like this must be a familiar feeling to parents: a feeling of strength and youth when sheltering a child.  Regardless, it's a lovely and touching poem.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Soldier from the wars returning" - A. E. Housman

Soldier from the wars returning,
Spoiler of the taken town,
Here is ease that asks not earning;
Turn you in and sit you down.

Peace is come and wars are over,
Welcome you and welcome all,
While the charger crops the clover
And his bridle hangs in stall.

Now no more of winters biting,
Filth in trench from tall to spring,
Summers full of sweat and fighting
For the Kesar or the King.

Rest you, charger, rust you, bridle;
Kings and kesars, keep your pay;
Soldier, sit you down and idle
At the inn of night for aye.

If only such a day as this would come, when soldiers turn down from the fight and there is peace.  While the imagery of this poem is dated, and soldiers no longer have horses (charger), the sentiment is the same.  It's an almost fatigued sounding poem, as if the author, Housman, has just seen enough of war.  That would make sense, given that this poem was written in 1922, after Europe had been devastated by unimaginable war and hardship.  If only Kings and Kesars (kaisers, ceasers) would keep their pay, and not finance wars.

While there is a persistent fatigued tone to the poem, I feel that it also extends an invitation for healing.  In the first two lines, Housman acknowledges that soldiers who return from war (as opposed to those who do not) are not blameless themselves.  The returning soldier is the "spoiler of the taken town."  His war deeds were earned in blood.  Despite this, comfort is offered.  I wouldn't say forgiveness, because that's not mentioned again.  Peace is the offer.  "Here is ease that asks not earning."  Housman wants nothing in return for peace.  There are no demands, no vengeance, no grudges.  "Turn you in and sit you down."  Just stop war and take peace, since it's right there, he's saying.

Housman wants to see the bridle rust and the horse rest, and the soldier nevermore return to war.  To him, peace can be that simple.  The last line, "at the inn of night for aye" contains a bit of an archaic phrasing.  "For aye" means forever.  An alternate reading of the poem can assert that the soldier returning from war is dead.  The inn of night is eternity, where there will be peace forever.  The charger no longer carries the man and the bridle will rust from disuse.  Even if there is war in the world, there is peace for this soldier who no longer fights, and no longer has to endure the inhumanity of trench warfare.  I still think the poem is a larger call for peace rather than an individual mourning, but both opinions are valid.