Monday, March 31, 2014

Ode - David Lehman

People in the middle ages didn't think they were living
Between two more important and enlightened eras;
Nor did they see themselves as the players
In act three of a tragedy in five acts.
It was not always late winter in the middle ages.
People in the middle ages were not all middle-aged
Though it is enjoyable on occasion to assume that they were.
The sun was as bright in the dark ages
As it is now - maybe a fraction brighter, in fact.

Think of the middle ages and what do you see:
Gloomy cathedrals, students dressed like monks in the rain,
Or a band of drunken pilgrims telling obscene jokes,
Or heroes embarking for the nearest wilderness come April?
Your answer will reveal yourself to yourself
But you may not know it - may choose to hide
In hazy visions of a serene and indescribable paradise.
And paradise, as we all know, may be paradise when we're dead,
But it is boredom on earth, alas.

We never think of ennui in relation to the middle ages.
Should we?  Did Thomas Aquinas never get bored
Cooking up elaborate refutations of diminutive heresies?
No, and you shouldn't either.  Nor did the clerks
of Oxford tire of the sin against the Holy Ghost,
Trying to figure out what it was.

On chill September mornings when
I smoked too much the night before
And I drank too much the night before
And a sinister cough rises up
From the depths of the belly of my being,
I like to imagine living in Provence
Or even in Rheims during the middle ages.

It's one of my least favorite common cultural assumptions that the Dark Ages or Middle Ages were somehow dreary or stagnant in terms of achievement.  Some of the greatest architectural feats of that time are still proudly standing, well-deservedly drawing attention and admiration.  The flowering of literature and philosophical thought in those centuries was also profound, as was the development of social orders, nations, and commerce.  It's a silly notion to assign them the name "The Middle Ages" as if there was nothing much going on and that time period just acted as a bridge to the Renaissance.

Lehman does a good job making the reader feel ridiculous for the assumptions they likely hold.  I like his imaginative exercise, wherein you are asked to envision what life was life back then.  I also like the not so subtle reference to Chaucer with the "band of drunken pilgrims telling obscene jokes."  Bringing Chaucer, who is considered one of the figureheads of English literature into the mix is a good way to remind the reader that the middle ages were hardly the bland, uneducated time we often assume them to be.

I too like to imagine what daily life must have been like in the past.  What were the hopes and fears of the average person?  They loved, had kids, wept, worked, feared, and played like anyone else.  It's easy to forget the human aspect of history amidst the myriad list of dates and achievements.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself - Wallace Stevens

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,

A bird's cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind

The sun was rising at six,

No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism 

Of sleep's faded papier mâché...
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry - it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,

Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

This poem, a prelude to spring heralded by one scraggly bird's squawk, offers a vivid image of the cusp of seasons' change.  In a way, it's a hopeful look towards a brighter future, literally and figuratively.  We always think of spring as a season of beginnings, growth, and life, and that's presaged here mainly with the image of the sun, and with a sort of music of nature.

The description of the sun as a battered panache (decoration) above the snowy landscape is very humanistic.  How many times have you looked out at a wintry landscape in March and felt somewhat weary?  It's as if the sun, that massively hot thing so far away, somehow holds no power over winter.  But the bird's cry, which was not a hallucination, as Stevens first wonders ("a scrawny cry from outside seemed like a sound in his mind.") is the first signal of what is to come.  It was actually outside, not merely a dream, which is described as "sleep's faded papier mâché."  

The "colossal sun" which is "surrounded by its choral rings" is the life giving force at work in this poem's world and indeed in our own world.  The idea of music coming with the sun makes me think of the antique concept of the music of the spheres, with a celestial music being created in the great and unfathomable order of Creation.  Here, it's nothing so grand, but rather, one cry of a bird, like "a chorister whose c preceded the choir."  At the same time, is there anything so grand as the chirp of a bird after a long winter?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Seikilos Epitaph - Seikilos

[inscription] I am a tombstone, an image.  Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.

While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands its toll.

While not strictly poetry, the epitaph of Seikilos as it is called, is an ancient Greek tombstone inscription, likely placed between 200 BC and 100 AD, located in modern day Turkey, near ancient Ephesus.  It is notable for being the first whole notated piece of music in human history.  Earlier notated fragments survive, but this is the first complete piece of music yet found.  It is a song, presumably written by Seikilos, to his wife, who had passed on.  On the tombstone itself, alongside the text, is the musical notation, which has been reconstructed into actual music by scholars.

The text itself is an enduring message of peace and love, containing wisdom that even two thousand years ago must have seemed ancient and timeless.  Life is short, time marches on, and all we can really ever hope to do in our brief time is shine.  Live without grief.  I love that image of life, not to live, but to shine.  Be radiant.  It's the kind of message that inspires hope and peace, and seeing it in an ancient source makes it feel almost sacred.

The light, shining, feel of the poem is reflected in the melody, which pierces through time with crisp brilliance.  It refreshes in a way that is difficult to describe.  The melody is diatonic, and plays in the modern Dorian mode (ancient Greek Phrygian mode).  The opening interval, a perfect fifth, underscores the feeling of light.  It's a beautiful melody, and I often find myself humming or whistling it without intending to.  I hope it can lift your spirits.

Imagine yourself, two thousand years ago, feeling a Mediterranean breeze, mourning the death of a loved one.  The sun is upon you, and you sing.  The most fitting tribute you know is to live with radiance, to honor the memory of the departed with love and clarity.  You write this inscription in the hopes that someday, it may bring peace to some other grieving soul.  Let the melody fill you.  For your enjoyment, here is the song, first spoken, then sung.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

And Then It Was Less Bleak Because We Said So - Wendy Xu

Today there has been so much talk of things exploding
into other things, so much that we all become curious, that we
all run outside into the hot streets
and hug.  Romance is a grotto of eager stones
anticipating light, or a girl whose teeth
you can always see.  With more sparkle and pop
is the only way to live.  Your confetti tongue explodes
into acid jazz.  Small typewriters
that other people keep in their eyes
click away at all our farewell parties.  It is hard
to pack for the rest of your life.  Someone is always
eating cold cucumber noodles.  Someone will drop by later
to help dismantle some furniture.  A lot can go wrong
if you sleep or think, but the trees go on waving
their broken little hands.

What I get from this poem is that in tragedy, or in the collision of two forces, be they things, ideals, people, there is always generation and destruction.  The first two lines, "things exploding into other things" makes me think of the tragedy of 9/11, particularly as it continues on to say "we all run outside into the streets and hug."  Tragedy brings people together, fueled by some innate human desire to love in the face of adversity.

The metaphors for romance here are provocative.  Imagining the way a stone heats up in the sun is like the feeling one gets in the pit of the stomach when thinking about a loved one.  "Your confetti tongue explodes into acid jazz" to me is a statement on just how varied and wonderful our speech can be, and to me also contains all of the thrills of a kiss with a lover.  The idea that we write our goodbyes with our eyes, as if we have typewriters is novel, because it's commonly held that we speak with our eyes, so why not write with them?  All of these images have a sense of the bizarre about them, but are also generative images, productive images.

I think my favorite aspect of the poem is the way time goes on, regardless of how things turn out.  "A lot can go wrong if you sleep or think" to me seems to caution against over-thinking,  No matter what we do, "the trees go on waving their broken little hands."  Even broken things go on, and everything is alright.  It seems quietly reassuring to think that even in the wake of tragedy, the wind will still stir the trees, and our hearts will still stir with emotions, and love.

The title is also very encouraging, to me.  It's a statement of determination, of dictating one's own reality.  It has a stubbornness to it that I find very endearing.  Why is it less bleak?  Because we said so!  It's a refusal to let the good things in life be buried by tragedy, and bolsters the idea that happiness comes from within and is something one chooses.

Re-posted from with permission from the author.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Barter - Sara Teasdale

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

Despite all of the "loveliness" of this poem's imagery, it's met with an undercurrent of sacrifice and cost.  Life does have loveliness, but it's for sale, and nothing is free.  Your peace may come at the price of years of struggle.  However, it's all worth it, in the opinion of Teasdale, as she exhorts us to, "for a breath of ecstasy, give all you have been, or could be."

The poem is an ardent plea to fight for your happiness, to seize that loveliness life has to offer.  The images in the first two stanza are extremely evocative.  I found myself wistfully remembering the scent of the big pine tree in my old front yard.  "Music like a curve of gold" perfectly captures those wondrous moments in life when something so piercingly beautiful carries you away, you become lost in the beauty of it.  Imagining the eyes of one who loves you, the arms of one who has held you dearly, it's such a wonderful feeling.  We need to remember that these things are not free, but that, as the title suggests, we must barter, and give our all for these precious moments.

Lines Written in Early Spring - William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:-
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such me Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

I am always somewhat annoyed at poetry that decries the current age as the nadir of humanity, at how doomed we are.  It's an awfully tired notion that we are doomed and that things are worse than they've ever been.  Wordsworth sets that notion against perfect images of Nature, where all things seem to be a thrill of ecstasy.  Birds hopping and playing, with every "least motion...a thrill of pleasure."  What bothers me about this image is the injection of human terms into the actions of Nature.  Wordsworth decries how man lives out of joint with Nature, but that seems deceptive to me.

It's very romantic, the image of sitting in a glade, hearing the lovely sounds of birds, and admiring the way the "periwinkle trailed its wreaths" but it seems that the melancholy Wordsworth injects is very forced.  He is in "that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts bring sad thoughts to the mind."  I can understand this.  Imagine, sitting in a park, enjoying the sounds of the birds in the trees, when suddenly, an acrid cloud of smog rises over the park, a stark reminder of mankind's presence on the landscape.  What's missing here is "what man has made of man."  We can easily assume that Wordsworth speaks of the march of technology, and the idea of city life and the way we've moved away from pastoral living.  However, it is the luxury of modernity, of some degree of security, that allows Wordsworth to sit and wax poetic about how we've ruined the world, and to foppishly sigh over the state of the world.

Wordsworth's affected degree of indignation at our separation from Nature has never won me over.  I find the imagery of the poem lovely, and I can certainly understand the sentiment within, but it just rings so hollow to me.  Every generation is doomed, we're beset by the modern world, we've lost all our ties to sacred Nature, we're doomed for real this time.  Maybe I'm a bit too optimistic, but I like to think that every "doomed" generation contains all the potential of greatness as any other, and we've not yet destroyed our world.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Broken Fountain - Amy Lowell

Oblong, its jutted ends rounding into circles,
The old sunken basin lies with its flat, marble lip
An inch below the terrace tiles.
Over the stagnant water
Slide reflections:
The blue-green of coned yews;
The purple and red of trailing fuchsias
Dripping out of marble urns;
Bright squares of sky
Ribbed by the wake of a swimming beetle.
Through the blue-bronze water
Wavers the pale uncertainty of a shadow.
An arm flashes through the reflections,
A breast is outlined with leaves.
Outstretched in the quiet water
The statue of a Goddess slumbers.
But when Autumn comes
The beech leaves cover her with a golden counter-pane.

The thing I like most about Imagist poetry is how it merely presents, often in enchanting imagery, a scene, without seeking to add narrative or morality.  Here, as the title implies, lies a broken fountain, sunken from its days of glory, but still exceeding in beauty.

I'm sure we can inject a lot of morality into the scene if we wish, almost like Shelley's "Ozymandias" in which all man-made works one day turn to dust, reclaimed by nature, but I don't see any judgment in these lines.  The ruins of the fountain are beautiful, with the fountain and Goddess statue within lying enchanting, enhanced by "bright squares of sky" and covered with "a golden counter-pane."

I think moralizing the scene would be to do it a disservice.  This is a scene, almost like a panoramic photo that can somehow span seasons.  We see the summer sun reflected in water disturbed only lightly by the passing of a beetle.  The leaves lie softly, outlining the sunken statue, covering it enticingly, inviting us to look about the scene.  The fountain's ragged edges end in smooth marble circles, beautiful in its ruin.  I like to think that this is the sort of poem which lets you walk around it.  The scene is so vivid that you can create a picture in your head through which you can take a leisurely mental walk.  See, in your mind's eye the scene described.  Read the poem aloud and let the scene take root in your mind.  It's a wonderful place to be.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Warm Summer Sun - Mark Twain

Warm summer sun,
Shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind,
Blow softly here.
Green sod above,
Lie light, lie light.
Good night, dear heart,
Good night, good night.

Adapted from Robert Richardson's poem "Annette."

This poem actually adorns the headstone of Mark Twain's daughter, Susy Clemens.  She died at 24 of a coma induced by spinal meningitis.  She was much loved by Twain, and had served as the inspiration for his portrayal of Joan of Arc in his novels.  Her death devastated Twain, and her tombstone remains as a testament to his love.

The poem itself is direct and beautiful, a plea to nature for peace and rest for a loved one.  The only changes Twain made to the poem was the removal of the name "Annette" instead replacing it with "dear heart" and changing "sweetheart" into good night.  The verse is often attributed to Twain, which I have also done, but as on Susy's stone, I have included the reference to Robert Richardson, who wrote the much longer poem of which this is the last stanza.  Twain, however, has become inextricably linked to the poem over the years.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Consider the Hands that Write this Letter - Aracelis Girmay

after Marina Wilson

Consider the hands

that write this letter.

Left palm pressed flat against paper,
as we have done before, over my heart,

in peace or reverence to the sea,
some beautiful thing

I saw once, felt once: snow falling
like rice flung from the giants' wedding,

or strangest of strange birds. & consider, then,
the right hand, & how it is a fist,

within which a sharpened utensil,
similar to the way I've held a spade,

the horse's reins, loping, the very fists
I've seen from roads through Limay and Esteli.

For years, I have come to sit this way:

one hand open, one hand closed,

like a farmer who puts down seeds & gathers up;

food will come from that farming.

Or, yes, it is like the way I've danced

with my left hand opened around a shoulder,

my right hand closed inside 

of another hand. & how I pray,

I pray for this to be my way: sweet

work alluded to in the body's position to its paper:

left hand, right hand

like an open eye, an eye closed:

one hand flat against the trapdoor,

the other hand knocking, knocking.

This lovely poem is full of images of renewal and life, tied directly to the body's position when writing a letter.  Writing a letter is treated here as an act of generative, sincere love.  The hand which holds the paper down has seen beauty, and is reverently pressed to the paper, as if to a lover's heart.  That hand which anchors the letter has been held to the heart at the sight of the sea and touched the purest of snow.  

The right hand, the write hand, holding the pencil.  This hand has held tools, reined in a horse, has traveled the world.  The pencil, fueled by wild ideas and flights of poetic fancy, must sometimes indeed feel like a rampaging stallion.  I've known that feeling where I want to write too fast for my own good.  A steady handhold on the pen can save a good idea from becoming a rushed idea.

The two hands together, this mixed posture of open and closed, is an act of generation, much like a farmer sowing seeds and reaping a harvest.  A letter can be seen as the seeds of correspondence, and the harvest friendship.  Writing is an act of prayer, of "sweet work."  Lastly, the image is given of two hands against a trapdoor, one held flat, the other knocking.  I see this an invitation to the table, to write out own letters.  The knock is for us to open our hearts.

The repetition of the word "knocking" at the end is a nice bit of word painting.  It's as if Girmay is saying, "Let me in!  Let poetry and love in!  Write!"  She's wise to do so, as just writing about this poem has greatly lifted my spirits.  Maybe I'll need to hand-write some more letters soon.  It does have a special feeling to it, captured beautifully in this poem.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Blues on a Box - Langston Hughes

Play your guitar, boy,
Till yesterday's
Black cat
Runs out tomorrow's
Back door
And evil old
Hard luck
Ain't no more!

The blues, since their invention, have been a form of healing and expression for the downtrodden, particularly with roots in the experience of oppressed African-Americans.  This tight poem, which is not lyrically representative of a blues, is an expression of hope and encouragement, even if it is unclear if Hughes actually thinks "hard luck" will ever be no more.

"Hard luck" on a personal scale can be anything: the loss of a job, the infidelity of a lover, financial trouble, drugs.  I think in a larger cultural context, "hard luck" can refer to the raw deal African-Americans have received since they were first brought to the US.  Post-reconstruction era life and into the highly segregated world of Jim Crow laws was brutal  "Hard luck" seems mild, but really, the blues are an outlet for the soul.

Imagining misfortune as a black cat makes for a handy visual representation.  He came in yesterday (tragedies of the past, a history of oppression), but with hope, he will run out of tomorrow's back door.  In the future, when he, "evil old hard luck" is vanquished, then you can stop singing the blues.

Really though, hard luck will never be dead for anyone, and I think that must be a good thing.  Without struggle, what is life?  How much art would we be deprived of today if no one ever struggled?  Art is the human way to cope with struggle, suffering, beauty, loss, all those things which make us who we are.

I do wonder about the use of the word "boy" which often carries a charged racial connotation, but rather than being demeaning here, I see it as affirmative, an older black man encouraging the younger generation to keep singing the song of struggle, to keep on keeping on.  I mostly think this because it's Langston Hughes's poem, and not anyone else's.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Burnt Ship - John Donne

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drowned.

This poem is a bitterly ironic reminder of one of the horrors of naval warfare in the age of the sail; if a ship was set on fire, it was almost certainly going to sink.  Sailors who leapt from the ship either drowned or were killed by the enemy who lit the ship on fire in the first place, ("near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay").  All who were left in the ship, in a wet, flaming oxymoron, were burnt in the sea and drowned in a burning ship.

The poem is strangely emotionally detached.  It observes without moralizing, reading almost like a sterile account of events.  There are no dramatic exclamations "O, alack, alay!" no mourning the crew, no cursing the enemy (who is only referred to as foe, a fairly neutral word).  It's as if Donne is inviting us to be observers and to judge for ourselves.  In doing so, I think that he makes the gruesome fate of the sailors seem like even more of a tragedy.  We can draw our own conclusions about the scene, and I doubt there are any who do not feel some sort of pity for the poor souls who burned in a watery grave and drowned in a funeral pyre.

There is some ironic black humor in burning to death on a sinking ship, or drowning in a burning ship, but somehow I don't think that's the point of this poem.  I do admit that I smiled a little at the image, and like to think that if I was one of the unfortunate souls in the poem, somewhere between saying my prayers and cursing my bad luck, I'd chuckle to think that I'm about to drown trapped inside a flaming ship.

Structurally, the poem contains six un-metered lines following a rhyme scheme of ABBACC.  The final rhyming couplet serves to draw a tidy conclusion to the grisly scene.  When one reads the poem aloud, there is a definite feeling of finality in those lines.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Chairs That No One Sits In - Billy Collins

You see them on porches and on lawns
down by the lakeside,
usually arranged in pairs implying a couple

who might sit there and look out
at the water or the big shade trees.
The trouble is you never see anyone

sitting in these forlorn chairs
though at one time it must have seemed
a good place to stop and do nothing for a while.

Sometimes there is a little table
between the chairs where no one
is resting a glass or placing a book facedown.

It might be none of my business,
but it might be a good idea one day
for everyone who placed those vacant chairs

on a veranda or a dock to sit down in them
for the sake of remembering
whatever it was they thought deserved

to be viewed from two chairs
side by side with a table in between.
The clouds are high and massive that day.

The woman looks up from her book.
The man takes a sip of his drink.
Then there is nothing but the sound of their looking,

the lapping of lake water, and a call of one bird
then another, cries of joy or warning-
it passes the time to wonder which.

Above all, this poem is about how our best laid plans can easily be forgotten.  The chairs in the poem serve as a visual reminder of all the things we think would be nice to do, that perhaps we take for granted.  "I can sit in those chairs any time" one might think, and as a result, never sit in the chairs.

What Collins does so nicely here is portray, with a bit of humor, what might be seen from those chairs.  "...there is nothing but the sound of their looking" brings to mind all the calm and peace I can imagine of simply sitting and looking out over a beautiful scene.  For me, that mental picture would have to be Lake George up in the Adirondack mountains.  That is a place where I have just sat, with a book facedown next to me, enjoying the quiet lapping of lake water against the shore.

Poetically, the feature I most enjoy in this poem are the small enjambments that Collins uses to create a sense of motion.  My favorite instances is "a call of one bird/then another."  Visually, our eyes are drawn from one bird's call down to the next line, where it is greeted by another.  It's easy to imagine a lone bird's cry, answered shortly thereafter by another.  I also like the "nothing but the sound of their looking,/the lapping of lake water" which precedes the bird line.  An image first of silence is created, and then as if painting another layer on, Collins introduced the background noise of quiet water movement.  It's like a time-lapse painting, with the scene slowly coming to life.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

[Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen] - Friedrich Rückert

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nicht von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorber dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

trans. Emily Ezust

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song.

I do not often post poetry in translation, because it is often hard to translate poetic sentiment, but I feel that even in translation, this poem retains much of its peaceful nature and beauty.  While it loses the rhyme scheme it has in its native German (which sadly, I do not understand fully, though I can pronounce it adequately enough to appreciate the lovely sounds of the language) it still flows in a suitable manner to be considered poetic.

The idea of being "dead to the world" is very attractive in this poem.  Lost, in a peaceful heavenly realm, in love and song, it sounds like an ideal state of being.  However, one line sticks out to me in particular.  "I live alone in my heaven/Ich leb allein in meinem Himmel."  How does one live alone and yet in love?  Are we to think of a Divine love, or some sort of cosmic transcendent love?  Or is the narrator content to live apart and relish the bittersweet side of love and immortalize it in song?

Song is an appropriate segue, because as ever, I will take this as an excuse to post a wonderful setting.  Gustav Mahler set many of Rückert's poems as songs for voice and small ensemble, and that is how I came to know of this poem.  I fell in love with its flowing lines, the sense of length, and of a beautiful melancholic sense of love and contentment.  It's a sublime setting, sung here in German by the greatest lied interpreter of the 20th century, Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau.  I urge you to enjoy the lovely sounds of the German words, and to dispel the commonly held myth that German is an angry sounding language.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sonnet VII: How soon hath Time, the Subtle Thief of Youth - John Milton

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol'n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
That I to manhood am arriv'd so near;
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure ev'n
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n;
All is, if I have grace to use it so
As ever in my great Task-Master's eye.

I wonder if Milton, who had just turned 24 when he wrote this poem, could possibly have imagined that he would go on to be one of the most hated men in Europe for his political writings (justification of regicide does not make one a popular man), the inspiration for the founding documents of the USA, and the blind poet of the great English epic(s) Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.  Certainly, this poem is full of his apprehension at how fast years are passing.  He's an adult, 24 now, but he feels like on the inside, he is not yet "ripe."

As many young people, myself included, can relate, it becomes clear that there is no point at which you are suddenly an adult.  To my students, I am exactly what they think of when they think of an adult.  Yet, to me, college doesn't seem far removed, I still think about spending time with my friends, and so on.  It seems that indeed "my semblance might deceive the truth."  I know my students think I'm in my 30s, as do many of my co-workers, so my semblance there is definitely deceptive.

I think it's interesting to note the pious humility Milton injects into the end of the sonnet.  "All is, if I have grace to use it so As ever in my great Task-Master's eye."  Milton felt that all he had, all talent, all potential, were granted him by grace of God.  He did not know where fate would take him, nor Time, but he was confident that no matter what it was, "however mean or high" that it would be the "will of Heav'n."

As a personal note, I don't find this poem particularly interesting or rewarding as poetry, but rather for the subject matter.  It's hard to imagine the megalithic figure Milton as a young, scared man afraid of how fast time passes and what he might do with his life.  Formally, it's a Petrarchan sonnet, and Milton has to truncate many words in order to make it fit within the formal structure.  The rhymes are not particularly striking either, and apart from the last three lines, which are quite nice, it's not a particularly satisfying poem to read.  Still, those last three lines echo to me what the mature Milton would later achieve; pious writings that struggle deeply with the sense of the individual's place in an increasingly connected world.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sonnet 1 - Sir Philip Sidney

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,-
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay:
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."

Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet about trying to win his love's attention with his writing should be familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with writer's block or dating anxiety.  For those who over-think every little thing, this should be all too familiar.

As he notes in the first line, he truly is in love, and wants nothing more than to show that love in verse, hoping that painting a poetic picture of his pain will persuade his love to pleasure.  Hopefully, seeing this pain will make her read, then she'll know his pain, and hopefully that knowledge will lead to pity, and in her pity, she may extend her grace, a loving hand his way.  Getting ahead of ourselves a bit, eh?

His mind presumably blocked by thoughts of love, he tried desperately for the words to show his woe ("to paint the blackest face of woe") and studied the works of other authors.  Turning through the works of others, looking for inspiration.  It's familiar to me, as well as to anyone else who has ever picked up a pen in hopes of capturing some small observation or subtle shade of emotion.  I particularly like the hope that "thence would flow some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain."  I can really feel my scalp tingle at the phrase "sunburned brain."

Of course, though, you cannot force creativity, here shown as "Invention" which artfully dodges "Study's blows."  No matter how much you study the work of great poets, invention comes from within, not from the footsteps of others (as evidenced by how mediocre a poet I am!).  Pregnant ("with great child to speak") with ideas, but feeling completely "helpless" Sidney bites his "truant pen" and beats himself up over his own failings.  At that point, his Muse, who I assume is either the actual woman he loves, or his imagining of her, calls him a fool and tells him to write from the heart.

Part of the great irony of this is that the struggle he feels is made so real and easy with which to sympathize by what he ended up writing.  He does, in a way, "paint the face of blackest woe" because we feel acutely his frustration at being unable to write a poem that will woo his love.  All he needed to do was look inward (which he apparently did).  Despite the somewhat archaic language, I find this poem to be a good representation of the frustration of writing and of trying to make your feelings reach someone else, and all the nervous energy entailed within.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Drinking Song - William Butler Yeats

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That's all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

What's to say?  As simple as it gets, really, Yeats creates a somewhat funny and somewhat poignant image here, of a lover looking at his or her other, taking a sip of wine, holding the object of their love in the eye, and sighing, presumably for want of love.

All I can really take from this is a sense of rueful regret at falling in love.  Raise a glass, sigh while falling in love, and hope you can realize it before you're old and dead.  Alternatively, I suppose it could be a sigh along the lines of "oh, you're the one I fell in love with" but I don't get that feeling.  Still, despite the sigh, I find a warm sense of humor in this poem.  After all, sighs can be of relief, happiness, anything.  It could be someone taking comfort in catching their lover's eye.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Flow My Tears - John Dowland

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

The most famous of Dowland's works, this lute song was originally composed as an instrumental work, called Lachrimae pavane in 1596.  It is thought that Dowland himself wrote the lyrics.  The melancholy subject matter was fashionable in the Elizabethan period, and musically the piece affects and air of mourning and grief, established by the chromatic descending bassline from A to E established in the opening bars.  It is likely that you have heard this piece before even if you have never heard of it, because it is one of the most famous pieces in the English language.

However, I want to look at the lyrics more than I do at the music (today, at least).  Despite the age of the lyrics, they're as relevant today as when they were written.  Feeling so awful you that nothing can assuage you is hardly a modern invention.  It's certainly dramatically melancholic, full of bold claims and images.  "Happy, happy they that in Hell feel not the world's despite."  What a claim!  That those in Hell suffer less than those alive because they do not feel the scorn of the world (and of their lover) is quite severe.

It's worth remembering that this sort of melancholy was largely in affectation.  The call in the first stanza, "Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!" is an invocation to cry, to weep, and to look dramatic in the doing of it.  It's desirable to appear this torn up about something, and these songs were enjoyed by courtly audiences who appreciated their imagery and sentiment.  They were not songs for people actively in throes of grief, but more of a fashion accessory for the court.  Still, that does little to take away from the simple and powerful imagery.

Enjoy now, the wonderful Andreas Scholl singing this piece, and imagine yourself part of the courtly audience, and delight in the sweet sadness as people have done for more than four hundred years now.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

My Picture Left in Scotland - Ben Jonson

I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be
That she,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me
And cast my love behind.
I'm sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet,
As hath the youngest He
That sits in shadow of Apollo's tree.

O, but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundred of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years
Ready so much waste, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face;
And all these through her eyes have stopp'd her ears.

The notion that love is blind seems old enough that Ben Jonson, writing in the early late 1500s and first half of the 1600s, can call it into question here.  He seems to wish desperately that love in fact was blind, for he fears that his aged appearance (47 years old, gray hair, beer gut, craggy face) has prevented his words of love from reaching the ears of his love.

He knows, being a poet and playwright of immense talent, that his words are surely sweet to her, and indeed, the first stanza of the poem flows beautifully.  Calling upon Classical imagery, he compares his language to the luxurious shade of Apollo's tree.  Sadly, his "conscious fears" seem confirmed to him.  It's something experienced by all, fear that their appearance will cloud their inner self and good qualities from reaching someone else. 

Despite this poem's age, it's still as relevant as the day it was written.  Who hasn't ever felt insecure in their appearance?  I'm sure that at some point, we've all feared that some aspect of our outward being will blind (or in this case, deafen) someone from seeing (or hearing) the person that lives inside.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ode on Solitude - Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, day, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mine,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Not quite the pastoral love poems of earlier in the week, Pope here seems to espouse the virtues of a quiet life well-lived.  Almost sounding like the Beatitudes, the life of quiet diligence and plenty sounds fairly pleasant.  The farmer in question, with his few acres, left to him by his father, lives his whole life breathing "native air in his own ground," supplied with all he could need by what he already has.

A life of quiet temperance, as easy as it sounds, with its "sweet recreation" and unconcerned pace, seems somehow sad to me.  Perhaps it is my modern eyes, but to die completely unlamented sounds awfully lonesome.  Then again, solitude and loneliness are very different things.  I'm not entirely sure Pope is glorifying this life, especially when the last two lines seem so bleak.

To "steal" away to such a peaceful life as this is certainly an attractive image.  The idea of not a single stone marking ones resting place seems bleak to me, but in a way it seems like the ultimate sign of love at at one-ness with nature.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love - Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That Valleys, groves, hill, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds' Swains shall dance and sing
For they delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

After yesterday's E. E. Cummings, I was in the mood for a more traditional poem with pastoral imagery.  There is not that much that is remarkable about this poem, if I am honest, but I find it to be lovely and direct.  The imagery puts one in mind of a sleepy British countryside, sweeping plains, fields, sheep grazing lazily upon rolling hills, the air full of such birdsong as to be compared with madrigals.

A lover's profession of devotion to his lady, he promises the whole of Nature's bounty to her, a woolen gown earned of their hard work and adornments of beautiful leaves and flower buds.  It is a picturesque fantasy of what their life together may be like.  This rosy life is the one imagined by the speaker, of how wonderful things would be if his love would come live with him, and be his love.  It's simple, direct, and romantic.  Though it is an outdated mode, I think many readers even today will sigh with delight at the imagined prospect of a pastoral life with their live.

Monday, March 3, 2014

[anyone lived in a pretty how town] - E. E. Cummings

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

Though E. E. Cummings is best known for visually arresting poetry like the poem [l(a] that I wrote about years ago on this blog, this poem is much more accessible.  However, I strongly advise the reader to read it aloud, or at least under your breath, or it may seem a bit out of sorts.  The poem relies on many clever enjambments, pairings, and sequences (particularly of seasons and weather).  It's a poem about the busy little lives we all live, with a pleasantly pastoral feel, evoking images of harvests, nature, and beauty.

The repeated sequences of seasons and weather (in different orders) add a real sense of temporal movement to the poem, and a sing-song nature.  Indeed, there are rhyming couplets throughout, making the poem quite lyrical, with a pleasant cadence and simple flow.  My absolute favorite line is "children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew/autumn winter spring summer)"  It captures the nature of growing up so neatly, with the passage of seasons and the sudden growth spurt of a child into an adult.  Absolutely delightful.

Lives, harvests, marriages, deaths, and we're back to the beginning, the cycle of seasons and sun, moon, stars, rain.  It's a self-contained little world where "someones married their everyones" and it seems to me like a very happy place, this poem.  For all its nonsense grammar, it's still easily understandable.  It manages to be unpretentious I think, largely due to the pastoral and common source material.  It's not preachy, but rather it just happily observes the lives that pass by like so many seasons.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Fill For Me A Brimming Bowl - John Keats

Fill for me a brimming bowl
And in it let me drown my soul:
But put therein some drug, designed
To Banish Women from my mind:
For I want not the stream inspiring
That fills the mind with--fond desiring,
But I was as deep a draught
As e'er from Lethe's wave was quaff'd
From my despairing heart to charm
The Image of the fairest form
That e'er my reveling eyes beheld,
That e'er my wandering fancy spell'd.
In vain! away I cannot chace
The melting softness of that face
The beaminess of those bright eyes,
That breast--earth's only Paradise.
My sight will never more be blest;
For all I see has lost its zest:
Nor with delight can I explore
The Classic page, or Muse's lore.
Had she but known how beat my heart,
And with one smile reliev'd its smart
I should have felt a sweet relief,
I should felt "the joy of grief."
Yet as the Tuscan mid the snow
of Lapland dreams on sweet Arno,
Even for for ever shall she be
The Halo of my Memory.

Keats, like all young men at some point in their lives, wants to get really drunk and drugged and generally messed up so badly that he will forget the love of Women with a capital W.  The poem itself is fairly simple; after expressing his desire to get blackout drunk, Keats begins describing the near Holy object of his affection and his affliction.  Soft face, beamy eyes, Paradisal features, this woman for whom Keats' affections go unrequited ("had she but known how beat my heart, and with one smile reliev'd its smart) sounds like a real knockout.

Jokes aside, the poem is something direct and something with which men and women alike have struggled for pretty much all time.  Unrequited love, the mental epitomizing of a Love object, the association of beauty with the Divine, the relentless ache of the heart, these are things common to poets and lovers worldwide.  The real delight of the poem s in its directness and lovely rhymes.  The modern age with its sarcasm and skepticism makes direct expression difficult and uncomfortable for us, but if we can get over ourselves for once, we will find a lot to enjoy here.