Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Come Again - John Dowland

Come again! sweet love doth now invite
They graces that refrain
To do my due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die,
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.

Come again! that I may cease to mourn
Through thy unkind disdain;
For now left and forlorn
I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die
In deadly pain and endless misery.

All the day the sun the lends me shine
By frowns do cause me pine
And feeds me with delay;
Her smiles, my spring that makes my joy to grow,
Her frowns the Winters of my woe.

Al the night my sleeps are full of dreams,
My eyes are full of streams.
My heart takes no delight
To see the fruits and joys that some do find
And mark the storms are me assign'd.

Out alas, my faith is ever true,
Yet will she never rue
Nor yield me any grace;
Her eyes of fire, her heart of flint is made,
Whom tears nor truth may once invade.

Gentle Love, draw forth they wounding dart,
Thou canst not pierce her heart;
For I, that do approve
By sighs and tears more hot than are thy shafts
Did tempt while she for triumph laughs.

In his typical style, Dowland cultivates an air of affected melancholy.  While these lyrics are anonymous, they are inseparable from Dowland's musical setting.  The strophic form of the song and the repeated musical material also calls into relief the contrast between the sweetness of love and the harshness of the lover's rebuke.

Worth noting, in Elizabethan poetry and song, "to die" as used in the first stanza means to reach sexual climax.  "To die" sounds out of line with "to see, to hear, to touch, to kiss" but really, it's the logical conclusion of that progression.  The use of "to die" in the second stanza is much more close to the literal meaning, there meaning that he dies for want of his lover.  He's in "deadly pain and endless misery."  Affected melancholy and grand gestures of suffering (exorbitant weeping, sighs, fainting) were very fashionable in Dowland's time, and were never taken to be too sincere.

The rest of the lyrics are just filled with wonderful imagery.  "Her eyes of fire, her heart of flint is made."  "Her smiles, my springs that makes my joy to grow, Her frowns the Winters of my woe."  These are just gorgeous, and evocative.  We get the sense of a fierce mistress, but one who can also be loving, whose very touch can bring about joy like water welling out of a spring, whose disfavor can send the whole of the world to winter.  Her heart cannot be swayed by tears.  Love cannot wound her with its dart.

This is one of the most popular Elizabethan songs, and is still actively interpreted and performed.  I'll present you with two today.

First, is an unlikely singer, Sting!  He does quite a good job, actually.  He has done a number of interpretations of Dowland, and is doing a great thing by bringing these lovely songs to the greater public which may not otherwise hear them.

Next, a more period accurate performance.  Sadly, I cannot find an Andreas Scholl recording of Come Again.  The last time I discussed Dowland I linked his lovely performance of Flow My Tears.  Still, I have a treat for you, reader, a wonderful and emotive performance by soprano and lute.  Sadly, the first verse is not present.  Still, I hope you enjoy her magnificent interpretation.

Enjoy!  It's a lovely summer's day here in Korea, and despite the melancholy subject matter, this song feels quite summery to me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Ruin - Exeter Book

Wondrous is this masonry; shattered by fate
broken is the city; labors of giants crumble.
Fallen roofs, ruined towers,
rime-frosted mortar,
the mutilated roof collapsed,
undermined by old age.  Earth's embrace has
the deceased master builders,
the harsh grip of the ground, until a hundred generations
of people departed.  Often this wall,
grey with lichen and red-hued remained through one kingdom after
another, remained standing under tempest; lofty and broad it collapsed.
Still the masonry the storms cut down
Fell on ...........................................,
Cruelly scraped and sharpened.........
................shone she.......................,
................the ancient building...........,
...............,though crusts of mud ring.......
Heart.................swiftly wove together.
Resolute builder, with ingenuity of ring-mail,
bound the wall-brace together with wondrous metal wires.
Bright were the city building, the bathing halls many,
the abundance of high gables, the noise great -- as of an army,
many a mead hall full with the revelry of men
until the mighty fate changed that.
Slaughtered men fell far and wide, days of pestilence came,
death took away all the sword-valiant men;
the places of war became deserted places,
a decayed city.  Rebuilders perished,
sanctuaries fell into earth.  Forthwith these buildings great desolate,
and these red-curved tiles parted
with the vaulted ceiling.  The ruins fell, perished,
shattered into mounds of stone, where formerly many a warrior,
joyous and bright with gold, with splendor adorned,
proud and flushed with wine, in war trappings shone.
They looked upon treasures; upon silver, upon precious stone,
upon wealth, upon property, upon jewelry
and upon the bright stronghold of this spacious kingdom.
Stone buildings stood and a stream holy surged forth;
a wall enclosed all in its bright bosom, there were the baths,
hot at its heart.  That was so suitable.
The streams then poured hotly
over hoary, grey stone
into the circular pool

Where the baths were
..................a noble thing.
This house..........this city.

This is a translation of an Old English poem, called The Ruin, found in the Exeter book.  The poem is roughly 1200 years old, and describes what are mostly likely the Roman ruins at Bath.  It contrasts the current fallen state with its former glory, which is fitting, considering that the poem itself is incomplete.  Wherever you see ............ indicates damaged or missing text.  Much like the ruins in the poem, I wish I could have read this poem in its former glory.  The site described in the poem and the poem itself are still both beautiful despite their fallen state.

Here is the poem in its original Old English.  I am not an Old English scholar, and cannot effectively read it.  The translation here is more in keeping with the alliterative nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, but more difficult to read and understand.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.
Wonað giet se ...num geheapen,
fel on
grimme gegrunden
scan heo...
...g orþonc ærsceaft
...g lamrindum beag
mod mo... ...yne swiftne gebrægd
hwætred in hringas, hygerof gebond
weallwalan wirum wundrum togædre.
Beorht wæron burgræced, burnsele monige,
heah horngestreon, heresweg micel,
meodoheall monig dreama full,
oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd seo swiþe.
Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas,
swylt eall fornom secgrofra wera;
wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,
brosnade burgsteall. Betend crungon
hergas to hrusan. Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,
ond þæs teaforgeapa tigelum sceadeð
hrostbeages hrof. Hryre wong gecrong
gebrocen to beorgum, þær iu beorn monig
glædmod ond goldbeorht gleoma gefrætwed,
wlonc ond wingal wighyrstum scan;
seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,
on ead, on æht, on eorcanstan,
on þas beorhtan burg bradan rices.
Stanhofu stodan, stream hate wearp
widan wylme; weal eall befeng
beorhtan bosme, þær þa baþu wæron,
hat on hreþre. þæt wæs hyðelic.
Leton þonne geotan
ofer harne stan hate streamas
...þþæt hringmere hate
þær þa baþu wæron.
þonne is; þæt is cynelic þing,
huse ...... burg....

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lak of Stedfastnesse - Geoffrey Chaucer

Somtyme this world was so stedfast and stable
That mannes word was obligacioun;
And now it is so fals and deceivable
That word and deed, as in conclusion,
Ben nothing lyk, for turned up-so-doun
Is al this world for mede and wilfulnesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse.

What maketh this this world to be so variable
But lust that folk have in dissensioun?
For among us now a man is holde unable,
But if he can, by som collusion,
Don his neighbour wrong or oppressioun.
What causeth this but wilful wrecchednesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse?

Trouth is put doun, resoun is holden fable;
Vertu hat now no dominacioun;
Pitee exyled, no man is merciable;
Through covetyse is blent discrecioun.
The world hath mad a permutacioun
Fro right to wrong, fro trouthe to fikelnesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse.

L'envoy to King Richard II

O prince, desyre to be honourable,
Cherish thy folk and hate extorcioun!
Suffre nothing that may be reprevable
To thyn estat don in thy regioun.
Shew forth ty swerd of castigacioun,
Dred God, do law, love trouthe and worthinesse,
And wed thy folk agein to stedfastnesse.

Before I begin my light analysis of this poem, I will first give a brief overview of it in an English more familiar to your eyes, reader.  Middle English is sometimes a difficult language with which to come to grips.  Essentially, the poem talks about how many of the ills of the world are caused by fickleness, willfulness, and a general lack of steadfastness (bet you couldn't guess that one!).

In the first stanza, Chaucer laments how in the past, man's word was obligation, but today, word and deed, in the end, are nothing alike, because the world is upside down!  It's willful, and all is lost for lack of steadfastness.

In the second stanza, he wonders how the world came to be so variable.  How is it that people lust for dissent?  Men cannot hold their promises, but if an opportunity arises to do harm to his neighbor for profit, he happily will.  He concludes that it is willful wretchedness that causes this, and repeats that all is lost due to a lack of steadfastness.

In the third stanza, Chaucer says that truth is put down, and that reason is a vable.  Truth has no domination, pity is exiled, no man has mercy, and covetousness blinds men from discretion.  The world has made a permutation from right to wrong, truth to fickleness, and again, all is lost for lack of steadfastness.

Then, Chaucer makes an envoy to King Richard II.  He begs the king to rule well, to cherish his people, and hate extortion.  Order nothing shameful and suffer nothing that can bring reproach to his office and kingdom.  Show his sword of castigation (his power to punish those who lack steadfastness) and fear God.  Enforce the law, love truth and worthiness, and wed the people of the land to steadfastness again.

It is my belief that Chaucer did not fully believe that the world was lacking in steadfastness.  He's too smart to cry doom and gloom over the current age, that eternal trap of criticizing the lack of moral conviction of the young.  His other writings show as much.  While he may feel that in the past, men held to their convictions more strongly, I think he is likely trying to appeal to King Richard II's ego here, to make it seem like he is the only one who can correct a disordered world.  To be sure, the things Chaucer mention (greed, lack of conviction, lack of steadfastness) exist in every time period, but I don't think Chaucer would make the mistake of thinking that these things exist only in the current age.  It is somewhat funny that even over 600 years ago, there was poetry effectively shaking its head at the current state of the world.  Some things never change.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Confessions of a Recycled Shopping Bag - John Yau

I used to be a plastic bottle

I used to be scads of masticated wattle

I used to be epic spittle, aka septic piddle

I used to be a pleasant colleague

I used to be a radiant ingredient

I used to be a purple polyethylene pony

I used to be a phony upload project

I used to be a stony blue inhalant

I used to be a family-size turquoise bottle

I used to be a domesticated pink bubble

I used to be a pleasant red colleague

I used to be a beaming cobalt emollient

I used to be a convenient chartreuse antidepressant

Humor is always an effective means of making us examine the world around us.  It's truly remarkable how much of the world around is is recycled, things collected from bits of other things, made new.  The catalog presented here is varied and one can't help but feel, somewhat absurd.  It's hard to read without laughing, I think.  I'm not sure if there is much deeper meaning here, in the individual items presented, the order in which they are presented, or why they were chosen at all.  If you've got any ideas, let me know!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Feeling Fucked Up - Etheridge Knight

Lord she's gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs -

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing

Nothing else matters when your love leaves you.  Fuck everything else, says Etheridge Knight.  We can follow his descent into angry, sad, sobbing emotion through the course of the poem, as he gradually abandons all pretense of thought or poetic device, ending in anguish.  As the poem goes on, all punctuation is abandoned, letters are almost never capitalized (compare the "I" of the second line with the "i" of the seconds to last line), and thoughts run together like an angry rant.  It's an extremely effective device, communicating profound anger and sadness, mixed together in equal measure.

He wants to be mad at his woman, his lover, but he just can't bring himself to be mad at her.  His anger is displaced in every possible direction.  Art, music, nature, politics, religion, "the whole muthafucking thing."  The only thing Knight never says he's mad at is her.  He needs her to make his soul sing.  He feels so incomplete without her, and he knows that it's him who drove her away with his "dope death dead dying and jiving."  His drug abuse and destructive lifestyle made her leave him, taking with her her laughter, smiles, softness, and seductive "midnight sighs."  Unable to deal with being the cause of his own downfall, Knight redirects his anger.

By the end of his angry rant, we see Knight, practically whimpering, "all i want now is my woman back so my soul can sing."  He's pathetic, pitiful, and pitiable.  Our heart breaks for him, his rant over.  While it doesn't ameliorate his actions (and he never claims it does) his rant makes us sympathetic to him and his broken mind and heart.

I know many people are offended especially by vulgarity or obscenity in poetry but I think it's a valid means of self expression.  Knight isn't throwing "fuck" around for shock value, but because that's how lots of people talk when they're angry beyond reason.  No other language adequately describes the primal unreasonable emotion Knight feels.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Escape - Rebecca Foerg-Spittel

With my headphones on,
I can hear my heartbeat like it's someone else's,
And in that second, I imagine a hole between my breasts,
My heart escaping like a winged thing,
finding a home in some other girl,
nestling between her ribs.

Now, she is the one who misses you,
and everyone she's loved, and lost
somehow, like a key she dropped in plain sight,
a button that fell, soundless.

It is her feet that wander snowy streets,
hunting a crocus, a robin,
some ancient sign that the hard earth lives.

It is she who cannot sleep,
who settles and unsettles,
her tongue that can't form the right words,
her fingers that can't write them.

While my body waits here,
emptied. Safe.

Today's poem is a contribution from my friend Rebecca Foerg-Spittel, who has contributed on this site before.  Today, she rightly gets the spotlight.  The poem, fittingly titled Escape, is an imaginative exercise in displacing heartbreak, in trying to free oneself from hurt.

The poem begins with an image of self-isolation.  Headphones, besides playing music, can act as a shield against the outside world, blocking out its noises, and blocking other people.  I know some people who often wear headphones in public, not because they are listening to music, but because they don't want anyone to approach them.  It works.  The headphones, to the narrator, allow her to hear her own heartbeat.  Now begins the imaginative flight.

Imaginative flight is the right phrase too, for she imagines her heart escaping from a hole in her chest, "like a winged thing" and taking up residency "in some other girl, nestling between her ribs."  This new owner of the heart, the anonymous girl to which the narrator's heart flew, now she is the one saddled with the narrator's emotional burdens.  "Now, she is the one who misses you" is perhaps the most standout, poignant line.  The poem is addressed to an unknown second party, some anonymous love that for whatever reason, is over or never materialized.  I think everyone can relate to that.  You is both the most and least specific word.  It's not that the narrator misses John or Kate or whoever, but it is "you."  We can never know who that "you" is, but we all have our own "you" which we can imagine.

Apart from that one line, the heart's new owner now bears the pain and joy of "everyone she's loved, and lost somehow."  The way in which she lost them seems maddeningly mundane and commonplace, "like a key dropped in plain sight" or "a button that fell, soundless" and unnoticed, presumably.  It's so easy for people to fall in or out of our lives.

The anxious wandering of the next stanza, the constant searching of "snowy streets" for some "ancient sign that the hard earth lives" is the search for hope, which the narrator has abdicated.  It's no longer her problem.  She is no longer "the one who cannot sleep" and finds herself unable to communicate, either vocally or in writing.  While wearing her headphones, the narrator is just a body.  She is an "emptied safe."  I love that image in the last line.  Her body is emptied of heart, safe from emotional travail, but if we ignore that punctuation, she is an "emptied safe."  That metaphor is dead on.  What value are we without our heart?  We've lost value, the richness and riches of life, the emotional struggle, love, removed.  Without our hearts, we are just empty safes.  Sure, we're safe from being robbed (heartbreak), but that makes us valueless.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent - William E. Stafford

Whispering to each handhold, "I'll be back,"
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind -
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward...

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark -
"Made it again!" Oh how I love this climb!
-the whispering to stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
"Made it again! Made it again!"

Based on the title, William E. Stafford strongly disagrees with the idea that art can only be produced by a discontented mind, by a mind in want of something.  What Stafford provides is a poem of triumph, sharing in his exultation and joy at the thrill of the challenging climb, and of Nature's awesome power.  The poem itself is a simple narrative, a man climbing a dramatic cliff-face over a turbulent body of water.  He revels in his success, ecstatic with the love of the climb.

I'm sure a persistent pessimistic malcontent could argue that the climb and subsequent poem are fueled be some deep discontent that forces him to physical extremes, but I don't buy that.  Poetry, and art as a whole, can be inspired by every range of emotions.  A desire to share the joy of one's triumph over harsh nature (as in this poem) can be impetus enough.  Desire to share the overwhelming joy one feels at God's Creation (the poems of Gerard Manley-Hopkins) can inspire.  The breathtaking awe one feels on the eve of discovery (Keats looking into Chapman's Homer comes to mind) has been a creative force for all of time.  It is not only dissatisfaction that drives us to create.  To anyone who argues that even those aforementioned wide-ranging inspirations are secretly fueled by discontent, I'd like to offer them one of my favorite T.S Eliot quotes, "For Christ's sake, stick it up your ass."

Passing Trains - Chris Hart

Two trains,
Running together
The same way on parallel lines.
I had been so sure we were
Going the same way.

Two trains,
The tracks split, the trains parted.
I was still so sure we would meet
At the station.

Two trains,
With no way to share the track.
I could never figure out
Why she and I
Grew so far apart.

Two trains,
Caught in one another's headlights.
Light can stop you seeing
Just as well as dark.

Two trains,
Passing in the night.
I never told her
I was sorry.

It's hard to write about your own work at the best of times without sounding like a self-congratulatory ass, and even harder when the subject matter is (though abstractly) personal.  Still, let's give it a shot, yeah?  We all have regrets, things we never realized until it was too late, apologies we'd like to say if only we knew how, things left unsaid.  Should they stay unsaid?  Can they ever, really?  I don't know.  This poem is my best shot at communicating those feelings.  Forgive me if I don't provide much in the way of biographical detail here, because this is not about only one thing or person.

I chose a train for the central metaphor here, because I think that's an appropriate way to describe the near tunnel vision we are all subject to at any given time.  Whether we realize it or not, in some way, we are all bodies in motion.  Sometimes we intersect, and hitch our cars together.  Other times, we're just a point of light passing by, often blindingly, even if brief.  We might run parallel for a time, we might meet later in life, we might not.  Nothing but out feelings and expectations turn these into positives or negatives, and they can all be both.

I hope you can relate, reader, and that this poem can provide some sort of emotional relief, if you've ever felt this yourself.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Flesh and the Power it Holds - Chuck Schuldiner

I told you once but I will say it again,
When you live the flesh, it's the beginning of the end.

It will take you in, it will spit you out.
Behold the flesh and the power it holds.

Passion is a poison laced with pleasure bittersweet
One of many faces that hides deep beneath.

It will take you in, it will spit you out.
Behold the flesh and the power it holds.

Touch, taste, breathe, consumed

Déjà vu, already knew from the first encounter
But now I know to let go
Of words to speak no more.

Like a wind upon your face
You can't see it but you know it's there.
When beauty shows its ugly face,
Just be prepared.

Passion burns like fire carried by the wind.
The end of a time, a time to begin.

It will take you in, it will spit you out.
Behold the flesh and the power it holds.

It's build you up one way and tears you right back down.
A time to begin, the end of a time.

It will take you in, it will spit you out.
Behold the flesh and the power it holds.

Touch, taste, breathe, consumed.

Déjà vu, already knew from the first encounter
But now I know to let go
Of words to speak no more.

Like a wind upon your face
You can't see it but you know it's there.
When beauty shows its ugly face,
Just be prepared.

Today's poem is not strictly a poem, but rather, lyrics from a source that may surprise you.  This is one of my favorite songs by the band Death, the American metal band that arguably are the progenitor of death metal.  The band was driven by late front man Chuck Schuldiner, who apart from providing guitar and vocals, was the band's main song writer and lyricist.  Before we go on, reader, I urge you to approach this music with an open mind; I am challenging you to find value and beauty from a source about which most (especially poetry lovers, I assume) know very little, and find off-putting, if not downright repellent.

One challenge inherent in presenting lyrics as poetry deals with line breaks and punctuation.  Since I do not have liner notes or other official materials with me, I had to use a bit of artistic license in presenting the lyrics here for you.  It is my hope that I've represented Schuldiner's lyrics accurately.

The poem, as I will henceforth refer to it, deals with the power that "Flesh" holds over us emotionally, and the dangers of a hedonistic lifestyle.  Humans being held in thrall to the allure of the body is one of the oldest themes we know of.  Sensuality has often been depicted with an air of danger about it.  Beauty can be destructive, and that is the main thrust of the poem.  The beginning is aggressive, with the narrator asserting that he has already warned us about this danger.  Clearly he states, "When you live the flesh, it's the beginning of the end."  Essentially, if your life is lived purely for the sake of bodily pleasure, of fleshly fulfillment, it's over.  It is the beginning of the end.

The chorus, "It will take you in, it will spit you out.  Behold the flesh and the power it holds" indicates the power that Schuldiner knows the flesh has.  We become consumed by it, discarded by it.  Lust is a force greater than we can hope to contain by ourselves, and humans are chewed up by this machine.  "Behold" that power!  Appreciate it.  Understand it.  Avoid it.

"Beauty" is depicted as having an "ugly face."  Obviously, this refers to the devastating effects that a life lived purely for pleasure can have.  The side effects of living for transient flesh beauty are destruction, and the repeated chorus would have us believe.  That beauty is always there, that temptation is always lurking, "like a wind upon your face."  It's something felt, if not seen.  While it may feel gratifying "("it builds you up", "it will take you in") it is ultimately like Fortune's wheel, in that what it gives, it takes away ("it will tear you down", "it will spit you out.")  It is a fire that spreads on the wind, burning things in its path.  While this does lead to chances for new creation, I hardly think that optimism is the main takeaway of the poem.

I feel that the poem is clear and easy to understand, not straying too far into the realm of the abstract.  The premise of the poem itself may be slightly more unfamiliar, with "flesh" acting as a stand in for physical pleasures of lust and hunger, and beauty being personified as an ugly destructive force.  While Schuldiner is warning the listener to the dangers of the flesh, he's also deeply reverent of its great power.  It's a little like standing in awe of some great and terrible machine.  It's dangerous and you know you must strive to avoid it, but you cannot help but feel like magnetic pull towards it.

I think this is why the musical style, which is dark and aggressive, fits the poetic content so well.  The opening guitar riff is dark and looming, covering wide distances in dissonant intervals.  By the time the vocals come in, the tempo has quickened, creating a somewhat frenzied atmosphere.  This is completed by Schuldiner's vocals; his voice is a high, raspy scream.  Despite the strained, screamed aesthetic, his vocal delivery is also clear and controlled, making the lyrics easy to understand.  I hope that with the lyrics I've provided, you can make it through.

This is the part you have likely been dreading, my reader friend.  I have attached the song for you to listen to, and I know the phrase "death metal" can scare many away, However, I know that you, the good reader of poetry, approach all things with an open mind.  You, being a cultured person, can appreciate value and artistry even in things that you do not subjectively like or enjoy on a surface level.  I think there is a real power and catharsis in this type of music that is not accessible by other means.  Listen, brave reader!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Days - Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

With great humor, Philip Larkin addresses the rather serious question of what happens when we die?  What happens when we are quite literally out of time?  Not out of time just in the sense of being dead, but being outside of time, outside of days.  As Larkin says, where can we live but days?  Days are all we have.  What's outside of them?  Well, the doctor will rush over to see if you are indeed out of days, and the priest will come to pray over you and see that your time outside of days is blessed.

These are big questions to be sure, but Larkin doesn't seem terribly concerned with them.  That's not for him to figure out, and it's not for us to worry about, so much.  Days are there "to be happy in."  Concerning ourselves too much with what's next is somewhat futile, if endlessly fascinating.  I like that the phrase "solving that question" is used to mean dying.  It's a funny if grim way to think about life, as if it's a question that needs answering.  Inescapably, the only answer to life is death.  That's just a fact, but why worry so much?  Days are where we live.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

October - Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost-
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

We desperately want to cling to things that we know must end and go.  October, presaging colder fall, and winter, please be kind.  Don't freeze the grapes on their vine on the wall.  Don't destroy our joy.  Release your leaves gradually, let us enjoy your beauty, don't make the day seem so short.  Frost is desperately clinging to the last beauties of summer and early fall.  Our hearts are not averse to being beguiled, we want to be charmed.  I think we can all understand this, at the cusp of seasons.

I'm not always a big fan of Robert Frost, but here, I think his frank style and measured rhymes work very well.  There's nothing challenging to explain, no difficult subtext, just an understandable sentiment wrapped in the loveliest images of fall that the mind can conjure.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Dead Man Walking - Thomas Hardy

They hail me as one living,
But don't they know
That I have died of late years,
Untombed although?

I am but a shape that stands here,
A pulseless mould,
A pale past picture, screening
Ashes gone cold.

Not at a minute's warning,
Not in a loud hour,
For me ceased Time's enchantments
In hall and bower.

There was no tragic transit,
No catch of breath,
When silent seasons inched me
On to this death ....

- A Troubadour-youth I rambled
With Life for lyre,
The beats of being raging
In me like fire.

But when I practised eyeing
The goal of men,
It iced me, and I perished
A little then.

When passed my friend, my kinsfolk,
Through the Last Door,
And left me standing bleakly,
I died yet more;

And when my Love's heart kindled
In hate of me,
Wherefore I knew not, died I
One more degree.

And if when I died fully
I cannot say,
And I changed into the corpse-thing
I am to-day,

Yet is it that, though whiling
The time somehow
In walking, talking, smiling,
I live not now.

Death in life is one of the most common themes in poetry, and it's easy to understand why.  Death is the contrast to life, the antithesis to any joy and pleasurable sensation we can possibly know.  To be dead inside is to take no sensation whatsoever from life, to have become numb to its joys and pains.  In Hardy's poem, it is the result of many tragedies, gradual, without any one sudden incident, until the narrator's once healthy zest for life is reduced to no internal sensation whatsoever.

The descriptors of Hardy's walking dead man are striking.  He is a dead man "untombed" and merely a "shape that stands here," a "pulseless mould."  It's beyond despondent, it's plain unfeeling.  I think Hardy recognizes that if he created someone who felt agony at the wrongs and tragedies they've experienced, he could not realistically claim them to be a dead man walking.  Dead men don't feel, and someone feeling pain is much more alive than someone who is nothing more than "a shape that stands here."

The narrator used to be quite a vibrant man, it seems.  He was a "Troubadour-youth" who "rambled with Life for lyre," a transient man, seeking the great thrills of Life, traveling with a song and a poem.  The "beats of life" raged inside him like fire.  It's a picture of brilliant youthful energy.  I confess, I feel much like that.  I want to continue to travel for a time after I leave Korea, because I'm eager to explore more of the world, and I know I'm certainly bringing some songs in my heart on the trip to share with others.

The habits of that transient troubadour were the first thing to slowly kill him, internally, though.  The more he knew of man, the icier his heart became.  It sounds like he witnessed the great depths of cruelty which can live in the human heart.  Seeing the "goal" of man chilled him.

Further killing him were the deaths of his friends and family.  He stood "bleakly," still able to feel, but gradually dying on the inside.  The next great blow to his life was the hate and scorn of his Love.  His "Love's heart kindled in hate" of him, he knows not why.  He died "one more degree" then, and presumably, stopped keeping track.  We're told that he cannot say exactly when it is that he became the "corpse-thing" that he is today.  Now, despite his walking, talking, and even smiling (a false mask) he is dead.

It's scary to think that people can be so totally dead inside as to no longer feel any sadness.  To be alive and unfeeling?  It's so against the natural condition that it's frightening.

Ozymandias - Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said - "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Frankly, I'm amazed I haven't posted this sonnet already, as its famous and one of my favorite.  It exemplifies well the concept of the "sublime" in Victorian art, which is the experience of something which humbles man on a fundamental and primal level.  Time completely crumbling even the most mighty of empires definitely falls under this category of the sublime aesthetic.

The poem is given an added layer of mystery by the way Shelley relays the tale of the great Ozymandias' crumbled kingdom.  He does not tell us directly, but rather, he relays a story he was told by a "traveller from an antique land."  The figure is shrouded in mystery, and we are able to be swept away by the narrative as well.

The poem itself is easy to follow and understand.  In the desert there is a decaying statue, of which only the lower legs and pedestal remain.  It's the former work of some great king, mightiest among men, but now it is sunken beneath sand, with no other trace left of the empire.  It's a testament to man's great hubris and the image of the poem utterly humbles us, because on some deep primordial level, we know that we are like a mote of dust in God's eye when faced with the inexorable march of time.  It's not even scary knowledge, but wholly overwhelming and enthralling.  The sense of wonder imparted by the poem far exceeds and dread one might feel at the certain knowledge that someday, our works will be as dust and we will be forgotten.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sonnet 55: Not marble nor the gilded monuments - William Shakespeare

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
     So, till the Judgement that yourself arise,
     You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

Shakespeare's love sonnets are among the most read, most known, and most talked about poems in the English language, but I feel like oftentimes they're overlooked because of his reputation as a playwright.  This, Sonnet 55, is a testament to the enduring power of love, ideas, and poetry as compared to the works of men.  Addressed directly to some lover (the "you" of this poem), Shakespeare asserts that the lover's beauty will long outlive all the great works of man.

The greatest works of men "gilded monuments of princes" cannot outlive the rhyme that Shakespeare crafts.  This seems a bold claim, but so far, it's holding true.  How many castles have crumbled since this poem was written?  Their former beauty is diminished, parapets toppled, moss encroaching upon the once clean stones (though some would argue that enhances their Romantic appeal).  The lover of this poem is indeed shining brightly, not like the "unswept stone besmeared with sluttish [dirty, unclean] time."

No war or calamity can unseat this ideal of beauty.  Even though we know that "wasteful war shall statues overturn" it is impossible, even for Mars, the God of War, and his mighty sword to "burn the living record of your memory."  This poem is that living memory, still alive and well more than four hundred years later.  The beauty will outlive death and oblivion, the lover of it pacing forth to be praised by all of history (lines 9 and 10).  Until the ending of the world, this lover's beauty, immortalized by Shakespeare, will be appreciated.

Until the Judgment day, when all arise, this lover, this love object and ideal of beauty, will live forever, "and dwell in lovers' eyes."  That to me is the crucial part of this poem.  While attempts can be made, across the wide body of Shakespeare's sonnets, to construct firmer, clearer pictures of the lovers he addresses, in this one sonnet, we are given no information about the lover, not even a gender.  The beauty is measured solely in terms of its endurance and strength against time and decay.  It allows the reader to insert their own lover, ideal love object, into the poem's conceit, and for that love to live, to "dwell in lovers' eyes."  By reading and thinking on this poem, we further immortalize it, proving the truth at its core.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Primer - Rita Dove

In the sixth grade I was chased home by
the Gatlin kids, three skinny sisters
in rolled-down bobby socks. Hissing
Brainiac! and Mrs. Stringbean!, they trod my heel.
I knew my body was no bi deal
but never thought to retort: who's
calling who skinny? (Besides, I knew
they'd beat me up.) I survived
their shoves across the schoolyard
because my five-foot-zero mother drove up
in her Caddie to shake them down to size.
Nothing could get me into that car.
I took the long way home, swore
I'd show them all: I would grow up.

Combining the powerlessness of childhood with the biting shame of being unable to stand up for yourself to your bullies, Rita Dove expresses here what so many children have always felt:  I will show them, I will be better than you all.  This is addressed not only to her bullies, the Gatlin kids, but also to her mother, who like the bullies, uses force to coerce, even though it is in defense of her daughter.

The embarrassment from having your mother come to your defense is completely palpable, and something most can remember.  We so want to be able to fight our own battles when we are young, even if we are powerless to do.  We're made powerless by bullies, whether it's the mean neighborhood kids, or in the case of the Gatlin kids, made powerless by someone's mother.  Dove sees those two uses of force similarly.  She wants to "grow up" and be bigger than all of them.  Dove also makes herself powerless through self-rationalization.  She never fought back against her bullies because she "knew they'd beat" her up.  Whether it's true or not, she allowed their power to control her, and she knew it, making it hurt all the more.  I think that's where the rejection of her mother's forceful help comes from, that sense of known injustice.  She doesn't want to participate in it, but rather she wants to escape it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

[Crumbling is not an instant's Act] - Emily Dickinson

Crumbling is not an instant's Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation's processes
Are organized Decays -

'Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust -

Ruin is formal - Devil's work
Consecutive and slow -
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping - is Crashe's law -

Emily Dickinson here makes the claim that failure is never instantaneous.  Whether we see it or not, there are always signs of our own decay and impending failures.  They can be as minute as a cobweb or mote of dust, as she makes clear in the second stanza.  There is always a root cause of our failures, something that is worked out, slow, and ordered.  "Ruin is formal - Devil's work" she writes.  It's not a sudden process, even if we do not see it as such.

As is typical of an Emily Dickinson poem, the meter is lilting and sing-song-y.  Read it out loud and enjoy the natural breaks and rhythm.  This might also be the only poem I know of in which the word "dilapidation" appears.  The language is clear and easy to understand, which lets the reader get to the meat of the issues faster.  I know personally, I began to think back on my own failures, and wonder what the seeds were for them.  I think that sort of introspection is Dickinson's goal, here.  The reader strives towards understanding the cause and effect of their actions, and even though the poem is rather fatalistic, it provides good food for thought regardless.