Thursday, August 21, 2014

An Irish Blessing - Traditional

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and the rain fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

A simple blessing, containing everything one could need.  Safe travels, bountiful blessings from nature, and God's grace.  Sincere and unselfish, as all goodbyes should be.

This is for all the friends I've made in the past year, with whom I now have to part.  Though I'll miss you, I'll always remember our time together, and I hope we meet again.  Until then, I wish you all the best.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Loch Lomond - Traditional Scottish Song

By yon bonnie banks an' y yon bonnie braes
Whaur the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond
Whaur me an' my true love will ne'er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomon'.

O ye'll tak' the high road, and Ah'll tak' the low road
And Ah'll be in Scotlan' afore ye
Fir me an' my true love will ne'er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomon'.

'Twas there that we perted in yon shady glen
On the steep, steep sides o' Ben Lomon'
Whaur in purple hue, the hielan hills we view
An' the moon comin' out in the gloamin'

O ye'll tak' the high road, and Ah'll tak' the low road
And Ah'll be in Scotlan' afore ye
Fir me and my true love will ne'er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomon'.

The wee birdies sing an' the wild flouers spring
An' in sunshine the waters are sleeping
But the broken heart it kens, nae second spring again,
Tho' the waeful may cease frae their weeping.

O ye'll tak' the high road, and Ah'll tak' the low road
And Ah'll be in Scotlan' afore ye
Fir me an' my true love will ne'er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomon'.

While not a poem, I've never had a problem posting songs as poetry and I'm not about to start having a problem now.  Loch Lomond is a song heartbreaking and beautiful in equal measure.  While the actual context of the song is disputed (Jacobite uprising 1745? fairies transporting the souls of Scottish dead back from foreign lands? captured soldiers?) the message is not.  The singer and his true love will never meet again.  Never again will they bask in their love by the beauty of Loch Lomond.  The gorgeous imagery and fitting tune enhance the beauty and the sadness.  It's a resigned kind of sadness, the kind you speak with a smile, despite the tragedy.  It's simple and heartfelt and timeless.

Now, as I do with songs, an audio recording.  The lyrics vary slightly from the ones printed, but the idea is still the same.  As with all folk songs, there are endless lyric variations.  Just listen and enjoy.

Here's a version I sang with some friends in my senior year of college.  There are two songs in this file, the first of which is a setting of Non Nobis Domine.  Feel free to skip that.  In the Loch Lomond setting, I am the high tenor.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Idea 61: Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part - Michael Drayton

Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part.
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies;
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes-
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover!

The goodbye kiss.  It's a painful event, but in some ways, a relief.  Drayton captures both those feelings, and others besides, in this sonnet.  The relief of closing out something obviously painful, the struggle to let Love die, the vain hope that love can be resurrected at the last moment, the mental justifications (no, really, I'm glad we broke up!), all of it is here.

In the first eight lines or so, Drayton appears to be quite relieved to be ending this relationship.  Basically, he says, "Since there's nothing we can do to stop this breakup, let's kiss, make an end of it, and not see one another.  I'm glad to be free.  We can shake hands, be done, and when we meet again, it'll be like we have no love left for one another, no hint of it at all."  That sounds great, honestly.  But does it ever really happen that way?  "I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart that thus so cleanly I myself can free."  Maybe it's my modern eyes, but it seems like Drayton is trying awfully hard to convince himself that he is happy about this breakup, a position supported by the last six lines.

"Be it not seen in either of our brows that we one jot of former love retain."  Wouldn't that be great?  Even if outwardly we give no appearance of having once loved to our former lover, can we ever really convince ourselves of it?  Can you un-know that person to the point where you can no longer see what's behind their eyes?  To me, it seems more passive than that.  A fleeting thought, a passing, "Maybe I loved her/him once."  Drayton treats it more like a secret pact between the two lovers though, sealed with a goodbye kiss and handshake that cleanly breaks their vows.

The last six lines are at odds with the first eight.  The first eight are the mind's rationalization of the breakup.  It reads like Drayton trying to convince himself.  The last six, though?  That's the desperate hope that somehow, love, with "his pulse failing" can be recovered.  At the very last moment, when "Passion speechless lies; When faith is kneeling by his bead of death, and Innocence is closing up his eye" when everyone has "given him over" (given Love up for dead), "from death to life thou might'st him yet recover!"  Maybe that last moment, that goodbye kiss, could somehow reignite that spark that has guttered out, but I doubt it.  Drayton doubts it too, he told us as much, hoped as much, in the first eight lines.  And yet, he hopes, desperately, that some miracle might save love, because despite all our rationalizations, the parting is almost too painful to bear.

That combination of self-rationalization, the almost fierce "you get no more of me" declaration of independence with the wild hope that somehow love might be restored contain the nature of the goodbye kiss.  We want to be whole, and independent, and not know what it feels like to see a mutual pain reflected back on the face of an ex-lover.  We want to be able to shake hands, part amiably, and leave it at that.  Maybe we can, maybe we can't.  I can't give any answer there.  But Drayton is right, we all have that hope, somehow.  We just can't help it.

Monday, August 18, 2014

How She Went to Ireland - Thomas Hardy

Dora's gone to Ireland
    Through the sleet and snow;
Promptly she has gone there
    In a ship, although
Why she's gone to Ireland
    Dora does not know.

That was where, yea, Ireland,
    Dora wished to be:
When she felt, in lone times,
    Shoots of misery,
Often there, in Ireland,
    Dora wished to be.

Hence she's gone to Ireland,
    Since she meant to go,
Through the drift and darkness
    Onward labouring, though
That she's gone to Ireland
    Dora does not know.

We have many farewells to say in life, not all happy.  While I wouldn't call this Thomas Hardy poem mournful, it deals with the death of someone (friend or family, beloved or friend, it is unclear and unimportant) known to the narrator.  It's not immediately clear from the first stanza that Dora is dead, and her body is being returned home to Ireland.  It honestly sounds a bit like someone who decided to take a trip on a whim.

By the second stanza, it becomes clear that Dora is being talked about, rather than taking actions herself, and the past tense is used.  Ireland is where she "wished to be" rather than where she wants to be.  "Dora's gone to Ireland" could mean either, but the second stanza begins to inform the reader of Dora's lack of agency.  Whenever she felt "shoots of misery" Dora "wished" for Ireland.  Clearly, Dora was someone who suffered, and wished for Ireland, which I can only assume is her original home, the place where her heart lived.

The third stanza makes it very clear that Dora is no more.  Her journey takes her through "drift and darkness" but Dora does not know it.  In the first stanza, we're told that Dora doesn't know why she's gone to Ireland.  Here, "that she's gone to Ireland Dora does not know."  She cannot know anything, anymore.  Her journey and our perception are now entirely separate.

Hardy does not grieve for Dora.  The poem isn't filled with any sort of grieving language, and that's telling, I think.  I know that often, when I'm faced with an overwhelming emotion, or something painful, I often clam up a bit.  I become clinical, afraid of letting what I feel out.  This is common.  That's the sense I get from this poem.  It's such a painful farewell that it's all the narrator can bear to say, "Dora's gone to Ireland."  The way the poem lets the reader discover Dora's death underscores the sense of loss.  Euphemistic language, saying someone has "gone away" is supposed to soften the truth, but here, it initially deceives, making our realization of death even sadder than if Hardy had just said she was dead to begin with.  The language is simple and clear, and has a sort of everyman's elegance to it.  This isn't a blue-blooded, elegaic rambling, some long-winded ode to a dead friend, but a short and meaningful statement of loss.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ode I. 11 - Horace

translated by Burton Raffel

Leucon, no one's allowed to know his fate,
Not you, not me: don't ask, don't hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
More, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
And forget about hope. Time goes running, even
As we talk. Take the present, the future's no one's affair.

To kick off a week of farewells and good luck is Horace, and some timeless advice.  The future is not ours to know, and the present is ours to live.  Savor what we have now, because it can be gone in a moment.  I do not think "forget about hope" is meant to be a depressing line.  Rather, it's a caution against forgetting to live in the moment and recognize the good around oneself.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

To My Best Friend - Francis Ledwidge

I love the wet-lipped wind that stirs the hedge
      And kisses the bent flowers the drooped for rain,
That stirs the poppy on the sun-burned ledge
     And like a swan dies singing, without pain.
The golden bees go buzzing down to stain
      The lillies' frills, and the blue harebell rings,
And the sweet blackbird in the rainbow sings.

Deep in the meadows I would sing a song,
      The shallow brook my tuning-fork, the birds My masters; and the boughs they hop along
      Shall mark my time: but there shall be no words
For lurking Echo's mock; an angel herds
     Words that I may not know, within, for you,
Words for the faithful meet, the good and true.

While Francis Ledwidge was a poet, and fought in World War 1, it's not quite right to classify him as a war poet.  Most of his poetry dealt with peace, and after the Easter 1916 uprising, with mourning the dead.  This poem, taken from his first volume of poetry, is largely concerned with natural imagery, and a message to his best friend.  It touches slightly upon the mystical experience of poetic inspiration, and presents an image of a poet (carefully cultivated, no doubt) very in tune (pun inteded) with nature.

The first stanza describes the poet's love for the wind.  The entire stanza is filled with easy yet precise descriptions, that seem so natural you wonder why you never thought of them before.  The "wet-lipped" wind, "bent flowers that drooped for rain," these feel immeditaely familiar even if we've never considered these things in that language before.  That's a true gift of description, and the scene is so lovely that it's hard not to take a short mental flight there while reading.

In the second stanza, the poet moves on to his singing, which is harmonious with nature.  Indeed, he says the shallow brook is his tuning fork, and the birds his masters.  Essentially, all he has learned of song (and by extension, poetry) is informed by these experiences in his native wilderness.  There are no words here for Echo to repeat ("mock").  Instead, when writing (or singing) to his best friend, "an angel herds words that I may not know, within, for you."  These are words for the "faithful meet, the good and true."  The message is that there is a harmony in nature only accesible to the pure, to the good.  It's an uncomplicated worldview, one in which natural beauty and purity of spirit go hand in hand.  This is a very attractive world, and at a time of suchn great turmoil as 1914, when it was published, it comes as no surprise that it was a resounding success.

I find that this poem still reads nicely today.  Its clear and precise imagery of a peaceful scene in nature fills our minds with all the pleasantness of our imagined ideal summer.  I'm sure we all have a place like this in our mind's eye which we can visit, a secret language of nature that only our best friend can understand.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

On Being Asked to Write a War Poem - William Butler Yeats

I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.

Yeats wrote his in 1915, after being continually asked to write a poem about the war.  Obviously tired, and starting to feel the deep futility that would gradually set in all across the European art world, Yeats offered this.  It's little more than a shrug, a poetic "what's the point?"

I think history has proven Yeats a little wrong, and a little right.  He's correct to say that poetry seldom influences policymakers, and does not deter them from the great folly of war.  But that is not sufficient reason for a poet's mouth to be silent, as he must have felt (why else would he write this, and Easter 1916?).  The poet-soldiers of the Great War captured for us all the moods around Europe at the time.  The hope, the anger, some jingoistic schlock, the horror, the despondency, everything one could feel from war.  Poetry's purpose is not to shape state policy.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Attack - Siegfried Sassoon

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of glow'ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

Given my harsh assessment of yesterday's Alan Seeger World War 1 poem I thought it appropriate to post some poetry from the Great War which I find much more worthwhile.  I've posted Sassoon's work before, but this one deals explicitly with the war, and the horror of what the order to attack really meant.

The imagery of the first few lines sets up the battle well.  A hilltop, scarred with war, surrounded by smoke, presumably from shelling, while the sun rises over the ridge.  Tanks are trying to breach wire barriers, toppling over, the barrage becoming ever more intense.  The world is exploding with the rise of the sun, and it's captivating and terrible.

Trench warfare was one of the ugliest things in the history of war.  When men sortied out over the top, it was often to be slaughtered, and inside the trench, when the gas bombs dropped, they became choking, horrifying places.  None of the imagery in this poem is heroic.  It is all clumsy and pitiful, and rightly so.  The men here are "bowed" by the weight of their weaponry, they "jostle" to get in position, they have "grey, muttering faces, masked with fear."  And for what purpose do they jostle and climb?  They do it to "meet the bristling fire."  To die.

This is not a pleasant or honorable rendezvous with death as Seeger liked to imagine.  This is a world in which "hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists, flounders in mud."  Even hope cannot sustain.  It is grappling and losing, spattered in mud, unable to go one.  Time ticks away on the wristwatches of the soldiers, assuredly an image of mortality, of limited time.  The agonized exclamation of the final line best sums up the attitude of the world, and of ever soldier, by 1918, when this poem was published.  "O Jesus, make it stop!"  Not a prayer for victory, but just an end.  That's the nature of war in Sassoon's poetry, and it's infinitely more worthwhile than Seeger's hollow ideas about death.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I Have a Rendezvous with Death - Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Another poet-soldier of World War 1 killed in action, this, Alan Seeger's most famous (though not best) poem strikes me as egotistical and self-aggrandizing.  Compared to other poets of World War 1 such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and even Rupert Brooke, Seeger seems more concerned with some strange melange of glory and fate than he does with the war, humanity, or any sort of spiritual message.

Seeger sees his death (indeed, he did die in 1916 during the war) as a fated rendezvous, something unavoidable, to be met in the springtime, surrounded by beauty.  Yet the images all ring hollow.  So what?  "I to my pledged word am true, I shall not fail that rendezvous."  There is no take away from this other than that Seeger seems eager to die, and for no great cause, no higher power, nothing other than an almost self-serving interest in his own mortality.  The sentiment feels empty.  While he does say it would surely be better to die in comfort, as in sleep, surrounded by love, he continues to insist that he has a rendezvous with Death to meet.

I think the reason I find this poem so off-putting is that compared to the other poets of World War 1, it lacks meat or substance.  Rupert Brooke's poetry represents the optimism the youth of Europe, specifically Britain, felt about answering what many perceived as a glorious call to war, unaware of the new horrors which awaited them.  His was poetry of hope, as yet unbroken by what was unquestionably the most horrific application of violence against man up to that point in history.  It had all the youthful optimism and hope one could imagine, and today is a sad memorial to a collective cultural innocence long choked to death by vile gas.  Owen's poetry represents the despair, the crushed hopes, the utter horror that the Great War came to represent for Europe.  Today, it is a chilling account of the horrors of trench warfare and the senselessness of violence.  Seeger's poetry, though?  It feels empty and vainglorious, unfocused and lacking.  Maybe I am being too harsh, but compared to his contemporaries, Seeger reads like a young man dreaming about a glorious death for no other reason than to die.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Hymn - A. R. Ammons

I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth
and go on out
   over the sea marshes and the brant in bays
and over the hills of tall hickory
and over the crater lakes and canyons
and on up through the spheres of diminishing air
past the blackset noctilucent clouds
          where one wants to stop and look
way past all the light diffusions and bombardments
up farther than the loss of sight
  into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark

And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth
inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes
trusting the microvilli sporangia and simplest
and praying for a nerve cell
with all the soul of my chemical reactions
and going right on down where the eye sees only traces

You are everywhere partial and entire
You are on the inside of everything and on the outside

I walk down the path down the hill where the sweetgum
has begun to ooze spring sap at the cut
and I see how the bark cracks and winds like no other bark
chasmal to my ant-soul running up and down
and if I find you I must go out deep into your
    far resolutions
and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves

Quite a bizarre hymn to be sure, but devotional nonetheless.  Ammons' hymn seems to me to stress the beauty of Creation on every level, from the "noctilucent clouds where once wants to stop and look" to the "hills of tall hickory."  Given the title, I have chosen to view the poem largely in a religious or spiritual context, with the "You" of the poem seeming to me to be the Creator, or some other revelatory spirit.  This "You," the God figure, is "everywhere partial and entire" and exists "on the inside of everything and on the outside."

The knowledge of that "You," the finding of it, will necessitate many contradictory things from the narrator.  He must leave the earth and go on out.  Is that the spirit called to heaven, to some Nirvana, a higher plane?  In the finding, he will have to stay with the earth and inspect it, down to the most minute details.  Some sort of spiritual cataloging of Creation?  Devotion and stewardship to the Earth?

The last three lines address the contradiction of staying and going.  "if I find you I must go out deep into your far resolutions and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leaves."  The resolutions spoken of, I imagine, are like the end times.  They are the plane beyond physical life, some other metaphysical realm, in which the Creator's will lives actively.  The other side, the separate leaves, besides referring to literal leaves (in line with the nature imagery throughout the rest of the poems) seems to me to refer to the many aspects of physical existence, the "soul of my chemical reactions."  "Praying for a nerve cell."  What else can that mean but a prayer to feel?  A prayer to experience, to react, to know.

While the poem's contradictory nature seems confusing to me, I find most of all a real appreciation for the beauty of Creation, and a deep spiritual sense of the narrator (and humanity, by extension) and the earth as being interconnected.  The way the imagery moves from large (literally leaving the atmosphere) to small (nerve cells) conveys a belief in God's omnipresence in Creation, best characterized by the two lines of the third stanza.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Getting in the Wood - Gary Snyder

The sour smell,
     blue stain,
            water squirts out round the wedge,

Lifting quarters of rounds
    covered with ants,
    "a living glove of ants upon my hand"
the poll of the sledge a bit peened over
so the wedge springs off and tumbles
      ringing like high-pitched bells
            into the complex duff of twigs
            poison oak, bark, sawdust,
            shards of logs,

And the sweat drips down.
      Smell of crushed ants.
The lean and heave on the peavey
that breaks free the last of a bucked
      three-foot round,
          it lies flat of smashed oaklings -

Wedge and sledge, peavey and maul,
      little axe, canteen, piggyback can
      of saw-mix gas and oil for the chain,
knapsack of files and goggles and rags,

All to gather the dead and the down.
     the young men throw splits on the piles
     bodies hardening, learning the pace
and the smell of tools from this delve
      in the winter
          death-topple of elderly oak.
Four cords.

Snyder's poem describes the process of cutting wood for a fire, four cords worth, in detail that acutely engages the senses.  Physical touch sensation is well-represented, as are sight, sound, and smell.  The images are hale and earthy, and apart from tools to run a chainsaw, this could be a scene from nearly any time in human history.

The poem is easy to read, and uses little in the way of unfamiliar language or complex poetic device.  For the most part, it is a simple inventory of tasks and sensations associated with the cutting of wood, and in the last stanza, we feel a sense of new growth, in the young men learning how to cut the wood, their "bodies hardening" as they work away at the "winter death-topple of elderly oak."

This poem does have one of the most cringe-inducing lines I've ever encountered, though.  "a living glove of ants upon my hand"  I can think of very few things that make me want to go wash more than that.