Monday, August 31, 2015

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud - William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; by they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be bay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Imagination, memory, day-dream, and solitary walks.  Wordsworth hits at the heart of poetry here.  It is the joyful impulse of creation, of motion and beauty so wonderful that it never really goes away.  Wordsworth's lonely wandering was hardly sad, for what cloud (he wandered "as a cloud" after all) is sad?  Clouds are lofty, majestic, changing constantly.  He blew onto this marvelous scene of daffodils ringing the coastline, dancing in the wind, outdoing even the sea itself for motion and joy.  He couldn't help but be jovial in such company as that.

The real gift though, is the memory of it.  The lovely image that comes to him in his daydreams, that perfect remembrance, more perfect than any reality.  It is the "inward eye which is the bliss of solitude."  That must be the single best way to describe a daydream, the inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.  Upon reading the poem, I leaned back in my chair, and let my mind wander to moments and images which now on recollection feel as magical to me as Wordsworth's daffodils.  The poem is at once personal, descriptive, and immediately applicable to anyone.  Who among us doesn't take joy in their sweetest remembered daydreams?  Those beautiful places our minds go are the reason one who is alone needn't be lonely.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Season of Phantasmal Peace - Derek Walcott

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill-
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
                                              it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

What a magnificent thing this poem is.  The birds, ever lifting higher, get to experience a season of phantasmal peace and light that is undiminished by the passing of shadows.  This poem puts me in mind of those perfect moments, when the light is just so, and you feel as though you could inhabit that moment forever.  As Walcott says, "it was the light / that you will see at evening on the side of a hill / in yellow October."  I don't think I've ever heard a more concise or evocative way to describe a month as "yellow October" which to me, brings to mind the essential nature of autumn.

Just imagining how "the birds lifted together / the huge net of the shadows of this earth" is enthralling.  I have to imagine all the shadows disappearing for one brief moment, and must try to imagine, though I cannot fully, a moment with light, "phantasmal light that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever."  The light is the peace of nature, highlighted by its constant connection to the birds in this poem.  We, the people, are the ones who share "dark holes in windows and in houses."

There's a great sense of serenity about this poem, even though the moment it describes is incredibly brief.  It's a reminder that there is beauty in the world, though we may have to rethink where we find it and why.  It's inevitable that time moves on, but in these moments of "phantasmal light" and peace, we need to try to live on that fine line.  As Walcott puts it so sublimely, it is the "pause between dusk and darkness."  The briefest instant: may it last forever.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Nightfall - Linda Dyer

The wood begins to gather darkness,
stuffing it in holes
and spreading it in hollows,
tucking it among the tree roots,
piling it against the sapling's trunk.
At first the upper branches stay aloof
preferring not to watch
the hoarding going on below,
but darkness stacks on darkness
stacks on darkness, up and up,
until the glutton woodland
vanishes from sight,
itself consumed in blackest night.

I don't think I've ever heard a sunset described in quite as interesting a way as this before.  Rather than darkness being a result of the passing of the light, it is an active element, building up and up, swallowing the trees and absorbing them into the night.  It's a ground up, one layer of abstraction sort of sunset description, and I can picture it perfectly.  A treeline, becoming dark from the group up, until the last vestiges of light on the highest branches are swallowed too by the vertical growing darkness.

I found this enchanting poem in a volume of poetry I received as a gift, The Blueline Anthology.  The poems in that collection are all inspired by, in some way, the Adirondack region.  All through my life, my family would vacation for a week or two in Lake George in the Adirondacks, so the region holds a very special place in my heart.  I cannot read something like this without imagining the pristine blue waters glinting as the sun comes down over the lake.  Now, thanks to this poem, I have another image to add to my recollection: the darkness moving its way up the tree, as "darkness stacks on darkness stacks on darkness."

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

["Hope" is the thing with feathers] - Emily Dickinson

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Hope can never be wiped out, and no matter how extreme the circumstance, it "sings the tune without the words - and never stops at all."  It is the endless optimism that cannot be knocked down by even the fiercest Gale.  Best of all, it never asks a thing of you, just giving tirelessly.  That is the nature of Hope, that tiny bird inside your soul.  I think I would do well to memorize this one.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bob - Alfred Corn

     For Mimi Khalvati

Why go? Partly because we had no reason
To, though, granted, Hastings's on the Channel-
Which meant salt air and, that day, winter sun.
A zigzag wing from station down to shingle

To take in the cold light and arrowy
Jeers shrilled by veering scavengers overhead,
Who flirted, razzed, then flapped and rowed away,
Our tentative footsteps fumbling pebbles, dead

Shellfish, kelp, plastic bits. A backtrack trek
To lunch should keep mild melancholy at
Bay, even if the loose-ends, fifties-flick
Ambience was was we'd come for. Or part of what.

Later, our huff-puff climb uphill for the ruins'
Majestic overviews, in guidebook blather.
One silver path across the waves to France,
And the long, incoming roar of faith from farther

East. (Or west: fanaticism's viral.
Numbing to think about the human cost.)
Sunset. Time to unwind a dawdling spiral
Down to the mall - where it dawns on us we're lost.

Suppose we ask this sporty adolescent.
"The station? Oh, no problem. Bang a right
Up there, then left, and on along the Crescent
About two minutes, and Bob's your uncle, mate."

You smiled, interpreted - but then you would,
Having yourself once been an "alien."
(The conditional of ironic likelihood
Is hackneyed. Stop me if I use it again.)

Transit to London as night falls. First star.
Abrupt flashes of interrupting light
Light up your eyes, your lips, your shimmering hair.
Friend. Nothing more. And Bob's your uncle, mate.

A rambling internal monologue of a date that isn't a "date," is probably the best way to describe this Alfred Corn poem.  There's an air of defeat about the whole thing, starting with the season, location, and finally the narrator himself.  A trip to the shore in winter can be lovely, but it's not exactly what one associates with romance.  Secondly, the trip described is to the ruins of Hastings castle, where the Normans won a decisive victory against the Anglo-Saxon rulers of the area.  Lastly, the narrator himself describes everything with a twinge of pathos, of things faded.

His descriptions are beautiful, but they never highlight the generative nature of anything.  When he describes shellfish, it's in fragments, detritus, "fumbling pebbles, dead shellfish, kelp, plastic bits."  He is a man who has defeated himself, from his descriptions.  Clearly not from the UK himself, as evidenced by the phrase, "Bob's your uncle" (often said at the end of simple instructions) sticking in his head, the narrator is displaced as he follows his female companion, who once was alien herself, but not has presumably assimilated into the idioms of every day life in a foreign place.  The last stanza of the poem is when he reveals his total admiration of her, but only to himself.  Her lips, eyes, and shimmering hair lit by the "interrupting light" reveal that to him, she is "Friend. Nothing more."  It's impossible not to feel his sense of defeat there.  Whether there was once something there or not, we can never really know.  As an internal monologue of frustrated love, I think this poem does a great job creating that atmosphere through its setting and tiny details.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Second Fig - Edna St. Vincent Millay

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

What fun and beauty is there in a sure thing?  This theme was touched on in the context of love last week in the Yeats poem I posted.  Here, Edna St. Vincent Millay puts in in very simple and enticing terms.  Do you want an ugly house, or a shining palace?  Never mind the stability, the question is beauty, which can be a flighty, unstable thing indeed.  Beautifully, succinctly put.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lighthouse Keeping - Kay Ryan

Seas pleat
winds keen
fogs deepen
ships lean no
doubt, and
the lighthouse
keeper keeps
a light for
those left out.
It is intimate
and remote both
for the keeper
and those afloat.

Kay Ryan has a gift for making short leans feel so much.  The way the line breaks contribute to both larger sentences, taken individually, they offer contrast and alternate meanings.  The best example of that here is "ships lean no / doubt" and "doubt, and."  Of course, the ships out at sea lean, no doubt there, but for the sailors, and the lighthouse keeper, there is "doubt, and" so many more feelings.  The lighthouse keeper and the sailor out at sea have an intimate, long-distance, anonymous relationship, which I feel is captured wonderfully in this short jewel of a poem.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Sonnet 139: O, call not me to justify the wrong - William Shakespeare

O, call me not to justify the wrong
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart;
Wound me not with thine eyes but with thy tongue;
Use power with power, and slay me not by art.
Tell me thou lov'st elsewhere; but in my sight,
Dear heart, forbear to glance thine eye aside;
What need'st thou wound with cunning when thy might
Is more than my o'erpressed defense can bide?
Let me excuse thee: ah, my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been mine enemies;
And therefore from my face she turns my foes,
That they elsewhere might dart their injuries -
     Yet do not so; but since I am near slain,
     Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain.

Many of Shakespeare's sonnets deal with the frustrations of unrequited love, and among those, this is one of the most poignant.  Throughout, he begs for the release from not knowing whether or not he is loved.  "Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain" he pleads, unable to bear a tempestuous relationship any longer.  Nearly every line of this poem is a jewel of melancholic brilliance.  "Her pretty looks have been mine enemies" is a particular favorite of mine.

It's worth remembering that at the time Shakespeare was writing, the affectation of melancholy and suffering was considered fashionable and was in high demand at courts.  While a lot of the emotion present here does feel raw and heartfelt, it was also fashionable to be able to beautifully express sorrow in dramatic terms.  The comparisons to death are a classic example of that trend.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Chorus - Rachel Hadas

A Greek I worked for once would always say
that tragedies which still appall and thrill
happen daily on a village scale.
Except that he put it the other way:
dark doings in the sleepiest small town
loom dire and histrionic as a play.
Cosmic? Perhaps. Unprecedented? Not
to the old women sitting in the sun,
the old men planted in cafes till noon
or midnight taking in the human scene,
connoisseurs of past-passing-and-to-come.
These watchers locate in their repertory
mythic fragments of some kindred story
and draw them dripping out of memory's well.
Incest and adultery; exile
and murder; divine punishment; disgrace:
the trick is to locate the right-sized piece
of the vast puzzle-patterned tapestry
from which one ripped-out patch makes tragedy.

This highly skilled and patient process - find
a larger context, match and patch and mend -
is what the chorus in Greek tragedy
has always done. And to this very day
spectators comb the tangles of a tale,
compare, remember, comment - not ideal,
but middle-aged or older, and later.
Beyond the hero's rashness or the hurt
heart of the heroine, they've reached the age
when only stars still lust for center stage.
The chorus, at a point midway between
the limelight and the audience, is seen
and unseen. Lady chaperones at balls
once sat on brittle chairs against the walls.
"My dancing days are over," they'd both sigh
and smile. Or take the case of poetry.
Mine used to play the heroine  - me me me -
but lately, having had its fill of "I,"
tries to discern, despite its vision's flaws,
a shape. A piece of myth. A pattern. Laws.

This magnificent poem from Rachel Hadas covers a grand sense of scale of human experience, from the personal, first person, to the near cosmic sense, and we find that it all weaves into one large pattern.  The very first sentence sets this scale contrast up wonderfully, with a Greek talking about how the sort of tragedies that "appall and thrill" us when presented on stage, as in a play, still do occur on "a village scale."  The world is so vast, and so full of people, that at every single moment of the day, somewhere, a great drama plays out.  It's incredible to think about the range of human experience occurring at every moment of the day.  Hadas goes on to talk about some of that range, and who sees it.  Old men and women see youth playing out these tragedies, these things that are "not unprecedented" to the elderly, who can relate to these tragedies.

Hadas then goes on to talk about the role that those who have stepped out of the limelight play.  They are like the chorus of Greek drama, hence the title of the poem.  Hadas herself sees her role as poet these days to be more like that of the chorus than that of the heroine.  She said she had quite enough of the "me me me" of being in the limelight.  She would have to have stepped out of the limelight and into the chorus to write such an observational poem as this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Factory Windows Are Always Broken - Vachel Lindsay

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody's always throwing bricks,
Somebody's always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are let alone.
No one throws through the chapel-window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten - I think, in Denmark.
End of the factory-window song.

Vachel Lindsay was a poet most famous for inventing what he referred to as "singing poetry" where the poem is meant to be chanted or sung.  He traveled, giving rousing readings of his poems, becoming known as the "Prairie Troubadour."  I feel that keeping that in mind while you read this, so you can give it a bit of a dramatic reading in your head.  The poem has a strong rhythm that makes it easy to recite.

The poem itself doesn't have too much meat or substance to it, but I think it shows a good deal about our attitude towards the working class.  I know I've certainly seen factory windows smashed up, and that's in today's day and age.  In the time when Lindsay was writing (early 20th century), working conditions were much worse, and his choice of the word "derisive" to describe the rock that smashes those windows is perfect.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Never give all the Heart - William Butler Yeats

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that's lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

A heartbreaking sonnet from a heartbroken Yeats.  It's appropriate to call this a love sonnet, but more correct to called it a frustrated love sonnet.  Yeats essentially argues here that a love which is given wholly will ultimately be rejected because there is no chance in it.  Something certain quickly grows boring, and boring is seldom a byword for passionate romance.  If you give your whole heart, Yeats says, it will be taken for granted, and the receiver of that heart will never once think that love "fades out from kiss to kiss."  For the heartbroken lover who has given all of their heart, only to find it taken for granted, "everything that's lovely is / but a brief, dreamy, kind delight."

Initially, I reacted with distaste to Yeats' assessment of both love and women, but as I read and pondered it, I became more sympathetic.  Love is not fair, and Yeats knows this.  That much is implicit in the poem being written at all.  But what made that stand out for me are the last two lines, the volta.  "He that made this knows all the cost, / For he gave all his heart and lost."  Yeats, who wrote it, gave his whole heart, made himself entirely vulnerable, and lost his love.  This is a poem from a place of heartbreak, and I think I would be a fool if I expected a heartbroken person to ever be fair in their treatment of love.  To anyone who has ever made themselves vulnerable, only to have their heart, their very self, rejected, this poem calls upon that pain.  Swapping genders would change very little because the raw pain of this sonnet works in any way.  A passionate man rejecting an earnest woman who gave all her heart and lost, or a man walking away from another man's love because of its certainty would result in the same heartbreak.