Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Story - Chris Hart

A few words before I begin in earnest, friends. 

First, an apology.  I have not posted much poetry in 2016, and I feel my life has been worse for it.  This has been a trying year, and I have not weathered it with the grace and serenity I strive to provide with this blog.  I let the difficulties of daily life take up the majority of my mental energies, leaving little room for much else.  I heard many wonderful words of support from many of you during the year, and for that, I am truly thankful.  I hope to serve you all better in 2017.

Secondly, this is not a poem that I share today.  Rather, it's a story of mine, one that I have not told to very many people.  As the title implies, it is a Christmas story.  I've held off on telling it because I was unsure if I could reach anyone with it.  Today, though, I have decided to cast off my doubts and write with the bravery of the season in mind, in hopes that you can feel something essential: warmth, love, and value.  Merry Christmas, friends.

This is a story about how one tiny thing can mean the whole world.  It is about the transformative power of Christmas, and how you have more value than you think.

A little over three years ago, I felt, for the first time in my life, truly lonely.  At the time, I was living in South Korea, working as an English teacher.  It was a marvelous experience, and overall one of the best decisions I feel I have ever made in my life.  It was, however, not without its difficulties.

When I got the job, I was placed into the countryside province of Gyeongsangbuk-do.  Climate-wise, it is similar to my native Connecticut: cold, snowy winters, rainy spring, complete with flowers, sweltering summer, and beautiful, bountiful fall.  Topographically, the land is channels of flat land around rivers surrounded by dramatic, sharply rising mountains.  The hills are sudden, and create a wonderful zig-zag skyline.  Population-wise, the county where I lived, Uiseong, is home to about 70,000 people.  My town, Tamni, is a quiet farming town of about 4,000 people.  I came to love it very much, and I miss it very much now.

Three years ago, though, it was December, and bitterly cold.  I had just disembarked from the train station in my town, and had just passed through the station doors to begin my walk home.  I lived no more than half a mile from the station, so it was never a long walk.  The station itself was a cute little building.  It consisted of little more than a ticket counter, lobby, and bathroom, and had one platform for both tracks.  The building was shaped like a little castle, which I always found charming. 

That night, I was returning from a nearby city, having done some Christmas shopping.  I had gone into the Western style supermarket a town over to buy baking supplies for the oven I had recently purchased, and to pick up more Christmas cards.  You see, this being my first Christmas away from home, I was making a real effort to make my life feel Christmas-y.  I had begun writing cards to friends and family back home overseas at the start of the month, and was looking forward to baking cookies for the friends I had made since arriving.

It is worth mentioning now that Christmas in Korea is quite different to it in the USA, or to most European nations.  Whereas Christmas here has come to be a large commercial holiday, and also a general season of goodwill towards others, in Korea, it is two distinct holidays.  One of those is for couples, for whom Christmas is like another Valentine's Day.  It's a day to spend in the arms of a lover, with a gift meant to show affection.  The other is the religious holiday, in which Christ's Nativity is celebrated, quietly.  There is no long break from work or cultural celebration, just one day off in December.  Knowing this, I was trying my best to feel the goodwill and love that I personally associate with Christmas, though in all honesty, I was struggling. 

Emotions are fickle things by nature.  I do not know why, but as I stepped outside of that proud little castle-shaped train station, I felt completely isolated.  The town was, as always, quiet.  It was about 10:30pm, and there wasn't another person in sight, not even in the station.  Maybe it was the piercing cold, or the strident whistle of the winter wind through the bare tree branches, but my mind turned inward on itself.  Feelings of alone-ness turned into feelings of loneliness, into which crept doubt and self-loathing.

I suspect I am not alone in this, but the night can turn my own worst thoughts back inward.  I began to meditate on loneliness as I began my solitary walk back to my solitary apartment.  Under normal circumstances, when I feel lonely, I can easily remind myself that I am not alone, and that there are people who value me for nothing apart from my own self.  Maybe it was the unusual cold that pierced right through me, despite my thick woolen jacket, but I could conjure no such thoughts of reassurance.

The cold and dark seemed to tell me that not only was I alone, but I deserved to be alone.  My worst fears about myself as a person seemed in that moment to be Gospel truth.  Of course I was lonely!  I didn't know how to fall in love, and when I did, I never knew how to show it.  It was right for me to be cold and alone on Christmas.  My mind was racing with every time I had somehow perceived myself to fail, too be too much of one thing, not enough of another.  It was as if the cold was confirming to me every doubt I had ever held, ratifying every fear I had.  Surely I was unlovable!  You fled from your failures at home and look at you, still alone, still sad, the wind shrieked.

Here you are, alone in a cold, dark down on the opposite side of the world, desperately trying to convince yourself that it's Christmas.  A season of goodwill among men, and love?  Hah!  There is no such thing, the cold pressed.  There is only me, and you, and no one for you here or anywhere.  It was an unbearable moment.  I felt further away from any person on the planet than I ever have.  I simultaneously missed my family, friends from home, and anything on which I could anchor a feeling of belonging, or self-validation.  Some confluence of environment, weather, and my own emotional state had conspired to convince me briefly that I was deservedly alone, nothing more than a list of things I could do for other people.

No more than four minutes could have passed, but I felt all of these things as deeply as I have ever felt anything before in my life.  Then, something wonderful happened.  I looked up.  Above a local church's door, lining the jetty, was a single string of white Christmas lights.  They meant everything to me.  It was a familiar sight when I needed it most, and had not been there earlier in the day when I took the train into the city.  A single string of Christmas lights made me feel, no, believe, that I belonged.

All of the feelings of the season flooded into me, and I was suffused with incredible warmth.  All the fears of loneliness I had were dispelled by those lights.  They let me know that I was not alone, but that the essential goodness of Christmas transcends any cultural trappings.  It lives in knowing that you are loved, and you are, no matter how you think or feel about it.  You matter as much as anyone else and should never deny yourself that knowledge. 

I know it sounds silly, but in that moment, that one string of Christmas lights meant the world to me.  I knew in that moment that my fears were unfounded.  They represented a bright world of possibility, a world redeemed by love, the true meaning of Christmas.  It is the bravery to see yourself as someone worthy of love.

Having looked up at those wondrous, beautiful, ordinary lights, I continued my walk home, unaware of the bitter cold.  I went into my apartment, put Christmas music on, and began baking cookies, singing along with the music as I went.  From an outside appearance, all I did that day was walk from the train station to my house, maybe slightly slower than normal.  It was a mundane journey, over a short distance, and for no remarkable purpose.  To me though, it has stood these past three years as a realization of what the Christmas spirit means to me.  It is giving unselfishly with the knowledge that everyone is as human as you, and as deserving of love and goodwill as you, and that you are as deserving as anyone else.

I went on to have an absolutely wonderful Christmas that year.  I woke before dawn to Skype with my family, celebrating Christmas.  After that, I took the bus into the neighboring town, where I volunteered at an orphanage with friends, giving gifts to the children and singing songs with them.  That evening, I went to a friend's house, where we all prepared a delicious Christmas dinner, and celebrated one another's company late into the night with food, wine, laughter, and endless goodwill.  I will never forget that experience, and I hope to hold those feelings in my heart's memory for the rest of my life.

Something so small as a string of lights in the dark, cold, foreign night unlocked for me the goodness of the season.  It is the eternal Christmas triumph of a light in the dark, a Hope for a hopeless world.  Of course, I knew that those horrible emotions I felt were not grounded in reality.  But we do not live only in a world of facts.

I do not know if my story can speak to you, reader.  Maybe it is too personal, or too general.  I did say I was unsure about sharing it.  But when I felt some bitterly cold weather the other night, this memory came back to me.  It is a story I have only told to a few people, because I was not sure if I could explain it properly.  I hope I have, reader, and I hope that you know that you have value, and are loved.  Look up, and look for light.  It is Christmas, after all.

Thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas.  I hope to talk to you all much more in the new year.

Friday, August 26, 2016

[My own heart let me more have pity on] - Gerard Manley Hopkins

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room, let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather - as skis
Betweenpie mountains - lights a lovely mile.

Where to even begin with this magnificent poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins?  At its core, this is a poem about accepting the idea that we all deserve grace and love, no matter how we feel about it.  For Hopkins, this would have been Grace with a capital G, as he was a devout Catholic, and it is impossible to read the poem without considering the relationship with God Hopkins sought to cultivate.  Still, even for those of us who are not religious, I feel the central themes of the poem resonate so strongly with many of our modern concerns.

The first stanza of the poem is a plea from the narrator to the self to forgive the self.  Who among us is not our own harshest critic?  I know that personally, I have many negative things to say to myself when I look inward.  We all do.  Hopkins is asking to have more pity on himself, to recognize his own worth.  When Hopkins reaches out for this comfort, he feels blind.

Pity and Grace, Mercy, Forgiveness, these are the things Hopkins seeks.  For him, the source of these things is in God.  "Soul" he addresses, "call off thoughts awhile."  By opening up to God, Hopkins is leaving himself open to "God knows what."  That what Hopkins lovingly describes as "skies betweenpie mountains - lights a lovely mile."  It's a bright and optimistic image.  By leaving those thoughts of trying to offer the self pity behind, and inviting Grace in, the future becomes limitless.

Looking at it in a more secular light, I think we can take the first stanza to heart.  We can always find reasons to criticize ourselves and deny ourselves the dignity afforded to all by way of nature.  We mustn't.  That first line resonates deeply with me.  "My own heart let me have more pity on."  Indeed, let me have more pity on myself.  Recognizing your own worth is a radial act, and whether you think you need the divine to do so or not is up to the individual. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

In a Garden - Amy Lowell

Gushing from the mouths of stone men
To spread at ease under the sky
In granite-lipped basins,
Where iris dabble their feet
And rustle to a passing wind,
The water fills the garden with its rushing,
In the midst of the quiet of the close-clipped lawns.

Damp smell the ferns in tunnels of stone,
Where trickle and plash the fountains,
Marble fountains, yellowed with much water.

Splashing down moss-tarnished steps
It falls, the water;
And the air is throbbing with it;
With its gurgling and running;
With its leaping, and deep, cool murmur.

And I wished for night and you.
I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool,
White and shining in the silver-flecked water.

While the mood rode over the garden,
High in the arch of night,
And the scent of the lilacs was heavy with stillness.

Night and the water, and you in your whiteness, bathing!

I've posted Amy Lowell's poetry a number of times before here, and I make no secret of my admiration or her direct style and clear descriptions of specific scenes.  Broadly speaking, she's of the Imagist school of poets.  Imagist poetry grew out of modernism, and according to T.E. Hulme, an early proponent of the style, is meant to "use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word."  Imagism can be thought of as a reaction against romanticism, or poetry that was overly abstract.

While that makes Imagism sound somewhat clinical, I think it's clear from the above poem that what Imagism necessitates is an incredible skill for creating a precise picture in the reader's mind's eye.  How easy is it to picture the garden scene Lowell describes?  The fountains are describe in precise detail, and when talking about a beautiful scene, what language can be more appropriate than the exact word? 

Imagist poetry also does not rule out the romantic or sentimental in its quest for clarity.  Lowell sits in the garden and pines for her lover.  She "wished for night and you" and described her lover "white and shining in the silver-flecked water."  Imagist poetry does not seek to moralize a given image, or to construct an elaborate allegory or parallel.  Rather, it presents a scene, as if crystallized in amber, and allows us to examine it.  I feel like I can walk around Lowell's poems, as if they are a perfect diorama that I may inhabit.

The advantage to this sort of poetry, in my opinion, is that it allows great room for relation and empathy.  I feel like I, too, can sit in this garden and can so easily imagine a past lover of mine in the moonlight, and I feel so clearly the tug on Lowell's heartstrings as she wishes for "night and you."  The poem is like a painting in how it captures the imagination.  Specificity is not antithetical to personal interaction with a poem, or imaginative thought.  Just as a photograph can capture your heart so too can a highly focused poem.  The beauty of the scene and the clear, direct sentiment of missing a lover at its heart make this a true gem, and one that I plan on memorizing.  I want always to carry it with me. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

April Love - Ernest Dowson

We have walked in Love's land a little way,
We have learnt his lesson a little while,
And shall we not part at the end of day,
With a sigh, a smile?
A little while in the shine of the sun,
We were twined together, joined lips, forgot
How the shadows fall when the day is done,
And when Love is not.
We have made no vows--there will none be broke,
Our love was free as the wind on the hill,
There was no word said we need wish unspoken,
We have wrought no ill.
So shall we not part at the end of day,
Who have loved and lingered a little while,
Join lips for the last time, go our way,
With a sigh, a smile?

This love poem from Ernest Dowson, short and pleasant as a passing romance or a summer breeze, reminds me greatly of one of my favorite poems by Michael Drayton, about which I've written before.  That poem, too, is about lovers parting with a goodbye kiss, seeking to leave with no animosity or hard feelings.  There, as here, it feels somewhat as if the narrator is trying to convince himself that it is indeed possible to part with a kiss and not feel some measure of sadness and heartbreak.  The difference for me is that this is a more positive poem, evoking pleasant memories of a pleasant, passing romance.

Dowson seems fairly well able to convince himself that such a love, an "April Love" as the title suggests, is possible.  The bright, simple language of the poem evokes all the niceties of springl  The sun shines, the breeze on the hill blows, "shadows fall when the day is done, and when Love is not."  It's a lovely image.  Lovers twined, lips joined, a beautiful springtime.  There is no malice in their parting, no desperate hope for a rekindling of romance.  Still, as the poem is framed as a series of questions, I read it with a hint of self-convincing.  "We can kiss, smile, and part without heartbreak...right?" 

Even with that seed of doubt and the questioning nature of the poem, I am hopelessly charmed by the idea of two people meeting, becoming lovers, and parting friends with a happy sigh and a watery-eyed smile.  A goodbye kiss without drama, so to speak.  Maybe it's the springtime loving imagery of the poem, or the warm feeling imagining the loving parting last kiss, but I like to think that such a thing is possible.  A romance doesn't have to be long and dramatic to be meaningful, and if it feels like a warm spring breeze, then letting it be that free and easy can only be beautiful, just like this poem.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fall, leaves, fall - Emily Brontë

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

At first glance, this poem from Emily Brontë may seem bleak or joyless, but I do not think that is the case.  I felt compelled to post this poem today, as it was the first day when it felt like summer would soon fade away and bring with it the gorgeous New England fall weather so many, myself included, cherish.  Thinking about the inherent beauties of fall and winter, this poem starts to feel much less bleak and takes on a bit of a wry twist.

The Brontë sisters are not exactly known for being cheerful.  They were not those I would call "summer" people.  The heat and brightness can be oppressive at times, and I know I certainly prefer colder weather to hotter.  I don't think there's any genuine malice wished towards summer in this poem.  Read it with a half-cocked smile and it takes on a far more playful tone.  Fall, leaves, give us longer nights, falling leaves, blossoming wreaths of snow instead of roses.  What day better to sit by the fire with a book than a dreary one?  Looked at in this way, the poem seems to me to anticipate those sorts of winter days when one wants nothing more than to cozy up to a nice book under a warm blanket, watching snow lazily fall.

First though, the leaves must fall.  I've had enough of hot summer days, so I know I'm looking forward to the falling of the leaves and turning of the seasons.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Short Poem - Arthur Gregor

When eyes pass by trembling with presence,
hold on to the urge for possession of
the love without which you must learn
to remain content; then love with all you possess
that shadow wherein hovers a promise
like a young swallow in a thicket of trees.

If you seek to possess love, you must learn to be content without it, posits Arthur Gregor in his appropriately named short poem.  What I especially love about this poem is the aura of nervousness it cultivates.  Eyes tremble, love passes in shadows, and is as flighty as a bird in a thicket of trees.  There is also a wonderful sense of urgency to it all.  The subject wants so desperately to love those eyes "trembling with presence" that the narrator must urge caution.  Do not seek to possess love. 

I especially love the lines, "hold on to the urge for possession of / the love without which you must learn / to remain content."  If you put all of your happiness into possessing those eyes trembling with presence, you will end up ruined.  You must be whole, you must learn to remain content without love.  Instead, Gregor says, love the shadow of a promise of love.  Be ever hopeful of love rather than possessive is my takeaway.  Really, I simply adore the language of the poem.  It is beautiful and sometimes, that is enough.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Valley Song - Carl Sandburg

Your eyes and the valley are memories-
Your eyes fire and the valley a bowl.
It was here a moonrise crept over the timberline;
It was here we turned the coffee-cups upside down.
And your eyes and the moon swept the valley.

I will see you again in a million years.
I will see you again to-morrow.
I will never know your dark eyes again.
These are three ghosts I keep;
These are three sumach-red dogs I run with.

All of it wraps and knots to a riddle:
I have the moon, the timberline, and you.
All three are gone - and I keep all three.

Isn't memory a marvelous mystery?  Here, Carl Sandburg elegantly and simply makes the case for the almost mystical power of memory.  He has the moon, the timberline of the valley, and "you."  Of course, none of these things are his; no one can have the moon, just as no one can ever really have their lover.  Not forever, anyways.  And still, with the wonder of memory, Sandburg will "see you again in a million years" and still "see you again to-morrow."

Because the language of the poem is framed in memory, I feel that the "you" of the poem is a lover, now gone.  Really, apart from a love, who else can be compared to a valley, or to the moon?  Reading the first stanza, I imagined the narrator tracing his finger through the air, as if stroking the face of a lost love or tracing the outline of the valley slopes.  It's a fond, bittersweet memory.  Even though the narrator will "never know your dark eyes again" he keeps those memories with him, ghosts, dogs, with which he lives his daily life.

Sandburg ends with the wonderful paradox of memory.  "All three are gone - and I keep all three."  No one can take these memories away.  They are his to treasure until the end of time, and now, reader, they are ours, as well.  I'm sure this poem conjures in your mind your own valley, your own "you," and your own moon.  Think of those three ghosts tonight, and feel the company of everyone else who has ever done the same.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Idea 14: [If he from heaven that filched that living fire] - Michael Drayton

If he from heaven that filched that living fire
Condemned by Jove to endless torment be,
I greatly marvel how you still go free,
That far beyond Prometheus did aspire.
The fire he stole, although of heavenly kind,
Which from above he craftily did take,
Of liveless clods, us living men to make,
He did bestow in temper of the mind.
But you broke into heaven's immortal store,
Where virtue, honor, wit, and beauty lay;
Which taking thence you have escaped away,
Yet stand as free as ere you did before;
Yet old Prometheus punished for his rape.
Thus poor thieves suffer when the greater 'scape.

It has been some time, friends.  I do regret not having posted any poetry whatsoever for the past eight months.  I hope some of you see a message in your inbox and remember reading my blog fondly.  I can no longer let the busy-ness of my daily life prevent me from reading and sharing the poetry that I love with you, reader.  It is my sincere hope that you take five or ten minutes out of your day to slow down, relax, and read a poem a day.  If you let me, I would love to help.

Today's selection is a sonnet from Michael Drayton, whose poetry I have long enjoyed.  His work captures that odd mix of jealousy and admiration that constitute affection.  Here, the narrator expresses his wonderment at the perfection that is the target of his affections.  The person in question has stolen heaven's own "virtue, honor, wit, and beauty" for their own.  The comparisons are all couched in the language of classical myth, which are effective for two reasons.

Firstly, the myth of Prometheus would have been familiar to any of Drayton's readers.  Any educated person in the Elizabethan era would have been well versed in classical literature and myth.  Prometheus, for those of us who didn't receive an Elizabethan schooling, was a titan in Greek myth, who stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to mankind, raising us from towards Enlightenment.  Prometheus was then punished eternally by Zeus, chained and tortured, immortal and unable to escape by means of death.

Drayton's love object did Prometheus one better.  Not only did they steal all the wonders and virtues of heaven, they escaped without bearing punishment, and stand free, Titanic (quite literally, given the comparison with Prometheus) among mere humans, who can only admire.  For all that however, Drayton's tone is not purely admiration.  While he assuredly is in awe of the graces his love possesses, he still calls them a thief.  A great thief, to be sure, but it's hard to not hear, to my ears, at least, a hint of jealousy.  You steal all these things, and yet you go unpunished?  Prometheus, who stole for our benefit, is punished eternally, and you are rewarded with freedom for your theft? 

Still, Drayton cannot help but bitterly admire this thief.  While love is not a central theme of this poem, given the overall arc of Drayton's "Ideas" (sonnets) it is impossible to read it as anything else.  This poem captures that strange mix of jealousy, inferiority, and pure admiration that one smitten by (potentially one sided) love may feel. 

I'm not certain I've read this poem entirely correctly, but I'm nonetheless fascinated by it.  The comparison with mythic figures elevates the master thief, whom I imagine stole Drayton's heart along with virtue, beauty, wit, and honor.  It's a frustrated, almost exasperated feeling poem, and it reminds me of some wonderfully confusing feelings I myself have had when wondering how someone so clearly more wonderful than me could possibly love me.  Of course, no one is perfect.  Drayton acknowledges this in his other poems extensively.  But sometimes, reader, we can't help but wonder how someone can possibly be so perfect, and that's what I got from this poem.

Thank you for being loyal readers, friends.  I hope to bring you many more poems in the coming months and years.  I must say it felt very good to write about poetry again.