Literary Steps

Came across this photo of great books steps at a university in Lebanon in a post on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog. As a long time list-maker (who did a lot of it when I co-produced a show on world literature),  I’m always interested in choices of this kind.

Lots of these make sense to me, Gilgamesh is an inevitable and reasonable starting point.  I don’t read Arabic so can’t assess those titles. The others are mostly good company, whether literary monuments like Goethe or Dante, or core philosophy texts from The Republic to Thus Spake Zarathustra. And while I get while The Prophet, Steven Hawking, and even Toynbee are there. But the final step appears to be Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead has me a bit stumped, although acknowledgment of the digital age is valid, and perhaps what seemed like a tepid read 20 years ago or so has aged better than I would have predicted. But in the company of Descartes? Kant?  For reals?

I like the collection of books that the Kansas City Public Library built into its architecture too:

Photo by Dean Hochman, Flickr.
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Poetic Words: B. H. Fairchild

Found a ‘new & collected’ by a poet I’ve been following for years, and have been browsing it happily.  A lot of his works are about that most essential question, do you stay put in your life (geographically, psychologically, culturally, etc.) or do you light out to some other destination?

 

The Men
By B. H. Fairchild

As a kid sitting in a yellow vinyl
booth in the back of Earl’s Tavern,
you watch the late-afternoon drunks
coming and going, sunlight breaking
through the smoky dark as the door
opens and closes, and it’s the future
flashing ahead like the taillights
of a semi as you drop over a rise
in the road on your way to Amarillo,
bright lights and blonde-haired women,
as Billy used to say, slumped over
his beer like a snail, make a real man
out of you, the smile bleak as the gaps
between his teeth, stay loose, son,
don’t die before you’re dead. Always
the warnings from men you worked with
before they broke, blue fingernails,
eyes red as fate. A different life
for me, you think, and outside later,
feeling young and strong enough to raise
the sun back up, you stare down Highway 54,
pushing everything—stars, sky, moon,
all but a thin line at the edge
of the world—behind you. Your headlights
sweep across the tavern window,
ripping the dark from the small, humped
shapes of men inside who turn and look,
like small animals caught in the glare
of your lights on the road to Amarillo.

Poetic Words: Walter De La Mare

I have a special place in my heart for ‘minor figures,’ the characters some feet back from stardom in their chosen artistic enterprise.  (Perhaps that comes from my realized contentment in being a second violin in the orchestra of life.)

The British poet, children’s author and novelist Walter De La Mare is one such second violin. Al contemporary of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound, he harkened back to a 19th century literary life, with well-crafted poems, and stories and novels that shaded to the twee.

I had a book of his stories, which I adored, in my earliest days. And of course he turned his hand to some ghost stories and books of rhymes (Victorian pleasures all).  James Campbell has a wonderful run down on him in The Guardian a few years back,

“The repeating elements of his work are the times of day and their domestic rituals, the seasons and their fruits, the symbolic death and rebirth inherent in sleeping and waking, autumn and spring. A dozen poems employ “Winter” in the title; half-a-dozen more, “Snow”. He likes the things that children like, as well as those that children like to fear: scarecrows and shepherds, ghosts and fairies, knights and huntsmen, “bumpity rides”, a lost shoe which is sought from “Spain, and Africa, / Hindustan, / Java, China, / And lamped Japan”; phrases like “Alas, alack”, “do diddle di do” and “riddle-cum-ree”; sailors – mariners, rather – either coasting “sweet o’er the rainbow foam” or fated to be “flotsam on the seas”. Numerous De la Mare poems are simple and delightful nonsense: “Three jolly farmers / Once bet a pound / Each dance the others would / Off the ground”, but many are tinged with subtle melancholy, the effect of a sensitivity attuned to high-pitched notes of grief even at times of contentment.”

 

Here is his best known poem,

The Listeners
By Walter De La Mare

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Poetry: Gray’s Elegy

It is perhaps too long, yet remains one of those poems from which lines float up unbidden (and not just because they have found their way to so many titles).

graveyardElegy Written in a Country Churchyard

By Thomas Gray

 

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
         The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
         And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
         And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
         And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
         The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
         Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Continues at…

Poetry Month: D. Nurske

Although I’m not posting a poem a day (as in some past years), still in honor of poetry month, one from D. Nurske.

A Rest in Our Savior’s Garden

The fat pigeons
don’t seem exhausted.
A squirrel begs
with a trace of contempt.
A tiny sparrow
walks straight up to me
wide-eyed in a trance
in the shadow of wings —

even though each crumb
that falls from my fingers
glints with fever.

Sickness with the force of miracle.
The statue of the Virgin
wears a stone veil.

I still have a few poppy seeds
in the life-line and the love-line

but now the birds are gone,
the squirrel found an acorn,
night hides the wasp
that once made my body
the center of a dazzling circle.

D. Nurkse

Cherry Blossom Time

Things are just about to burst into flower in DC.
A few haiku of Basho to observe the joys of the season…

A cloud of cherry blossoms;
The temple bell,-
Is it Ueno, is it Asakusa?

How many, many things
They call to mind
These cherry-blossoms!

Very brief –
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.

Some more here, on a site called The Culture Trip.

And a print from the Met on the the same theme…

True View of the Pleasure Quarters with Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom in the Miyozki District of the New Port of Yokohama, Kanagawa

Commonplace Book: Aeneid, translated by David Ferry

Still working my way through David Ferry’s Virgil, wonder, astonishment and beauty; here’s a grim excerpt that shows the vividness and control of both author and translator.

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/251473 Roman, Marble relief fragment with scenes from the Trojan War, 1st half of 1st century A.D., Marble, Palombino, 7 1/8 x 6 15/16 in., 1.1kg (18.1 x 17.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Fletcher Fund, 1924 (24.97.11)

“Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,
And with it bringing back to sight the labors
Of sad mortality, what men have done,
And what has been done to them; and what they must do
To mourn. King Tarchon and Father Aeneas, together
Upon the curving shore, caused there to be
Wooden funeral pyres constructed, and to which
The bodies of their dead were brought and placed there,
In accordance with the customs of their countries.
The black pitch smoke of the burning of the bodies
Arose up high and darkened the sky above.
Three times in shining armor the grieving warriors
Circled the burning pyres, three times on horseback,
Ululating, weeping, as they rode.
You could see how teardrops glistened on their armor.
The clamor of their sorrowing voices and
The dolorous clang of trumpets rose together
As they threw into the melancholy fires
Spoils that had been stripped from the Latins, helmets,
And decorated swords, bridles of horses,
And glowing chariot wheels, and with them, also,
Shields and weapons of their own familiar
Comrades, which had failed to keep them alive.
Bodies of beasts were thrown into the fire,
Cattle, and bristle- backed swine, brought from surrounding
Fields to be sacrificed to the god of death.

And all along the shore the soldiers watched
The burning of the bodies of their friends,
And could not be turned away until the dewy
Night changed all the sky and the stars came out.
Over there, where the Latins were, things were
As miserable as this. Innumerable
Scattered funeral pyres; many bodies
Hastily buried in hastily dug-up earth,
And many others, picked up from where they fell
When they were slain, and carried back to the fields
Which they had plowed and tilled before the fighting,
Or back into the city where they came from;
Others were indiscriminately burned,
Unnamed, and so without ceremony or honor.
The light of the burning fires was everywhere.
On the third day when the light of day came back
To show the hapless scene, they leveled out
What was left of the pyres and separated what
Was left of the bones, now cold and among cold ashes,
And covered over the ashes and the bones.

– From David Ferry’s The Aeneid

Reasonable Words: Albert Goldbarth

A bit of a literary essay from Albert Goldbarth, a poet I’ve long admired:

“Charles Dickens started work on Bleak House in 1851. If you’re like me and don’t spend all of your free time romping through the fields of etymology, you too may startle at suddenly stumbling on “ganglion” in those 900-plus pages. Like, what?—did he make a quick trip in his time chaise, and return with a shiny copy of this month’s Scientific American, set on appropriating its language? “Refrigerator” is here too: not in the sense of a kitchen appliance, but still…a frisson volts across my spine. (For a thousand more reasons than this, it’s a glorious book. Bill Matthews says, in “Le Quarte Saisons, Montreal, 1979,” “I read Bleak House / a third time, slowly, fondly.”)

Dickens, Meville, Mary Shelley…something in the nineteenth century seems to set a tiny crystal ball in the heads of certain writers. When Wordsworth stares out dolefully at London’s silhouette and frets at its burgeoning changes—the rise of the factory system and market economy; the end of cyclical time; the degradation of child labor; the first industrial pollution; and the rest—it’s almost as if his gaze is so intense, he can see it all unfold like gritted, sooty origami into the centuries ahead, until it is 2006 for him. No wonder he’s so despondent.

I like to teach his daffodils poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” For one thing, it’s a terrific simple example of connotation at work: we only understand the poem if we understand the difference between the negative “lonel[iness]” (line 1) and the positive “solitude” (line 22). The intervening daffodils, of course, are what alchemize one state into the other. Or rather, his recollection of the daffodils. And so it’s a terrific poem, too, for teaching the distinction between a subject (here, the joyous encounter with nature) and a theme (the healing use we can make of a memory)”

I share Goldbarth’s, and the late William Matthews’love of Bleak House too.

Formal Matters: Sestinas

A love of poetry does not necessarily require knowing much about what is going on under the hood–formal concerns, rhyme, meter, and the like. Perhaps because I was a music major, it’s always been an interest of mine: like sonata form, poetic structures have their own low key, fascinating dazzle. For example, the verse form of the sestina.

Poetry Foundation gives a definition:

A complex French verse form, usually unrhymed, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order as end words in each of the subsequent five stanzas; the closing envoy contains all six words, two per line, placed in the middle and at the end of the three lines. The patterns of word repetition are as follows, with each number representing the final word of a line, and each row of numbers representing a stanza:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

Got that?

And yet, some poets manage to create miracles out of these ridiculous strictures:

First David Ferry, who has recently turned out a stunning version of The Aeneid.

The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People
By David Ferry

The unclean spirits cry out in the body
Or mind of the guest Ellen in a loud voice
Torment me not, and in the fury of her unclean
Hands beating the air in some kind of unending torment—
Nobody witnessing could possibly know the event
That cast upon her the spell of this enchantment.

Almost all the guests are under some kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same body;
Of being witness still to some obscene event;
Of listening all the time to somebody’s voice
Whispering in the ear things divine or unclean,
In the quotidian of unending torment.

One has to keep thinking there was some source of torment,
Something that happened someplace else, unclean.
One has to keep talking in a reasonable voice
About things done, say, by a father’s body
To or upon the body of Ellen, in enchantment
Helpless, still by the unforgotten event

Enchanted, still in the old forgotten event
A prisoner of love, filthy Ellen in her torment,
Guest Ellen in the dining hall in her body,
Hands beating the air in her enchantment,
Sitting alone, gabbling in her garbled voice
The narrative of the spirits of the unclean.

She is wholly the possessed one of the unclean.
Maybe the spirits came from the river. The enchantment
Entered her, maybe, in the Northeast Kingdom. The torment,
A thing of the waters, gratuitous event,
Came up out of the waters and entered her body
And lived in her in torment and cried out in her voice.

It speaks itself over and over again in her voice,
Cursing maybe or not a familiar obscene event
Or only the pure event of original enchantment
From the birth of the river waters, the pure unclean
Rising from the source of things, in a figure of torment
Seeking out Ellen, finding its home in her poor body.

Her body witness is, so also is her voice,
Of torment coming from unknown event;
Unclean is the nature and name of the enchantment.

Of course Elizabeth Bishop could seemingly toss them off…

Miracle for Breakfast
by Elizabeth Bishop

At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds—along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
—I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

And finally Donald Justice, overlooked, but one of my favorites:

Sestina: Here In Katmandu

by Donald Justice

We have climbed the mountain.
There’s nothing more to do.
It is terrible to come down
To the valley
Where, amidst many flowers,
One thinks of snow,

As formerly, amidst snow,
Climbing the mountain,
One thought of flowers,
Tremulous, ruddy with dew,
In the valley.
One caught their scent coming down.

It is difficult to adjust, once down,
To the absence of snow.
Clear days, from the valley,
One looks up at the mountain.
What else is there to do?
Prayer wheels, flowers!

Let the flowers
Fade, the prayer wheels run down.
What have they to do
With us who have stood atop the snow
Atop the mountain,
Flags seen from the valley?

It might be possible to live in the valley,
To bury oneself among flowers,
If one could forget the mountain,
How, never once looking down,
Stiff, blinded with snow,
One knew what to do.

Meanwhile it is not easy here in Katmandu,
Especially when to the valley
That wind which means snow
Elsewhere, but here means flowers,
Comes down,
As soon it must, from the mountain.


Some help on how to write your own, with yet another fine example from Anthony Hecht.

Poetic Words: Mary Oliver

A favorite from a Provincetown, MA poet.

Poppies
Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

Ian Britton Field of Poppies

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?