Ian Sansom on Auden

Recently finished September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, writer and teacher Ian Sansom (of the delightful Mobile Library mystery series) giving a quirky, personal and finally quite illuminating take on the famous Auden poem (perhaps infamous, as Auden himself more or less disowned it). Lots of bits for commonplacing, but I particularly liked this passage, riffing on how Auden is addressing the average man in the street:

“…Of course, things could be even worse for the ‘average.’ A recent paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology analysing the appearance and frequency of words related to moral excellence and virtue in American books published between 1901 and 2000 found a decline in the use of general moral terms such as ‘virtue’ and ‘conscience’. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that we no longer have a shared moral framework, but it may mean that we’re beginning to lack the vocabulary to describe it.)

Our changing understanding of what it might mean to be ‘average’ perhaps indicates a crisis in how we think and talk about the social contract, about how we think and talk about each other–what makes us similar, what binds us together, and what constitutes a culture, a democracy and a commonweal.

And that crisis, I think, is already apparent in Auden’s use of ‘average’.

It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human society which uses them for a thousand different purposes.'  (Auden, 'Writing')

(Now, I am perfectly aware that all this might sound like just so much hogwash and hooey, an example of what the late great Gilbert Adair liked to refer to as ‘the Tardis doctrine of criticism’, the ludicrous idea that ‘within a single detail, a detail as humble and as measurable as a telephone booth, there may be contained a whole world’, but I suppose I am a bit of a critical Whovian and I happen to think that ‘average’ is one of those telephone booth-type words, or a trapdoor, or a portal; I think it leads to all sorts of strange and dark places.)

Poetic Words: James Schuyler

A love poem by the least known of the New York Poets (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara).

Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight 1846
Johan Christian Dahl

Letter Poem #3

The night is quiet
as a kettle drum
the bull frog basses
tuning up. After
swimming, after sup-
per, a Tarzan movie,
dishes, a smoke. One
planet and I
wish. No need
of words. Just
you, or rather,
us. The stars tonight
in pale dark space
are clover flowers
in a lawn the expanding
Universe in which
we love it is
our home. So many
galaxies and you my
bright particular,
my star, my sun, my
other self, my bet-
ter half, my one

–Jame Schuyler

Remembering Mary Oliver

Provincetown poet Mary Oliver died yesterday at 83. Bryan Marquard has written a lovely obit in the Globe, and I’m sure more tributes will follow.

The Summer Day

Two of many of her poems that have stayed with me over the years.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Poppies

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

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?

One of my nature places, Mt. Auburn Cemetery last fall.

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.

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: Edward Thomas

Wanderer in the Storm by Julius von Leypold

Cold and wet in Boston and DC (my two homes). So a topical bit of Edward Thomas (doomed WWI era poet, if only he had taken Robert Frost’s invitation to come to the U.S.)

 

 

Rain

By Edward Thomas

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Poetic Words: Thomas Hardy

In my long-ago college days, Hardy the novelist was celebrated, and Hardy the poet was–other than a few well-anthologized poems like The Darkling Thrush–passed over without comment by the faculty and the English majors. He was too Victorian, too prolific, a relic, and flat.

I’m glad to say that bias has passed, and the craft and depth of his poems are now valued (in concert with, rather than in opposition to, what else was going on in the early 20th century poetically).

Here’s one, chosen in honor of the gentle dust of white on our sort of suburban, even rural, back patio.

SNOW IN THE SUBURBS

        Every branch big with it,
	Bent every twig with it;
       Every fork like a white web-foot;
       Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward, when
Meeting those meandering down they tum and descend again.
     The palings are glued together like a wall,
     And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.


A sparrow enters the tree,
	Whereon immediately
       A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
       Descends on him and showers his head and eyes,
	And overturns him,
	And near inurns him,
 And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.

      The steps are a blanched slope,
      Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
	And we take him in


 

Winter Words

Still cold in Washington, so some pics and a poem by Mark Strand. We’ll be ushering in more seasonable weather this week I hear.

Rock Creek Park

Lines for Winter

by Mark Strand

for Ros Krauss

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself-
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

A neighborhood front yard.

Memorial Day

So easy to think it’s just another three day weekend, but some reminders courtesy of the NYPL of the origin of this day.

www.nypl.org/blog/2013/05/20/memorial-day

 

And one of the poems that this day evokes for me…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


 

And there is that line from Auden’s “The Unknown Solider”

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.


 

Pause and remember.

 

arlington

Poetic Words: Sharon Olds

poetryBoth Poetry Daily and Knopf Poem of the Day do celebrations of National Poetry Month (April, of course, the ‘cruelest’ month). Sharon Olds was one of Knopf’s selections, and she has always resonated with me, perhaps never more so than in this poem.

Directly

Then, one late afternoon,
I understand: the harm my father
did us is receding. I never thought
it would happen, I thought his harm was stronger than that,
like God’s harm—flood, or birth without
eyes, with mounds of tissue, no retina, no
pupil, the way my father on the couch did not
seem not to be using eyes
but not to have them, or to have objects
for eyes—Jocastal dress-brooches.
But he had not been hated, so he did not hate us,
just scorned us, and it is wearing off.
My son and daughter are grown, they are well
as if by some miracle. The afternoon has a
quality of miracle, the starlings all facing
the west, his grave. I come to the window
as if to open it, and whisper,
My father’s harm is fading. Then,
I think that he would be glad to hear it
directly from me,

so I come to where you are, bone
settled under the dewed tangle
of the blackish Northwoods moss like the crossroads
hair of a beloved. I come to you here
because it is home: your done-with body
broken back down into earth, holding
its solemn incapable beauty.


Perhaps all writers make use of their family first and foremost, but few do it as fearlessly.