Monday, August 29, 2005

Poem of the Week 8/29/05: from The Tempest

from The Tempest

Spoken by Prospero

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own;
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confin'd by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardon'd the deciever, dwell
In this bare island, by your spell;
But release me from my bands,
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assualts
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd bem
Let your indulgence set me free.

William Shakespeare 1611

Hello friends and family! I have to say that The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play thanks to its whimsy, its energy, its passion, and this farewell. It was Shakespeare's final play, so this epilouge is the last part of a play he ever wrote. A teacher in high school told my class that this can be read as Shakespeare's final bow, a statement which has stuck with me ever since. Even if my teacher's assertion was not true, I find it powerful and relevant to read it as such. Great poetry is what we make of it, and thinking of this as Shakespeare's goodbye personalizes it in a way that Prospero's farewell never could. I get the same feeling reading it as I do listening to Mozart's requiem: it is the final work written by a great man knowing death is imminent.

In the poem, we see some fairly typical Shakespeare devices (with slight variations): iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets. Neither elements are rhetorically significant (other than having been skillfully executed), so we will move on to other things.

It may at first seem confusing that he writes "what strength I have's mine own" when the poem continues about how we must be on his side. I believe he says, instead of "The power is mine - wait - actually it's yours," that his "say," as it were, is done. He has given the world his tools, and it is our responsibility to give them flesh or not. Like Prospero, he can no longer choose to influence the island (which is the world of literature). It is like he has left an empty government with his instructions, and we can fill what seats and enact what laws as we will.

Perhaps more striking in the poem are the fears about death, the good will, and the characterizations of immortality. He says that, by (literally) reenacting his work, we set him free. So, this immortality is a sort of freedom. This threw me for a loop momentarily, because I was always under the impression that freedom and personal choice are synonomous. And yet Shakespeare talks of us having the power to choose where and when he lives again. The answer lies earlier in the poem, however. He could be "confin'd" should we decide to burn his plays and ignore his legacy. So the underlying metaphor is that he will either be caged or free. In dying and losing his work, Shakespeare's consciousness (implicit in his canon), is locked into its own time period. However, should people continute to perform and love his plays, his consciousness is free to roam the earth. It enters our bodies as we act the characters and leaves our mouths when we read his sonnets.

I realize here that I have irrevocably mixed author and speaker, going so far as to claim that Shakespeare's consciousness actually resides in his poetry and prose. I don't make this claim lightly, though I could very well be wrong. There may one day be an earthquake in the PotWs where I actually separate poet and speaker. For now, it is what it is. There is a wonderful essay I have recommended several times before called "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority" wherein Georges Poulet talks of reading as a peculiar act. When you read, he argues, you are astonishingly "thinking another person's thoughts." Thus, a part of the speaker's (and before that the author's) thoughts actually inhabit you. Since you are you and could never be the speaker (or the author), this meeting produces a new, ephemeral consciousness. In this way, a piece of Shakespeare's consciousness enters anyone who says "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo!" and so on and so forth.

So that's all for this week! I think I am going to start including bibliographical information with each poem. The Tempest is fairly standard, so I am going to let this one slide, but look for it in the future. Oh! And I promise that I will eventually get to the Aug. 15 and Aug 22 poems; doing the PotW is much easier at school. It seems a welcome rest from homework rather than actual homework when I am at school. A productive procrastination tool, if you well. So goodnight!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Poem of the Week 8/22/2005: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

from Pictures from Brueghel
II Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

William Carlos Williams 1965

will finish tomorrow (again... sorry!) Have a great night all!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Poem of the Week 8/15/2005: You Begin

You Begin

You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
this is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.

Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.

This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.

Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.

This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.

It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.

Margaret Atwood 1978

"You Begin," one of my all time favorite poems, plays with language, feelings of childhood, nostalgia, and love, and the state of the world. Atwood gives the poem a rise and fall: the kind of circularity that makes me ache. That it is titled "You Begin" emphasizes hope, I think, which the inclusion of the child does as well. She builds to that point, and part of that building process serves to invest the reader in the poem. The "you" in the poem could be any "you," though it seems to be addressed to a child drawing on a page.

The first stanza is light and whimsical, with clear, direct statements. There is something about naming things that I love - identifying them against the backdrop of the world provides some surety that is comforting. We can see the narrator smiling when she notes that the drawn fish is, indeed, not a great illustration - "blue and flat - on the paper." But this is done lightly, and the speaker engages the child's imagination by providing "almost the shape of an eye." She does the same with the mouth - "an O / or a moon, whichever / you like." These lines give us early on the confusion between drawing and world, for the speaker connects the image of an open mouth with the drawn circle on the paper. She backs off with the next statement, "This is yellow.," though.

In the second stanza, the narrator seems to be entertained by this naming/imagining process. She leaves the paper and starts describing the world - the rain is "green / because it is summer, and beyond that / the trees and then the world." A sense of curiousity and sadness comes through in the lines "the world / which is round and has only / the colors of these nine crayons." It is as if the narrator is looking askance at this statement, conscious of an innocent way of looking at the world. Also, by now the repetition of the phrases "it is" and "this is" has become apparent. This sense of naming becomes more and more strange, and its declarativeness forces us into the present.

The narrator starts to realize the strangeness of this reductive way of describing the world, saying, "This is the world, which is fuller / and more difficult to learn than I have said." On the surface, we may read this as the fact that things inevitably become more complicated than our language can express. On a deeper level, it is an expression of smallness, I think, and a kind of helplessness in the face of the endless web of complexity and problems in the world: "the world burns." Indeed, the next lines reiterate this, for "Once you have learned these words, / you will learn that there are more /words than you can ever learn."

Here Atwood begins her discussion of language, my favorite part of the poem. Words position us within the world. They are labels, floating above things "like a small cloud over a lake." They triangulate us. Just as "the word hand anchors / your hand to this table," so words bring us into relation to one-another. They interact with objects; the narrator says "your hand is a warn stone / I hold between two words." Words hug us, surround us, connect us, define us. Humans are a relation of words.

A lot of recent theory wants to say that words are thin shells of the real things, that the word "hand" could never be so solid as my fingers that are typing this, or yours as they rest in your lap. But to call it (and every one like it) a hand brings our hands into relation, sitting as a signal for all of the hands in the world. Maybe the inexactitude theorists like Derrida see as an expression of meaningless is actually a freedom, an opportunity for the imagination to link hands. The thing is, words do mean something. If they didn't, we would be forever making sounds at one another and marks on pages that meant nothing.

Lines 30-32 take the narrator from words to the world. The naming process sketches the huge and complex world. Hm - there is a paradox here. Words bring us into relation in the particular, helping us understand and make sense of the world, but on a meta level, their open-endedness allows for intricacy.

The last stanza is a cry of love and finitude. Perhaps the unknownness of things does get to the speaker. Or perhaps she acknowledges it... perhaps she sees that meaning resides in the particular, in the individual. Though there seems to be an infinity of the world, this specific world has a beginning and an end, and finitude is what we come back to. Ultimately, importance rests in a single person, in one hand. If you think about it, any relation of something to anything else (a hand to the other hands in the world, this desk to the floor to the earth), starts with the thing. The center of a web of complexity is here, always in the finite, always in the particular...

Maybe that is why I like this poem so much - the idea the infinite rests in the particular, or at least that the particular gives us access to the infinite. My friend loves to say that language is a finite tool used for infinite means (I think he's quoting Noam Chomsky, or at least drawing from him), and this is what can make words so magical. They are paradoxical, constantly bringing us into relation with one-another, with the world, with ourselves, but those relations are endless. I love this poem for its circularity - it includes the entire realm of things in its hands (line 2 and line 35, the last line), it holds us like a warm stone between two words...

***** This is the original posting (with additions to my favorite poems. It is nice to have them listed, if for no other reason than to remind oneself of them)*******

This poem is my second repeat author (I told you to watch for Atwood), but I choose it now because it is one of my all time top five favorite poems in the world and it is my birthday. So I can do what I want for another hour and seven minutes! Hm! But I choose it for a birthday day because I believe that it is full of passion and hope and love: the kind of tenacious tenderness that exists only in the deepest bonds (and the greatest grief). The form is impeccable and the emotion exquisitely controlled. Its rhetorical complexity is astounding, not least thanks to its "economy of words" (a term one of my lit professors used to describe good poetry). I am exhausted now, but will close-read this poem for all of you tomorrow. There is so much going on that I want to give it the attention that it deserves. For now, I am going to settle into bed with my blanket and my 19 year old self and read my all time top five favorite poems. In case you are curious, here is a list in no particular order.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
Punishment by Seamus Heaney
You Begin by Margaret Atwood
Caedmon by Denise Levertov
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World by Richard Wilbur
The Illiterate by William Meredith
Sonnet 14 by John Donne
The Prelude by William Wordsworth (esp. parts of Book 13)
Sea of Faith by John Brehm
(additions since then):
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Kubla Khan by Coleridge
Mt. Blanc by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake
The Simple Truth by Philip Levine
Elegy for Jane by Theodore Roethke
Adam’s Dream by Edwin Muir

Okay, so that was more than five, but I started going and got all excited about the poems that I love. Incidentally, all have been PotWs, so you are free to look them up. Also, in order to make you all a special part of the Poem of the Week, and to remind you to read the poems, I am still going to email you every Monday with the poem text and a link to this blog. I hope that you are enjoying the new easier-to-read PotWs, and that you all have wonderful nights!

Love Sarah

Monday, August 08, 2005

Poem of the Week 8/8/2005: Touch Me

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gun-metal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Stanley Kunitz 1990

Good evening lovely PotW contacts (I couldn't think of what else to call you)! A thought to begin: Stanley Kunitz was 85 when he wrote this poem; he was born in 1905. I think his age is crucial to understanding the poem, as it deals so directly with disintegration, age, and memory. Thinking of even a 60 year old man writing this alters the meaning a bit. And, again, I know I am mixing speaker and poet, but it at least provides a constant frame of reference. If you see the speaker's age (or even gender) differently, feel free to write back with your thoughts!

At any rate, Kunitz opens the text with two whole entities that crumble. "Summer," something clear and bright, begins the poem. However, he immedately disjoints this idea, telling us that it is late. The first line is also important because it nods towards the nostalgia that is present throughout this work. This is, I think, a love poem. It is perhaps a cry-out love poem, but Kunitz weaves the affection and desperation together throughout the work. Diction that includes "wild," "torn", "trilling," "my heart," "marveled," "brave," and "thrash" serves to heighten the passion and urgency of the call. Of course, the speaker's age may have something to do with this urgency.

"Touch Me"'s second image is that of a word being plucked, fruit-like, and then scattering in the wind. That established, lines 8 and 9 are key; Kunitz writes that "It is my heart that's late, / it is my heart that's flown." In other words, his heart, like a late summer, is something (potentially) ripe and bright and pure that has not come to fruit. His heart, too, is crumbling like chalk.

Just as the opening images of the poem are of loss/disintegration, the bulk of the poem is chock-full of death images. The sky is gun-colored, and he "stakes" his garden down as if it was going to escape somewhere. Furthermore, the poem's central metaphor, the garden crickets, typifies this cycle of destruction. Their presence within the poem, however, reveals somewhat more about the narrator's hopes and fears than do the other entropic elements. These crickets, the speaker notes, will certainly die soon. They have only one season to live (an observation perfectly aligned with the opening statement, "Summer is late, my heart."), and yet they trill away. They live thanks to a tri-pel-et chugging "desire, desire, desire." Evidently, Kunitz sees several imporant things about these crickets. Both their "crusty shells" and their short life span allow him to empathize with them; they are ephemeral shells, as is he. Secondly, they sing nonetheless. Their desire to live, to mate, to whatever, keeps them going.

For Kunitz, I think it's his desire for his wife's love, body, and soul. Or hers for him. Their shared desire. I love the howling quality of the final stanza - the wind and trees are beating at the windows, death is certainly out there, but he does not need to be a shell. He can be again if she will only touch him. Desire will anchor him to life and identity again, just as it did for the tiny unflappable crickets. Oh me I love this poem. It's quite beautiful. There are several ways to read the question "Darling do you remember / the man you married?". He could be assuming that she does, in which case the inquiry is a triumphant sound. On another note, it could be the tender wail of despair, born of he not knowing whether she *does* remember or not. Or maybe it's neither of those things - it's up to you to decide.

Before I go, I have a couple of notes. I wanted to mention something my dad told me about emotional memory that is part of the reason this poem is so explosive to me. He said that emotional memory has no sense of time, so if you get truly triggered, that's it! You're back exactly when you felt the first emotion, experiencing it again. This poem somehow makes me care for the speaker in very few words, because here, again, is a very real person. One who hurts and loves and fears... do any of you remember the "Flowers" by Wendy Cope edition of the PotW? I still believe that seeing someone's fears can make them empathetic. And this man seems so real and vulnerable. This love poem is tender because it fears death and entropy and old age and, most of all, a total loss of the speaker's desire for his wife.

And one more thing: I didn't mean to sound embittered and whiny in the last PotW - I was just feeling a little consumed after an extremely long night's work. Though I do like updating some of my friends/family who I haven't talked to in a long time about things. For now, I hope you enjoy the new blog format and I am done chatting your ears off. Thanks for reading, and Good Night!!!


Monday, August 01, 2005

Poem of the Week 8/1/2005: Kingfisher


That kingfisher jewelling upstream
seems to leave a streak of itself
in the bright air. The trees
are all the better for its passing.

It's not a mineral eater, though it looks it.
It doesn't nip nicks out of the edges
of rainbows. - It dives
into the burly water, then, perched
on a Japanese bough, gulps
into its own incandescence
a wisp of minnow, a warrior stickleback.
- Or it vanishes into its burrow, resplendent
Samurai, returning home
to his stinking slum.

Norman MacCaig

Good Evening to my wonderful friends and family! How are you all? Had a pleasant night? I hope so! Mine was long and tiring, and I have to go right back to work bright and early tomorrow morning. This might seem like the worst time to launch into a Poem of the Week close-read, but it is, in fact, probably the best. There are things more refreshing than sleep for me, and reading poetry is one of them. Plus, if I don't do something like this after working so much, I begin to stop feeling... anything. Anything other than some form of bland resentment and mechanical movement. Sometimes I feel like all I do at work is move; it's purposeless. So reading a poem will be the best remedy for that. Plus, I miss the poem of the week!

I mention the pointless motion inherent server assistant-ing because it clarifies what "Kingfisher" does for me, and why. First and foremost, it rattles me. My job's mindlessness highlights the intensely original, vivid diction and imagery; who knew "jewel" was a verb? And what might it mean to jewel? Actually, "jewel" is a verb, but usually only for an actual jeweler. The kingfisher jewels by leaving "streak
[s] of itself," which implies that it is a jewel. Jeweling along could also be a pun on "tooling along." Just a thought. The following lines "The trees / are all the better for its passing" does several things. As an image, we can imagine that perhaps the flying bird has left strings of gems or even simply color across the forest. It also brings to light the lasting effect something truly beautiful can have. Sunsets, people, ruins, ocean, stars, kingfishers: these things stick with us. Perhaps beauty is over-rated, or can be, but why not let it be? I know that imagining a kingfisher nicking the edges of a rainbow enriches my life and my senses, so let's overrate it. Just for now.

Some people may not like the end of this poem; after the earth/air images preceding it, the thought of a "stinking slum" is not necessarily welcome. However, this may be MacCaig's way of grounding the beauty. Or perhaps his idea of true beauty is a grace and verve with a base, with a frame of reference. This isn't all he could be doing, however. Cynically, he could be trying to sour the entire poem, showing us that, in the end, beauty is a facade. It has no bearing on a life's core and distracts us from the way of things. And, alas, this can easily be true. But where would this poem be without the exquisite imagery? What I take from "Kingfisher" is that beauty is literally vital, but it requires some kind of ballast or reference point.

Thank you all for chugging along through my sentences (I know they get wordier as I get tireder), and I hope that you enjoyed the latest installment of the poem of the week! The next ones will certainly be actually on time.


Poem of the Week 7/26/2005: Love-Letter Burning


The archivist in us shudders at such cold-
blooded destruction of the word, but since
we're only human, we commit our sins
to the flames. Sauve qui peut: fear makes us bold.

Tanka was bolder: when the weather turned
from fair to frigid, he saw his way clear
to build a sacrificial fire
in which a priceless temple Buddha burned.

(The pretext? Simple: what he sought
was legendary Essence in the ask.
But if it shows up only in the flesh - ?
He grinned and said, Let's burn the lot!)

Believers in the afterlife perform
this purifying rite. At last
a match is struck: it's done. The past
will shed some light, but never keep us warm.

Daniel Hall 1990

**close-read coming soon!**