Monday, September 26, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/26/2005: Nevertheless


you've seen a strawberry
that's had a struggle; yet
was, where the fragments met,

a hedgehog or a star-
fish for the multitude
of seeds. What better food

than apple seeds - the fruit
within the fruit - locked in
like counter-curved twin

hazelnuts? Frost that kills
the little rubber-plant -
leaves of kok-sagyyz-stalks, can't

harm the roots; they still grow
in frozen ground. Once where
there was a prickley-pear -

leaf clinging to a barbed wire,
a root shot down to grow
in earth two feet below;

as carrots from mandrakes
or a ram's-horn root some-
times. Victory won't come

to me unless I go
to it; a grape tendril
ties a knot in knots till

knotted thirty times - so
the bound twig that's under-
gone and over-gone, can't stir.

The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there

like fortitude! What sap
went through that little thread
to make the cherry red!

Marianne Moore 1944


who are you,little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window;at the gold

of november sunset

(and feeling:that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)

e.e. cummings 1963

YES there are two poems of the week this week - I will close read the first one but both are for my sister. They are for all of you and for me too, but first they are for my sister. Well, e.e. cummings is both a repeat and a shout-out to my cast! Our play is soon, and I am so excited to watch them go up. Anyway, because I want my self tomorrow to like my self tonight, I am going to bed. I will have to do "Nevertheless" later - it's an incredibly rich and complex poem, and Marianne Moore is one of the most important poets of the 20th Century, so it would do everybody some good to read her poems. They are hard but beautiful. Enough lecturing for tonight! Goodnight! (Oh and by the way, this is late because I was in Montana on Sunday and Monday about 150 miles from internet. So sorry! I should have thought ahead and sent it out earlier. Ah! Goodnight!)

Monday, September 19, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/19/2005: Elemental


Why don't people leave off being lovable
Or thinking they are lovable, or wanting to be lovable,
And be a bit elemental instead?

Since man is made up of the elements
Fire, and rain, and air, and live loam
And none of these is lovable
But elemental,
Man is lop-sided on the side of the angels.

I wish men would get back their balance among the elements
And be a bit more firey, as incapable of telling lies
As fire is.
I wish they'd be true to their own variation, as water is,
Which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice
Without losing its head.

I am sick of lovable people,
Somehow they are a lie.

D.H. Lawrence 1929

Hello Friends and Family! I know that this is kind of bitter poem number two, but Mondays this year are feeling nice and cliché for me this school year (i.e. bad). I am not complaining, just explaining why the PotW is bitter on these particular days. But we proceed nevertheless!

This poem is perhaps a little more straightforward than your typical Poem of the Week; we don't often read a poem simply asking why people aren't a certain way. Well, the poems may ask that implicitly I suppose. A change is nice once in a while. I have found that this very frank style of poetry is beginning to appear more and more. Many people are familiar perhaps with Billy Collins? He uses this form all of the time, and (just off the top of my head) Eavan Boland and Paul Muldoon do to a lesser extend. It is a simple and more approachable form that still allows for most of the nuances of poetry. After all, within this poem we have imagery, word play, a subtle form, and some kind of question or proposition.

I think a good way to begin with this poem is by looking at the form. Its irregularity lends it a sort of casual nature that I think can be a little unusual in a poem. This relaxedness, in turn, adds to the poem's everyman tone. Each stanza break is important to notice as well, because each emphasizes certain lines. The first stanza break explains the title, stating, "and be a bit elemental instead?" Though we have an introduction to the title, what might this mean? Well, the narrator goes on to answer, right now, people are too full of these airy dreams. Everywhere they are pining for love when they should be a bit more, if you'll excuse the pun, grounded. We need to listen to the Beatles and get back to where we once belonged.

My favorite part of the poem sits at the next stanza break: the line "man is lop-sided on the side of angels." We are too much in love, to much wanting to love, and too much crafting ourselves hoping to be loved. This line is surprising, too. Angels usually take a more beneficient part in poems (see Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, Denise Levertov's "Cademon," or Brad Leithauser's "Old Bachelor Brother," to mention very few), so to think of this as negative is a paradigm shift.

And then the poem asks us just to be true and to be ourselves. Written like that, it sounds corny, because I think Lawrence is posing a bigger challenge than that. His use of the four elements (which are, incidentally, the four elements of which Aristotle believed man is made) and diction therein hints that this is a deeper truth. This is the root of being, the way of things. Fire, rain, air, and "live loam" all have a kind of energy in the poem; the sounds of the words beat within the text, adding a pulse to otherwise flat words. The vitality bursting through phrases like "steam and stream and ice" and "lop-sided on the side" and "live loam" concentrates the emotion. Actually, now that I think about it, controlling this energy is what Lawrence is asking us to do; go through the stages of life without losing ourselves. He achieves this feat in his rhetoric, for he addresses very emotional and powerful ideas in this piece without sinking into a sentimental quagmire.

I also want to point out how flat the word "lovable" seems after reading "Elementals." I mean, after talking about the elements, the bones and muscles of being, "lovable" comes out so pressed. It isn't as meaty or interesting as the fire, water, and earth that appears in the poem. Elementals is the right word for the title, I think.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/12/2005: On a Return from Egypt

On a Return from Egypt

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselgves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growiing colder
when jewelled cerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, there is a wondow
and with a crash I'll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Keith Douglas 1944

What is assuredly most striking about this poem is the apparent dissolution of a human being. And its rambling, directionless, disheartened rage. Or, as the narrator writes, his "depleted fury."

Starting at the beginning.

The line "the wings of Europe" is a pun on the WWII label "theaters." So we immeadately know that this is a man who is leaving the war, apparently "disheartened." Considering what he says next, though, "disheartened" may be an understatement. Disgusted, repulsed, dehumanized, frayed, or dismantled may be more accurate terms to describe the man who comes out of this war. The narrator calls Egypt a "sick land" full of "sloe-eyed murderers." The next line, "of themselves," however, brings under question exactly who these murderers are. Are they his friends? Egyptians? If the latter, "sloe-eyed" is a racial slur. Sloe, the book notes, is the dark fruit of the black-thorn, meaning that these killers had dark eyes. This image, however, becomes more gruesome (not to mention more politically correct), if one reads that these men are his friends. The darkness around the eyes may simply be rotting flesh. Both interpretations work with the following line that the men are "exquisites under a curse." The narrator may feel that these men are exemplary citizens upon whom government has laid the curse of military service, while they may also be his buddies now cursed with beetles (my friend Tim informs me that, left to nature, beetles are the creatures that will devour us. Not bacteria.) So, then, how are these corpses/enemies exercising his depleted fury? Perhaps the bodies would simply get his rage's tired heartbeat up again, or the Axis soldiers provide targets on which to empty his rage.

Anyway, the speaker surprises us again, when, after writing "the heart is a coal," he relays that it is actually growing colder. I find this image particularly poignant - what was once firey and impassioned now sifts away. This happens when his bright dreams blanche and crumble into rocks. And Douglas brilliantly continues this metaphor by saying that "cold is an opiate of the soldier." While war does evoke thoughts of physical coldness, Douglas implies that it is the spiritual chilling that really allows one to shut out the war. The tedium of war probably enhances this effect; by saying that the ocean and sky alter like a cloth until both lose "colour and sheen," Douglas implies that the narrator's repeated days in the war, like sun to cloth, have bleached any meaning.

This numbness is visible in the next stanza when the narrator refers to his actions as "unlucky explorers / come back, abandoning the expedition". This device takes what he's doing every day and wresting it from his identity. His actions can return because they once left. He is perhaps attempting to separate himself from the horrors of war. War certainly separates him from his goals - I read that he cannot pick "the lilies of ambition" because he is not at home. His aspirations probably never included fighting in the barren desert, for he gives no hint of patriotism in the text.

But now he has a chance, a little time. He is going home, if only for a month. However, it is in this last stanza that his complete dissolution becomes clear. His girlfriend does not stand in his imagination as the long-awaited refuge from hate and violence, but as one who could betray him, too. His fears about her hint at the psychological damage war can inflict on any of us; he fears that she may turn from love into death, or that she may not even be real. Like so many of his friends before her, we can presume, she may dissolve under his gaze.

The fears that resonate in the final stanza unearth what war has done, especially, to this individual. The poem can read almost like a list of atrocities the war has committed (killing friends, dulling the spirit, quelling dreams), so the fact that this offense closes the poem puts it in a place of special relevance. War has broken his trust. Even in she who he ought to love most. He can't trust her breath or her presence, because he knows how inconstant and fragile those are. This may be the hardest thing in the world - knowing that at any time, what you love and who you are can be taken from you. We have been talking a lot about liberty in my classes, and I think that this constitutes a serious breach of liberty. We are supposed to have a choice about where we are and what we do, and yet we can be sent somewhere else to take every choice a person will ever have away from him (for what else is death), and who knows if that person chose to be there anyway?

I chose this poem today because, frankly, it has been a grumpy-I-am-not-impressed-with-the-state-of-the-world day. Some days are just like that. We can't have beauty all of the time, because where does that leave us? I don't think it's possible. Doing an embittered PotW has helped, though, not least because it feels good to move out of the Romantic era and political rhetoric (where I am sitting in both lit classes right now. I love lit, but political rhetoric seems at once difficult to construct and depressingly easy to recognise. Ethos, pathos, logos. It's as simple as that. Sometimes slightly more entertaining, but only verry slightly.) So anyway. Here's to tomorrow improving on today, and also to peace!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/5/05: Adam's Dream

Adam's Dream

They say the first dream Adam our father had
After his agelong daydream in the Garden
When heaven and sun woke in his wakening mind,
The earth with all its hills and woods and waters,
The friendly tribes of trees and animals,
And earth's last wonder Eve (the first great dream
Which is the ground of every dream since then) --
They say he dreamt lying on the naked ground,
The gates shut fast behind him as he lay
Fallen in Eve's fallen arms, his terror drowned
In her engulfing terror, in the abyss
Whence there's no further fall, and comfort is--
That he was standing on a rocky ledge
High on the mountainside, bare crag behind,
In front a plain as far as eye could reach,
And on the plain a few small figures running
That were like men and women, yet were so far away
He could not see their faces. On they ran,
And fell, and rose again, and ran, and fell,
And rising were the same yet not the same,
Identical or interchangeable,
Different in indifference. As he looked
Still there were more of them, the plain was filling
As by an alien arithmetical magic
Unknown in Edenm a mechanical
Addition without meaning, joining only
Number to number in no mode or order,
Weaving no pattern. For these creatures moved
Towards no fixed mark even when in growing bands
They clashed against each other and clashing fell
In mounds of bodies. For they rose again,
Identical or interchangeable,
And went their way that was not like a way;
Some back and forward, back and forward, some
In a closed circle, wide or narrow, others
In zigzags on the sand. Yet all were busy,
And tense with purpose as they cut the air
Which seemed to press them back. Sometimes they paused
While one stopped one -- fortuitous assignations
In the disorder, whereafter two by two
They ran awhile,
Then parted and again were single. SOme
Ran straight against the frontier of the plain
Till the horizon drove them back. A few
Stood still and never moved. Then Adam cried
Out of his dream, "What are you doing there?"
And the crag answered "Are you doing there?"
"What are you doing there" -- "you doing there?"
The animals had withdrawn and from the caves
And woods stared out in fear or condemnation,
Like outlaws or judges. All at once
Dreaming or half-remembering, "This is time,"
Thought Adam in his dream, and time was strange
To one lately in Eden. "I must see,"
He cried, "the faces. Where are the faces? Who
Are you all out there? Then in his changing dream
He was a little nearer, and he saw
They were about some business strange to him
That had a form and sequence past their knowledge;
And that was why they ran so frenziedly.
Yet all, it seemed, made up a story, illustrated
By these the living, the unknowing, cast
Each singly for his part. But Adam longed
For more, not this mere moving pattern, not
This illustrated storybook of mankind
Always-a-making, improvised on nothing,
At that he was among them, and saw each face
Was like his face, so that he would have hailed them
As sons of God but that something restrained him.
And he remembered all, Eden, the Fall,
The Promise, and his place, and took their hands
That were his hands, his and his children's hands,
Cried out and was at peace, and turned again
In love and grief in Eve's encircling arms.

Edwin Muir 1950, 1952

Lovely evening friends and family! Why must we always choose words like "good" for greetings. How about "luminous" or "phantasmoragic" or "quivering"? Sounds like a plan to me! Anyway, if you'll excuse the ramble, I want to go ahead and congratulate whoever finished this poem. It's the longest PotW yet, and I had to type it twice. I actually enjoy having to type out the poems; it forces one to slow down and absolutely pay attention to every word.

That said, I left off doing the close read for this PotW for a while, because

That said, this is another one of those poems that I am postponing the close-read on. I have to read and sleep, besides the fact that I want to actually tackle this poem and my writing's feeling sub-par tonight. I have written a lot today, and a lot is enough for one day. But it will come out in time, and I hope you all have a phantasmoragic evening!