Friday, April 28, 2006

Poem of the Week 5/1/2006: Ode to a Nightingale

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minutes past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness--
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies,
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Clustered around by all her starry Fays,
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain--
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:--Do I wake or sleep?

John Keats 1819

I read this poem for the first time on the same day I went to Mozart's Requiem, and the similarities are striking. Though not a requiem, Keats wrote this poem knowing that he was going to die, just as Mozart wrote his Requiem knowing death was near. I think you have to read this poem with death in the back of your mind. It is so easy to ache with it and bypass Keats' heartbreak.

My professor told our class of one of his colleagues from graduate school who found she was terminally ill. She was a Keats scholar, had only seven months to live, and found much solace in his art as she moved closer to death. She asked to have this poem read at her funeral. I almost cried in class when I heard that... it's that she loved this poem so much, and that she wanted to share its beauty as her goodbye. The poem is about love, it is about poetry, art, depression, imagination, death, eternity, infinity, beauty, heartbreak, hope, but most of all grief.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Poem of the Week 4/24/2006: Poem Ended by a Death

Poem Ended by a Death

They will wash all my kisses and fingerprints off you
and my tearstains--I was more inclined to weep
in those wild-garlicky days--and our happier stains,
thin scales of papery silk. . . Fuck that for a cheap
opener; and false, too--any such traces
you pumiced away yourself, those years ago
when you sent my letters back, in the week I married
that anecdotal ape. So start again. So:
They will remove the tubes and drips and dressings
which I censor from my dreams. They will, it is true,
wash you; and they will put you into a box.
After which whatever they do
won't matter. This is my laconic* style.
You praised it, as I praised your intricate pearled
embroideries; these links laced us together,
plain and purl** across the ribs of the world . . .

* terse
** Stitch in knitting with needle moved in opposite to normal (plain) direction

Fleur Adcock 1979

For a poem that seems to be about a body, there is a lot of heart to "Poem Ended by Death." Of course, it is about a relationship, though the narrator seems to emphasize the physical connection between she and her ex-lover. The first three lines shows the connection between the two physically with kisses, fingerprints, tearstains (we wonder whether the power of their physical intimacy could have made her weep then, or whether it is just a testament to their intense connection), and "thin scales of papery silk," another nod to their erotic adventures.

But the narrator checks herself, saying that the physically saturated opener is "cheap," and misleading as well. Those stains were there, but he effectively effaced them. Here it becomes absolutely evident that there is more to their relationship than simple physical interaction, for the body then serves as a metaphor for deeper things. It is still the dominant metaphor, showing that it was probably a dominant element in their relationship.

We get the details of this relationship in a few short lines. He erased her from his life, sending her letters back, when she married someone else. The tone is matter-of-fact, almost grinning at itself. The narrator swears casually and calls her (ex?) husband "that anecdotal ape." This is funny. I know that pointing out funny things is a pretty good way to make them un-funny, but I appreciate it when literature doesn't take itself so seriously. This poem is fantastic in that it manages to be funny and sexual and sad and complex while retaining a strong voice.

Part of this ability to mix humor and seriousness comes from the poem's honesty. The narrator, whether she wanted to begin so idealistically or not, acknowledges that she did, that it was dishonest, and that the right thing is to candidly tell what happened. "So start again.," she says, and launches into the truth of the matter. There is almost an in-breath at the colon. She lays out the facts: "They will remove the tubes and drips and dressings / which I censor from my dreams. They will, it is true, / wash you, and they will put you into a box. / After which whatever else they may do / won't matter." We learn that she was concerned for him, that his death was probably drawn-out, and that things are now over. Once he is in the box, nothing matters any more.

This comment seems to emphasize the body again, for once it falls from sight, somehow their relations are officially over. I think, though, that she is just willing to end things. Not coldly cut them off, but breathe in, grit your teeth, and nod, yes, we loved, yes, it's over. So when she talks of her "laconic style," perhaps she's not merely referring to the tone. It seems that she lives her life laconically, not drawing things out unnecessarily.

Which is what made her lover's "intricate pearled / embroideries" all the better. Unlike the speaker, he seems to have found connections everywhere. But both are necessary. The entire poem, in fact, is a balancing of different ideas. The first part is a fantast, how she would like to remember the relationship, while the second is a candid look at his death. The rhyme scheme also shows the interlacing of two different styles - it is abcb defe ghih jklk - rhymed pairs laced with unrhymed. This seems to parallel the embroidered, connected man with the terse, jerkier woman. Along with the rhyme, the mixture of "plain and purl" shows their balance of laconic and intuitive. Both are necessary, knit together "across the ribs of the world." This final line recalls the emphasis on the body, but it reminds us that beneath the ribs lies the heart.

Before I end this, a couple of the thoughts I remembered after writing the bulk of this: the emphasis on the body comes through in the repetition of the “oooo” and “oh” sounds in “So,” “so,” “ago” and “true,” “you,” “into,” and “do.” These are sexual sounds, and ramp up the energy of this poem. Then, too, the title of the poem calls into question the relations between art and life. Adcock’s poem begins with a death, but ends with an affirmation of their connection. The poem the title refers to may be, instead, their relationship, or perhaps the man’s life. In either case, the title asks what about our own lives and relationships is poetic. Our connections? Our loves? Our honesty? Our personal style, be it terse or embellished, logical or intuitive? I like the idea of life as poetry. I think of most things in terms of poetry, I suppose. Prayer, relationships, conversations…

Monday, April 17, 2006

Poem of the Week 4/17/2006: The Simple Truth

The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat," she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

Philip Levine 1994

Is this poem about innocence? Love? Simplicity? Modesty? Levine doesn't give us any single, concrete "truth," though that is the poem's title. That's the lovely thing about this poem, though; it is simple, clear, and straightforward, but it doesn't provide an easy explanation or answer. Rather, "the simple truth" is a feeling, an experience, something tangible and sensual and fresh. It is buttery potatoes, the affection of a stranger, the light wandering on a furrow. The poem invites us to experience the feeling with its narrator. Just share, and enjoy.

He starts with his own story, told without pretension. The diction, like the elements of the poem, are straightforward and clear. The price - a dollar and a half, written in longhand - establishes the modesty of the meal, while the "small red potatoes" are evenly and lovingly described. They are comfortable, wrapped in their "jackets." The meal is unassuming and simple, for the potatoes are garnished with nothing more than "a little butter and salt." The addition of the details "small," "jackets," and "little" make this otherwise unremarkable sentence strikingly beautiful. There is just enough attention to detail to really make us notice this dinner.

There is a kind of rich delicacy to the narrator's stroll, as well. The "dried fields" kindle a crackling freshness, while their position "on the edge of town" sets them at a finely balanced point. The narrator takes care to notice the light's persistence in the furrows, the strings of birds moving overhead. The words "squawking," "gathering," and "darting" are logopoeic: words that both mean and are.* As Pope wrote, "the sound [seems] an echo of the sense." "Squawking" scraps on the ears like the calls of jays, "gathering" rustles like feathers, and "darting" mimics the quick energy of finches flying in the night. Levine's language draws the walk, its phrases simple and rich as pencil-lines.

You can see the affection with which the narrator views the Polish woman as well; we, too, know this woman. The one whose bad taste (pink-spangled sweater!) and affection mix in some completely loveable way. She is our mother, our aunt, our grandmother, our third grade teacher. Someone whose cajoling makes us blush from embarrassment and self-esteem. The narrator lovingly re-creates the rise of her voice with the phrases "praising the perfection" and "all the way / she swore, from New Jersey." And we can almost her her Polish accent leaking out from her command, "eat, eat."

The energy and humor of the first stanza make the introspective revelation, "Some things / you know all your life" more striking. The narrator quits his half-grin towards the vegetable-seller, adopting a voice of almost urgent passion and love. He turns towards the reader with the "you," looking us in the eye and explaining what he means. There are no words for these simple truths, though, only experiences that must be seen and tasted and touched. By bringing in his friend Henri, the narrator ups the intensity of his story. Henri's appearance perhaps expresses the narrator's regret for not living in the present when he had the chance, not loving the world through clear and meticulous observation.

This is why he turns to us so urgently, asking, "Can you taste / what I'm saying?" But again, he cannot articulate his thought. It is stuck in the back of his throat: a kind of loving intensity, a clench of affection and a desire to appreciate the world for what it is. We live on these simple truths: the yearning tenderness for the world, the raw, deep, uncomplicated realm of sense and experience. The line "that dirt we call earth, that metal we call salt," too, expresses the sometime-arbitrariness of labels. We can't label and constrain them any more than we can label and constrain experience (whether we try to or think that we can is a different question). Perhaps Levine is hinting that labels are useless, and take us out of the realm of the present. Our truest experiences are those without names, descriptions, or analyses. They are necessarily personal and individual, experienced and interpreted by all.

So when I ask again what this poem is about, the best answer is, I believe, simple, true things. Potatoes, trees, moss, paper, a good pencil, cool water, walking in the sun, toast in the morning, meadowlarks in Colorado, forsythia bushes out of the window, cats purring, bread baking, for me. Levine invites us to think about the simple truths for ourselves, notice and appreciate the wealth of modest, true things surrounding us. So go ahead! List your own and think about yours. There is something to be said for the infinite unspeakable-ness of simplicity.

*Logopoeia: Ezra Pound discusses language as a means of communication and finds three ways in which language can be charged with meaning: (a) by throwing the object, be it fixed or moving, on to the visual imagination; this is phanopoeia; (b) by inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of speech; this is melopoeia; (c) by inducing both of these effects, thus stimulating the intellectual or emotional associations which have remained in the reciever's consciousness in relation to the actual words or groups of words employed; this is logopoeia. (from the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Poem of the Week 4/10/2006: Four Poems for Robin

Four Poems for Robin

Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest*

I slept under rhododendrom
All night blossoms fell
Shivering on a sheet of cardboard
Feet stuck in my pacl
Hands deep in my pockets
Barely able to sleep.
I remembered when we were in school
Sleeping together in a big warm bed
We were the youngest lovers
When we broke up we were still nineteen.
Now our friends are married
You teach school back east
I dont mind living this way
Green hills the long blue beach
But sometimes sleeping in the open
I think back when I had you.

A spring night in Shokoku-ji**

Eight years ago this May
We walked under cherry blossoms
At night in an orchard in Oregon.
All that I wanted then
Is forgotten now, but you.
Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.

An autumn morning in Shokoku-ji

Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.***
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.

December at Yase *

You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."
After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were--
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.
I didn't.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.

And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.

*West of Eugene, Oregon. Siwashing: camping with light equipment, roughing it.
**Fourteenth-century Zen monestary in Kyoto.
Yuago: a woman from The Tale of Gengi who, after a brief amorous encounter with Gengi, dies suddenly and mysteriously. After happening on a dress of hers, he writes a poem
***Snyder both names the planets and alludes to the Roman gods. Venus, goddes of love and beauty; Jupiter, ruler of all the gods.
* Near northeast Kyoto

Gary Snyder 1968

Gary Snyder, I just learned, is part of the Beat Generation, a group of poets I have dismissed wholeheartedly in the past. I still believe that much of their work is overrated, but it is never advisable to automatically reject anything. Besides, this poem is so quiet and lovely; it deserves a second look. I didn't actually want to include the entire thing, because the final section interests me most. I felt that I couldn't do "December at Yase" justice unless you all had read the first three. In three separate scenes, they establish the eastern influences, the narrator's memories of Robin, and his long-steeped loneliness. They give us a sense of the meditative, nostalgic, sad approach he expands upon in the final stanza. They also show how the final section is a departure; while the first three poems are episodic memories, the fourth is a memory layered with reflection and questions. It is by far the most interactive part, which is, I suppose, what interests me.

I want to look at the eastern influence and the introspection in this poem, two elements that work together. The eastern philosophy informs the narrator's thoughts, while the landscape mirrors his close, tight attention to the world around him. The diction in the first stanza is sparse and exact, the lack of punctuation almost methodical. The lines "You said, in October, / In the tall dry grass by the orchard / When you chose to be free," establish who, what, where, and when in less than 25 words. This economy of language makes the memory seem rehearsed, as if the narrator has found the best possible way to say it because he has done so so often. "The tall dry grass," parallels the state of their relationship. What was once organic and alive is now barren, thinned, listless. The grass, like their relationship, is now bleak.

Even Robin's break-up has been reduced to its essential terms; "Again someday, maybe ten years" is an end in that it implies "not now." Then, too, that the narrator chooses to quote this statement reveals what was important to *him* about her speech. The door is open in his mind, even if he's only seen her once since college. This interaction, too, boils down to its core. The interaction was awkward; their paths led in different directions. This terseness questions what is essential in our everyday lives. We get so concerned telling each other every detail, analyzing this searching look or that slight lean of the neck, but what happens when only the facts remain? Is it advisable to strip experiences to the bone? This poem perhaps hints that it is inevitable, or perhaps that heaping piles of words on experiences devalues them. I don't necessarily agree with this (it doesn't make for good conversation, for one, and it enables a disconnection with things, for another), but I see that this may also concentrate an experience's impact. By leaving some things unspoken, we perhaps respect the power that is there, not attempting to force them into sentences and conversations. One phrase suffices.

This space (for there is space in this kind of simplicity; the absence of detail allows the reader time for reflection of her own and lets her imagine the specifics) increases as the next stanza wears on. One gets the sense that the narrator nearly trails off, lost in thought. "I didn't" is the shortest line in the entire poem, but its implications are far-reaching. Why didn't he go back, we wonder. Is the reason too complex to even begin to explain? Or would he simply prefer not to let us in? One of my best friends from long ago told me about how her Chinese mother dealt with things. Everything was internal, private. Struggles are best kept to the self in Chinese culture. This is the brave way, the strong way, the right way. In the West, we are encouraged to be open, direct, confrontational with our emotions. Perhaps that is where some of the mystery in this poem comes from - the interaction of two cultures. I am, after all, sitting here trying to explain why the narrator is not using more words to describe his heartbreak, while it might be as simple as he is from the Eastern tradition. That doesn't make my questions about it any less valid, though. Indeed, the interaction between my ranging Western mode of communication and this tight, Eastern one illuminates characteristics of both. I would simply accept wordiness as the natural way of things were it not for experiences like this. This conjunction reminds me of a book another friend lent me, "Elsewhere Communities" by Hugh Kenner. He talks of forging bonds with Others so that we may grow. Or know ourselves. This is one thing literature does for us, I think. It forces us to listen, to pay attention, to experience things otherwise outside our normal realms.

That was a little tangent. It was just so interesting to notice my own perspectives in the face of this poem. It just affirms who I am, in a way, and it is strange and public to have that happen writing about a poem on a blog. But this is why poetry amazes me. I love the trance-like nature of writing - writing is discovery, the saying goes. That said, I really ought to be writing for an art history paper, but I got too caught up in this poem of the week. I will have to finish my reflections on the narrator's reflections later. Goodnight!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Poem of the Week 4/3/2006: The City Limits

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

A.R. Ammons 1971

This poem almost literally leaves me breathless. On one level, the phrases' sheer length is exhausting, even when read silently, while on another, its heady positivity... okay. I have to describe how it feels: that click of breath when you jump into the Puget Sound. The lungs beat like a heart, just for a second, and the breath pauses outside your mouth, waiting for your body to adjust to the water. A wondrous hiccup of breath, if you will.

The form is as overflowing as the content in this poem; the one reinforces the other. Ammons does not wax positive about everything, though. He includes a strong dose of realism that validates his point. The poem attains an aesthetic, spiritual, and scientific balance. Alright, let's start at the beginning before I ramble myself (and you all) to sleep.