Monday, May 29, 2006

Poem of the Week 5/29/2006: Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli*

(for Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy** bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,'
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,***
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

*A deep-blue semiprecious stone. In a letter dated July 6, 1935, Yeats wrote, "Someone [i.e., the English writer Harry Clifton] has sent me a present of a great piece [of lapis lazuli] carved by some Chinese sculptor into the semblance of a mountain with temple, trees, paths, and an ascetic and pupil about to climb the mountain. Ascetic, pupil, hard stone, eternal theme of the sensual east. The heroic cry in the midst of despair. By no, I am wrong, the east has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry."
**At the Battle of the Boyne on July 1690, William III, king of England since 1689, had defeated the forces of the deposed king, James II.
*** Greek sculptor of the fifth centure B.C.E. In A Vision, Yeats says that only one example of his work remains, a marble chair, and goes on to mention "that bronze lamp shaped like a palm, known to us by a description in Pausanias."

William Butler Yeats 1936

You could write a teriffic paper on "Lapis Lazuli" and aesthetics. In case you haven't noticed over some of my last PotWs, I have become very interested in aesthetics (art theory - what is art, what is beauty, what can they do, how do we define them - also (in my opinion) a branch of philosophy devised for people who want to make talking about art official. Though isn't that what this blog is?). I became very interested in this Yeats poem for an entirely different reason, though. The National Library in Dublin has an exhibit running with a huge collection of Yeats' manuscripts and possessions, including the fantastic piece of lapis he writes about in this poem. I have put the picture I took of it up in the posting just below this one, in case you are curious.

The poem itself is long and difficult - I am so worked up from finishing it that we'll see how far I get through this PotW close read itself. As with all of the poems, I recommend reading this one out loud - the rhythm is rumbling and controlled, and the language is so interesting that it's easy to not pay attention to what the poem's saying. With this one, I went through the three stages of comprehension very apparently - the first read was an acceptance of the words, getting a feeling of what was there, then the subsequent three or four reads were much slower and denser, but it hangs together in the final read. The poem is so difficult because there are many gaps and contradictions. Yeats makes it hard to follow the conception of art. In this close read, I will try to direct you to the keystone words that help the poem fall into place.

However, it's bedtime in Ireland, so I hope that you will all bear with the rather thin PotWs of late... that's traveling and finals for you. I hope you are all well, and feel free to email me at any time. love and love

I didn't mean it to be so blurry, but it is hard to see on the little camera screen. It is a big chunk of lapis - about 10 in. tall, I would guess.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Poem of the Week 5/21/2006: Ariel


Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God's lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! ---The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Berries cast dark
Hooks ---

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Something else

Hauls me through air ---
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

Godiva, I unpeel ---
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

*God's lioness (Hebrew); the name of a horse Plath often rode; also, the airy spirit in Shakespeare's Tempest.

Sylvia Plath

Since I am in Paris (!!!), this will be short, though there's nothing I would like to do more than write about poetry now. My traveling buddy Alice has a computer, so I might go sit at a cafe, type, and post sometime after june 11. But anyway, that's just a thought. Plus the keyboards are different, which makes typing difficult.

I would have liked to pick a grand poem about travel or art, but this poem has been on my mind of late. There is something magical in its use of scattered, rich imagery. Ariel was Plath's horse, my Norton tells me, as well as the good sprite in The Tempest. This poem uses elements of both to describe the coming of dawn. It opens without movement or light (i.e. energy), but quickly adds the "blue / pour of tor and distance." The openness of the "ohr" sound in "pour" and "tor" makes the last line smooth and expansive, opening us to the dawn, and to renewal.

The second stanza gives us the narrator's interaction with her steed - perhaps Ariel is this steed, "God's lioness." There is certainly percieved fusion with another being in the line "how one we grow," and delicacy within this. The line "pivot of heels and knees" suggests grace and quick motion. Indeed, the furrow of this field "splits and passes," indicating their speed. I hesitate to take the field literally, thinking that the traveling may be an allegory of a journey with another being.

The rider cannot catch this being, though, and so something happens, the poem darkens, and the pair seemingly split. The fourth stanza, "Nigger-eye / Berries cast dark / Hooks-" jabs both us and the narrator out of the percieved unity in the second stanza.


That's all you're getting for now, because I am going out to dinner soon. In true blog style, I want to let you know that I am thinking of you as I am away, and enjoying myself to no end (louvre today, saint chapelle tomorrow...)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Poem of the Week 5/15/2006: Watch Repair

Watch Repair

A small wheel
Shivering like
A pinned butterfly.

Hands thrown up
In all directions:
The crossroads
One arrives at
In a nightmare.

Higher than that
Number 12 presides
Like a beekeeper
Over the swarming honeycomb
Of the open watch.

Other wheels
That could fit
Inside a raindrop.

That must be splinters
Of arctic starlight.

Tiny golden mills
Grinding invisible
Coffee beans.

When the coffee's boiling
So it doesn't burn us,
We raise it
To the lips
Of the nearest

Charles Simic 1974

Charles Simic has simply titled this poem "Watch Repair," but he could also have called it "A Collection of Spectacular Images Arranged Around A Watch Repair." Please please please read this poem four or five times; it's not so long, and to "get it," you have to pay attention to the series of images. Read the poem until they flicker into being. It's so easy to read poetry without doing this - the rhythm or story or individual words carry one past the images strung-together, perhaps because we are not used to thinking in lists, or thinking so abstractly. But the way to read poetry is to give in to the images, not rationalize them or know them, but to knit them together, to see, taste, touch, and listen to them.

"Watch Repair" asks us to do all of those things. Its incisive, expressive, energetic images express the story of the watch repair (though it doesn't seem like it, even after several readings; this is one of the poem’s strengths). More than that, though, they present an intense way of interacting with the world. Intense, yes, but whimsical, lovely, and light-hearted; there is nothing saying those cannot exist together. Simic, by examining this watch repair so incisively, models a level of engagement with the world that is

The first thing I want to notice in this poem is the images’ aptness; that is, how incisively they express the image of an opened watch. Next, I want to talk about its expressiveness: how the images tell the story. Then I will rave about the rich way of looking at the world.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Poem of the Week 5/8/2006: Adam's Task

Adam's Task

"And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field. . . "
- Gen. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery's pomma;
Thou; thou; thou -- three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket, thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawok; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming's over. Day is done.

John Hollander 1971

Nonsensical as this poem might seem, the more you get your fingers in it and tug, the more it offers up. Humor seems deceptive in literature often; somehow if we laugh, we feel we are not "getting" it or taking it seriously enough. But what kind of incomplete form would literature be without lightness? So much of the best parts of our lives are light, and so a true form of literature ought to incorporate lightness. "Adam's Task" is a great example of a poem that is funny and rich. Not all poetry needs to be dark and heartfelt; much as I love that kind, it is a relief to just throw your head back and chuckle at these absurd names.

The poem, of course, begins with absurdity. Adam chooses silly names; there's no question about that. The hilarity comes from the freedom of Adam's thought; he is in the moment, using whatever sounds come to his brain (and even including his observations about the animal. This "task" is more like a game, a chance for Adam to goof around. He says the observations that rise to the top of his head, like "lurching through the high-grown grass" and "pliant-footed." I almost read these as little flights of fancy. In either case, he's having fun making up names for a lot of animals.

The second stanza explains what's happening - all of the animals are coming to Adam to be named, and he's happy about it, not yet having fallen. This stanza also points out one aspect of this work that makes it so joyous. It is "prior," the first time anybody has named these animals, and so it is important. Perhaps this is one reason Adam enjoys it. It may also be that he is innocent and childlike now, for he is “not yet sunk to primitive,” and so his attitude enables him to enjoy the work. Going to work day after day after day can drive us insane, and even starting a new job knowing that it will drag out may sap the joy. Adam has no knowledge of this, however.

The third stanza returns to Adam, again following his names. I think “McFleery’s pomma” is my favorite. Oh, and notice how at the end he says “thou, all; thou, all.” This is difficult to interpret, but I think that it may be an expression of joy or excitement. Adam may be exuberantly exclaiming his excitement to see all of the animals there, embracing them with the word “all.” (If that doesn’t make sense, which it very well may not, please comment and I will do what I can to explain that better).

The next stanza is the crux of the poem; it is both the hardest to make sense of and provides the ideas upon which the rest of the poem hinges. Sorted, it reads "Were the fires of becoming to eradicate labor, work would be as serious as play." Initially confusing are the "fires of becoming;" one way to makes sense of them is to read "becoming" as a kind of engagement and presentness - perhaps being so engaged with the work that you become a part of it, which means being fully in the present. The implication, then, is that being present in one’s work (no matter what it is) will eliminate the miserable parts of working. Not only will the bad parts leave, though, but the work will actually become fun. Though “serious play” may at first seem paradoxical, there is a level of genuineness that comes with playing. So work will become as heartfelt and genuine and joyful as play if we can fire ourselves up about it.

As Adam has clearly done. The poem ends with one of the naming-stanzas, I think, because it wants us to smile. It wants to remind us that not all work is labor, though it may be hard. The final line, composed of two short phrases, makes it seem as if Adam is tired by the end of this day. The work is not easy, but it was joyous and exciting. Ought not all of the best work be done this way, lightly and intensely? It certainly applies to poetry – we shouldn’t approach it as labor, nor should we fear it, for both of those things take us out of the present. The best way to look at a poem, to go to a desk job, to sit in the same construction crane every day is to revel in the present. Hard as this may be, it is deeply satisfying.