Monday, December 25, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/25/2006: Sir David Brewster's Toy

Sir David Brewster's Toy

In this tube you see
At the far end a batch of
Colored-glass debris--

Which, however, grows
Upon reflection to an
Intricate pied rose,

Flushed with sun, that might,
Set in some cathedral's wall,
Paraphrase the light.

Now, at the least shake,
The many colors jumble
And abruptly make

The rose rearrange,
Adding to form and splendor
The release of change.

Rattle it afresh
And see its coruscating
Flinders quickly mesh,

Fashioning once more
A fine sixfold gaudiness
Never seen before.

Many prophets claim
That Heaven's joys, though endless,
Are not twice the same;

This kaleidoscope
Can, in that connection, give
Exercise in hope.

Richard Wilbur 2004

Wilbur offers us a sweet and simple poem about the joys of a kaleidescope--a fragmentary, collection of broken glass and shards of light. He starts the poem simply enough, with the humble description "tube" and "a batch of/ colored glass debris." However, when one turns it to the light, it reforms into a rose. The choice of "upon reflection" refers not only to the glass, but to the watcher--really looking at the light helps one find the beauty. Using "intricate pied rose" to describe the shape uses language to convey the delicacy of the kalidescope. The phrase's consonants dance along the tongue, reminding us of the beauty of the rose.

The rose is not only an apt image, but a reference to Christ, and to divine beauty. Wilbur heightens this connection by comparing it to a cathedral rose--the enormous stained glass mosaics in cathedrals (cf. Notre Dame, famously). Paraphrasing the light, these windows capture the glory of the world--paraphrase it. Beauty like this selects a piece of the holy world and presents it in a small way.

But, as one of my friends said (to whom in particular this poem is dedicated)--"This is just an idea. It’s transient. But I hope you can relate." The kalidescope demonstrates this, tentatively.... This world... is just an endlessly tumbling tube of beauty, if only we can see it, if only we can point it at the light. Infinitely varied, infinitely changing, each image shatters and reforms into something different, something else beautiful.

This is something that I think we forget as we get older, or that we struggle with. It's so easy to forget how beautiful the world is, to get caught up on the last image or excited for the next one, not willing to let the changes happen around us... But, when pointed to the light, what could be more beautiful than our revolving tube of the things of this world?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/18/2006: Another Sonnet to Black Itself

Another Sonnet to Black Itself

Thou Black, wherein all colors are compos'd,
And unto which they all at last return,
Thou color of the sun where it doth burn,
And shadow, where it cools, in thee is clos'd,
Whatever nature can, or hath dispos'd
In any other hue: from thee do rise
Those tempers and complexions, which discols'd,
As parts fo thee, do work as mysteries,
Of that thy hidden power; when thou dost reign
The characters of fate shine in the skies,
And tell us what the heavens do ordain,
But when earth's common light shines to our eyes,
Thou so retir'st thy self, that thy disdain
All revelation unto man denies.

Edward Herbert 1620

I choose this poem this week because it is close to the shortest day of the year, and so the blackest day. He opens the poem writing about the mystery of black: how it contains all colors, yet conceals them when they are together. Black is the beginning and end of color, to Herbert. It is also the end of matter, for he refers to the color of charring when something as firey as a sun burns something. He further associates black and the sun with his discussion of the black of shadows; black is both the power of the sun and teh absence of it, the light and the dark, Black is all things (colors), and it is the destruction of things.

As Herbert points out, black contains much mystery, a fact I felt more acutely recently when the school's power went out. It was so strange to walk at night without light, and yet it is only within the last hundred years or so that our nights are so lit. Maybe less.

But anyway, with that taken, the second half of the poem becomes more potent. He writes that black allows us to see the stars, which foretell the future. In the daytime, the stars are hidden, and so we can't see the future. We know very little during the daytime, when light is everywhere. So now that there is always light (and few stars), we know less. Hm.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/11/2006: from Duino Elegies: First Elegy

from Duino Elegies: First Elegy

And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic
orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me
to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming
presence. Because beauty's nothing
but the start of terror we can hardly bear,
and we adore it because of the serene scorn
it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying.
So I control myself and choke back the lure
of my dark cry. Ah, who can we turn to,
then? Neither angels nor men,
and the animals already know by instinct
we're not comfortably at home
in our translated world. Maybe what's left
for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at
day after day, one of yesterday's streets,
and the perverse affection of a habit
that liked us so much it never let go.
And the night, oh the night when the wind
full of outer space gnaws at our faces; that wished for,
gentle, deceptive one waiting painfully for the lonely
heart--she'd stay on for anyone. Is she easier on lovers?
But they use each other to hide their fate.
You still don't understand? Throw the emptiness in
your arms out into that space we breathe; maybe birds
will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves.

Ranier Maria Rilke (trans. A. Poulin Jr.) 1922

I will write about this poem later, when my mind can sort a little bit about it. Some poems need to be lived with, digested, absorbed.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/6/2006: To Autumn

To Autumn


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats September 19, 1819

I know--it's not Autumn (indeed, we are full on along in Winter), but Keats felt right for today. His delicate, yearning stanzas and serene tone feel just right for this morning. Plus, notice the focus on age in the last stanza, and the quiet, tender grief that comes along with it. It seems as if the first stanza should be positive, for it is full of words like "sweet," "plump," and "ripe," but I sense some kind of tension or illness. Perhaps the opening of mist puts a damper over the exuberant abundance we find (the layers of flowers upon flowers). Also, it contains friendship and maturity rather than youth and romantic love. This seems to be the central tension in the poem--that between youth and age. "To Autumn" asks, what happens when youth is gone? What is there to love or mourn in age?

Keats achieves a tremendous amount of distance in the end of the poem. By positioning the animals and humans in different places--a hill, the sky, a hidden garden-croft--Keats puts their small noises far off. This has the effect of making both Spring and youth seem far away.

Though the poem asks us not to think of the songs of Spring, that Autumn (age) has its melody, too, one might argue that Spring is everywhere in the background here. There are flowers, bees, and brooks, and the sheep are identified as "full-grown lambs." Keats draws life in terms of Spring, which may place the emphasis on Spring nonetheless.

But who knows. Part of the achievement of this poem is Keats' ability to balance the beauty and abundance of Autumn with the poem's sad tone. "To Autumn" is like a psalm, a hymn, a lament: beautiful and tearing, ripe and sad. Keats has produced a poem of autumn, a poem of beauty and age. In it, there is a passing of grand poetic metaphors or gestures; these are replaced by a slow and solemnly beautiful three stanzas.