Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Poems of the Week 12/24/2007: My Nose Garden

Because who's tired of those last three serious poems!

My Nose Garden

I have rowses and rowses of noses and noses,
And why they all growses I really can't guess.
No lilies or roses, just cold-catching noses,
And when they all blowses, it's really a mess.

They runs and they glowses, these sneezity noses,
They drips and they flowses, they blooms and they dies.
But you can't bring no noses to fine flower showses
And really expect them to give you a prize.

But each mornin' I goeses to water with hoses
These rowses of noses that I cannot sell,
These red sniffly noses that cause all my woeses,
Why even the crowses complain that they smell.

Why noses, not roses? Well, nobody knowses.
Why do you suposes they growses this thick?
But since there's no roses come gather some noses--
I guarantee each one's a good nose to pick.

Shel Silverstein 1996

Uselessness, a little fun, yes!

Poem of the Week 12/17/2007: Where Many Rivers Meet

Where Many Rivers Meet

All the water below me came from above
All the clouds living in the mountains
gave it to the rivers
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.

And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
cloud fall and stream rush, tree root and tide bank
leading to the rivers' mouths
and the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back
from the depths
where nothing is forgotten.

David Whyte 2004

This brings to mind impermanence (as a different poem might say), even though Whyte closes with the idea that the sea will remember all of the places its particles have been. He is probably going for unity within nature, the transformation of one element into another, the great commune between things. It probably also wants to imply that we are part of it; by writing this poem, perhaps he enters the cycle, as do we, tiny, ephemeral pieces in a great, remembering whole.

Poem of the Week 12/10/2007: " ill that heals and wounds."

{From a capitolo, a verse epistle:]

Young ladies, you who still enjoy your freedom
From the constraining bounds that Love imposes,
With which I and so many more are bound,
If you wish passionately to have knowledge
About this Love, who is made god and master
Not only by this age, but by olden times:
It is a burning feeling, vain desire
For empty shadows, self-imposed deception,
Setting your own well-being in disregard;...

Display of what were better kept in hiding,
A way of life forever pale and trembling,
Wandering in a way not understood;
Debasing of your self toward the beloved,
But when away from him, bold and defiant---
Not knowing surely where to set your feet;
A state of holding your own life in hatred,
Loving another more; your own existence
Darkened and say; again, happy and bright.
An apathy toward other occupations,
Fleeing from company of other people;
Close to one only, alien to yourself;...

Though hurt, unable to express your grievance
To the offended; misdirected anger
Against yourself, disprizing of yourself;
Seeing one face alone that's worth the looking;
Preoccupied with it, though at a distance;
An inner happiness expressed in sighs---
And finally, an ill that heals and wounds.

[#241, ll.1-9, 25-36, 43-49]

Gaspara Stampa ~1550
trans. Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lillie 1994

Rilke references Gaspara Stampa in the First Elegy of the Duino Elegies, and for a moment I had to ask why: why choose this poet? Why would their poetry intersect? Stampa is concerned with the experience of love, and the experience of the lover-abandoned. A member of the Italian literati in Venice in the 1540s and 50s, she fell in love with Collaltino de Collato, an adventuring man who, though was Stampa's sometime lover, did not return her love with such ardour. Stampa, on the other hand, wrote 311 poems out of this abandonment.

I might bet that Rilke chooses Stampa for her bravery in facing her despair. He writes that we ought to admire her as a greater lover, and it does seem that she can bear greater love! She can embrace the love and the anxiety, learning from both. Moreover, she is keenly aware of the progress that comes from suffering--this selection ends with, "an ill that heals and wounds." In what capacity does it do both? I believe that she is talking firstof the pleasure of loving another so much that even to think about his leaving makes one feel the closer to him, and thus happier. In other poems, though, she is explicit that he was the muse for an even greater love, poetry itself. There is healing in the controlled expression and transsubstantiation of love, perhaps. Is this true, that a refined, healthy way of dealing with the sexual feeling, and with love, is through art? I wonder!

Poem of the Week 12/3/2007: from Duino Elegies

from The Seventh Elegy

No more wooing! Voice, you've outgrown wooing; it won't be
the reason for your cry anymore, even if you cried clear as
a bird when the soaring season lifts him, almost forgetting
he's an anxious creature, and not just a single heart
she's tossing toward brightness, into the intimate blue.
Just like him, you'd be courting some still invisible,
still silent lover, a mate whose reply was slowly waking
and warming itself while she listened-- the glowing
reflection of your own fired feeling.

And, oh, Spring would understand--the mustic
of your annunciation would echo everywhere.
First that tiny swell of questioning surrounded by
the purely affirmative day's magnifying stillness.
Then the calling-intervals, the rising steps up
to the future's dreamed-of temple; then the trill,
the fountain whose rising jet's already lured into
falling by the promist of play... And ahead of it, summer.
Not only all of summer' dawns, not only
the way they turn into day and shine before beginning.
Not only the days, so delicate around flowers, bove,
around the molded trees, so heavy and strong.
Not only the reverence of these unleashed forces,
not only the paths, not only the evening meadows,
not only the breathing freshness after late thunder,
not only the coming of sleep and a premonition
at night--but also the nights! the high summer nights,
the nights and the stars, the stars of the earth.
Oh, to be dead at last and know all the stars,
forever! Then how, how, how could you forget them!

Look, I've been calling a lover. But she wouldn't come
alone... Other girls would rise out
of those crumbling graves and stand... How could I
limit the call I'd made? The lost are always searching
for the earth again. --Children, just one thing
of this world suddenly undrestood is valid for many.
Never think destiny's more than the substrate of childhood:
how often you'd catch up with a lover, panting, panting
from the happy chase, into the open, forever.

Life is glorious here. You girls knew it, even you
who seem to have gone without it--you who sank under
in the cities' vilest streets festerung like open sewers.
For there was one hour for each of you, maybe
less than an hour, some span between two whiles
that can hardly be measured, when you possessed Being.
All. Your veins swelled with existence.
But we forget so easily what our laughing neighbor
neigher confirms nor envies. We want to make it
visible, even though the most visible joy reveals
itself to us only when we've transformed it, within.

Love, the World exists nowhere but within.
Our life is lived in transformation. And, diminishing,
the outer world vanishes.

Ranier Maria Rilke 1927

Goethe, a great German poet, said that he spent his entire life learning to read. At eighty, he still didn't have the trick. So one question is, why might that be? What does it take to read?

I wonder if reading is a kind of state, a receptive, responsive, open one one's memory is relaxed enough to access different one's varoius associations. A great book would call for very great associations, perhaps, meaning expansion of experience. Real reading might also demand that one stay engaged with every word, difficult to do when thoughts attempt to interrupt through every line.

Rilke is often a litmus test for reading, for me, because he does demand a certain state of sensitivity, rare and delightful when it arises.

It's so hard to codify Rilke in an "analysis"--he must truly be read, be given over to, for only then could the sense of my small words come out. But a note about the first stanza:
Birds, in Rilke's poetry, often represent a higher state for man, a person who is freer from the heavy concerns of man. And so this bird forgets his own anxiety, forgets one identity in order to become a particle of the whole, "just a single heart."
Another thought: Rilke does such an exquisite job incorporating rapture and sadness into his poetry. Every time I read the Duino Elegies I am lifted and saddened. It seems that he balances the possibility of openness with such a compassionate look at the small and wondering man struggling to live.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Poem of the Week 11/26/2007: Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

THAT is no country* for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

William Butler Yeats 1927

*the country of animal pleasures

from, Yeats, William. William Butler Yeats: Selected Poems and Four Plays. Ed. M.L. Rosenthal. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996., a note on Yeats:
"Byzantium" in Yeats' poetry refers specifically to the capital of the Byzantine empire, in the fifth and sixth centuries, when there was "substituted for Roman magnificence, with its glorification of physical power, an architecture that suggests the Sacred City in the Apocalypse of St. John. I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity... I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending near to him than Plotinus even. ... I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one ... The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design..." (A Vision, pp. 270-280). Thus, Byzantium, in addition to its exotic Eastern connotations of a romantic nature, and of a stylized art and orientalized Christianity, represents a perfection of aesthetic and spiritual imagination to which the old man who is the protagonist of Yeats' poem wishes to turn.

Poem of the Week 11/19/2007: Jacob's Ladder Reversed

Jacob’s Ladder Reversed

I tell a story awfully.
If I were to find a girl in a well, become a hero,
surely I too would take my life.
I have at lesser successes.
I have wrestled with such pale angels.

For example, I know a wonderful girl
who is wonderful because once we spoke
barely knowing each other while speaking
& she moved my furniture & painted it gold
& set me up with friends & lovers.
She is wonderful. Do you see?

Did I tell you that this was two years ago,
that I’d just been married?
This wonderful girl did not come to the wedding.
(She was not invited.) Still I think her wonderful.

Throw me a little ladder.
Let me climb back now to my grave

Arielle Greenberg

Some general questions about this poem. Maybe you could write a paper.
Hm. Regrets. What is an opportunity?
In what ways is the narrator conflicted, and what does this conflict show us?

Another, more specific: does anybody know the reference in the first stanza, to finding a girl in a well and saving her life?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Poem of the Week 11/15/2007: Pigeons at Dawn

Pigeons at Dawn

Extraordinary efforts are being made
To hide things from us, my friend.
Some stay up into the wee hours
To search their souls.
Others undress each other in darkened rooms.

The creaky old elevator
Took us down to the icy cellar first
To show us a mop and a bucket
Before it deigned to ascend again
With a sigh of exasperation.

Under the vast, early-dawn sky
The city lay silent before us.
Everything on hold:
Rooftops and water towers,
Clouds and wisps of white smoke.

We must be patient, we told ourselves,
See if the pigeons will coo now
For the one who comes to her window
To feed them angel cake,
All but invisible, but for her slender arm.

Charles Simic

I am hesitating to say what I think this poem means; Charles Simic (our current Poet Laurate) uses imagery so delicately and carefully... I don't want to do it violence. It has a secret, you know, and it's hard to strip that away. So before you read my comments, please read the poem again.

I think, ever so quietly, this poem's secret is our crystalline and awkward search for meaning. The beginning presents a secret--the much that is hidden. It also hands us searchers: the tortured soul up late at night, and the lovers tasting it on each others' skin. And yet there is a third kind of searcher, he who looks to the things in this world, the beautiful and silent times.

What are they looking for? What has been hidden for so long?

Simic brings us through this journey through the rest of the poem. Perhaps it is down a creaky elevator. The poet and his friend, before they reach the morning, must plumb the depths of the icy cellar; here, Simic invites the thought of the subconscious without committing to it.

Because after the depths, the heights: the poet and friend open up to the rooftops. In the morning, it is quiet and cold in this city which could be any city. And they wait in this somehow open and spare landscape for the detail for which they wait--the tiny gleam of secret, of meaning.

And so Simic brings us to the end, leaving an image of smoke and light, and the tiniest hint of meaning, of beauty. Are we to find meaning in the small things? What is the journey we must take to arrive there? What roads will a person take?

Am I being to heavy with this poem? It could be that Simic means this to be aesthetic commune with the world, and for the mop and bucket to be only a mop and a bucket. Were I a good literary critic, I might even say so, that Simic is stuck to images and wants us to stay there as well. But this is a beautiful thing: to have images and meaning together! Images and subconscious--Heidegger says that Plato was daring to call the only unseeable things eidos, Forms. That which is invisible is made visible, sometimes in poetry. Can I make this clearer? When Coleridge wrote his great poem "Kubla Khan," he says that he recieved it in a dream wherein "the words rose before him as things." The unseen becomes seen, the hidden revealed. So why not blend the two, let the poem be fully image and fully subconscious! Good night!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Poem of the Week 11/8/2007: The Titans

The Titans (Die Titanen)

It’s not yet
Time. They are still
Unbound. And the indifferent don’t care
About godly matters.
Let them puzzle it out
With the Oracle. Meanwhile, during the festivities,
I’ll take my ease thinking of the dead.
In the old days, many generals died
and lovely women and poets.
Today, it’s many men.
But I am alone.

and sailing on the ocean
The sweetly scented islands
Ask where they are.

For something of them remains
In writing and in myth.
God reveals so much.
For a long time the clouds
Have influenced what’s below
And the holy forest, fertile as a god,
Has sent down roots.
The world’s riches burn too intensely.
For we don’t have the song
That will shake our spirit free.
It would consume itself,
For the heavenly fire can never
Endure captivity.

Yet men enjoy
The banquet, and in celebration,
Their eyes are brightened by pearls
On a young woman’s neck.
Also games of war
and through
The garden paths
The memory of battle clatters;
The resonant weapons
Of heroic ancestors lie soothed
And still upon the breasts
Of children. But the bees hum
Around me, and where the plowman
Makes his furrows, birds
Sing against the light. Many give
Help to heaven. The poet
Sees them. It’s good to rely
On others. For no one can bear his life alone.

For when the busy day
Catches fire,
And heavenly dew glistens
On the chain
Leading lightning from sunrise
To its source, even mortals
Feel its grandeur.
That’s why they build houses
And the workshop is so busy
And ships sail against the currents
And men exchange greetings
Holding out their hands; it’s sensible
On earth, and not for nothing
Do we fix our eyes on the ground.

Yet you sense
A different way.
For proportion demands
That coarseness exist
For purity to be known.

But when the first cause
Reaches into the earth
To make it come to life,
People think the heavenly
Have come down to the dead
And the all-knowing has dawned
In a boundless emptiness.
It’s not for me to say
That the gods are growing weak
Just as they come into being.
But when
and it goes

As far as the part in father’s hair, so that

and the bird of heaven
Makes it known to him. Wonderful
in anger, that’s what matters.

Friedrich Holderlin
trans. Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover

Monday, October 29, 2007

Poem of the Week 10/29/2007: from Duino Elegies

from Duino Elegies
Eighth Elegy

All other creatures look into the Open
with their whole eyes. But our eyes,
turned inward, are set all around it like snares,
trapping its way out to freedom.
We know what's out there only from the animal's
face; for we take even the youngest child,
turn him around and force him to look
at the past as a formation, not that openness
so deep within an animal's face. Free from death,
we only see it; the free animal
always has its destruction behind
and god ahead, and when it moves,
it moves toward eternity like running springs.

Not for a single day, no, never have we had
that pure space ahead of us, in which flowers
endlessly open. It is always World
and never Nowhere without No:
that pure, unguarded space we breathe,
always know, and never crave. As a child,
one may lose himself in silence and be
shaken out of it. Or one dies and is it.
Once near death, one can't see death anymore
and stares out, maybe with the wide eyes of animals.
If the other weren't there blocking the view,
lovers come close to it and are amazed...
It opens up behind the other, almost
an oversight... but no one gets past
the other, and the world returns again.
Always facing creation, all we see
is the reflection of the free and open
that we've darkened, or some mute animal
raising its calm eyes and seeing through us,
and through us. This is destiny: to be opposites,
always, and nothing else but opposites.

Ranier Maria Rilke 1922
Translated by A.J. Poulin Jr.

Following Shelley's Mutability, this section of Duino Elegies posits the same idea of our daily experiences--interrupted, fragile, dual. He writes, "it is always World," and that our destiny is "to be opposites, / always, and nothing else but opposites." Animals, he suggests, are more alive, more aware of the world moving around them. For animals, their presence is forward and pure, whereas our selves always get in the way. Always intrude.

He does pose a different kind of question than Shelley. While the latter says that there can be nothing more than purity, Rilke suggests another world behind this one: indeed that this world is a darkened reflection of what is really possible. He writes of "pure, unguarded space we breathe, / always know, and never crave." What is this space? Where can it be found? What would a place look like that is Nowhere, in which there are no "No"s? And so Rilke juxtaposes our present, transient condition with the possibility of something beyond Shelley's mutability, beyond Plato's becoming. He presents, as the title of one collection of Rilke's poems offers, at least a hint of The Possibility of Being.

Poem of the Week 10/22/2007: Mutability


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! -yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutablilty.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley wavered throughout his life between skepticism and deep faith; interested in the philosophy of David Hume, he often treated human experience as closed from anything higher, closed from progression. Though I have read little Hume, Shelley treats life with a poet's sensitivity, noticing the difficulty of living purely.

This idea of change--Plato calls it Becoming, Blake, generation--is something that, I think, modernity does not teach us to believe in. For us, there is always more: more food, more fun, more parties, more advertisements, more songs (for me, more coffee). But is that true? Or is that more just more ending? More death?

Some might ask whether we ought to be disturbed by this, as Shelley, using words like "poisons" and "pollutes," clearly is. And it is a question--maybe that luminosity of clouds covering the moon is enough. Or maybe it is disturbing. It is certainly easy to feel what Shelley articulates in this poem.

Next week I will add to this theme from Rilke.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Poem of the Week 10/16/2007: The Alchemy of Sorrow

The Alchemy of Sorrow

One man lights you with his ardor,
Another puts you in mourning, Nature!
That which says to one: sepulcher!
Says to another: life! glory!

You have always frightened me,
Hermes the unknown, you who help me.
You make me the peer of Midas,
The saddest of all alchemists;

Through you I change gold to iron
And make of paradise a hell;
In the winding sheet of the clouds

I discover a beloved corpse,
And on the celestial shores
I build massive sarcophagi.

- Charles Baudelaire 1961, trans. William Aggeler, 1954

The topic of Baudelaire's great poem should be clear enough--transformative sorrow. However, I don't feel that this does the poem justice. So: read it a few times! This will be helpful with any poem. It can take a while to read it enough so that it rings clearly. Some poems teach patience and receptivity. I've been thinking of this often recently: the difference between a poem and a philosopical work. Both can be precise, have ideas etc, but the difference in form has an effect. For me, poetry helps defend against totally dogmatic thought, and against the pride of knowing things too quickly. Having an explanation does not mean knowing the thing! And a poem can reveal this!

As I hope that Baudelaire's does. It is a beautiful poem. A tip that may help sort out the poem: "Nature," in the second line, refers to man's own nature, I believe. It seems that there is a macrocosm/microcosm work here. In other words, Nature is internal and external. This may make sense of the final stanza, for if this is the case, the reader builds the sarcophagus internally, and the celestial shores are in his heart.

I recommend reading more Baudelaire; he's moving and insightful about existential anxiety, relational anxiety, relationship decay and more.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Poem of the Week 10/9/2007: ADAMAH


My name means:
anything made from clay.

I was dust until God
breathed in my nostril
and began talking to me

“This is Pison, the river
from the Land of Onyx,
these holes are your eyes,
these are the olive groves
I planted for you,
these are almond saplings,”

and I was addicted to his breath,
his voice, his shaping hand,
and that was love.

He have me the creatures to name
and soon it was bird flying,
snake crawling, ox lowing.

With him it was simple:
he was just The Name.

Because he was lonely
(I was not, I had him)
he made Eve from my rib:
I was jealous of his breath
writhing and glittering in her…

He planted a tree
at the center of the garden
and we ate its fruit.

When he was walking
in the cool of the day
we hid from him
and he tricked us asking:
“Who told you
you were naked?”

Then we covered our sex
with fig leaves, and he clothed us
with the skins of dead animals.

He drove us away from his voice
and yet we keep hearing it
but it is our own:
hoopoe, adder, bison.

So we came to the ocean
and fathomed it, to Ararat
and chartered it, and at last
we came to dust
and recognized in it
an alphabet, a braided law,
that had caused us, and God,
and we wept:

one thread of immortality
passed through us
but it is endless
so we belong to death.

From dust we made ourselves,
the vineyards, the walled cities,
and always we expected to wake,
that our eyes be opened,
that we know good and evil
as the serpent promised—

instead, just this long sleep,
omnipotence, this narrow valley
bounded by four rivers.

D. Nurkse 2006

This poem holds an indictment the human condition in the context of modern science. It asks the question: what has happened to man with the advent of science? What are the consequences of believing that we know everything? What kind of world are we left with?

I will have to write more about this poem, as it is so provocative--but not now! Again putting things off. Modern condition?

Poem of the Week 10/1/2007: Those Who Sit

Those Who Sit (Les Assis)

Dark with knobbed growths, peppered with pock-marks like hail, their eyes ringed with
Green, warty fingers clenched on their thigh-bones
Their skulls stained with indeterminate blotches
Like the leprous discolorations of ancient walls;

In amorous seizures they have grafted
Their weird bone structures to the great dark skeletons
Of their chairs; their feet are entwined
Morning and evening, on the rickety rails!

These old men have always been one flesh with their seats,
Feeling bright suns drying their skins to the texture of calico,
Or else, looking at the window-panes where the snow is turning grey,
Shivering with the painful shiver of the toad.

And their Seats are kind to them; coloured
Brown with age, the straw yields to the angularities of their buttocks;
The spirit of ancient suns glows, bound
In these braids of ears in which the corn fermented.

And the Seated Ones, knees drawn up to their teeth, green pianists
Whose ten fingers keep drumming under their seats,
Listen to the tapping of each other's melancholy barcarolles,
And their heads nod back and forth as in the act of love.

- Oh don't make them get up! It's a catastrophe ...
They rear up like growling tom-cats when struck,
Slowly spreading their shoulders... What rage!
Their trousers puff out at their swelling backsides.

And you listen to them as they bump their bald heads
Against the dark walls, stamping and stamping with their crooked feet,
And their coat-buttons are the eyes of wild beasts
Which fix yours from the end of the corridors!

And then they have an invisible weapon which can kill:
Returning, their eyes seep the black poison
With which the beaten bitch's eye is charged
And you sweat trapped in the horrible funnel.

Reseated, their fists retreating into soiled cuffs
They think about those who have made them get up
And, from dawn until dusk, their tonsils in bunches
Tremble under their meagre chins, fit to burst.

When austere slumbers have lowered their lids
They dream on their arms of seats become fertile,
Of perfect little loves of open-work chairs
Surrounding dignified desks.

Flowers of ink dropping pollen like commas
Lull them asleep, in their rows of squat flower-cups
Like dragonflies threading their flight along the flags
- And their membra virilia are aroused by barbed ears of wheat.

Arthur Rimbaud
translated by Oliver Bernard

Poem of the Week 9/24/2007: Strawberries

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying to the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpartick hills*
let the storm wash the plates
Edwin Morgan 1965
*Upland plateau in the country of West Dunbartonshire, Scotland

Poems like this remind me that erotic art exists, and perhaps reveals the erotic origin of art? I have been thinking about that a lot recently; that art could be so erotic; what does that mean? A friend was talking about Rodin today, how sensual he is, and how sensual sculpture is. Anyways... that's a thought.

This poem achieves its eroticism with the slowmoving, tense enjambment (the lines do not finish with periods); the syntax is thus one long, slow caress. This poem is foreplay. Taught, simultaneously taught and drawn out--everything is implied, veiled, and this is what makes it erotic?

Poem of the Week 9/17/2007: from The Waste Land

from The Waste Land

V. What the Thunder Said
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for the rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficient spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetheral rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon - O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

TS Eliot 1922


Due to catching up-time, commentary to come within a few days. Thank you all for your patience as I pull this scattered blog back together.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Poem of the Week 9/10/2007: from The Odyssey, Book VI

from The Odyssey, Book VI

But when the girl was ready to go home--
about to yoke the mules and fold the clothes--
gray-eyed Athena set her mind on still
another stratagem, so that Odysseus
might come to see the gracious girl who then
could lead him down to the town of the Phaecians.
The daughter of the king, as she was tossing
the ball to one of her companions, missed
her throw; the ball fell into a deep pool.
The girls cried out. Their shout was loud. They woke
Odysseus. And as he sat up, he thought:

"What misery is mine? What mortals must
I meet in this new land that I now touch?
Are they unfeeling beings--wild, unjust?
Or do they welcome strangers--does their thought
include fear of the gods? That cry I heard,
the cry that captured me, was tender--like
the voice of young girls--voice of nymphs who haunt
the steepest mountain peaks, the springs that feed
the rivers, and teh green of grazing lands.
Can men with human speech be here--close by?
But I must try--must see with my own eyes."

And now he burst out of the underbrush;
with his stout hand he bore a leafy branch
from that thick wood, to hide his nakedness.
He moved out as a mountain lion would
when--sure of his own strength, his eyes ablaze--
through driving wind and rain, he stalks his prey,
wild deer or sheep or oxen; he'll attack
a cattle-fold, however tight the fence
that pens the herd--the hunger's so intense.
So did Odysseus seem as he prepared
to burst into the band of fair-haired girls,
though he was naked, he was ravenous.
But he-his form was filthy, fouled with brine--
struck them as horrible; and terrified,
they scattered on the shore, one here, one there,
among the sandpits jutting out to sea.
The daghter of Alcinous was left
alone: her spirit had recieved the gift
of courage from Athena, who had freed
the limbs of the young girl from fear and trembling.

She did not flinch or flee. She faced him firmly.


It took me all four years of college to see why people have loved the Odyssey for thousands of years; these are strong, noble people living real lives. In a real way. I guess it is hard now to think of what it might mean to be a strong person, but the Odyssey presents us with situation after situation wherein Odysseus resists. Like Nausicaa, Odysseus is capable of standing still, restraining himself from pleasurable situations in favor of experience, of life.

This passage raises the question for me: how much strength does it take to face whatever situation you are faced with? Though Odysseus's willingness to experience is especially evident in his thoughts as he wakes up--I remember the line, "I must try--must see with my own eyes" from paper prompts about Odysseus and experience freshman year--I think who is really admirable is Nausicaa. As Odysseus enters, he is animal-liike, and presumably frightening. Homer emphasizes his disgusting, ravenous, fierce aspects, from the brine encrusting his skin to his starved body. He "stalks" towards the girls (a literary critic might say that his sexual starvation

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Poem of the Week 9/3/2007: Peach


Would you like to throw a stone at me?
Here, take all that's left of my peach.

Bloodred, deep;
Heaven knows how it came to pass.
Somebody's pound of flesh rendered up.

Wrinkled with secrets
And hard with the intention to keep them.

Why, from silvery peach-bloom,
From that shallow-silvery wine-glass on a short stem
This rolling, dropping, heavy glovule?

I am thinking, of course, of the peach before I ate it.

Why so velvety, why so voluptuous heavy?
Why hanging with such inordinate weight?
Why so indented?

Why the groove?
Why the lovely, bivalve roundness?
Why the ripple down the sphere?
Why the suggestion of incision?

Why was not my peach round and finished like a billiard ball?
It would have been if man had made it.
Though I've eaten it now.

But it wasn't round and finished like a billiard ball;
And because I say so, you would like to throw something at me.
Here, you can have my peach stone.

D.H. Lawrence 1929

Poetry loves the world, yes!~ And don't you want a peach now? What kind of miracle is this peach? I love the voice in this poem. Sometimes poetry takes itself so seriously. Sometimes people do?

It's peach season in Washington. Well, almost the end of peach season. This poem, though, looks very hard at a peach from the 1920s. A peach eighty years ago was as fresh as the peaches I saw today. Humans have loved peaches for a very long time. Where did that long-ago peach go? And its admirer? Interesting that the poem has a line about the circular renewal of matter; the thought, "somebody's pound of flesh offered up" implies that the peach is flesh of other things--animals, grass.

We have all heard that organic matter re-enters the earth, becoming life again. I guess that Lawrence's poem made that idea more real for me--this peach really *was* once, and then it passed. Like the thrown peach stone from one person to another!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Poem of the Week 8/27/2007: On Anothers Sorrow

On Anothers Sorrow

Can I see anothers woe,
And not be in sorrow too.
Can I see anothers frief,
And not seek for kind relief.

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrows share,
Can a father seehis child,
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill'd.

Can a mother sit and hear,
An infant groan an infant fear--
No no never can it be.
Never never can it be.

And can he who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small birds grief & care
Hear the woes that infants bear--

And not sit beside the nest
Pouring pit in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near
Weeping tear on infants tear.

And not sit both night & day,
Wiping all our tears away.
O! no never can it be.
Never never can it be.

He doth give his joy to all.
He becomes an infant small.
He becomes a man of woe
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not, thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy maker is not by.
Think not, thou canst weep a tear,
And thy maker is not near.

O! he gives to us his joy,
That our grief he may destroy
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan

William Blake 1790

What a complex end this poem has--we are given compassion for redemption, is this correct? In the beginning, Blake writes that it is impossible to see suffering without taking it on ourselves. The savior suffered and suffers with us every moment so that we can be relieved, so that we can partake in eternal joy.

This is fundamentally a poem of trust and brotherhood--the lord has made a pact with us, it seems, abiding by a high rule of human life in order to help us live. Furthermore, it asks to trust in our suffering, to not be afraid of suffering because it is always suffered in kinship with others. Through this co-suffering, it is implied, suffering will end. And this we ought to trust.

Poem of the Week 8/20/2007: The Angel

The Angel

I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe, was ne'er beguil'd!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip'd my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush'd rosy red:
I dried my tears & armed my fears,
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again;
I was arm'd, he came in vain:
For the time of youth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.

William Blake 1790

This poem speaks of the human drive to self-concealment. The queen does not want to be made vulnerable, and so she hides both the real reason for her suffering and later must guard that out of her fear. In doing, she loses what could have saved her--an angel.

Of course, Blake cannot be shortened and simplified so extremely. There is a question as to the angel's role in her self concealement; could his comfort have actually enabled her suffering? In other works, Blake has written, "Opposition is true friendship;" our friends ought not enable every vice we have, but challenge us to stay our course, to keep pushing ourselves. To the angel's credit, his presence does seem to symbolize some kind of innocent state--not only does he, like a parent, wipe away her tears, he is associated with youth. When he returns, she is old, implying that his earlier comradeship occurred in youth.

So, though perhaps enabled by the angel, the Queen's reaction was violent and dualistic. Rather than opposition, which holds two forces agaist one-another, she wishes to cut off any chance of vulnerability, of being challenged internally.

I believe that Blake puts us in an uncomfortable position within the poem, for self-concealment is obviously something to which all people are prey. If one has any grain of self-knowledge, one cannot judge this woman, but only ask what might have happened had she not hidden so much from a being that loved her.

Poem of the Week 8/14/2007: Ulysses


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads--you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Like the ancients, as my professor mentioned recently, Tennyson's poem demands of us: What is a life lived well?.

Filled with adventure, every hour is used for exploration and life, inner and out. Ulysses' suffering has been great, as well as his enjoyment. We find, in the last stanza, that Ulysses is a true hero, for he is willing to die at any moment. Rilke discusses the idea of the hero, not because he does sacrifice himself, but because he is willing to. I wonder how often we are willing to risk anything any more. Even in Greek timees, it must have been rare, for those heroes were *heroes* because they would do so. To risk anything, to constantly seek... can we be heroes any more?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Poem of the Week 8/7/2007: from The Country of Marriage

rom The Country of Marriage


I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.


This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth's empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.


What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.


I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy--and this poem,
no more mine than any man's who has loved a woman.

Wendell Berry

Monday, July 23, 2007

Poem of the Week 7/23/2007: from A Kumquat for John Keats

from A Kumquat for John Keats

Today I found the right fruit for my prime,
not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,
nor moon-like gloes of grapefruit that now hang
outside our bedroom, nor tart lemon's tang
(though last year full of bile and self-defeat
I wanted to believe no life was sweet)
nor the tangible sunshine of the tangerine,
and no incongruous citrus ever seen
at greengrocers' in Newcastle or Leeds
mis-spelt by the spuds and mud-caked swedes,
a fruit an older poet might substitute
for the grape John Keats thought to be Joy's fruit,
when, two years before he died, he tried to write
how Melancholy dwelled inside Delight.* / /
and if John keats had only lived to be,
because of extra years, in need like me,
at 42 he'd help me celebrate
that Micancopy kumquat that I ate
whole, straight off the tree, sweet pulp and sour skin--
or was it sweet outside, and sour within?
For however many kumquats that I eat
I'm not sure if it's flesh or rind that's sweet,
and being a man of doubt at life's mid-way
I'd offer Keats some kumquats and I'd say:
You'll find that one part's sweet and one part's tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.

I find I can't as if one couldn't say
exactly where the night became the day,
which makes for me the kumquat taken whole
best fruit, and metaphor, to fit the soul
of one in Florida at 42 with Keats
crunching kumquats, thinking, as he eats
the flesh, the juice, the pith, the pips, the peel,
that this is how a full life ought to feel,
its perishable relish prick the tongue,
when the man who savours life's no longer young,
the fruits that were his futures far behind.
Then its the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness behind them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

*Cf. John Keats, "Ode on Melancholy," lines 25-26


Tony Harrison 1981

I have cut a significant portion of this poem, because of limited space and because the poem spins into sentimental personal and social reflections. It is enough, for now, to get a taste of the kumquat Mr. Harrison would like us to mull over the course of this poem. Perhaps it will be helpful for the reader to know that Keats was a Romantic Era poet who died young; after the deaths of many family members from Tuberculosis, he had the premonition that he would die young, and many of his poems wrestle with issues of life and death, love and beauty. They are intensely compact works of art, almost effortlessly holding the reins of emotion, reflection and beauty, letting each lead as it sees fit. Metaphor is key to his work, from which Tony Harrison takes the cue for this poem.

Though not the densest or most profound poem ever written, I find it clever, fun to read, and a good reminder of the dualities we carry within life. One question it raises, I think, is: Do you know you are going to die? How often is this a reality? Does your life really carry with it the skin that keeps its zest? Interesting.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Poem of the Week 7/18/2007: from Don Juan, Canto 1

from Don Juan, Canto 1


Most epic poets plunge "in medias res"
(Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road),
And then your hero tells, whene'er you please,
What went before -- by way of episode,
While seated after dinner at his ease,
Beside his mistress in some soft abode,
Palace, or garden, paradise, or cavern,
Which serves the happy couple for a tavern.


That is the usual method, but not mine --
My way is to begin with the beginning;
The regularity of my design
Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning,
And therefore I shall open with a line
(Although it cost me half an hour in spinning)
Narrating somewhat of Don Juan's father,
And also of his mother, if you'd rather.


In Seville was he born, a pleasant city,
Famous for oranges and women -- he
Who has not seen it will be much to pity,
So says the proverb -- and I quite agree;
Of all the Spanish towns is none more pretty,
Cadiz perhaps -- but that you soon may see;
Don Juan's parents lived beside the river,
A noble stream, and call'd the Guadalquivir.


His father's name was Jóse -- Don, of course, --
A true Hidalgo, free from every stain
Of Moor or Hebrew blood, he traced his source
Through the most Gothic gentlemen of Spain;
A better cavalier ne'er mounted horse,
Or, being mounted, e'er got down again,
Than Jóse, who begot our hero, who
Begot -- but that's to come -- Well, to renew:


His mother[4] was a learnéd lady, famed
For every branch of every science known
In every Christian language ever named,
With virtues equall'd by her wit alone,
She made the cleverest people quite ashamed,
And even the good with inward envy groan,
Finding themselves so very much exceeded
In their own way by all the things that she did.


Her memory was a mine: she knew by heart
All Calderon and greater part of Lopé,
So that if any actor miss'd his part
She could have served him for the prompter's copy;
For her Feinagle's[5] were an useless art,
And he himself obliged to shut up shop -- he
Could never make a memory so fine as
That which adorn'd the brain of Donna Inez.


Her favourite science was the mathematical,
Her noblest virtue was her magnanimity,
Her wit (she sometimes tried at wit) was Attic all,
Her serious sayings darken'd to sublimity;
In short, in all things she was fairly what I call
A prodigy -- her morning dress was dimity,
Her evening silk, or, in the summer, muslin,
And other stuffs, with which I won't stay puzzling.


She knew the Latin -- that is, "the Lord's prayer,"
And Greek -- the alphabet -- I'm nearly sure;
She read some French romances here and there,
Although her mode of speaking was not pure;
For native Spanish she had no great care,
At least her conversation was obscure;
Her thoughts were theorems, her words a problem,
As if she deem'd that mystery would ennoble 'em.


She liked the English and the Hebrew tongue,
And said there was analogy between 'em;
She proved it somehow out of sacred song,
But I must leave the proofs to those who've seen 'em;
But this I heard her say, and can't be wrong
And all may think which way their judgments lean 'em,
"'T is strange -- the Hebrew noun which means 'I am,'
The English always used to govern d--n."


Some women use their tongues -- she look'd a lecture,
Each eye a sermon, and her brow a homily,
An all-in-all sufficient self-director,
Like the lamented late Sir Samuel Romilly,
The Law's expounder, and the State's corrector,
Whose suicide was almost an anomaly --
One sad example more, that "All is vanity"
(The jury brought their verdict in "Insanity").


In short, she was a walking calculation,
Miss Edgeworth's novels stepping from their covers,
Or Mrs. Trimmer's books on education,
Or "Coelebs' Wife" set out in quest of lovers,
Morality's prim personification,
In which not Envy's self a flaw discovers;
To others' share let "female errors fall,"
For she had not even one -- the worst of all.


Oh! she was perfect past all parallel --
Of any modern female saint's comparison;
So far above the cunning powers of hell,
Her guardian angel had given up his garrison;
Even her minutest motions went as well
As those of the best time-piece made by Harrison:
In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her,
Save thine "incomparable oil," Macassar!


Perfect she was, but as perfection is
Insipid in this naughty world of ours,
Where our first parents never learn'd to kiss
Till they were exiled from their earlier bowers,
Where all was peace, and innocence, and bliss
(I wonder how they got through the twelve hours),
Don Jóse, like a lineal son of Eve,
Went plucking various fruit without her leave.
Lord Byron 1824

I will add the footnotes soon! For now, I hope that you can notice the narrator's contradictory tone. In this satire, Byron is poking fun at any number of things; in this excerpt, he laughs at the conventions of heroic verse, which can take itself Very Seriously. I also recommend that you read this out loud to yourself after reading it silently once, because the rhythm of this poem gallops along, a fact that becomes more impressive when one realizes that this is a fraction of one of sixteen cantos.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Poem of the Week 7/11/07: Man and Camel

Man and Camel

On the eve of my fortieth birthday
I sat on the porch having a smoke
when out of the blue a man and a camel
happened by. Neither uttered a sound
at first, but as they drifted up the street
and out of town the two of them began to sing.
Yet what they sang is still a mystery to me—
the words were indistinct and the tune
too ornamental to recall. Into the desert
they went and as they went their voices
rose as one above the sifting sound
of windblown sand. The wonder of their singing,
its elusive blend of man and camel, seemed
an ideal image for all uncommon couples.
Was this the night that I had waited for
so long? I wanted to believe it was,
but just as they were vanishing, the man
and camel ceased to sing, and galloped
back to town. They stood before my porch,
staring up at me with beady eyes, and said:
"You ruined it. You ruined it forever."

Mark Strand

Sorry no close read right now, for this one certainly needs some untangling.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Poem of the Week 7/2/2007: Dante's Inferno, from Canto VI

from Canto VI, Dante's Inferno

We were passing over shades sprawled
under heavy rain, setting our feet
upon their emptiness, which seems real bodies.

All of them were lying on the ground,
except for one who sat bolt upright
when he saw us pass before him.

'O you who come escorted through this hell,'
he said, 'if you can, bring me back to mind.
You were made before I was undone.'

And I to him: 'The punishment you suffer
may be blotting you from memory:
it doesn't seem to me I've ever seen you.

'But tell me who you are to have been put
into this misery with such a penalty
that none, though harsher, is more loathsome.'

And he to me: 'Your city,* so full of envy
that now the sack spills over,
held me in its confines in the sunlit life.

'You and my townsmen called me Ciacco.
For the pernicious fault of gluttony,
as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

'And in my misery I am not alone.
All those here share a single penalty
for the same fault.' He said no more.

I answered him: 'Ciacco, your distress so weighs
on me it bids me weep.

ll. 59-84: Dante and Ciacco discuss the future of Florence. Dante asks of the afterlife of five townsmen. Ciacco responds:

And he: 'They are among the blacker souls.
Different vices weigh them toward the bottom,
as you shall see if you descend that far.

'But when you have returned to the sweet world
I pray you bring me to men's memory.
I say no more nor answer you again.'

With that his clear eyes lost their focus.
He gazed at me until his head dropped down.
Then he fell back among his blind companions.

Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander


I offer this filled out reading in hopes that you will all forgive my having neglected the PotW last week and the close-reads for some time now!

To read this selection of the Inferno, it will help, I think, to give background on the poem and its events for those who have not read it. Dante, the character, begins on a journey through hell after losing his way on the path of truth. Virgil, the poet, appears as a guide, and the two have so far moved through the circles of apathetic individuals, limbo (virtuous heathens and unbaptized babes), and lust. In that of lust, we witnessed Dante's encounter with Francesca, a woman who tells her story of giving into romantic love, which causes Dante to faint from pity. At the beginning of this excerpt, we are in the middle of the third circle of Hell: that of Gluttony.

As with every level of hell, we must ask ourselves, what are the conditions of the punishment? For gluttony, punishment seems to be absolute nothingness--no humanity, no pain, no change in the weather, and no physical form (one then wonders what Dante and Virgil see, and upon what they are walking). All memory of its inhabitants is effaced from "the sunlit world." In this case, those punished are denied their humanity even in the shadows of memory. Physically, we get the feeling that they are merged with their landscape, for Virgil and Dante step over them as if they were the ground. Little wonder Dante calls this penalty "the most loathsome," for they are less-than-human, capable of nothing. In his comment, we recieve a value judgment about the beauty of our own lives: that we are given so much. One question to ask yourself might be: why is nothingness an apt punishment for gluttony?

Which brings us to another question. If the state here is one of nothingness, then how is it possible that Ciacco recognized Dante? This moment is striking, for among so much barrenness, to be suddenly seen, to be picked out by a sinner, associates Dante with the sin. The suddenness of Ciacco's waking acts out what it would be to see sin for oneself. However, there is no way of logically explaining why Ciacco wakes up. Perhaps it is to teach Dante about the sin, and so has a positive outcome. The poem's Christian framework would suggest that the waking up is given by God to help Dante on his way. And so Ciacco's sin is perhaps somewhat redeemed?

The question of "what is good" in this encounter also arises after reading this section. After all, if Ciacco is allowed to enter consciousness for Dante, and this will help, it seems basically positive. Moreover, he is a sympathetic character--not only does he respect Dante's questions, answering them fully, my notes tell me that he is one of the best sinners in Hell. In history, he was engaged in improving Florence. Moreover, he is honest about his sins, not begging them to be excused or claiming his innocence to a human, which would betray a lack of remorse, egoism and blasphemy. Finally, his plea to be remembered is difficult to remain cold to, perhaps because it expresses the innate human impulse of loving one's life, one's place in the world. He wants simply to exist. Ciacco tries to, implores Dante...

And yet he is damned. Confusing, because it goes against our innate reaction. But, no matter what qualites we may admire, there is no doubt that they were not enough to excuse him from his sin, for God sent him there, and God's judgment would be infalliable.

Dante thus gives us a problem that reveals tension in ourselves. There are three levels here: sin (gluttony), sympathy (for Ciacco), and true morality (the implicit, objective judgment of God). By (most likely) aligning the reader's response in the middle of two visible sides, Dante helps us see what we are. Reading the Inferno is an experience, one that brings us back to ourselves, and this, perhaps, is one aspect of his writing that makes him so great.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Poem of the Week 6/18/2007: The Hollow Men

The Hollow Men

Mistah Kurtz—he dead

A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer --

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer --

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot 1925

This poem brings up the questions: what could we do to fix this sort of problem? Are we like this? What would happen if I looked at the newspaper once a day, or perhaps the content of my conversations? It's kind of a memento mori poem, in that it reminds us that we are kind of dead right now. Not that death is coming, but that it is here, and that many things have internally ground to a halt.

Reading this one, I hope that you don't worry too much about the symbolism in particular. What is more helpful, I think, would be to move through the text a few times and let it affect you as it will.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Poem of the Week 6/11/2007: Archaic Torso of Apollo

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Commentary to come!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Poem of the Week 6/4/2007: Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan*

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
A broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

William Butler Yeats 1924

*In Greek mythology, Leda, raped by Zeus, the supreme god, in teh guise of a swan, gave birth to Helen of Troy and the twins Castor and Pollux. Helen's abduction by Paris from her husband, Menelaus, caused the Trojan War. Leda was also the mother of Clytemnestra, who murdered her own husband, Agamemnon, on his return from the war. Yeats saw Leda as the recipient of an annunciation that would found Greek civilization, as the Annunciation to Mary would found Christianity.


As with many of Yeats' poems, there are a number of ways of approaching it; this does not bespeak the relativity of interpretation, but rather the layered meanings in each of his rich and complex poems. "Leda and the Swan" leaves open the question of the meaning of her suffering, which reflects the greater extent of human suffering.

1. the rape is described vividly, so that the body of the swan is pawing at ourselves
2. the consequences of that rape are given--not triumphant, but dark. Ests. causality and fate. Also narrative POV-some distance from the rape, though we are so close in with her, we sit in a position that knows beyond her but not within her. An uncomfortable place for the reader to be, becasue we feel the pain, we know the consequences, but we cannot find a bridge between the two, no way of unifying the experience.
3. the final stanza leaves the question completely open, for the possibilities are: knowledge is redeeming and power is transfered. the knowledge is dark, and power is acted over her. What do we do with her suffering? we are meant to be compromised and have no way of closing the wound, no way of settling ourselves, of reconciling cause and effect.

Sorry to leave this in outline format. I'll hopefully return to make it more elegant and more comprehensible. The above is the densest explanation of my thoughts about the poem as they currently stand.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Poem of the Week 5/30/2007: O Taste and See

O Taste and See

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

Denise Levertov

Ms. Levertov's poem flashes by like the world from a subway train, moving with as much energy. By calling us to live, though, she integrates growth with the speed of the modern world. Levertov is working with several elements here. First, she responds to a Wordsworth sonnet, which begins, "the world is too much with us." His lines express grief and anguish at the failure of the French Revolution, the weight that overcomes all humans. Since the French Revolution, times have changed. Now, we don't live enough, we don't respond enough. There is less joy and freedom than there used to be--merely lines of movement along subways, sidewalks, roads, and offices. So when we end up in the orchard, we ought to free ourselves!

She also responds to the Adam and Eve story, and to a Christian morality that no longer has a place in this world (though this interpretation of the A and E myth is only one level of its interpretation). Rather than denying outselves, with the paradoxical puritanism of work and capitalism, we ought to live more.

Perhaps, though, we might say that she is merely encouraging the small appeasement of desires, the endless deferment of experience by little pleasues of the modern world. So I will attempt to frame this in a way that will give her credit, with Foucault at my side. When I talk of the puritanism of capitalism, I mean the double-standard of repression and appeasement. A good example here is sexuality. We have a lot of rhetoric about sex being forbidden, a lot of paranoia about sexual harassment, a lot of messages of abstinence, safety, and responsibility. Sex is a transgression, nowadays. And yet, we are conversely called to do it all of the time. That is, any time somebody says "no" about it, they actually bring it up. They make you think about doing it, and so make you complicit in it. So the double standard of the media makes sex both transgressive, which makes it tempting and forbidding, but it brings it up. Hm. After writing all of this, I am not sure whether my argument holds. I am trying to say that there is a difference between responding to transgressive social norms and really following what ought to be.

The former implies still some kind of restriction, because society regulates our actions by pulling them into a discourse, by telling us what to think and when to think it. The latter has to do with enlarging ourselves by experience. By really living, by being grateful for everything that we have been giving, this beautiful world, which though sad and difficult, ought still be lived in. We need to engage, Levertov says, and we can in such a way as to grow.

Thanks for bearing with this thought-process of a PotW.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Poem of the Week 5/21/2007: Death Poem of Koho Kennichi

Death Poem of Koho Kennichi

To depart while seated or standing is all one.
All I shall leave behind me
Is a heap of bones.
In empty space I twist and soar
And come down with the roar of thunder
To the sea.

Koho Kennichi 1316
Died on the twentieth day of the tenth month, 1316 at the age of seventy-six

In Japan, there is a tradition of death poems: poems written just before the moment of death. Koho Kennichi was a Zen Monk in Japan in the 14th Century. A few notes will be helpful in order to understand this poem. First, departed "while seated or standing" treats the position in which it is worthy to die if one is enlightened. Ultimately, this position is merely a form, for bones are the only thing that remain of the physical form.

The next three lines are somewhat more mysterious, and I have only a few thoughts as to their ultimate meaning. If Koho is enlightened, as the sitting or standing comment implies, the "empty space" *might* refer to the open, unified realm of the absolute. His moving toward the sea as death approaches is then the particular manifestation of the infinite (his Buddha-seed, as it were) rejoining the sea of ultimate reality. Death for the enlightened person is Pari-Nirvana, the final extinction of ties to samsara.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Poem of the Week 5/10/2007: from Duino Elegies

The Ninth Elegy

Why, when this short span of being could be spent
like the laurel, a little darker than all
the other green, the edge of each leaf fluted
with small waves (like the wind's smile)--why,
then, do we have to be humanm, and, avoiding fate,
long for fate?

Oh, not because happiness,
that quick profit of impending loss, really exists.
Not out of curiosity, not just to exercise the heart
--that could be in the laurel, too...

But because being here means so much, and becaues all
that's here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us
and strangely concerns us. Us, the first to vanish.
Once each, only once. Once and no more. And us too,
once. Never again. But to have been
once, even if only once,
to have been on earth just once--that's irrevocable.

And so we keep on going and try to realize it,
try to hold it in our simple hands, in
our overcrowded eyes, and in our speechless heart.
Try to become it. To give it to whom? We'd rather
keep all of it forever... Ah, but what can we take across
into that other realm? Not the power to see we've learned
so slowly here, and nothing that's happened here.
Nothing. And so, the pain; above all, the hard
work of living; the long experience of love--
those purely unspeakable things. But later,
under the stars, what then? That';s better left unsaid.
For the wanderer doesn't bring a handful of that
unutterable earth from the mountainside down to the valley,
but only some word he's earned, a pure word, the yellow
and blue gentian. Maybe we're here only to say: house,
bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window--
at most, pillar, tower... but to say them, remember,
to say them in such a way that the things themselves
never dreamed of existing so intensely. When this silent
earth uyrges lovers on, isn't it her secret reason
to make everything shudder with ecstasy in them?
Doorsill: how much ir means to a pair of lovers
to wear down the sill of their own
dorr a little more, them too, after so many
before them, and before all those to come... gently.

This is the time for what can be said. Here
is its country. Speak and testify. The things
we can live with are falling away more
than ever, replaced by an act without symbol.
An act under crusts that will easily rip
as soon as the energy inside outgrows
them and seeks new limits.
Our heart survives between
hammers, just as the tongue between
the teeth is still able to praise.

Praise the world, to the angel, not what can't be talked about.
You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos
where he so intensely feels, you're just a novice. So show
him some simple thing shaped for generation after generation
until it lives in our hands and in our eyes, and it's ours;
Tell him about things. he;ll stand amazed, just as you did
beside the ropemaker in Rome or the potter on the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent and ours;
how even grief's lament purely determines its own shape,
serves as a thing, or dies in a thing--and escapes
in ecstasy beyond the violin. And these thingsm, whose lives
are lived in leaving--they understand when you praise them.
Perishing, they turn to us, the most perishable, for help.
They want us to change them completely in our invisible hearts,
oh--forever--into us! Whoever we finally may be.

Earth, isn't this what you want: to resurrect
in us invisible? Isn't it your dream
to be invisible one day? Earth! Invisible!
What's your urgent charge, if not transformation?
Earth, my love, I will. Oh, believe me, you don't
need your Springs to win me anymore--one,
oh, one's already too much for my blood.
I'm silently determined to be yours, from now on.
You were always right, and your most scared
idea is death, that intimate friend.

Look, I'm alive. On what? Neither childhood nor
the future grows less... More being than I'll ever
need springs up in my heart.

Ranier Maria Rilke

I do Rilke a lot--these are probably my favorite poems of all.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Poem of the Week 4/30/2007: In a Dark Time

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,*
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of the soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the wrocks--is it a cave,
Or a winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke 1965

* The heron is a large, solitary wading bird, the wren a small, sociable songbird.

Mr. Roethke's poetry fuses psychological insight, tense verse, and natural imagery to form vibrating, heavy poems like this one. It treats his version of madness--the multiplicity of selves that come up. Not merely multiple personality disorder, Roethke treats the insanity of human consciousness when "the eye begins to see" what is: namely, multiplicity. Day to day, minute to minute, we change. Things come, things go; the narrator is sometimes solitary, sometimes sociable, and never stable. Madness, then, is instead an extreme mode of being, whether that means ideals of experience ("nobility of the soul") rubbing up against the reality of "circumstance" or living on the edge.

Also at work in this poem is the parallel between man and nature; the narrator's psychological state mirrors the chaotic, wheeling forest presented in the poem. Both nature and his mind include a "steady storm of correspondences," which we may read as a storm of thoughts. These thoughts, then, are "ragged," and flowing with many birds (presumably a reference to the heron-wren cycle above?).

Swelling in the third stanza to break in the fourth, the climax of the poem involves him coming out of that madness. The soul keeps buzzing incessantly, another version of the storm of thoughts, and the narrator questions "which I is I?" In other words, among this cyclic multiplicity, is there a self to be rescued? Is there unity, peace, calm among this torrent of thoughts and being?

The poem answers it with insight--when one sees what one is, there is at least unity within multiciplicity, unity in the storm, the "tearing wind."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Poem of the Week 4/23/2007: from The Labyrinth

from The Labyrinth

Since I emerged that day from the labyrinth,
Dazed with the tall and echoing passages,
The swift recoils, so many I almost feared
I’d meet myself returning at some smooth corner,
Myself or my ghost, for all there was unreal
After the straw ceased rustling and the bull
Lay dead upon the straw and I remained…

I could not live if this were not illusion.
It is a world, perhaps; but there’s another.
For once in a dream or trance I saw the gods
Each sitting on the top of his mountain-isle,
While down below the little ships sailed by…

That was the real world; I have touched it once,
And now shall know it always. But the lie,
The maze, the wild-wood waste of falsehood, roads
That run and run and never reach an end,
Embowered in error – I’d be prisoned there
But that my soul has birdwings to fly free.

Oh these deceits are strong almost as life.
Last night I dreamt I was in the labyrinth,
And woke far on. I did not know the place.

Edwin Muir 1949

One of my favorite poets, Edwin Muir wrote in Scotland, largely after World War II. His poems brim with allusion, drawing off of Greek myth and Biblical allegory in response to the horrors he lived through. Like "the Labyrinth," much of his poetry comments on the dark and tangled world that holds little trace to God any more.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Poem of the Week 4/16/2007: The Broken Tower

The Broken Tower

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn*
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day - to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons** launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun's ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals*** in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles* with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love,** its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My world I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word***
In wounds pledges once to hope - cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) -or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure…

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) - but slip
Of pebbles, - visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

Hart Crane 1933

*The angelus bell commemorates the Incarnation of Christ
** Alternating and overlapping melodies played on the bells.
*** Papal documents; here, divinely inspired messages.
*Also campaniles; bell-towers attached to Italian cathedrals.
** In the bells' attempt to transfigure life and to incarnate God, Crane sees an analouge of his own poetic mission.
*** Divine revelation, with which the poet hopes his word is cognate.

I choose Hart Crane for today partially as a response to Eliot. As most did in the 1920s, Crane respected and admired Eliot's poetry, save for its pessimistic message. He thought that some ecstatic experience was still possible, that, "After this [modern] perfection of death--nothing is possible in motion but a resurrection of some kind." This poem, the final one he published, treats the death and rebirth of love, as manifested in Crane's poetry.

Opening with an image (a clanging?) of angelus bells, the first four stanzas treat Crane's resurrection. What was he resurrected from? Well, we get images of Hell, of a stone tower falling, so it seems that he comes from somewhere stony and hellish. And since Crane was dealing with the death caused by modernity (this was ostensibly what he liked and found too pessimistic about Eliot's ultimate conclusion that modernity is nearly inescapable), we may guess that these towers etc were those of the modern world. Therefore, the first four stanzas open with the bells of resurrection breaking bonds and bringing the poet back into a broken world.

As the poem moves forward, we see that these bells are a metaphor for poetry. Inscribed in his veins, the bells begin to move in his blood, their song akin to that of a poem. Indeed, just as the bells announce the coming of the Word of God, divine revelation, his poetry, he hopes, will bring the revelation of love. For Crane's poetic project is one of love, of the breaking of external towers of love and building inner ones.

Poetry builds within him "a tower that is not stone" (for stone can't hold heaven in its vastness), but "visible wings of silence." What are these wings? Perhaps the same feeling of vertigo discussed in the beginning, now greater, more profound, more quietly and privately felt. So perhaps the ripples of images in this poem are like the resonance of bells--they appear in the beginning, and are echoed in the end... is the real resurrection in the final line, with the sky unsealing the earth and letting love out into the open? Beyond the rebirth of the poet, is the reemergence of love the real point of the poem?

Whether Crane's optimism about the possibility of a glorious rebirth from the deathlike world of modernity has come to pass, whether it is coming, or whether he is wrong is, well, a question. What do we pay attention to, the Waste Land of today, or the fact that this kind of end should herald so much more? Perhaps there will be more coming.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Poem of the Week 4/9/2007: from Ash Wednesday

from Ash Wednesday


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savor of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

TS Eliot 1930

(please know that I am riffing ideas in much of this analysis, and that Eliot requires more research, work, and time than I have given him. Esp. as regards the symbolism. This is one of those close reads that frustrates me because I can't get you to see what's going on; I can only talk about it, which can be really unhelpful sometimes)

I have written in my notes for the second to last line, "a cry for wholeness," and indeed this seems to partake in much of Eliot’s vision of the human condition. In this last part of his poem Ash Wednesday, we see that this is one of constant cycling, circling suffering and change. Against the twisting run of thoughts and self, the poem expresses the longing for something still and stable and whole. We are hungry and sad for the truth underlying things; our thoughts waver between the profit and the loss--things we get (pleasure, iPods, attention) and losses (pain, whatever thing we were entitled to.) We are never whole and engaged in the world, just worried about the accumulation of things.

"The dreamcrossed twilight between brith and dying" addresses the fundamental unreality of our experience now--we daydream and plan our way through life. So little of it is here. We miss what is, we try to catch up, and only moments of life are given to us, only tiny scraps of existence to we care to engage in. I had never understood why people want to talk about dreams all of the time, because my life felt real enough, but when I started to pay attention, I found that most things I cared about and thought of pass, slow, fade, or die. Things leave (the center cannot hold)--we cannot hold ourselves to anything, at least not at this stage.

With the line “(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things,” Eliot expresses his pure grief (brokenness?) at this turning. He does not hope to turn again, and yet here he is. Meekness. Humility. Small sad broken thing. Or rather, “unbroken” thing. This reference keeps things always gauged against a state of brokenness: "Wholeness," then, is just this side of broken, the state in between breaks.

Finishing the seven part poem, the final stanza is the last plea for wholeness, the final prayer to collect oneself, to overcome the smallness and dryness of the air now…By way of commenting on the final stanza, I give you a stanza from the first part of the poem:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.