Monday, February 26, 2007

Poem of the Week 2/26/2006: from Duino Elegies

from Duino Elegies: The First Elegy

Yes, Springs needed you. Many stars
waited for you to see them. A wave
that had broken long ago swelled toward you,
or when you walked by an open window, a violin
gave itself. All that was your charge.
But could you live up to it? Weren't you always
distracted by hope, as if all this promised
a lover? (Where would you have hidden her,
with all those strange and heavy thoughts
flowing in and out of you, often staying overnight?)
When longing overcomes you, sing about great lovers;
their famous passions still aren't immortal enough.
You found that the deserted, those you almost envied,
could love you so much more than those you loved.
Begin again. Try out your impotent praise again;
think about the hero who lives on: even his fall
was only an excuse for another life, a final birth.
But exhausted nature draws all lovers back
into herself, as if there weren't the energy
to create them twice. Have you remembered
Gaspara Stampa well enough? From that greater love's
example, any girl deserted by her lover
can believe: "If only I could be like her!"
Shouldn't our ancient suffering be more
fruitful by now? Isn't it time our loving freed
us from the one we love and we, trembling, endured:
as the arrow endures the string, and in that gathering momentum,
becomes more than itself. Because to stay is to be nowhere.

Ranier Maria Rilke 1922

This is the next section of the poem posted on this blog in December; rarely do I place the same poet's work so close together, and never have I discussed the same poem. But I must have read at least forty poems of ee cummings and William Carlos Williams this evening (something to note: at times, the two are nearly indistinguishable. At others, their voices dance off in different directions--cummings towards love, towards ideas, and Williams towards things and images, of course). Unable to find a poem that loves the world without falling over from its own passion, I left the library, left cummings and williams, and came home to Rilke! Sitting there on my desk, the passage opened itself to me, opened its great and subtle affection for the world, its understanding of the place of human longing.

Rilke is interesting in that he is immensely complex and yet, when you read him, it is as if he talks straight to you. People understand innately what he says, but he is difficult to discuss (and do justice to) in writing. Ah--this is a moment when I am frustrated at writing's ability to discuss poetry. I forget that this bind crops up-- poems say what they want to say the best, and the job of the reader is to talk about it. To bring that text to life, into life. I suppose, then, the professional reader's job might be to offer direction to other's thoughts. Hm--of course we invented literary criticism because we want an excuse to write about the things we like to think and talk about. Well then, my suggestion is: read this poem again. Begin again---look how my language just gave over to Rilke! Indeed, he seems to be speaking to the issue above, writing "Begin again, try out your impotent praise again." Whether praise of poetry or of Spring, words so often fail. The praise is impotent, unable to push us forward or onward.

If any of you want to talk about this in person (if you're at UPS, talk to me in person), that would be the way to interact with this poem--words are failing--goodnight!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Poem of the Week 2/19/2007: Frost at Midnight

Frost At Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud--and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed ! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village ! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams ! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not ;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O ! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come !
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams !
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book :
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike !

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought !
My babe so beautiful ! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes ! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe ! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags : so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher ! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw ; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1798

"Frost at Midnight" moves from the most silent and attentive moment of the night to the height of hopeful ecstasy and, suddenly, to a soft quiet once again. The quiet frames Coleridge's blessing for his son--upon seeing the freedom and beauty of a leaf of ash in the fire, the poet memory is pulled to childhood. Next, he is so overcome with hopes for his son--that his son will grow up in the full language of nature, with the full feast of the natural world--that he nearly bursts at the brimming possibility in a life.

For the Romantics, childhood represented the unveiled way of moving through the world, a state unclotted by ego and rational repression. This childhood is something that each human shares, and so to wish that freedom, to even envision it for his son, is to wish that state of innocence for all of us. "Frost at Midnight" is a trilling response to this clear child in all, acknowledging and longing for participation with the things of this world.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Poem of the Week 2/12/2007: St Kevin and the Blackbird

St Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he:
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bid
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.

Seamus Heaney 1996

Finishing this poem, I am reminded of a quote by (I think!) Frank O'Hara: "A poem should leave its readers distressed, / curious, and ready to believe / It is curious to be alive." What draw me in are Heaney's care and affection with language (something he is ever capable of), the deft with which he invites the reader into the poem, and his treatment of skepticism and prayer within the poem.

In the first section Heaney draws a simple and beautiful allegory of spiritual discipline and awakening. He moves from the initial announcement of the story--"And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird"--to the story, bring us into the present tense and the presence of Kevin. He attends to Kevin's knees, the size of the cell, his exact body position, inviting the reader to imagine in detail the afternoon.

The allegory itself is laden with Christian imagery. Kevin places his hand out the window "as a crossbeam," or forming one axis of the cross. The bird descends, settling in his hand, to form the vertical axis. From the intersection comes an egg, the possibility of sacred experience, and with patience is born a new bird. This bird represents both a mark of spiritual discipline and Ireland, for the blackbird is associated with Ireland. Heaney thus manages to pull together the personal, spiritual, and even the national in the simple story of one saint. Incorporating such breadth in one story underlines the following section's statement of universality, or non-duality.

At the opening of the second section, then, Heaney turns the poem again to the reader, this time addressing skepticism. Rather than using skepticism to dismiss the poem, though, he invites the reader to move deeper into Kevin's thoughts, Kevin's experience. Heaney uses simple questions to soften us to supernatural occurrences; willing to believe after imagining our knees hurt on the cold stone, we can accept earth blossoming beneath his knees.

The final two stanzas express unity with nature, a loss of definitions, boundaries--not a forgetting in the strict, apathetic sense, but the forgetting of nonattachment, a prayer wherein the body enters the cycles of the earth, and in becoming part of them loses itself, its definitions, those names and forms binding and fettering it. As St Kevin stands on the bank of the river of love, he can no longer name it, for the two are no longer separate.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Poem of the Week 2/5/2007: from When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloom'd


O western orb sailing the heaven,
Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk'd,
As I walk'd in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop'd from the sky low down as if to my side, (while the other stars all look'd on,)
As we wander'd together the solemn night, (for something I know not what kept me from sleep,)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rin of the west how full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch'd where you pass'd and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.


Sing on there in the sawmp,
O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you,
But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain'd me,
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.


Oh how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone"?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Sea-winds blown from east and west.,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.

Walt Whitman 1865-66

More than Song of Myself, Whitman's most famous poem, I find this and other poems treating death and loss more interesting and profound. Here we get the same communion with nature that Whitman finds in Song of Myself, but with an injection of melancholy, affection, and more. Poetry is one of the great vehicles of melancholy, especially when well executed. Whitman follows in the tradition of Keats and Coleridge's great odes on grief in this elegy written after the death of Abraham Lincoln. I have chosen these three stanzas because they represent a communion with that tradition and because they eclipse particular grief at the death of a well-loved symbol.

Beside the universal quality of this elegy (there are particular charateristics and references too, but more interesting to me is the project of using the individual to transcend the individual--using the particular as entry point to the infinite), I hope that you can notice the breathlessness of the stanzas. The repetition of "as" in the first stanza brings each line in to lap at us like waves, like the slow in and out of breath, the turning of the heavens. In most of his poems, Whitman uses this device--in my mind, he employs it as a kind of chant or invocation, something to mesmerize the reader, bring him into the song...

Though Whitman is a master of song, he discusses the difficulty of singing, writing of it as warbling, of expressing ourselves in the face of enormous grief. It is only in nature that he can find the expression of the love he feels--wow--hear how that doesn't sound as nice in prose as it does in his poetry? That's why people write poems. And this concludes this week's poem of the week, a somewhat poorer discussion than usual.