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.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Poem of the Week 4/2/2007: The Tables Turned

The Tables Turned
An Evening Scene on the Same Subject

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
HIs first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the trostle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your Teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulbess,

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

William Wordsworth 1798

There's probably little I need to tell you about this poem, because Wordsworth is clear in his message. Come outside! Turn to the world again, for all that thinking will do is twist you in a bind.

I guess that what I can provide here is some historical background, because otherwise some of his frustrations with intellect and books will perhaps be taken a little too strongly. Wordsworth is talking against a society that was first championing rationality--in some way, he is writing at the birth of systematic approaches to knowledge and even art (the academies at that time stressed reproduction of the masters, and systems of drawing). Machines, calculation, and, over and over, rationality were the approaches to knowledge. Furthermore, these were supposedly higher forms of knowing; science and examination and consensus became the champion over experience. Perhaps things aren't so different today, and so Wordsworth's call holds true. Stop reading (yes, even this blog), and go look at the sky tonight, or a flowered tree---- Wordsworth would want us to go outside now, to leave our calculating minds behind, and open us to experience. We might even learn something, who knows?

In the end, I choose this poem because it explicitly asks us to do something that poetry often does to me--it asks us to turn back to the world. Poetry is not an end in itself, but it can point us back toward something more real, and encourages states of openness, reception, unknowing. Keats famously called this "negative capability:" "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason... with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

Perhaps this is the state that both great poetry and nature can put us in--a kind of openness that allows reality to enter just a little bit, a crack in habitual perspective that can change a moment or an afternoon. Small things, maybe, but how many have we missed after all?