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.