Monday, March 24, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/24/2008: Drinking in Moonlight

Drinking in Moonlight

I sit with my wine jar
among flowers
blossoming trees

no one to drink with

well, there's the moon

I raise my cup
and ask him to join me
bringing my shadow
making us three

but the moon doesn't seem to be drinking
and my shadow just creeps around behind me

still, we're companions tonight
me, the moon, and the shadow
we're observing
the rites of spring

I sing
and the moon rocks back and forth

I dance
and my shadow
weaves and tumbles with me

we celebrate for awhile
then go our own ways, drunk

may we meet again someday
in the white river of stars

Li Po
trans. David Young

What does it make you want to do? When thinking about the sympathetic power of poetry, or its motive power perhaps.... anybody feel like commenting on this one? It's spectacular. I will probably have something to say about it later in the week.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/17/2008: The Anactoria Poem

The Anactoria Poem

Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers,
others call a fleet the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it's what-
ever you love best.

And it's easy to make this understood by
everyone, for she who surpassed all human
kind in beauty, Helen, abandoning her
husband--that best of

men--went sailing off to the shores of Troy and
never spent a thought on her child or loving
parents: when the goddess seduced her wits and
left her to wander,

she forgot them all, she could not remember
anything but longing, and lightly straying
aside, lost her way. But that reminds me
now: Anactória,

she's not here, and I'd rather see her lovely
step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on
all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and
glittering armor.

Translated by Jim Powell

Some quick notes on this poem:
--Anactoria is Sappho's lover, and the person to whom the poem is addressed--
At question in it is, appropriate for a lyric poem, only, "the most beautiful of / sights the dark earth offers." What is it? Well, it depends on who you are, for beauty, for Sappho, is a matter of perspective. Whatever one finds the most beautiful is whatever you love; beauty is a function of love. Sappho then goes on to show this to be true using the example of Helen of Troy. Though her physical beauty was allegedly the greatest, Helen herself did not think so, and left her life in order to cavort with Paris, to wander with longing.

Sappho reveals her taste in beauty at the end of the poem, saying that what she loves best is this woman, that Sappho would rather see Helen's glittering face than all of the power in the world. This is a philosophical poem that turns into a love poem.

a biography on Sappho from

Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Evidence suggests that she had several brothers, married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and had a daughter named Cleis. She spent most of her adult life in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for unmarried young women. Sappho's school devoted itself to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, and Sappho earned great prominence as a dedicated teacher and poet. A legend from Ovid suggests that she threw herself from a cliff when her heart was broken by Phaon, a young sailor, and died at an early age. Other historians posit that she died of old age around 550 B.C.

The history of her poems is as speculative as that of her biography. She was known in antiquity as a great poet: Plato called her "the tenth Muse" and her likeness appeared on coins. It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as "Sapphic" meter. Her poems were first collected into nine volumes around the third century B.C., but her work was lost almost entirely for many years. Merely one twenty-eight-line poem of hers has survived intact, and she was known principally through quotations found in the works of other authors until the nineteenth century. In 1898 scholars unearthed papyri that contained fragments of her poems. In 1914 in Egypt, archeologists discovered papier-mâché coffins made from scraps of paper that contained more verse fragments attributed to Sappho.

Three centuries after her death the writers of the New Comedy parodied Sappho as both overly promiscuous and lesbian. This characterization held fast, so much so that the very term "lesbian" is derived from the name of her home island. Her reputation for licentiousness would cause Pope Gregory to burn her work in 1073. Because social norms in ancient Greece differed from those of today and because so little is actually known of her life, it is difficult to unequivocally answer such claims. Her poems about Eros, however, speak with equal force to men as well as to women.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/9/2008: from Paradise Lost

from Paradise Lost
Book I ll. 1-26

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse,that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

John Milton 1674

Where to start an epic, the greatest in the english language? Well, at the beginning! These are the first 26 lines of John Milton's Paradise Lost, which, as an epic will do, contain the invocation to the muse and introduce the subject. In this poem, the muse plays a large role; Milton said that the muse would come to him at night. In this clear state, the words would arrange themselves in front of his eyes (which, by the way, were sightless; he went blind before composing the poem). He writes, "The thoughts, as if by their own power, produce the lines of poetry," and, "true eloquence I find to be none, but the serious and hearty love of truth... when such a man would speak..., his words (by what I can express), like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at command, and in well-ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly into their own places" (An Apology for Smectymnuus).

Even in this excerpt, he asks, "chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer / Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure," hoping for purification and inspiration. So the Muse, for Milton, was a literal visitor he had, in that he did not "make up" the words, but rather that they were given him out of his own desire for truth and goodness. Milton, in writing the epic, assumes the pious pose necessary in order to be inspired: he wants to know himself, he wants to help others, he wants to know God and be able to write of His ways to men.

Milton also wishes to know of all things; the generation of the earth from Chaos, the original state of man and how he fell, the temptation and the goodness of man, life and death, the fall and the possibility of redemption--manifest in the Son of God. So to ask for inspiration is also to ask for knowledge, somewhat paradoxical given that the fall comes as a result of humanity's desire for knowledge. In Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Eve by telling her that she can be Adam's equal in knowledge, so to ask for it in the introduction perhaps benefits from the fall? That is, there's no going back; mankind is hungry for knowledge and to eradicate this won't get us back to the tree of Life. Rather, we have to deal with the conditions of the fall in order to be redeemed, and perhaps, as the existence of knowledge and epics containing them will reveal, it is also possible that the return will be better. After all, the garden of Eden in PL is only a small part of the earth, whereas man presumably finds a far greater Eden upon his redemption, encompassing the old garden and all of the land he has tread since that time...

Oh achingly beautiful, are not these lines:
Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant:

A glorious blossom of creation appears to us here; Milton appropriately uses a sexual and asexual metaphor. Much of the epic following takes place in the fertile and generative garden. The imagery of the plants and animals is almost erotic, and Adam and Eve are consistently naked with one another. Milton implies that there is a holiness and a purity to this kind of sex.

It is also appropriate to discuss generation--pregnancy--in this opening section, as the poet himself must generate the epic. The question of artistic creation in relation to sexual creation in relation to cosmic creation is one that has been played out by artist after artist... what does it mean to be inspired? Sing, O muse!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/2/2008: Dream Song 14

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

John Berryman

I like poetry that captures something, that puts its finger right on a certain experience, and Berryman's Dream Songs (a set of more than 300 16 line poems) often brilliantly manage this. The poem's narrator is named Henry. At some point in his life--unknown to the reader--Henry suffered something tragic. He sets forth the story of his life in a series of songs that seem to almost arise from his subconscious, hence the title of the book. Moreover, he does not always speak as "Henry" as a unified person; "Henry" frequently speaks of himself in the third person, and sometimes dresses in blackface, speaking from that.

What strikes me about this poem is the split character of the narrator and the presence of memory revealed in the final stanza, and the humour this engenders. Regarding Henry's split nature: we are presented in the first stanza with a Henry who is as active as Achilles: he "flashes" and "yearns," and has "plights and gripes." One aspect of Henry has a whole set of concerns and interests in his life with which other parts of him are bored to tears. Some Henrys worry about a woman or are depressed about life or are annoyed with a customer. But the narrative Henry in this poem is, "heavy bored." It's so funny, Henry's different attitudes to his life.

Also interesting to me is the way that Berryman writes the clinging, responsive aspects of thought into the end of this poem; the dog sticks in the memory of Henry after it has gone: an exit leaves the lingering impression of the original presence; we cling even though something has left.

It's always fun with Berryman to do a deeper psychological reading; that these poems are "dream songs" is an invitation to do so, I believe. So the question becomes: why does Henry call up the dog leaving? Does this have to do with his psychological trauma early in life, or is it just an incidental impression that rises to the surface for this poem? I might play with the idea that the dog's leaving represents whatever trauma happened once upon a time in Henry's life; an abandonment of some kind leaves a memory, and is left alone with "me" and an impression.

My Brit Lit professor said that it's a great compliment to treat a poetic character as if s/he is real; I have done so with Henry because he is so perfectly devstated and disunified in these poems. It is a great compliment to Berryman indeed, and picking up The Dream Songs at any time is really rewarding and fun.