Saturday, April 12, 2008

Poem of the Week 4/14/2008: The List of Famous Hats

The List of Famous Hats

Napoleon's hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that's not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn't much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn't even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up--well, he didn't really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.

James Tate 1996

This is a prose poem by James Tate; I have become interested in prose poems of late, partially because it begs the question ever interesting to me: what makes a poem? Why do we recognize some language as poetic and some not? Is there a cultural locus of this? I, at least, feel that a prose poem like this couldn't really exist before the modern age, for only now are we so chatty and cluttered that we have to abandon form, or rather that we can't appreciate more formal aspects of lanuage or poetry. Perhaps that's unfair. Well, it's probably true in many cases and not in others, I suppose.

My favorite definition for poetry was set forth by Howard Nemerov, himself an excellent poet. "Poetry," he writes, "is right language." So any proper description would make poetic language; clever style is thus not necessarily poetry (though is often counted as such), nor is high form. It has to be apt language. What does this mean? Oh, I hesitate to provide answers, so here, instead, are a few thoughts. Compression, paradox, symbolism (provided it doesn't symbolize something made up, like creativity or "sense of place," for example), and musicality often convey more of a thing, can lead us to the thing itself... This is probably a lot of quibbling. Does anybody have any thoughts, or is this something that it does not do to think about; perhaps, like the question of music, it's a case of: we know it when we hear it. That's satisfactory for me.

I hope you enjoy this poem. Funny poetry is a real gift of existence.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Poem of the Week 4/7/2008: The Third Century

The Third Century

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which
never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I
thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.
The dust and stones of the street were as precious
as gold : the gates were at first the end of the world.
The green trees when I saw them first through one
of the gates transported and ravished me, their
sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to 
leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such 
strange and wonderful things. The Men ! O what
venerable and reverend creatures did the aged
seem ! Immortal Cherubims !    And young men
glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange
seraphic pieces of life and beauty ! Boys and girls
tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving
jewels. I knew not that they were born or should
die ; But all things abided eternally as they were in
their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the 
Light of the Day, and something infinite behind
everything appeared : which talked with my
expectation and moved my desire.  The city seemed
to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The 
street were mine, the temple was mine, the people
were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were
mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and
ruddy faces.    The skies were mine, and so were the
sun and moon and stars, and all the World was
mine ; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it.
I knew no churlish properties, nor bounds, nor
divisions : but all properties and divisions were
mine : all treasures and the possessors of them. So
that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to 
learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I 
unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again
that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.

Thomas Traherne, from Centuries of Meditation

Though technically "prose," this work by Thomas Traherne stands in my "Poetry is right language" category. For it is certainly some of the most marvelous and remarkable language I have ever come across, at once simple and shining, as hard cut and as glittering as a gem. I steal that image from this "century." A Metaphysical poet, Traherne was most primarily a pastor and member of several holy orders in England in the mid to late 17th Century. I suppose it is unnecessary to write too much about this passage, for it stands as something to be slowly savored and tasted. However, it might be fruitful to think about the way the state of childhood works in this poem, and how it might open up into a much greater redemptive state; what is childhood, and why is it connected with the divine, the infinite? How is Traherne entering the Kingdom of Heaven now, though this childlike state? Happy reading.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Poem of the Week 3/31/2008: Death the Hypocrite

Death the Hypocrite

You claim to loathe me, yet everything you prize
Brings you within the reach of my embrace.
I see right through you though I have no eyes;
You fail to know me even face to face.

Your kiss, your car, cocktail and cigarette,
Your lecheries in fancy and in fact,
Unkindness you manage to forget,
Are ritual prologue to the final act

And certain curtain call. Nickels and dimes
Are but the cold coin of a realm that's mine.
I'm the acute accountant of your crimes
As of your real estate. Bristlecone pine,

Whose close-ringed chronicles mock your regimen
Of jogging, vitamins, and your strange desire
To disregard your assigned three-score and ten,
Yields to my absolute instrument of fire.

You know me, friend, as Faustus, Baudelaire,
Boredom, Self-Hatred, and, still more, Self-Love.
Hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frere,
Acknowledge me. I fit you like a glove.

Anthony Hecht 1995

Hecht's note: "Some bristlecone pines are the oldest living things on earth . . . a total of seventeen bristlecone pines have been found which, still living and growing, are over 4,000 years old, the oldest some 4,600 years old." Andreas Feininger, from his book Trees.
Also, the line, "Hypocrite lecteur...frere" comes from TS Eliot's "The Waste Land"

This poem springs from a series of "Death" poems by Anthony Hecht, including, Death Demure, Death the Oxford Don, Death the Society Lady, Death the Poet, Death the Judge, Death the Mexican Revolutionary, Death the Whore, Death the Copperplate Printer, and even a set of nursery rhymes about death. This last one is a delicious poem you can check out here:

"Death the Hypocrite" is titled after its narrator, the death that results from hypocrisy, or the death that deals in hypocrisy. It demands us to ask, what has death become in the modern world? Why would somebody try to avoid the question of death, and how? All of the little gimmicks modern man uses to put off the reality of death, that "certain curtain call," are actually tokens of death's appearance, his already having settled in. For fear of death is consciousness of death, is it not? To repress the reality of death is to slide under the need to come to any sort of reckoning with one's life, for life seems endless, formless, interminable. But to not terminate, ever, to simply mist and fritter one's life away, what kind of life is this, Hecht's poem begs us to ask. Indeed, he leaves us almost nowhere to turn for solace, for our small attempts to "preserve life"--jogging, vitamins, etc--shrink to nothing against the 4,600 rings on the bristlecone pine.