Friday, December 30, 2011

Poem of the Week 12/30/2011: Carmel Point

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Robinson Jeffers

Jeffers presents us with a poem that at once divides and unifies man and nature; man no longer realizes his connections with the greater world, which is patient and unyieldingly calm, permanent, confident. Thus the poet interlaces a conception of reality that does not exclude human beings; it is rather a place to which at some point we ought to return.

Man and nature's common essence (one way to speak of their unity?) is apparent in the first few lines. If things are patient, that is a human category - they exhibit a benevolent human trait, something we humans often cannot reach or touch. Then, man and nature seem to take the other's character in the line, "This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses." Nature is "de-faced," or in a way dehumanized, while humans are a "crop," some kind of planted, temporary field of natural products on their way to being born.

Jeffers effortlessly carries us through a narrative - asking the readers to imagine this pace at first glance from man - a field of poppies and lupin, only a few larger beings making their small mark - horses and cows. This is what we besmirched, cut up with our concrete boxes... but nature, he offers, is unperturbed. Unperturbed because it is so permanent as to be living "in the very grain of the granite, / safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff." It is patient and compassionate, nearly, which we can pick up in the gentle tone in the lines about man and the tides. Nature, like a mother or some much greater figure, sees the truth in our works, which is that they are again not separate from her - these works eventually dissolve like everything else, and so man's childish disruption of nature's beauty is no different than a barnacle on a rock.

Indeed, this is in part a statement about reality - the way of things is to be safe, unthreatened, unhurried, and pristine. What is is beautiful, still, even as it is in motion, from the grazing cows to crashing waves to the sudden growth of a suburban "crop."

This regard perhaps provides the impetus for the final section, wherein the speaker recommends a new orientation, a new way for us to be - "We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from."Human views, it seems, are anxious and quick, whereas nature's vaster view is solid, eternal, confident, firm, strong. In dehumanizing and uncentering from ourselves, we may discover that we are and embody the patience of the rocks, the great geologic beauty of a granite cliff. "Carmel Point" calls for us to understand this, to see the way of things, their patience, and to remember again that it is, ultimately, ourselves and not ourselves that we are seeing - because, perhaps, we simultaneously are and are not.

An afterthought: I recommend reading Robinson Jeffers after some time spent at the California coast - nothing puts his words into better perspective than to see this view oneself, smell the air, hear the crashing and stillness. Indeed, important to know about Jeffers is that he built himself a house out of stones, "Tor House," near Carmel, and lived on the beach alone for many years. A vision of starry, wonderful vastness!

Happy new year all!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Poem of the Week 12/22/2011: High Windows

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if 
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life; 
No God any more, or sweating in the dark 

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He 
And his lot will all go down the long slide 
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Philip Larkin

Larkin always seems to leave a sort of ambiguity in his poetry, and in this one it has to do, perhaps, with the viewpoint. Whose thoughts are those at the end? Is it the speaker - the grumpy sort of a-religious, modern man? Or is it the person contemplating a Godless future, without any of the worries from Christianity who then remembers the subtlety and vastness of that experience? Indeed, Larkin presents two versions of paradise - the modern and materialist version, against, the quiet experience of vastness the final stanza suggests.

This stanza, after all, in a way suggests Adam and Eve in the garden, but instead of wearing fig leaves she wears a diaphragm, and sex is regarded not sinfully but practically - as something that can be done so long as nobody is pregnant. Also in counterpoint to Christianity seems to be the "long slide / to happiness;" it brings up images of Jacob's ladder to heaven, perhaps, or the great chain of being. Larkin offers us the endless slide of youthful... delight? debauchery?

And then this perspective gets amplified by the italics in the third and fourth stanzas - picking up on how this new world has dropped "bonds and gestures.../ like an outdated combine harvester." This perspective resents the priests, confession, the worrying about an afterlife about which one can do very little, captured in the lines that are nearly spit out, "free bloody birds."

Suddenly, however, the poem ends with something utterly a-cultural and perhaps truly holy. This is rather surprising considering the resentment about cultural bonds in the italics, but the blast of beauty, stillness, and openness offers a completely different theology, a paradise installed endlessly above the church windows. Indeed, even the height of this is probably symbolic, given that the rest of the poem has been earthy and grounded, from the images of the bed to the slide towards happiness to the "bloody birds" (priests) that are falling to the ground. The high windows show a level that is above all of these cultural concerns, debauchery, and worries - a God not tied to any of the cultural forms that show, tell, do, act, oppress, or "free." This God "shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless," an endlessness entirely different from the endless slide of pleasure posited in the early stanzas. A single moment and a few lines pierce the poem at its end!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Poem of the Week 10/5/2011: Returning to My Cottage

Returning to My Cottage

A bell in the distance
the sound floats
down the valley

one by one
woodcutters and fisherman
stop work, start home

the mountains move off
into darkness

alone, I turn home
as great clouds beckon
from the horizon

the wind stirs delicate vines
and water chestnut shoots
catkin fluff sails past

in the marsh to the east
new growth
vibrates with color

it's sad
to walk in the house
and shut the door.

Wang Wei, trans. David Young

 Written in the early T'ang Dynasty in China, Wang Wei's poem engages with and transcends the landscape genre in which it begins; ultimately, it leads its readers through its gorgeous metaphor for the difference between being related to the world and being self-enclosed.

Wei first manages to be incredibly specific, conjuring a distinct landscape using few and fewer words. It starts with a single bell's tone. This leads us into a valley where workers are heading home. Perhaps this specificity - the singluarity of the event - make it simpler to conjure distinct images, or a single world, in which these events are unfolding. Wang Wei establishes a sense of place, and love for that place.

We can notice the active subjects and verbs Wei offers. In this world, the sound floats, the mountains move, clouds beckon, wind stirs, growth vibrates... Wei's landscape is a living world, one where immense forces have a specific role, action, and effect. And since many of these forces (mountains, clouds, wind, growth) are somewhat universal in nature, they suggest a deeper set of forces moving through this world, or perhaps what Baudelaire might call correspondences. Our landscapes correspond with this one, they play as if in harmony.

So the meeting of particular and universal sets us up for the rich final stanza. Its events are simple. Our speaker is sad to leave this world for the indoors. Blur your eyes, and it looks like he's sad for leaving vast for the smaller - the larger world for a more closed one, a higher order for lower... And we can ponder what it means to be enclosed -- inside of a house with a shut door... To some extent this evokes a world of dead, still air; blur your eyes again and imagine enclosure within the self, where there are limits to what your breath can mingle with and you might encounter. Being in the house is solitary, closed off...

Rilke calls the more open world a world of possibility, and in Wei's expansive active landscape, it's the possibility and vastness of being related to something higher than oneself, or many things, a whole moving breathing landscape and world. What a sad one to leave when our minds are wrapped in thoughts.

I'm leaving it a bit vague at the end... hoping you'll read the poem several times and follow the trajectory and story Wei offers.

Until later, thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Poem of the Week 9/8/2011: Invitation to the Voyage

Invitation to the Voyage

My child, my sister,
Think of the rapture
Of living together there!
Of loving at will,
Of loving till death,
In the land that is like you!
The misty sunlight
Of those cloudy skies
Has for my spirit the charms,
So mysterious,
Of your treacherous eyes,
Shining brightly through their tears.

There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

Gleaming furniture,
Polished by the years,
Will ornament our bedroom;
The rarest flowers
Mingling their fragrance
With the faint scent of amber,
The ornate ceilings,
The limpid mirrors,
The oriental splendor,
All would whisper there
Secretly to the soul
In its soft, native language.

There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

See on the canals
Those vessels sleeping.
Their mood is adventurous;
It's to satisfy
Your slightest desire
That they come from the ends of the earth.
— The setting suns
Adorn the fields,
The canals, the whole city,
With hyacinth and gold;
The world falls asleep
In a warm glow of light.

There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

- Charles Baudelaire, trans. William Aggeler

Thanks many times to C for alerting me to this poem. It's a marvel of a work, something like a love poem but bursting with a greater love than just the erotic -- more like eros, from somebody who loves the world loving another. You see, the entire poem reads as seductive love poem, but the opening line, "My child, my sister," stages it so that we cannot simply read it as a romantic poem. Instead, it is a love like Whitman's, away from the grasping love of a person and towards a love that is meant to enliven the beloved, more objective, true, and vast!

What is this love? It is a love that is meant to bring the girl closer to what she is meant to be, as the first stanza announces. The speaker implores her to imagine the rapture that comes from living in a world that is like her, a land that matches her sensibility, is the right soil in which she can grow. It also draws out a world that exists for the living person -- expresses the sentiment that the world is here for human life, and that everything that is built reaches to us . This reflection is not egotistical, but hopefully grounded on earth, compassionately and exuberantly offering the things of this world to us, who see and live it.

Apparently it's based on some Claude Lorraine paintings of a ship-flecked, so there's an aesthetic joy in the poem as well; the poem is thus an eckphrastic poem, which is a poem based on a piece of art. Just goes to show an incredible ability to communicate and "read" that is outside the academy -- is translated by nothing but images, and then re-written (and re-translated into english) in a poem.

Thanks all for reading,
till later!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Poem of the Week 8/31/2011: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"The breath goes now," and some say, "No,"

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

John Donne

At last, a mourning poem that gathers together lovers, places, people, life and death; in its circled compass, one of Donne's primary metaphors, it inscribes the comings and goings of the things of our lives.

To approach this poem, I'd suggest following the similies, images, and metaphors Donne uses, and try to decode the story they tell. It begins with a potent similie: with a dying man and his surrounding companions. Through this image Donne presents the poem's tension and argument. While the dying man lets his own soul go, some of those around him say "no." Translated - some will accept passing, and others try to deny it.

This tension continues in the next stanza --

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Cosmic events replace the dying man as the metaphors at hand. When earth quakes, men scramble to explain, tensely grasping knowledge out of fears. In stark contrast -- they ignore the rotation of the planets, though that movement and change is far more vast. So why tremble when the earth does if it's merely a change; like the stars, part of the everlasting movement of all things?

Now the poem transitions to its subject; lovers appear in the lines. "Dull sublunary lovers / whose soul is sense" cannot allow one-another to part. They only sense the animal aspect of the love, the physical and bodily, and so cannot let one-another go.

This is one half of the argument -- the dull hold on, the wise let go.

And so the speaker tells his (presuming it's a man) mistress -- he and the lady ought to be like the dying man, trusting that a parting is only temporary, and moreover that in the wisdom of parting, there is not parting at all! They are like "gold to airy thinness beat," and that of a compass whose two legs journey far apart yet are not, not once separate; in truth they dance around one-another.

And the genius of this image is that the circling compass itself evokes the image of the stars that came before it, the heavens circling above us, the trace of the planets in those heavens, and so brings to their separation a greater truth. The lovers live with the same truth that turns the heavens, the one that holds man steady in death -- that of a near universal perspective.

The poem's final word, "erect" of course has sexual connotations, but I think it's more potent understood as dignity. It connotes no stretching grasper of a person, but one with dignity who experiences instead of "a breach ... an expansion."

I hope very much you all enjoy.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Poem of the Week 7/14/2011: To Failure

To Failure

You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne,
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That’s seen, some mornings, running down a lawn.

It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Instal you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. You have been here some time.

Philip Larkin

For this week's PotW, a few brief notes will do. The title, "To Failure," sets up a poem that is somewhat of a letter to failure, discussing what the speaker expected it to be and then what it may actually be. This he does in an Italian sonnet that is tweaked just slightly (slant rhyme and rhyme patterns).

The first eight lines, the first half of the Italian sonnet, present a view of failure that is not, but that seems real. This failure is mythic (heroic even), evoking dragons, ghosts, and some kind objective ledger in the world. The first stanza, in its active, dreamy, engaged world, implies that in a life lived with too much intensity, one's failure has some kind of meaning, either with the bite of a dragon or the slow squeeze of losing all one's money. This failure is life lived fully, mistakes that attack, or that haunt a person, or demand something of them, include a contract and meaning.

The next stanza, which is failure itself, offers nothing other-worldly -- just chestnut trees "caked with silence," a stale smell, the quiet vision of a life in tatters. The contrast here lies at the heart of the poem, for me. Because failure is not adventure, torture, being haunted by the past. Failure, according to Larkin, is nothing. It's a slow decay of life, stillness, staleness, deadness. Blake writes, "expect poison from the standing water," and this seems to me ENTIRELY apt for Larkin's view of failure. Water that sits becomes poison, just as a life that sits, is too passive, is too stale, is a decayed failure.

Indeed! It raises the question of a life well lived! Because is a failure something done wrong, something that tortures a person or demands something of them, or is failure never experiencing that, never going under the nozzle of suffering, mistakes, problems, situations?

Thanks for reading these brief notes. The poem is simple, yes, but much in the way an arrow is simple, going straight to the point! Good night everybody.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Poem of the Week 5/21/2011: In Praise of Darkness


Old age (the name that others give it)
can be the time of our greatest bliss.
The animal has died or almost died.
The man and his spirit remain.
I live among vague, luminous shapes
that are not darkness yet.
Buenos Aires,
whose edges disintegrated
into the endless plain,
has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro*,
the nondescript streets of the Once,
and the rickety old houses
we still call the South.
In my life there were always too many things.
Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think;
Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra* is slow and does not pain me;
it flows down a gentle slope,
resembling eternity.
My friends have no faces,
women are what they were so many years ago,
these corners could be other corners,
there are no letters on the pages of books.
All this should frighten me,
but it is a sweetness, a return.
Of the generations of texts on earth
I will have read only a few-
the ones that I keep reading in my memory,
reading and transforming.
From South, East, West, and North
the paths converge that have led me
to my secret center.
Those paths were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, death-throes, resurrections,
days and nights,
dreams and half-wakeful dreams,
every inmost moment of yesterday
and all the yesterdays of the world,
the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persan’s moon,
the acts of the dead,
shared love, and words,
Emerson and snow, so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I will know who I am.

Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Hoyt Rogers

*Recoleta is a neighborhood in Buenos Aires: Retiro, one in Madrid.
*the blurred edge of the shadow cast from an opaque object.

Perhaps one important piece of information to note concerning this poem is that Jorge Luis Borges, the grandfather of South American literature, began going blind in his late 50s, and was completely so by the time of his death. It reads like a story, a gentle poetic yet journalistic description of the fading of vision. It also reads as words of wisdom - from the grandfather, from the old warrior, from the one who has come before and is turning his face to the vast, open abyss. Moreover, its simple turn towards death reveals a compassion and freedom for the things in this world, and approaches a question of oneself -- I would say that the poem only intimates the answer to this question, in its blurred images that evoke love, freedom, compassion, and eternity.

As to the loss of eyesight, which perhaps parallels the approaching end of life: "All this should frighten me, / but it is a sweetness, a return." In his encroaching blindness, the speaker discovers some kind of objectivity that seems new and yet deeply familiar for him. He mentions that it is objective/true when he compares this blindness to Democritus'. Just as Democritus blinded himself to find truth, so the speaker is being blinded, and we can therefore assume seeing truth more clearly.

What is this truth? It is close to a world of impersonal, affectionate love, where people, places, books, have lost their particular character and taken on something of an eternal shade. After all, Buenos Aires' "edges have disintegrated / into the endless plain," and books have lost their page numbers, as if every book was the same book, the same page, returned to again and again. If we were to get daring we might say that this idea must have some relationship to Plato's ideal forms, the moment when the essential, ideal character of each object is seen in its perfection. We could even back it up by citing how "the animal has died or almost died. / The man and spirit remain;" these signal the three parts of a man (body: the animal, man: the thinking part, spirit: the feelings) Plato intimates in the Republic and elsewhere.

Plato or no, this state of being is the center of all paths - North, South, East, and West, and the things of this world -- including Hamlet's sword, the acts of the dead, shared love, words, footsteps and echoes, Emerson and snow – have led him here. They are the friends and helpmeets on the way to…... to himself I suppose. But what is this? Borges describes it with cryptic images, still: an algebra, a key, a mirror (for a blind man??). These images, to me, evoke the question of identity more than unlock it -- he finds the key, finds the equation that can crack himself, but they are as objects lying unused in an impersonal room, they still beg a final question: Who am I?

And we, readers, understand in a feeling the mystery of this question – not the answer, sharply defined and outlined, of a single thing, but the vast question of oneself. And like a cataracted eye regarding a book, we find the answer without definition or pagination.

So the poem comes to bridge the things of this world and the vast, compassionate mystery that dissolves and holds them. When one cannot see one’s friends face (only a head), perhaps one cannot forget so easily how that other person is always and forever a searching unknown, an infinitude and intricacy beyond our comprehension, but calling for freedom, compassion (this is what the blurred images suggest -- a kind of freedom to inhabit many shapes, a freedom from definitions and boundaries that can tether us to the mundane.) The things he puts forth – blurred faces, a mirror for a blind man – become objects of meditation that demand compassion, imagination for another, and a deep-set affection for this life as it slowly falls out of focus into a dearly-felt hush.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poem of the Week 4/30/2011: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

(note: the accents are Hopkins', included to clue the reader about words and phrase of extra rhythmic weight)

So! We've taken a direct 180 degree turn from the deadly cathedrals and darkling bass tones of Baudelaire; we now greet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the ever-so-Catholic bard of nature, the choreographer of language. According to various biographical sources (poetry foundation), Hopkins' greatest interest in Catholicism was the doctrine of Real Presence, a doctrine that seems to underpin this poem. Well, "underpin" is the wrong word. Permeate might be better. Or "generates" this poem. If this post were to have a thesis, it would be: "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" establishes an explosive metaphor for the Real Presence, where the energy that men see infusing nature becomes a symbol for or promise of the Christ that is innate in man."

The first stanza is one extended statement about the way natural phenomena display the being in the world, and provides hints about the enormity of this being. Beginning, "As x happens, just like y happens, so does every thing happen." So, just as kingfishers catch fire and dragonflies draw flame, so does each thing in the world display and expose the being that is latent within it. Hopkins underpins this statement with some of the most exciting, rhythmic, active diction around; the strong, varied consonants in lines 2-3, "as tumbled over rim in roundy wells / stones ring," display the rigorous, vigorous energy that Hopkins says dwells in each thing. This energy must be hugely powerful, being "flame," "fire," and "flung out broadly." This flame is representative of the explosive and infinite power of God/Being/Real Presence.

Another aspect of the first stanza. It establishes a viewer who is most definitely human, for the things he describes are on a human scale. If Kingfishers are catching fire, they aren't doing so in an unseen world -- it must be in the perspective of a person who sees a flash of the divine in the natural, over and over.

Hopkins acknowledges a shift immediately, writing "I say more." His topic shifts from the kingfisher and the realm of nature to that of man. What happens when man shines forth, shows his truest being? The poem suggests that he becomes just, for he "justices," and acts with grace. But to see man as what me must be, according to the poem's logic, one needs to expand beyond a human viewpoint, and the true nature of man is seen through the eyes of God.

So the poem expands a degree in scale -- suddenly it is no longer just a man describing a kingfisher, but God describing man. We get the God's eye view, as it were, and the fire that man sees in the kingfisher, its innate being shining through, becomes the Christ who "plays in ten thousand places" through man's "feature and faces." He is lovely in limbs not his, playing through our veins like fire or the echo of a stone falling down a well.

This shift in scale also changes the terms of what is seen -- the man sees beauty, and God sees Justice; beauty and justice are linked, with justice being the next scale up from beauty. Platonic, no?

To finish, I'd suggest that the poem is a unified meditation on one event: the exposure of Being to a viewer, be it in kingfishers or in man. Perhaps we could extrapolate that Hopkins believed that the visions of infinity we get in nature are simply small forms, signs of faith and the infinitely infused presence of God, of the greater possibility within us. That our love for the world is a micro-cosm of God's love for us. Or perhaps the poem is completely experiential -- instead of being a mental abstraction, Hopkins had some mystical experience of the objective vision of God touching mankind, seeing the justice and the Christ transforming our blood. I suppose we cannot know, but it must be raised as a central question of an immensely beautiful and well-crafted poem.