Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Poem of the Week 4/24/2012: London


I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

William Blake 1790

Not sure why I've been enjoying these political poems so much; "London" is an early sister-poem to Shelley's "England in 1819." Though nearly thirty years apart, both describe in prophetic voice (thanks Mr. Lehmann-Haupt for that one) the state of the political climate and the personal climate. It is as if the voice, in booming about the state of things as it is, begins to weave together the micro and macro cosms at play. In London, especially, Blake reveals that the slavery people experience is, indeed, internal rather than merely external. External forms, instead, result from the internal.

Indeed, Blake is the master of writing how internal processes like repression swing back out into our social forms and institutions. For example, marriage as the slavery of love results in the curse of the harlot in the final stanza. If humans were more free with their loving, their laws, and their possessions of one another, of thoughts, of their susceptibility to laws and law-making, command and control forms of power, or perhaps even more intelligent with these laws, internally, then perhaps we would create a more free world.

I have a LOT more ranty thoughts here about the nature of change, but I do want to note quickly how the cycle of Romantic poetry may register a past inability to change in historical consciousness, and link the French Revolution to that in Tahrir as well. With the French Revolution, for example, the country went from an idealistic, screaming freedom to the sudden blood-drenched Terror to Napoleon's reign. Rebecca Comay reads Hegel as interpreting France's revolution as failing as such because it never went through a spiritual revolution; the political and social forms changed, but the internal forms did not. What will happen with Tahrir Square? Will we have a similar problem of a revolution without a heart, or a heart without a revolution?

Indeed, I think of the first stanza as I walk through Harvard Square sometimes, perhaps because it looks something like London, and perhaps because that particular square, out of many in the city, brings together the most powerful and the most bereft. It punctures the divisions established around each and instead reveals the mind-forged manacles at play in each. The ennui and pain of the bourgeoisie, the hunger and addiction of the homeless... And in this strange time warp, still nothing changes in the world. Nothing, nothing changes in all the world...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Poem of the Week 4/18/2012: A Green Crab's Shell

A Green Crab's Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like--

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws'

gesture of menace
and power. A gull's
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
--size of a demitasse--
 open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer's firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

 if we could be opened
into this--
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky.

Mark Doty 1993

One of my very favorite poems, Doty offers us an artifact so delicate that it ends up encompassing the vast sky, the ruins of the ages, a traveling case, and the firmament...

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Poem of the Week 4/8/2012: England in 1819

Sonnet: England in 1819

 An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,--
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,--
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless--a book sealed;
A Senate, Time's worst statute unrepealed,--
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1819

Who knew Shelley was such a radical? Such a revolutionary?  (aren't poets supposed to be dusty and locked in books these days?) Probably most Shelley scholars could have told one otherwise, and many casual readers, but I constantly find his vigor surprising. One can feel breathing through the poem the spirit of revolution, the true and vital political longing for change, as keen as many feel now. Indeed, it mimics that breath he hopes comes out of the "graveyard" of politics; he once said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," and in this case he may be legislating, in a way.

A bit of background - as Shelley is writing this poem, George III, the king of England, has literally been mad since 1810. This madness was the final stroke of a reign than spanned the American Independence (losing the Americas), the French Revolution and the subsequent Terror under Robespierre, and finally wars against Napoleon for more than a decade.

Just a few suggestions of a very few things to pay attention to in this poem: Shelley's diction - (listen to the consonants in the opening line), to his syntax (try to figure out the sentence) - I must leave it to this very scant reading, perhaps to be returned to at a later date.

Good evening, viva la revolucion!