Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Poem of the Week 3/21/2012: Having a Coke With You

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, IrĂșn, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

Frank O’Hara

This may be one of the sweetest love poems of all modern time; simple and direct and flowing, it offers a particular picture of delight that seems just right to share during the heat and sweat of an early warm spell in Cambridge MA. It showed up in some readings in a class about queer theory - it's optimism, Jose Munoz argues, is what ought to be offered by being "queer," which is, I read, anything beyond the box of the normal, the habitual, the quotidien dull round... What is explosive and fresh! What snaps us into full and vibrant attention, flowing to that delicious other, and the world and possibilities expand; this is, he argues, the leaning in of Utopia, the faintest glimmer and promise. One should just as much say that these glimmerings light up life, make meaning, may be the revolution themselves.

Of course, there are the references to the meaning of art and beauty, the question of a lived and felt experience over that of the work of art, the way the work of art is itself propagated (Elaine Scarry writes that beauty begets beauty, a clicking brook of associations from one act of beauty to another - "this is why I am telling you about it," writes O'Hara), and these are also worth noting. And the poem takes up the great modern project of voicing the everyman, incarnated essentially by Wordsworth back in the day... Offering, alongside, another system of values - to seize the everyday! To live by loving every delicious detail of what is there - tulips and trees and coca cola and lover... Happy hot spring boston and beyond!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Poem of the Week 3/15/2012: God's Grandeur

God's Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; *
 It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil **
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?***
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
 Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
 Because the Holy Ghost over the bent *
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

* "All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him." The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins
** ll. 3, "oil." Crushed from olives. An early version read: 'like an oozing oil / pressed."
*** "Reck" means to pay heed to, to attend to.
* ll. 13-14. See Genesis 1:2 and Milton, Paradise Lost, i. 19-22. GMH also observed the manner in which the sea 'warped to the round of the world' in his journals.

Genesis 1:2, KJV - "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

Paradise Lost, 1. 16-26:
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 [ 20 ]
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, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

One thing I find absolutely remarkable about this poem is the manner in which Hopkins blends the humble lyric with the Biblical and epic traditions - he brings a vast theology into earth, neither sacrificing the symbol of the dove, the olive, the Holy Ghost, or the genesis of all things, nor the humble things of the world in his poem - shook foil, a feathery wing, an olive.

It's fairly clear that the poem proceeds in three parts - the first two in the first stanza, and the last in the last.

To open, Hopkins clearly likens God to an electric charge - god is in everything, like some kind of static if only we reach out, that charge could enter us, give us a Zap. I suppose this is, in a way, radical, at least to blunt conceptions of God as other from this earth, an absolute being unknowable and who, perhaps, lives in heaven. This God, instead, is a force, the electricity shining from a beast's fur (Rilke), the static in your sock (there's a poem about this... whose name escapes me), the heat lightning in the distance, a shock, a shock, any shock!

About this holy fire, Hopkins offers both a prediction, "it will flame out," and a condition for it, as the glory of God, "Gathers to greatness." We can feel the energy in these statements, in their directness, their prophetic voice, and in the complex construction of the first three lines. They are each two pieces, in a way; the first line contains an internal slant rhyme between "charged" and "God," offering the drum beat, as well, of the D and G sounds that mark these first three lines. Lines 2-4, then, start the poem's beat with consonant-heavy, pounding, rhyming couplet, each split into two.

Hopkins does not let us rest, however; he stops us abruptly with the enjambment from "ooze of oil / Crushed," and then the question composed of single syllable words, "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" (ll. 4). This line taps out a new subject for the poem and announcing its next section - what has gone wrong, and why people aren't constantly struck by this grandeur. Moreover, the ambiguity of the antecedent for "his," it could be God or man, raise the question of whose self or piece of self really allows access to the divine. Does man have the rod - and we are abandoning ourselves? Is it the lightning rod of the Almighty? Perhaps the ambiguity actually signals that it is both, and the slippage between the antecedents is truly the best way of encapsulating the paradox of the touch between man and God - it is neither one nor the other - when this rod is activated, perhaps typical conceptions and sensations of self dissolve, and the categories slip from human to divine, charged with grandeur and glory.

Perhaps the following lines, however, make the case that this rod ought more properly be divine, since the world, when smeared with man, and smelling of him, prevents the holy from shining through us, "like shook foil."Indeed, perhaps modernity - the shoe, economy, getting and spending (wordsworth) - now protects us from these shocks, so that we no longer feel that cosmic electricity, of an energy but half our own... Hopkins, as ever, supports his statements with charged language - the repeated sssss sounds hiss with disdain, and the rhymes replace the holy with the fallen - "soil" and "toil" replace the divine metaphor of "oil," and "shod" and "trod" replace, of course, "God."

And yet, Hopkins almost cheerfully adds (perhaps one hallmark of disdain is the freedom it suggests from the thing disdained - it is below one, and the narrator of the poem, then, is above the soil and toil of commerce and materialism...), "for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things" (ll. 9). Despite smears, the world is ever fresh; he expands this idea in a complex metaphor to close the poem. The metaphor is one of the sun coming up over "the brown brink eastward," but this metaphor is far vaster than we might think. God is presented as the Sun, but also as the Holy Ghost leaning over the deep (as the notes say, connoting Genesis and also Milton, bringing the weight of epic poetic memory to the poem, stirring the pots of feeling in hearts using beloved and old works from which the glory of God shines forth). And this ghost is similarly a dove, a natural symbol, an angelic symbol, the dove rescuing Noah from his time asea... Hopkins' image brings rising behind it a chorus of associations from sacred and poetic texts from thousands of years, a chorus of angels rising behind it - his poem thus mirrors the glory of God shining forth as from shook foil, the charge that rests in all things - the freshness and innocence and deep, childlike love for the divine, and the lightningshock of delight one feels upon reading it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Poem of the Week 3/6/2012: from Romeo and Juliet

O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider web;
Her collars, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams;
Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love;
O'er courtiers' knees, that dream on curtsies straight;
O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometimes she gallops o'er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometimes comes she with a tithe-pig's tail
Tickling a parson's nose as 'a lies asleep,
Then dreams he of another benefice.
Sometimes she driveth o'er a soldier's neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she!

William Shakespeare  from Romeo and Juliet

A few fundamental puzzles for this passage -

Who is Queen Mab and what does she represent? (She is a midwife for faeries, or at least so says Mercutio. She does not actually seem to give birth to anything in the poem... so is this her primary role?)

Is she just some mischievous character or fantastic being? Does she have a psychological function? What does she reveal about the people that she encounters? Is she good for them or bad for them?

And why this prolonged discussion of her chariot in the beginning - does it have a function, or is it mere decoration? Does it matter that she's small?