23 April 2014

Haiku 2014/113

leaf drifting downward,
has your whole life led to this?
perhaps mine has too

Poem of the Week Bonus: for Shakespeare's birthday

For Shakespeare's 450th birthday, two excerpts from one of his earliest plays: Titus Andronicus. After an early burst of popularity when it premiered, this play's reputation sank lower and lower until many wished to deny that this horror show was associated in any way with the man who had become the national poet of all English-speaking countries. I have to say I've always had a soft spot in my heart for it, and feel a bit smug that it's come into its own again in our time, though its relentless and sometimes grotesque violence probably reminds us less of the works by Ovid and Seneca that Shakespeare was trying to match or even surpass than of the works of Quentin Tarantino. You can actually see the play live on stage these days, which is more than anyone in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries could say. There's also an excellent film directed by Julie Taymor, called simply Titus, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus and Jessica Lange as his nemesis, Tamora Queen of the Goths. (I do have to disagree with Taymor's bizarre notion that when the other main villain, Aaron the Moor, has a child, it humanizes him; he does love his son, but that's one of those complicating touches that Shakespeare loves, blurring our view of even his most unrepentantly evil creations; as the play proceeds Aaron actually grows increasingly vicious, until he ends almost as a demonic force, finding strange delight in strange cruelty.)

Far from being a crude apprentice work, Titus Andronicus actually shows us a playwright already in masterly control of a very complex revenge plot, dealing with ambitious themes and astute characterizations. Far from being an anomaly in Shakespeare's works, it deals with themes he returned to again in other works, particularly Hamlet and King Lear: the moral complexities of revenge, the man of power who is overly confident of his own strength and integrity and therefore makes foolish choices, the savagery underneath a fragile civilization, the terror of insanity (these themes are found not just in the tragedies, but even in such comedies as Twelfth Night). Shakespeare may have used horrifying and even grotesque violence to subtler effect later in his career (think of the blinding of Gloucester), but he never actually turned away from it, and if Titus presents a universe of such relentless all-consuming violence that it almost turns into absurdity (and not just in the twentieth-century theatrical sense), maybe that is a deliberate part of the point. And if Titus suffers by comparison with Hamlet and Lear, well, what wouldn't?

To give a brief and bare summary of the action up to this point: Titus, the great Roman general, has defeated the Goths and led their Queen Tamora in triumph back to Rome. There he refused the throne and threw his support behind the late emperor's eldest son, the dangerously unstable Saturninus, who suddenly decides to marry Tamora. She and her lover Aaron are laying traps for Titus, who conquered her country and refused mercy when she begged for the life of one of her sons, who had been condemned to death. During a hunting party in the woods her two remaining sons have waylaid Titus's daughter Lavinia, raped her and then cut out her tongue and off her hands (in this Shakespeare is topping Ovid's story of Philomela, who was raped and had her tongue cut out by her brother-in-law Tereus, but retained the hands which enabled her to weave her story). They have also had her husband killed and framed her brothers for the crime. Marcus, the brother of Titus, and Titus's last remaining son, the boy Lucius, come across the mutilated Lavinia and bring her to her father. This is the turning point for him, when he realizes his authority no longer counts for anything, and he begins to move towards revenge and madness.

Marcus: O thus I found her, straying in the park,
Seeking to hide herself, as doth the deer
That hath received some unrecuring wound.

Titus: It was my dear, and he that wounded her
Hath hurt me more than had he killed me dead:
For now I stand as one upon a rock,
Environed with a wilderness of sea,
Who marks the waxing tide grow wave by wave,
Expecting ever when some envious surge
Will in his brinish bowels swallow him.
This way to death my wretched sons are gone,
Here stands my other son, a banished man,
And here my brother weeping at my woes:
But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn
Is dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul.
Had I but seen thy picture in this plight,
It would have madded me: what shall I do
Now I behold thy lively body so?
Thou hast no hands to wipe away thy tears,
Nor tongue to tell me who hath mart'red thee.
Thy husband he is dead, and for his death
Thy brothers are condemned, and dead by this.
Look, Marcus! Ah, son Lucius, look on her!
When I did name her brothers, then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gath'red lily almost withered.


Marcus: But yet let reason govern thy lament.

Titus: If there were reason for these miseries,
Then into limits could I bind my woes:
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o'erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threat'ning the welkin with his big-swoll'n face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?
I am the sea: hark, how her sighs doth flow!
She is the weeping welkin, I the earth:
Then must my sea be movèd with her sighs,
Then must my earth with her continual tears
Become a deluge, overflowed and drowned,
For why my bowels cannot hide her woes,
But like a drunkard must I vomit them.
Then give me leave, for losers will have leave
To ease their stomachs with their bitter tongues.

Titus Andronicus, Act III, scene 1, ll 88 - 113 and 218 - 233

The Elizabethans loved word-play, and even (or especially) in moments of great emotional stress, their suffering victims would quibble on meanings, wringing every pathetic twist out of slippery words: hence Titus takes Marcus's deer and changes it to dear. Titus then compares himself to one stranded on a single outcropping of rock as the sea surges higher and higher, threatening to pull him in, where he will be lost in this threatening, malevolent, uncontrolled world of nature (think of Lear exposed to the elements during the night of terrifying storms). Titus enumerates what his family has gone through – we see a formerly confident, even arrogant man starting to break under the weight of relentless anguish (Shakespeare also astutely uses this speech to separate and reinforce in the audience's minds the previous events of the plot, which might start to blur together in their confusing and dizzying profusion).

In the second excerpt (between the two, there's been more violence, mutilation, and mocking cruelty inflicted upon Titus) we once again open with Titus playing upon Marcus's sober advice. Seeing his brother losing control, Marcus counsels him to submit his emotions to the conscious control of reason (stoic advice suited to an imperial Roman). Titus again plays upon his brother's words, taking reason not as the mind's understanding judgments but as a cause, an explanation, a justification – and he can find none, except the basic indifferent malevolence of the universe, for such pointless and even absurd pain. But see what he does to his earlier metaphor, in which he stood upon a rock threatened by the surging sea: the solid ground of the rock has disappeared and he now declares that he is himself the vast and moving sea. His daughter is his sky, and her sighs and tears will affect him as a stormy sky does the ocean. The "brinish bowels" he mentioned earlier (the bowels were thought to be the seat of compassion; a footnote in my Signet Classic edition compares this usage to the modern use of heart; the bowels are also a hidden, elemental part of our bodies), which threatened to swallow him, are now part of him, and his "bowels cannot hide her woes" – even the endless deep cannot contain his daughter's tragedy. Under the strain of his sorrows, he has moved from feeling threatened by the world of suffering around him to feeling that he is himself this element of suffering.

This shift in metaphor, from the sea is a dangerous element threatening me to I am identical to that dangerous element, marks a decisive change in Titus (developing this metaphor, complete with its attendant bowels, over the course of the scene shows a subtlety of verse and characterization for which this play is not usually given credit). By the end of the speech, this proud man of habitual victories, this sternly reasoning Roman, is reduced to comparing himself with a weak undisciplined drunkard losing control of his body and puking. This emphasis on bodies – mutilated, violated, disorderly, suffering – will take terrible form at the climax of the play when Titus serves her two sons up, baked in a pie, to Tamora (again, Shakespeare out-tops Ovid's story of Philomena, whose sister Procne served her husband Tereus only one son). This terrifying image of devouring one's offspring or family or oneself as a form of annihilation will recur in Shakespeare, particularly in the story of Lear and his three daughters.

Now go have some cake (or pie) for Shakespeare's birthday! Happy birthday, O immeasurable Bard of Stratford-on-Avon!

22 April 2014

21 April 2014

Haiku 2014/111

are we here again
doing it over again
here we go again

Poem of the Week 2014/17

For National Poetry Month, poets writing on poets: Czeslaw Milosz to Allen Ginsberg

To Allen Ginsberg

Allen, you good man, great poet of the murderous century, who persisting in folly attained wisdom.

I confess to you, my life was not as I would have liked it to be.

And now, when it has passed, is lying like a discarded tire by the road.

It was no different from the life of millions against which you rebelled in the name of poetry and of an omnipresent God.

It was submitted to customs in full awareness that they are absurd, to the necessity of getting up in the morning and going to work.

With unfulfilled desires, even with the unfulfilled desire to scream and beat one's head against the wall, repeating to myself the command "It is forbidden."

It is forbidden to indulge yourself, to allow yourself idleness, it is forbidden to think of your past, to look for the help of a psychiatrist or a clinic.

Forbidden from a sense of duty but also because of the fear of unleashing forces that would reveal one to be a clown.

And I lived in the America of Moloch, short-haired, clean-shaven, tying neckties and drinking bourbon before the TV set every evening.

Diabolic dwarfs of temptations somersaulted in me, I was aware of their presence and I shrugged: It will pass together with life.

Dread was lurking close, I had to pretend it was never there and that I was united with others in a blessed normalcy.

Such schooling in vision is also, after all, possible, without drugs, without the cut-off ear of Van Gogh, without the brotherhood of the best minds behind the bars of psychiatric wards.

I was an instrument, I listened, snatching voices out of a babbling chorus, translating them into sentences with commas and periods.

As if the poverty of my fate were necessary so that the flora of my memory could luxuriate, a home for the breath and for the presence of bygone people.

I envy your courage of absolute defiance, words inflamed, the fierce maledictions of a prophet.

The demure smiles of ironists are preserved in the museums, not as everlasting art, just as a memento of unbelief.

While your blasphemous howl still resounds in a neon desert where the human tribe wanders, sentenced to unreality.

Walt Whitman listens and says, "Yes, that's the way to talk, in order to conduct men and women to where everything is fulfillment. Where they would live in a transubstantiated moment."

And your journalistic clichés, your beard and beads and your dress of a rebel of another epoch are forgiven.

And we do not look for what is perfect, we look for what remains of incessant striving.

Keeping in mind how much is owed to luck, to a coincidence of words and things, to a morning with white clouds, which later seems inevitable.

I do not ask from you a monumental oeuvre that would rise like a medieval cathedral over a French flatland.

I myself had such a hope, yet half-knowing already that the unusual changes into the common.

That in the planetary mixture of languages and religions we are no more remembered than the inventors of the spinning wheel or of the transistor.

Accept this tribute from me, who was so different, yet in the same unnamed service.

For lack of a better term letting it pass as the practice of composing verses.

Czeslaw Milosz, translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass

Towards the end of a long life, Milosz, a philosophical, professorial refugee long resident in the United States, praises, with characteristic generosity and thoughtfulness, Allen Ginsberg, a very different type of man and poet.

As has been the case with some of the other tribute poems this month, the poem references the characteristic style of the poet being praised. It is written in the long loping lines Ginsberg used, and reference is made to one of the major sources for this style, Walt Whitman, an outsider poet of inclusiveness important to both Ginsberg and Milosz. (This style in the English-language tradition probably dates back to the King James Bible translations of the Psalms in 1611, and its origin in and echoes of religious, particularly prophetic, verse, is important to both poets here.) There are other explicit references to Ginsberg, particularly to Howl – not just the direct reference to his "blasphemous howl" that "still resounds in a neon desert where the human tribe wanders, sentenced to unreality" but also to the "best minds" (of his generation, which Ginsberg saw "destroyed by madness") and to psychiatric clinics and to Moloch, the false god who demands the sacrifice of children, come down to us from the Old Testament and frequently used by Ginsberg as a symbol of the destructive, war-mongering corporate/social machinery of America.

Milosz opens by praising Ginsberg, placing him in the tradition of seers as a sort of Holy Fool "who persisting in folly attained wisdom." Milosz, who lived through Hitler's invasion of Poland, the Warsaw uprising, and the Soviet takeover of Poland, might seem to us to be himself a "great poet of the murderous century," but he claims no particular moral monopoly based on these coincidences of biography; instead he reminds us of Ginsberg's long poetic opposition to many of the forces that made this such a murderous century. Milosz confesses to him, as one would to a priest (the use of "confess" is part of a pattern of religious language here, as is "transubstantiated" later on).

Milosz compares his life to a "discarded tire by the road": a simile that evokes the world Ginsberg opposed, the wasteful industrial excess of capitalism, which despoils environments and lives. The tire also reminds us of our omnipresent automobiles, so frequently traveling places we don't really need or even want to go. Milosz describes his life as one of Thoreauvian quiet despair similar to that led by many American men: the submission to "customs in the full awareness that they are absurd, to the necessity of getting up in the morning and going to work"; short-haired, clean-shaven, necktied, ending his exhausted evenings drinking before the TV set. This description of how one dresses for the workplace is very much of the period when both Milosz and Ginsberg were active, from say roughly the 1950s into the early 1980s (as is the use of the TV set as shorthand for disappointing, probably mindless entertainment; this was before the explosion of possibilities brought about by cable channels, DVDs, and downloading). It is less true of the workplace now, but although many people like to pretend that longer hair, beards, and casual clothing have changed things, they have not, and the underlying reality is the same. (Personally I have always liked neckties, the one potentially original and useless article of clothing a man can get away with wearing at work, and I am sorry that it would now be considered somewhat eccentric to wear them regularly.) The life Milosz describes here is obviously not quite the life he lived – few of these salarymen went home and wrote great poetry, despite the example of Wallace Stevens,; and Milosz was a professor, not an office worker, though academic life as much as any other involves empty routine and conformity to absurdity. But it's close enough to accurate to show an approach to life "no different from the life of millions," a life lived in internal exile, partly from fear of looking silly, the life that Ginsberg, the radical gay beatnik poet, pointedly and rebelliously did not live.

Yet Milosz also points out what this life gave him. His awareness of the "diabolical dwarfs of temptation," of "dread lurking close," gave him a form of spiritual awareness, an opening to the "babbling chorus" of humanity around him: voices of witness and memory and occasional beauty: he was given access to the poetic vision without needing the drugs Rimbaud used to induce a deliberate derangement of the senses, or without the mental illness of Van Gogh or Carl Solomon (to whom Howl is dedicated). He praises Ginsberg's "courage of defiance," his "fierce maledictions of a prophet," contrasting these with his own more measured reactions, the "demure smiles of ironists" (but it is because he is an ironist that each line of this poem rewards thoughtful attention). But he is aware that Ginsberg's is a lone and very individual voice, whereas his voice allows others to speak as well, providing "a home for the breath and for the presence of bygone people" – a voice ultimately of considered memory and history.

He mentions some of Ginsberg's flaws – the occasional lapse into journalistic ready-made reactions and language, his sometimes trendy appearance (beads, flowers, stripes, the dated look of hippiedom) which can look absurdly restricted to a particular period once that period has passed – only to dismiss them as ultimately irrelevant. He is not looking for perfection, or even a mighty body of work; he is looking for "what remains of incessant striving" – for the seeking of spiritual growth, for what can move humanity ever so slightly towards some sort of enlightenment. His feeling that Whitman, the visionary demigod of American poetry, would approve is based on the strong belief shared by Whitman and Ginsberg that America needs the prophetic voice to lead it to fulfillment (and we should remember that the skeptical, ironic intellectual Milosz, in the poem Dedication written in Warsaw in 1945, asked, "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.").

Milosz then moves to reminding us how much of life is chance and happenstance, lucky coincidences that enable us to do what afterwards might look inevitable to us, but was really due only to the fortunate circumstances of a few mornings when everything happened to come together in the right way for us. In the long run, the prophets as well as the ironists are forgotten, even if they did manage some small success in moving humanity forward (forgotten as much as the inventor or inventors of the spinning wheel, which was one of the crucial inventions of civilization, or of the transistor, which stands in for the explosion of technology in the past few decades). In the end, both types of poets have sought to transcend this workaday world – to transubstantiate their moments. This is the "unnamed service" both of them worked for, for which poetry is the shell: Milosz claims no great priestly role for poetry itself, and in naming what both he and Ginsberg have in common says, almost with a shrug, "for lack of a better term let it pass as the practice of composing verses."

I took this from Facing the River by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by the author and Robert Hass.

20 April 2014

Haiku 2014/110

last summer's mistakes
multiply in our gardens
in Spring's kindly warmth

19 April 2014

17 April 2014