On 4 May Old First Concerts presents Lara Downes in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined, which includes responses to the Goldberg Variations by composers such as Jennifer Higdon, Lukas Foss, Bright Sheng, David del Tredici, William Bolcom, and others. And while I'm mentioning Downes, let me draw your attention to my blogroll to the right, where you can find her fascinating blog, On the Bench: Conversations with Other Pianists.
Volti concludes its season with further adventures in new choral music, 4 - 6 May in various locations.
Cutting Ball Theater presents Tenderloin, written and directed by Annie Elias, 27 April to 27 May. Their Hidden Classics Reading Series continues its Strindberg celebration with The Stronger, Pariah, and Simoon on 6 May and The Keys to Heaven on 20 May.
The American Bach Soloists present Bach's Easter Oratorio and other cantatas, 4 - 7 May in different locations each day.
The New Century Chamber Orchestra closes out its season with an exciting-looking concert that includes Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and Commedia dell'Arte, a world premiere by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich; 10-13 May in varied locations.
ACT has Bill Irwin in two Beckett plays, Endgame and Play, 9 May to 3 June, replacing the previously announced Twelfth Night.
The Shotgun Players present Adam Chanzit's The Great Divide, originally described as "adapted from" Ibsen's An Enemy of the People but now described as "inspired by" that play, 16 May - 17 June.
San Francisco Performances closes out its season with lots of Beethoven, including Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin in two programs of works for cello and fortepiano, 19 - 20 May, and Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov playing sonatas for violin and piano, 30 May.
Cal Performances has Dianne Reeves on 4 May and Peter Serkin playing works by Knussen, Wuorinen, Takemitus, and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) on 8 May.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a program exploring musical life in California from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, 10 - 12 May; Hilary Hahn plays the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 on 24 - 27 May, in a program led by Osmo Vanska that also includes Kalevi Aho and Shostokovich. In between the Symphony hosts Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic for two separate programs, the first of which includes Magnus Lindberg's recent Piano Concerto No. 2, with Yefim Bronfman as the soloist.
Who better to close out National Poetry Month than William Shakespeare? In Sonnet 55, with the sublime assurance and arrogance of an obscure but true poet, he realizes that the great ones of this world will fade and dwindle, while his words will grow to overshadow them all. Ironically, though he assures his beloved of immortality through his rhymes, no one knows to whom this poem was addressed, or if it was in fact addressed to an actual person at all. There have been endless and mostly pointless attempts to figure out who the beloved was. I’m always amused by critics who insist the Sonnets must describe actual events in Shakespeare’s life, like fourteen-line diary-entries in rhymed iambic pentameter; he turned out to be the world’s greatest dramatist, and who knows why he decided to inhabit these particular situations? Whatever he was describing, it only exists for us because he described it so well. Lover and beloved are long dead, but he was right about his immortal words. Here endeth the lesson.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments Of princes, shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme, But you shall shine more bright in these contents Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time. When wasteful war shall statues overturn, And broils root out the work of masonry, Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn The living record of your memory. ‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room Even in the eyes of all posterity That wear this world out to the ending doom. So, till the Judgment that yourself arise, You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Most of the poems I’ve posted this month have been fairly straightforward in style and vocabulary, even if their implications are subtle and need to be teased out, and even if centuries have passed over some of their words. By contrast this short poem by Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946) may seem impenetrable, but let your mind soak in it for a while. There are puns (sweet tea / sweetie, tray sure / treasure, drink pups / drink cups / drink up), there is rhyme ("these are the wets, these are the sets") and verbal echoing (bobbles / bobolink), and metaphors that make perfect though perhaps unexpected sense (“a nail is unison” – indeed, nails do unite whatever is nailed together). A picture might emerge: sweet tea served by a sweetie, perhaps in the ancient light of an afternoon, on silver trays, perhaps with jelly for their treats, and the nice people drinking say “please”; there is a tea pot, and outside trees waving and trembling, maybe pet puppies lapping water: a scene from the Impressionists, done by a cubist. On the other hand – maybe you get a different picture, and maybe the picture isn’t the point at all; maybe it’s just about the sound and rhythm, breaking the words free of their usual associations and combining them in ways that might bring up other associations, or none at all. “It is a silver seller” chimes delightfully in my ear, even if its meaning remains elusive.
You will sometimes read discussions of Stein’s work that I think of as secret-decoder-ring interpretations; i.e., “cow” equals “female orgasm” so “as a wife has a cow” is a coded way of saying . . . well, you get it, which is the problem I have with that style of interpreting Stein: it’s very reductive, and it tends to favor autobiographical readings rather than her imaginative life as an actual poet, that is, someone entranced by words, moving them around to different effect. Even if she meant female orgasm as one of the implications of “cow,” that doesn’t settle the question of why she chose “cow” over all the other words available. The implications of the choices are what's interesting, though indeed her more hermetic works resist ultimate interpretation, and at some point people are simply going to cut their losses on this sort of thing: life is short. (Personally, I think of it as “reading Ulysses but not Finnegans Wake.")
Stein’s poem pushes to a radical extreme the general poetic requirement that you, above all things, slow down and pay attention, letting the words play in your mind. We all slow down for different things; that’s fine. Enjoy what you can.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea. Susie Asado. Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea. Susie Asado. Susie Asado which is a told tray sure. A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers. When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller. This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy. Incy is short for incubus. A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must. Drink pups. Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail. What is a nail. A nail is unison. Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
– Gertrude Stein
Perhaps due to the slipperiness of the language (sweet tea, sweetie!) and the elusiveness of its meaning, Stein’s work lends itself very well to musical treatment; the words melt into each other and you hear them differently, and they mean as music means. In fact today’s poem was set by Virgil Thomson as an early experiment in setting Stein, before he started work on their opera 4 Saints in 3 Acts. You can hear the piece on the recording Mostly About Love, sung by soprano Nancy Armstrong with Thomson biographer and New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini on piano.
We have a couple of vocabulary-enrichment words today. First is ekphrasis. Dazzle your friends with your knowledge of rhetorical terms! And if they ask you to define it, the answer is “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.” The following poem by William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963) is an example, but not the only one we’ve had this month. How ever did we manage without using the technical term? The next word is kermess, which means “an outdoor fair or carnival in the Low Countries.” The work of art being ekphrasized here is, as you see in the first line of the poem, “Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess.” (There are alternate spellings for both Breughel and kermess, but I’m going to use the ones in the poem for the sake of clarity.)
This poem has stuck in my mind since I first read it decades ago, partly because Breughel is one of my favorite painters and partly because Williams, known for his free verse, makes memorable use of rhythm to convey the rolling and circular feeling of the painted dancers’ movements. His vocabulary – the butts, the shanks, the fiddles, the squeal and blare – captures the robust and earthy qualities associated with the Flemish painter.
I was going to link to a copy of the painting but there are a couple of Breughel works called either The Kermess or Peasant Dance. Besides, I discovered that some of the images are embedded in National Poetry Month discussions of this very poem. Well, just because the idea isn’t original doesn’t mean it’s not good.
When I attended UC Berkeley in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the city was in an odd transition period: the glory days of the hippies and the 1960s protests had passed, but the aura of those days lingered, and had drawn many of the city’s inhabitants, both students and others, to Berkeley in the first place. There was a division, but a porous one, between students and the people who actually made their homes either in the city or on its streets. Street people looking to score drugs sometimes showed up in our dorm rooms; I woke up from a nap one afternoon, having left my door open because it was warm, and I saw a disheveled young man patiently waiting. Half-awake I remembered that the guy who had lived in that room the year before had been a dealer. I told the street guy that I was sorry but I didn’t have anything. He left as considerately as he had waited while I slept. It’s impossible to imagine that encounter happening in a dorm now, which is probably just as well. Not everyone is as gentle as my visitor was. Then shortly before I graduated National Lampoon's Animal House hit the movie theaters and suddenly there were toga parties in the streets and people really wanted to join fraternities and sororities, and majoring in business became a big thing. So, yeah, the 1980s had started.
There were a number of street people we saw regularly, whose seeming eccentricity made them stand out, making them seem like colorful "characters" of the city. One of them was known as “the Bubble Lady” because she would stroll around Telegraph Avenue, blowing iridescent pretty soap bubbles. She was usually dressed in a black dress or black skirt and sweater with a yellow tam-o’shanter. Eventually I realized she was a poet and sold copies of her own works in thin booklets with blue covers while she wandered the street blowing bubbles. I realized this because she walked up to a group of my dorm-mates and me in a cheap Telegraph Avenue restaurant and asked us if we were interested in buying a copy, priced at dollar. There was some smirking among the others and they seemed surprised when I said I would like to buy one. She probably noticed the smirking but was no doubt used to it from students and was agreeably dignified as I gave her the dollar while she signed a copy of Street Spiels for me. That was also when I found out her name was Julia Vinograd. I liked the poems and bought a few more of her books from places like Cody’s Books, now gone. Her poems are generally brief, often wry in ways both bleak and witty, offering views of a life that looks marginal from the perspective of mainstream imperialist materialist American society (though not from the perspective of those living that life). Poverty and addiction are constant and troubling companions.
I moved away to Boston and then I moved back home to the Bay Area and though I go to Berkeley fairly often I haven’t seen Vinograd in many years. A quick Internet search leads me to believe she is still active, though. And it looks as if her work is still available. If you’ve clicked on any of the links I’ve been putting in these National Poetry Month entries, you may have noticed that I haven’t linked to bios or Wikipedia entries; I’ve linked to places from which you can buy the poet’s work, because the life is of interest only because of the works, and giving money for a poet’s work is a solid way to celebrate National Poetry Month. I’ve put several of Vinograd’s poems here, since they’re more difficult to find than those by, say, Milton and Wordsworth, but I encourage you to buy and check out her work for yourself.
“I forgot my cigarettes in the med;
I left a full pack on the table
in plain sight
and when I went back for them they were still there;
what’s the matter with everyone?
I mean, I knew the place was getting pretty straight,
but a full pack, you know,
they must only be letting in zombies these days,
no derelicts or street trash,
just registered zombies, maybe blind registered zombies,
I’m not going back there
unless I need the coffee.”
The Trouble with Political Poetry
We hate our own true love
harder than we hate the enemy,
the government or even the monitor.
Because our true love hates us back
and knows our names
all night long.
For the first week we’re millionaires
and for the last week we starve.
It’s not only hard to get money,
it’s hard to take money
Money certainly doesn’t take us seriously.
We live in both extremes
and neither matters because the other comes round again
“Today he sings this way: tralala tra la. But I sang it like this: tralala tra la. Do you hear the difference? And instead of standing here, he stands here and looks this way, not this way, although she comes flying in from over there, not over there, and not like today rampa pampa pam, but quite simply rampa pampa pam, the unforgettable Tschubek-Bombonieri, only who remembers her now –“
– Wislawa Szymborska
Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, born in 1923, died earlier this year. This is from Poems New and Collected 1957 – 1997, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Anyone who has spent any time in or around an opera house will laugh (or cry) in immediate recognition of this dramatic monologue. I find it particularly amusing (or depressing) that the change is expressed by ironic sameness: it’s not, as you might expect, “instead of standing here, he stands there,” or “he looks this way, not that way.” It’s not so much that things are changing as that they are going on without the speaker. Like several of the other poems this month, this one deals with the uneasy intersection between art and life, and with what might be the great theme of all poetry, the passing of time.
Because it’s spring. . . . The original version of this poem was written by Su Tung P’o (1037 – 1101), then rendered and revised into an English-language poem by Kenneth Rexroth (1905 – 1982). Some things have changed about spring since these men wrote, and many things haven’t. This is from the collection One Hundred Poems from the Chinese:
A Walk in the Country
The spring wind raises fine dust from the road. Everybody is out, enjoying the new leaves. Strollers are drinking in the inns along the way. Cart wheels roll over the young grass. The whole town has gone to the suburbs. Children scamper everywhere and shout to the skies. Songs and drum beats scare the hills And make the leaves tremble on the trees. Picnic baskets and jugs litter the fields And put the crows and kites to flight. Who is that fellow who has gathered a crowd? He says is a Taoist monk. He is selling charms to the passersby. He shouts, waves his hands, rolls his eyes. “If you raise silk, these will Grow cocoons as big as pitchers. If you raise stock, these will Make the sheep as big as elks.” Nobody really believes him. It is the spirit of spring in him they are buying. As soon as he has enough money He will go fill himself with wine And fall down drunk, Overcome by the magic of his own charms.
Shakespeare’s birthday was yesterday, but he deserves at least a two-day celebration, so here are a couple of poems about him. John Milton pays tribute with the sort of conceit (in the sense of a knotty and ingenious extended metaphor) favored by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. (“Unvalued” in line 11 means “without value”; that is, priceless.)
What needs my Shakespeare for his honor’d bones The labor of an age in piled stones, Or that his hallow’d relics should be hid Under a star-ypointing pyramid? Dear son of Memory, great heir of Fame, What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name? Thou in our wonder and astonishment Hast built thyself a livelong monument. For whilst to th’shame of slow-endeavoring art, Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart Hath from the leaves of thy unvalu’d book Those Delphic lines with deep impression took, Then thou our Fancy of itself bereaving, Dost make us marble with too much conceiving; And so sepulcher’d in such pomp dost lie, That Kings for such a tomb would wish to die.
– John Milton
Louise Bogan offers an epigrammatic meditation on art versus life:
To an Artist, to Take Heart
Slipping in blood, by his own hand, through pride, Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus fall. Upon his bed, however, Shakespeare died, Having endured them all.
The traditional birthdate of William Shakespeare is 23 April 1564; it is also the date on which he died in 1616. It is silly to discuss titles such as “greatest poet in the history of the world,” but if one were of a mind to be silly, Shakespeare has as great a claim as any and better than most. Here is the opening of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, spoken by Duke Orsino:
If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. That strain again! It had a dying fall; O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more! ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before. O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou, That, notwithstanding thy capacity, Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there, Of what validity and pitch soe’er, But falls into abatement and low price Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy That it alone is high fantastical.
This is not only beautiful on its own, it reveals fully, perfectly, and immediately the character of the capricious and self-indulgent Duke. Its decadent hints of the sorrow brought on by self-indulgence are part of the strange sadness of this play; though it is genuinely funny, a remarkable feat in a script several centuries old, there is an air of delicate melancholy about the play that is unlike Shakespeare’s other works. But his inexhaustible and varied invention is just one reason for his greatness.
Twelfth Night is my favorite of the comedies. It’s also the first Shakespeare play I saw performed live (thanks for taking me, Mom!) and the first one I read, so I also have a sentimental attachment to it. Here’s another passage. The Countess Olivia is being wooed by the Duke’s proxy, his pageboy Ganymede (who is really a young shipwrecked woman, Viola, disguised as a youth). I was going to spell out the emotional relationships here, but if you don’t know them already, you should just read the play. The attentive and even semi-attentive reader will soon see why I chose this passage:
Viola: If I did love you in my master’s flame, With such a suff’ring, such a deadly life, In your denial I would find no sense; I would not understand it.
Olivia: Why, what would you?
Viola: Make me a willow cabin at your gate And call upon my soul within the house; Write loyal cantons of contemned love And sing them loud even in the dead of night; Hallo your name to the reverberate hills And make the babbling gossip of the air Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest Between the elements of air and earth But you should pity me.
Czeslaw Milosz (1911 - 2004) is as usual both direct and subtle in examining our relations with the world and our time in it. But it’s a reality mediated through art: not just the realistic Dutch Golden-Age painting the narrator admires, but the choral song of the imagined, painted figures, and the poem itself. This is from the collection Facing the River:
We are not so badly off, if we can Admire Dutch painting. For that means We shrug off what we have been told For a hundred, two hundred years. Though we lost Much of our previous confidence. Now we agree That those trees outside the window, which probably exist, Only pretend to greenness and treeness And that the language loses when it tries to cope With clusters of molecules. And yet, this here: A jar, a tin plate, a half-peeled lemon, Walnuts, a loaf of bread, last – and so strongly It is hard not to believe in their lastingness. And thus abstract art is brought to shame, Even if we do not deserve any other. Therefore I enter those landscapes Under a cloudy sky from which a ray Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains A spot of brightness glows. Or the shore With huts, boats, and on yellowish ice Tiny figures skating. All this Is here eternally, just because once it was. Splendor (certainly incomprehensible) Touches a cracked wall, a refuse heap, The floor of an inn, jerkins of the rustics, A broom, and two fish bleeding on a board. Rejoice! Give thanks! I raised my voice To join them in their choral singing, Amid their ruffles, collets, and silk skirts, One of them already, who vanished long ago, And our song soared up like smoke from a censer.
– Czeslaw Milosz (translated by Milosz and Robert Hass)
Milosz taught at Berkeley for many years. I heard about him because I happened to work in the Dining Commons of my dorm with a girl of Ukrainian descent who was majoring in Slavic studies, the department in which he taught. At the time the poetry I read was mostly dramatic or epic, and I had never heard of him, but I signed up for his course on Dostoevsky, which she had recommended. Later I also took his courses on Polish Literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My friend had mentioned that he was much better known in Europe than in the United States, but that all changed after he won the Nobel Prize in 1980. I happened to be in his Dostoevsky discussion section that day. I almost skipped class since I had a bad headache and it was an optional discussion section rather than a lecture, but I decided to go anyway because I enjoyed the class. I saw some TV cameras outside the classroom, but though it wasn’t common it also wasn’t that unusual for professors to be filmed during class, so I didn’t think much of it. Inside the classroom someone had a copy of the afternoon paper (that sure dates this story) with a banner headline saying Cal Prof Wins Nobel Prize, with a photo of Professor Milosz below. "Oh my God!" I said. "I know!" someone else said. Professor Milosz arrived on time, looking only slightly flustered, very firmly shut the door on the three or four TV reporters outside, and spoke briefly to the dozen or so of us in the room about winning the Nobel Prize. One of the girls happened to have a flower with her, which he picked up and absent-mindedly played with while he spoke. He basically said, In life you go on doing what you think you should be doing, and sometimes you end up winning the Nobel Prize. Now we will talk about Dostoevsky.
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, Tears from the depth of some divine despair Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, In looking on the happy Autumn-fields, And thinking of the days that are no more.
Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail, That brings our friends up from the underworld, Sad as the last which reddens over one That sinks with all we love below the verge; So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds To dying ears, when unto dying eyes The casement slowly grows a glimmering square; So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
Dear as remembered kisses after death, And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned On lips that are for others; deep as love, Deep as first love, and wild with all regret; O Death in Life, the days that are no more!
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892)
Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell
At midnight tears Run into your ears.
– Louise Bogan (1897 - 1970)
Two poems that take different routes to the same place. The Tennyson is lush, languorous, erotic in its intense exploration of every filament of its theme; the Bogan is stripped, stark, ironic. Yet both explore the sorrow of loss, particularly romantic loss, and the sorrow of remembering past loss and past love. The slightly overblown melodrama of Bogan's title, which is longer than the actual poem, provides a certain ironic distance from the experience, but it also reflects how the narrator felt at the wrenching time of the experience. Indirection and implication tell us the circumstance: It's midnight, she's presumably in bed, and clearly alone, staring at the ceiling, weeping in the dark (in fact, under these circumstances, tears do run down the side of your face and into your ears). It's exactly the sort of weirdly precise physical observation that can distract you in moments of great emotional pain. Tennyson expands his emotion to cover worlds: the sunrise, sailing ships on the sea, birds singing at dawn, light dying in a dying man's eyes; he subtly gives us unexpected modifiers that alter and extend what he's describing: the despair is divine; the Autumn-fields, near the end of their productive life, are happy; the summer dawn is dark, sad, and strange.
Tennyson's poem can be found in any collection of his works, and indeed in almost any anthology of English poetry that includes the nineteenth century. Bogan's poem is from The Blue Estuaries.
A poem by Charles Simic, born in 1938 in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Serbia. His family emigrated to the United States when he was 16. The geography and the time period will give you the cultural and political setting of his mind. Though he has spent most of his life in the United States, even serving as its Poet Laureate, he retains what I think of as an Eastern European sense of tragic absurdity. This poem, from the collection The Book of Gods and Devils, reminds me of Ligeti's great opera, Le Grand Macabre.
Our history is both tragic and comic. Beat the big drum, fellows! Horsemen of the Apocalypse, What fun it was to pull your horses’ tails! The earth trembled.
Mighty towers collapsed. Towers of chairs still warm With backsides of kings and queens, Towers of pisspots, too, Where our philosophers sat thinking.
We stood with our mouths open Admiring the fashionable black hoods The horses and the coachmen wore As they hauled off the trash to the infinite.
Beat the big drum, fellows! On the Square of Eternal Happiness A woman ran by shrieking, Hugging a blood-stained shirt.
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead I played about the front gate, pulling flowers. You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse, You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums, And we went on living in the village of Chokan: Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you, I never laughed, being bashful. Lowering my head, I looked at the wall. Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling, I desired my dust to be mingled with yours Forever and forever, and forever. Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed, You went into far Ku-to-Yen, by the river of swirling eddies, And you have been gone five months. The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead. You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses, Too deep to clear them away! The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind. The paired butterflies are already yellow with August Over the grass in the West garden, They hurt me. I grow older. If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang, Please let me know beforehand, And I will come out to meet you, As far as Cho-fu-Sa. BY RIHAKU
Ezra Pound (1885 - 1972) adapted this poem from a work by the T'ang Dynasty poet Li Po ("Rihaku" is a transcription of the Japanese version of Li Po's name). Though the speaker is a very young wife by our standards, there is a clear sense of the passing of time, a sense which increases her longing for her absent husband. You get a sense of a woman with very deep feelings which are not often expressed. There's a wonderful combination of statements both indirect ("the paired butterflies are already yellow") and direct ("I grow older"). These sentiments might seem banal, but only because they are so basic, so essential, to us. In the right setting, as with a gemstone set to catch the light, they regain their original power. They remind me of a scene in Ozu's great film Tokyo Story, in which the unwanted grandmother is sitting in a field with her very young grandson. She muses to herself, wondering if she will be there next year. He plays carelessly among the daisies. It's all very simple, yet the cumulative power of what we've seen of the story so far makes the scene's simplicity all the more heart-breaking. I have always found the last line of this poem particularly haunting, because my ignorance of the specific geography leaves the speaker's motives mysterious: where is Cho-fu-Sa in relation to where she is, and where her husband is? Is she indicating that she will travel incredible, difficult distances to see him? Is she choosing a place whose moderate distance allows her to control otherwise overwhelming emotions? She seems reserved and by her own statement was a bashful girl: Is she trying to indicate a modest and appropriate distance to cover up emotions she feels are too nakedly strong?
Here's another poem, this one taken directly from a woman of the T'ang Dynasty, the courtesan Xue Tao (768 - 831). This comes from the collection Brocade River Poems, translated and annotated by Jeanne Larsen:
Two poems by Kay Ryan, in which she celebrates the extravagant, the artificial, and the marginal. I heard Ryan speak at City Arts & Lectures about a year ago; she read and discussed these poems among others, and you can read my write-up here and you can buy her book here. I had dilly-dallied about buying a ticket to her talk, and then she won the Pulitzer Prize and I was kicking myself because I was going to look like the sort of person who only bought a ticket because she had won a prize, and though I realized this was foolish because no one cared whether or why I bought a ticket, still . . . I felt like one of those people. I bought a ticket anyway. In retrospect I'm kind of surprised there were any available; when I tried to buy tickets to a couple of City Arts & Lectures events this year (Mary Oliver and Joan Didion), they were sold out before they went on sale to the public. No offense to Oliver and Didion, but I find it difficult to believe they could be as delightful as Ryan was.
Wherever the flamingo goes, she brings a city’s worth of furbelows. She seems unnatural by nature – too vivid and peculiar a structure to be pretty, and flexible to the point of oddity. Perched on those legs, anything she does seems like an act. Descending on her egg or draping her head along her back, she’s too exact and sinuous to convince an audience she’s serious. The natural elect, they think, would be less pink, less able to relax their necks, less flamboyant in general. They privately expect that it’s some poorly jointed bland grey animal with mitts for hands whom God protects.
The Mock Ruin
. . . built as the backdrop of the stage of the ancient Roman theatre in Sabratha, Libya, Africa, is the most perfectly preserved part of the entire structure. – Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Fakes and mock-ups, stage backdrops quickly nicked, weathered, and stuck together for illusion’s sake (getting some parts backwards) give more, maybe; sway slightly; take later buffets better generally than their brittle sources whose stones were set down in regular courses and mortared. Maybe there is something to falseness that doesn’t get reported.
Two by Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955). Like Charles Ives, another American individualist/modernist artist, he made his living as an insurance executive. That's often considered a strange occupation for an artist, but personally, I don't see it that way; his insurance work involved assessment and investigation and an awareness of risk and reality, qualities that are useful for an artist (as is the discipline necessitated by a regular job). He spent most of his life in Hartford, Connecticut, which certainly has an aura of respectable dullness, but at that time the Hartford Atheneum under Chick Austin's leadership was actually one of the leading centers of modernist art in America (one of the earliest American exhibits of Picasso's work was held there, as was the premiere of the Stein/Thomson opera 4 Saints in 3 Acts, which Stevens attended).
Nonetheless I can't help feeling the first poem here is a bit of a reflection on a certain type of American conformity. I love Stevens's use of color. The second poem is just there for beauty's sake, the beauty of winter, which can take longer to appreciate than the more obvious seductions of the warmer months.
Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock
The houses are haunted By white night-gowns. None are green, Or purple with green rings, Or green with yellow rings, Or yellow with blue rings. None of them are strange, With socks of lace And beaded ceintures. People are not going To dream of baboons and periwinkles. Only, here and there, an old sailor, Drunk and asleep in his boots, Catches tigers In red weather.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
To mark the halfway point of National Poetry Month, it's Sapphopalooza!: six different translations of the same poem by Sappho.
Little is known for certain about the life of Sappho of Lesbos (approximate dates 630 to 570 BCE), who was famed in classical times as the Tenth Muse, and whose fame in our own time is worldwide; she inspired stories and speculation in classical times, and continues to do so in our own. As with most classical authors, her works survive only in fragmentary and sometimes disputed form. The following poem is one of the few that has come down to us complete, or nearly complete.
The first translation is from the early eighteenth century and is the oldest of the six presented here:
An Hymn to Venus
I O Venus, Beauty of the Skies, To whom a thousand Temples rise, Gayly false in gentle Smiles, Full of Love-perplexing Wiles; O Goddess! from my Heart remove The wasting Cares and Pains of Love.
II If ever thou hast kindly heard A Song in soft Distress preferr’d, Propitious to my tuneful Vow, O gentle Goddess! hear me now. Descend, thou bright, immortal Guest, In all thy radiant Charms confest.
III Thou once didst leave Almighty Jove, And all the Golden Roofs above: The Carr thy wanton Sparrows drew; Hov’ring in Air they lightly flew, As to my Bow’r they wing’d their Way: I saw their quiv’ring Pinions play.
IV The Birds dismist (while you remain) Bore back their empty Carr again: Then You, with Looks divinely mild, In ev’ry heav’nly Feature smil’d, And ask’d, what new Complaints I made, And why I call’d you to my Aid?
V What Phrenzy in my Bosom rag’d, And by what Cure to be asswag’d? What gentle Youth I would allure, Whom in my artful Toiles secure? Who does thy tender Heart subdue, Tell me, my Sappho, tell me Who?
VI Tho’ now he Shuns thy longing Arms, He soon shall court thy slighted Charms; Tho’ now thy Off’rings he despise, He soon to Thee shall Sacrifice; Tho’ now he freeze, he soon shall burn, And be thy Victim in his turn.
VII Celestial Visitant, once more Thy needful Presence I implore! In Pity come and ease my Grief, Bring my distemper’d Soul Relief; Favour thy Suppliant’s hidden Fires, And give me All my Heart desires.
(translated by Ambrose Philips, 1711)
Ambrose Philips was a contemporary of Alexander Pope, who despised him. I confess to being very fond of this version; it has an eighteenth-century lightness to it. Philips makes Sappho sound like his contemporary, as do all translators, but it really jumps out here because his poetic styles are so different from ours. His version sounds very foreign to us. These days eyebrows will be raised at his gender switch, as they perhaps would have been in his time if he hadn't switched them. Also, Philips has his Venus (note the Roman name, instead of the Greek) promise Sappho that her young man will fall in love with her; some of the translators below point out that Aphrodite really doesn't say that, but merely assures the suffering poet that her loved object will suffer in his/her turn.
The second version:
Eternal Aphrodite, rainbow-crowned, you cunning, wily child of Zeus,
I beg you
do not break me, Lady, with the pain of misled love. But come to me, if ever in the past you heard my far-off cries and heeding, came, leaving the golden home of Zeus.
In your readied chariot the beautiful swift sparrows bore you, eddying through the mid-air, their wings a-whirr, from heaven to the dark earth.
And there they were. And you, Lady of Joy, smiling your immortal smile, asked me what ailed me now, and why I called again, and what did my mad heart most crave:
“Whom shall I, Sappho, lead to be your love? Who wrongs you now? For if she flees you, soon she’ll chase, and if she scorns your gifts, why, she will offer hers. And if she does not love you, soon she’ll love, even though she does not want.”
Now come to me again as well and loose me from this chain of sorrow. Do for my yearning heart all it desires, and be yourself my ally in the chase.
(translated by Suzy Q Groden, 1964)
One result of the fragmentary survival of Sappho's poetry is that her formal structures, her patterns and rhythms, tend to be lost to us; it might look as if she wrote evocative free verse, but that is just the depredations of time. In other words, the formal rhyme and meter of Philips's version evoke qualities of the original lost in Groden's version, despite her greater accuracy and evocative language. Perhaps because of where I stand in time in relation to the styles of 1964, this version has a bit of a period-piece air to me; someone younger (or older) might have a different reaction.
Barnard's version is more regular than Groden's, but avoids anything that smacks of an old-fashioned sense of "the poetic"; her versions are stripped down, compressed, and pointedly unannotated. She shows the influence of her mentor, Ezra Pound (her relationship with whom she discusses in her interesting memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon).
Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind, child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you do not break with hard pains O lady, my heart
but come here if ever before you caught my voice far off and listening left your father’s golden house and came,
yoking your car. And fine birds brought you, quick sparrows over the black earth whipping their wings down the sky through mid-air –
they arrived. But you, O blessed one, smiled in your deathless face and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why (now again) I am calling out
and what I want to happen most of all in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again) to lead you back into her love? Who, O Sappho, is wronging you?
For if she flees, soon she will pursue. If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them. If she does not love, soon she will love even unwilling.
Come to me now: loose me from hard care and all my heart longs to accomplish, accomplish. You be my ally.
Carson is a remarkable poet as well as a classics scholar. Her version is carefully annotated, explaining some of her choices. (For example, her application of "dappled" to Aphrodite's mind rather than her throne is due to a variant reading in the surviving texts, and she explains why she chose to modify the mind rather than the chair.) The book is particularly handsome as a physical object, with the Greek on the left-hand pages facing the translation on the right. Her book emphasizes the fragmentary nature of what remains of Sappho's work; some of the other translations can make the poet sound cryptic but complete. If I had to pick a favorite version of the six, it would probably be this subtle and convincing version.
Prayer to Afroditi
On your dappled throne eternal Afroditi, cunning daughter of Zeus, I beg you, do not crush my heart with pain, O lady,
but come here if ever before you heard my voice from far away, and yielding left your father’s house of gold and came,
Yoking birds to your chariot. Beautiful quick sparrows whirring on beating wings took you from heaven down to mid sky over the black earth
and soon arrived. O blessed one, on your deathless face a smile, you asked me what I am suffering and why I call you,
what I most want to happen in my crazy heart. “Whom shall I persuade again to take you into her love? Who, O Psapfo, wrongs you?
If she runs away, soon she will pursue. If she scorns gifts, now she will bribe. If she doesn’t love, soon she will love even unwillingly.”
Come to me now and loosen me from blunt agony. Labor and fill my heart with fire. Stand by me and be my ally.
Barnstone's edition, like Carson's, also includes the original Greek, as well as extensive notes, a glossary, and a compendium of classical references to Sappho. This may sound like a scholarly edition, but it's all aimed at the general reader; his version is vibrant and direct. Like Carson he gives the reader a strong sense of the fragmented nature of what has survived.
Subtly bedizened Aphrodite, Deathless daughter of Zeus, Wile-weaver, I beg you, Empress, do not smite me With anguish and fever
But come as often, on request, (Hearing me, heeding from afar,) You left your father’s gleaming feast, Yoked team to car,
And came. Fair sparrows in compact Flurries of winged rapidity Cleft sky and over a gloomy tract Brought you to me –
And there they were, and you, sublime And smiling with immortal mirth, Asked what was wrong? why I, this time, Called you to earth?
What was my mad heart dreaming of? – “Who, Sappho, at a word, must grow Again receptive to your love? Who wronged you so?
“She who shuns love soon will pursue it, She who scorns gifts will send them still: That girl will learn love, though she do it Against her will.”
Come to me now. Drive off this brutal Distress. Accomplish what my pride Demands. Come, please, and in this battle Stand at my side.
This most recent version brings us back to a modern version of the regular rhythm and rhyme of the Philips's version. (It's interesting how many of the translators use "car" versus "chariot"; though for Philips of course it does not have the everyday-automobile association it has for us, and retains its original dignity as a synonym for a chariot.) Poochigian offers extensive notes and an introduction with his version, placing Sappho in her cultural context, exploring her verbal relationship to poets such as Homer, and explaining some of his choices. He points out that free verse gives a completely wrong impression of how Sappho works in her original language; he rhymes because Sappho's lyrics were originally sung to now-lost tunes, and rhyme is one way English verse indicates that something is meant to be sung. (His use of rhyme and half-rhyme also reflects a postmodern interest in using and adapting traditional forms, turning away from the stripped-down free-verse approach prevalent in much of the twentieth century.) I do have to say that the first line bothers me: "bedizened" means to be decked out in a vulgar and showy manner, so "subtly bedizened" is a contradiction in terms, and no way to address a goddess whom you're asking for favors.
One hundred years ago today the Titanic sank, as you might have heard. A few months after the tragedy, Thomas Hardy published the following contemplative commemorative lines, which concentrate on larger philosophical themes of Fate and Nature versus Humanity (Fate and Nature win) rather than on the individual suffering of particular passengers. I find the poem very powerful; there is something very touching about the silent underwater incongruity of the ruined luxury liner, the indirect evidence that people once hoped and dreamed and built, not realizing how in vain their efforts were. Hardy gives a timeless air of myth to the event, with Nemesis in the shape of a ghostly frigid mountain of ice moving to its predestined collision. But of course even the concepts of Fate, Nemesis, the Immanent Will, and the Spinner of the Years are human creations, designed to impose order on chance happenings and the unknown mysteries of our world.
The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the ‘Titanic’)
I In a solitude of the sea Deep from human vanity, And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Ii Steel chambers, late the pyres Of her salamandrine fires, Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
III Over the mirrors meant To glass the opulent The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
IV Jewels in joy designed To ravish the sensuous mind Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
V Dim moon-eyed fishes near Gaze at the gilded gear And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” . . .
VI Well: while was fashioning This creature of cleaving wing, The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
VII Prepared a sinister mate For her – so gaily great – A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
VIII And as the smart ship grew In stature, grace, and hue, In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
IX Alien they seemed to be: No mortal eye could see The intimate welding of their later history,
X Or sign that they were bent By paths coincident On being anon twin halves of one august event,
XI Till the Spinner of the Years Said “Now!” And each one hears, And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
Two from Claude McKay (1890 – 1948), a Jamaican-born poet who moved to the United States as a young man. He lived in Harlem and became associated with the writers and political activists of the Harlem Renaissance. As a black man in the United States, he was of course forced to deal with racism; some of his poems deal directly with themes such as lynching, and others, such as the two sympathetic looks at Harlem women presented here, deal more generally with the hardships (but also beauties) of life. In the context of the poetry written during his life, his forms and vocabulary are traditional and downright reactionary, but in the racial context of his times, there is something deeply radical about a black man claiming his right to these European forms – demonstrating equality through mastery of the English-language tradition. (There is another, better known, tradition of racial subversion in African-American poetry, with Langston Hughes as its examplar, which draws inspiration from African-American cultural traditions such as the blues or jazz; I decided to use some poems by McKay here because he is not as well known.)
Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway; Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes Blown by black players upon a picnic day. She sang and danced on gracefully and calm, The light gauze hanging loose about her form; To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm Grown lovelier for passing through a storm. Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise, The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls, Devoured her with eager, passionate gaze: But, looking at her falsely-smiling face, I knew her self was not in that strange place.
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass Eager to heed desire’s insistent call: Ah, little dark girls, who in slippered feet Go prowling through the night from street to street.
Through the long night until the silver break Of day the little gray feet know no rest, Through the lone night until the last snow-flake Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast, The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way Of poverty, dishonour and disgrace, Has pushed the timid little fleet of clay. The sacred brown feet of my fallen race! Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet In Harlem wandering from street to street.
April is several things besides National Poetry Month, and one of them is the start of the baseball season. Baseball is probably the most favored modern sport among poets; perhaps it is the Arcadian aspects (or maybe I should say the pretense of Arcadia, the remembrance of lush green diamonds open to the sky, rather than today's over-monitored and over-musicked stadiums), or the dailiness of a season that starts in spring and ends in autumn, or the pleasing symmetries of the geometric rules, or the fact that the sport has its moments of triumph but is mostly about more or less graceful defeat; perhaps it is merely the example of other poets who are fans.
Today is the home opener for the San Francisco Giants, so here is a baseball poem, though it's not about the Giants but the Red Sox. Boston was my first team (I was a late-bloomer as a fan, and wasn't interested until I moved to Boston in my 20s, where Red Sox fandom was inescapable), but I have to admit some of their romantic lustre was lost when they finally won the World Series, first in 2004 and then again in 2007. This poem by Donald Hall captures many of the qualities – the ever-fresh hopes of the green fields of spring, shadowed by a sense of a shared past and of time passing – that draw poets to the sport. ("Number nine" was the uniform number of the great hitter Ted Williams, the "Splendid Splinter.")
Old Timers' Day, Fenway Park, 1 May 1982
When the tall puffy figure wearing number nine starts late for the fly ball, laboring forward like a lame truckhorse startled by a garter snake, – this old fellow whose body we remember as sleek and nervous as a filly's –
and barely catches it in his glove's tip, we rise and applaud weeping: On a green field we observe the ruin of even the bravest body, as Odysseus wept to glimpse among shades the shadow of Achilles.
There is a long tradition in poetry of finding Arcadian peace and spiritual restoration in Nature, while the City is a place of restless bustle and activity. Here two Romantic-movement poets flip things around: John Keats finds continuing noise and vitality in Nature, while William Wordsworth, of all unlikely poets, finds peace and calm in the heart of a great city:
On the Grasshopper and Cricket
The poetry of earth is never dead: When all the birds are faint with the hot sun, And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead – That is the Grasshopper's. He takes the lead In summer luxury; he has never done With his delights, for when tired out with fun He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed. The poetry of earth is ceasing never: On a lone winter evening, when the frost Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever, And seems to one in drowsiness half lost, The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
– John Keats (1795 - 1821)
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge September 3, 1802
Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth, like a garment, wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Yesterday's poem was in some ways about seizing the moment before it's too late, a theme central to a huge body of poems (for example, any poem that mentions cherry blossoms. . . ). This theme is also sometimes named after Horace's phrase, carpe diem, or Robert Herrick's phrase, gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Here is Herrick's poem:
To the Virgins, to make much of Time
Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun, The higher he's a-getting, The sooner will his race be run, And nearer he's to setting.
That Age is best, which is the first, When Youth and Blood are warmer; But being spent, the worse, and worst, Times, still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time; And while ye may, go marry; For having lost but once your prime, You may forever tarry.
– Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674)
It's surprisingly difficult to find a good complete edition of Herrick's poems. After years of searching I finally found a semi-complete Oxford edition from 1921, reprinted in 1936, at Moe's Used Books in Bekeley. I say it's "semi-complete" because the "prefatory note" by Percy Simpson primly notes that since the edition has been prepared, "not for the scholar, but for the lover of poetry, it omits almost entirely the 'Epigrams' . . . ". Noting in somewhat indirect terms that Herrick's epigrams derive via Ben Jonson from the scabrous classical style of poets like Martial, our Percy considers them a "monotonous and, on the whole, pointless series of poems on merely nauseous themes" and notes that publication of this volume offers a "welcome opportunity of clearing away these weeds from the flower-garden. . . ". Oh, thanks. You shouldn't have. No, really. I mean it: You shouldn't have. I wonder if Percy lived to see the eventual twentieth-century triumph and vindication of "merely nauseous themes." I also wonder what was unacceptable, if something called "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" was considered OK.
Many of the carpe diem poems take the form of Herrick's, in which a young man urges a young woman to have sex with him before she gets old and boys lose interest in her. Put that way, it seems like a somewhat dubious philosophy of life. Here's another poem on the theme, only this one was written by a woman, and not just any woman, but Gloriana the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth I of England:
When I was fair and young, then favor graced me. Of many was I sought their mistress for to be. But I did scorn them all and answered them therefore: Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.
How many weeping eyes I made to pine in woe, How many sighing hearts I have not skill to show, But I the prouder grew and still this spake therefore: Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.
Then spake fair Venus's son, that proud victorious boy, Saying: You dainty dame, for that you be so coy, I will so pluck your plumes as you shall say no more: Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.
As soon as he had said, such change grew in my breast That neither night nor day I could take any rest. Wherefore I did repent that I had said before: Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.
– Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603)
It's interesting to reflect that there was a time (not that long ago, as times go) in which it was considered suitable and actually prestigious for a monarch to be up on all the latest learning, and to be not only a patron of artists, but able to produce art him- or herself.
The witch that came (the withered hag) To wash the steps with pail and rag, Was once the beauty Abishag,
The picture pride of Hollywood. Too many fall from great and good For you to doubt the likelihood.
Die early and avoid the fate. Or if predestined to die late, Make up your mind to die in state.
Make the whole stock exchange your own! If need be occupy a throne, Where nobody can call you crone.
Some have relied on what they knew; Others on being simply true. What worked for them might work for you.
No memory of having starred Atones for later disregard, Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified With boughten friendship at your side Than none at all. Provide, provide!
– Robert Frost
Ah, Robert. Always so . . . Frosty. Though I consider the crusty Yankee farmer edged out only by the flirtatious Southern belle in the list of most annoying American regional stereotypes, Frost does manage it splendidly, perhaps because he was not native to New England (he was born in San Francisco and lived there until he was about 11). The shrewdness and thrift associated with the type turn into a worldview and a philosophy of managing life. "Crone" is an interesting word, since I think its connotations are more positive than they were when Frost wrote the poem; even if you're the sort of person who rolls his or her eyes at talk of "croning ceremonies" and suchlike, the word now has more of an aura of "old wise woman" and a little less of "cranky old witch." Still, the word makes at least some of its original point.
Here's a variant on the religious poems of the past few days: British poet Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985) visits a church he doesn't believe in. As another poet in another parlous time noted, "the worst are full of passionate intensity," and in our time rising intolerance and fundamentalism are found even among atheists. So it's a relief to turn to Larkin's humane and deeply compassionate comprehension.
Once I am sure there's nothing going on I step inside, letting the door thud shut. Another church: matting, seats, and stone, And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut for Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff Up at the holy end; the small neat organ; And a tense, musty, unignorable silence, Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font. From where I stand, the roof looks almost new – Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't. Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce "Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant. The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence, Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do, And always end much at a loss like this, Wondering what to look for; wondering, too, When churches fall completely out of use What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep A few cathedrals chronically on show, Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases, And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep. Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come To make their children touch a particular stone; Pick simples for a cancer; or on some Advised night see walking a dead one? Power of some sort or other will go on In games, in riddles, seemingly at random; But superstition, like belief, must die, And what remains when disbelief has gone? Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognisable each week, A purpose more obscure. I wonder who Will be the last, the very last, to seek This place for what it was; one of the crew That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were? Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique, Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh? Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt So long and equably what since is found Only in separation – marriage, and birth, And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built This special shell? For, though I've no idea What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth, It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognised, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.
For Easter, a poem by George Herbert (1593 - 1633). He wrote at a time of intense debate and struggle in England over religious/political matters, when many regarded drama and poetry with suspicion. Yet for him poetry was clearly the best manifestation of his inner spiritual life.
The "fall" referred to in the last line of the first stanza is the Fall of Man, so the whole line refers to the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall. "Imp" in the penultimate line of the second stanza means "to engraft an injured wing with feathers."
(Obviously the shape of the poem is important here, and after struggling mightily with blogger's feebleness, I've concluded that I can't center the text of part of an entry without centering all of it. So please excuse the formatting weirdness. I tried.)
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store, Though foolishly he lost the same, Decaying more and more, Till he became Most poor: With thee O let me rise As larks, harmoniously, And sing this day thy victories: Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did begin: And still with sicknesses and shame Thou didst so punish sin, That I became Most thin. With thee Let me combine And feel this day thy victory: For, if I imp my wing on thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
I'll continue the Holy Week religious poetry a while longer, with a selection from Paradise Lost, which is one of my favorite poetic works anyway. John Milton (1608 - 1674) of course is the author. He wrote this greatest of his works when he had lost his sight and was in internal exile and official disgrace (a political radical deeply involved with the establishment and defense of the Commonwealth, he narrowly escaped execution after the restoration of Charles II). It's astonishing that anyone could maintain such magnificence and subtlety in a work of many thousands of lines, much less a blind and bitterly disappointed man, who had to compose his work in his head and dictate the previous night's lines to an amanuensis each morning. His epic is, among many other things, a study of the seductiveness of political rhetoric, and you feel his descriptions of political maneuvering in Hell are based on personal experience. I'm frequently amazed by readers who swoon uncritically over the glamorous tragic grandeur of lines like Satan's "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n" without considering the obvious point that Satan is the only one who is reigning in Hell, and the third of the angels who fell with him (he consistently lies about the number, claiming half fell) have ended up still serving, only in Hell, which sure doesn't seem like an improvement. But people always imagine themselves the king on the hilltop, not the serf in the valley.
Milton also plays off the classical epics, offering a battle mightier than any fought by Achilles or Hector (and then subverting the epic conventions by denouncing war and praising creation). This selection is from the end of Book V, as Satan amasses his army before the battle in Heaven. Abdiel, alone among the assembled, faces down and denounces the mob, a position the contentious Milton must have identified with. ("He" in the first line is Satan; the "flaming Seraph fearless" is Abdiel; "devoted" as in "these wicked tents devoted" means "doomed" – this is also the period when "fond" means "foolish," and so much for fondness and devotion):
He said, and as the sound of waters deep Hoarse murmur echo'd to his words applause Through the infinite Host, nor less for that The flaming Seraph fearless, though alone Encompass'd round with foes, thus answer'd bold. "O alienate from God, O spirit accurst, Forsak'n of all good; I see thy fall Determin'd, and thy hapless crew involv'd In this perfidious fraud, contagion spread Both of thy crime and punishment: henceforth No more be troubl'd how to quit the yoke Of God's Messiah; those indulgent Laws Will not be now vouchsaf't, other Decrees Against thee are gone forth without recall; That Golden Scepter which thou didst reject Is now an Iron Rod to bruise and break Thy disobedience. Well thou didst advise, Yet not for thy advise or threats I fly These wicked Tents devoted, lest the wrath Impendent, raging into sudden flame Distinguish not; for soon expect to feel His Thunder on thy head, devouring fire. Then who created thee lamenting learn, When who can uncreate thee thou shalt know." So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found, Among the faithless, faithful only he; Among innumerable false, unmov'd, Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd His Loyalty he kept, his Love, his Zeal; Nor number, nor example with him wrought To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind Though single. From amidst them forth he pass'd, Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustain'd Superior, nor of violence fear'd aught; And with retorted scorn his back he turn'd On those proud Tow'rs to swift destruction doom'd.