29 April 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/18

I hadn't intended to repeat a poet so soon, but here's Edna St Vincent Millay again, to close out April and the series of spring poems with a bleaker view of the subject:


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Edna St Vincent Millay

"Maggots" can be obsessive fancies as well as the larva of some of the less popular insects, such as the housefly – a reminder that beautiful flowers are not the only things reborn in the spring, and also that our minds can be completely separated from the world around us, and mental rebirth can be difficult to the point of impossibility (contrast last week's poem by Richard Wilbur, in which the springtime rebirth of the natural world is linked to mental rebirth).

I took this poem from Millay's Collected Poems; it originally appeared in her 1921 volume Second April. The lines about life in itself being nothing, "an empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs" take on an eerie poignancy when you realize that almost thirty years later, in 1950, Millay's death involved falling down a flight of stairs, and though the official cause of death was a heart attack, there was speculation that alcohol played a part as well – like many of the blithe young writers who rose to fame in the 1920s, Millay struggled later in life with drunkenness and depression. Normally I resist autobiographical readings, finding them too reductive – yes, it all comes from a place in the poet's life, but it doesn't reach full meaning unless it goes to a place in the reader's life as well – but this accidental foreshadowing shades the poem towards a deeper sadness for me.

27 April 2013

curiouser and curiouser

Last night I was at the first performance given by the new ensemble Curious Flights, held at the Community Music Center in the Mission District of San Francisco. I had heard warnings about various manifestations of urban blight on Capp Street ranging from heroin addicts to hipsters, but I bravely went forth and found it a quiet, mostly residential street and a pleasant walk from the 24th Street BART station once I figured out which direction to walk in. I had foolishly asked the station agent where Capp Street was and after a moment he gestured towards a distant wall and said, "There's a map over there," which is actually more help than the agents usually give. My Mapquest directions started out "walk east" which is to me a ridiculous instruction – I don't really have that kind of woodsman skill instinctively, though when I walked out of the station I realized the sun was low enough in the sky so that I could just walk in the opposite direction and be more or less going east. This was my first time at this venue and I was amused and surprised after what I had heard to find it a lovely, flower-bedecked old building.

Curious Flights founder and Artistic Director Brenden Guy gave a brief welcome, saying the purpose of this new group was to explore new music and lesser-known byways in older music, with an emphasis on cross-cultural currents (the title of this first program was "Cultural Fusion"). Profits would go to a fund at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that helped foreign students afford their studies (Guy himself, who is British, was such a student, and he explained the restrictions the US government puts on foreign students and their ability to find work here). All the pieces were introduced by brief and unobtrusive comments.

There was quite a variety of music on display The concert opened with the only vocalist, soprano Indre Viskontas, accompanied by Ian Scarfe on piano, performing Updike's Science, four songs based on light verse about science by John Updike, set by San Jose composer Brian Holmes. (Viskontas mentioned that Holmes is a physicist; she herself is has a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience.) The four poems are "Lament, for Cocoa" (Thermodynamics), "Cosmic Gall" (Particle Physics), "The Descent of Mr Aldez" (Meteorology), and "VB Nimble, VB Quick" (Biology). I read them in the program beforehand and was entertained, but Holmes's music really did add or bring out both wit and poignancy, giving an extra dimension to the words, which Viskontas brought out in her clear singing and attentive phrasing.

That was followed by the world premiere of Fantasy Pieces by Joseph Stillwell, who was in the audience. It's a bright piece of many moods; the four movements are Overture, Scherzo, Lamentation, and Finale. My favorite was the keening lamentation, which figures. The piece was commissioned and performed by the Valinor Winds (Sasha Launer, flute; Jessie Huntsman, oboe; Brenden Guy, clarinet; Alexis Luque, bassoon; and Caitlyn Smith, French horn). The first half concluded with Paul Schoenfield's Cafe Music, performed by the Aleron Trio (Solenn Seguillion, violin; Anne Suda, cello; and Sophie Zhang, piano). In her introduction Seguillion noted the jazz and Broadway influences, but the piece also has a certain fleeting, Gatsbyesque sadness, of the sort you feel when you look at photos of parties from the 1920s. The evening's performers, almost all of whom are young and connected to the SF Conservatory of Music, were all excellent.

After the intermission came some older music: the Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by Aram Khachaturian and Nonet by Arnold Bax. Khachaturian was an Armenian composer who was more or less labeled by Stalin the official musical voice of Soviet Armenia. He's probably best known today for his score for the ballet Spartacus, which is, depending on your point of view, a pinnacle of Soviet male dancing or fun kitsch or somewhere in-between. The trio is less grandiose in tone than the ballet, burbling along among various influences from various lesser Soviet republics. It was hearty and springlike. Brenden Guy was on clarinet, Kevin Rogers on violin, and Miles Graber on piano.

Since I've read Gramophone magazine for many years, British composers like Bax are familiar names to me and I've heard quite a bit of his music over the years. The two-movement Nonet was new to me, though. He recast it from a violin concerto. In his introductory remarks Guy said that it had no program except the one individual listeners create for it. It fit in well with the Khachaturian, sharing a similar expansive playful mood. It was performed by the Curious Flights Chamber Ensemble (Sasha Launder, flute; Jesse Barrett, oboe; Dan Ferreira, clarinet; Emily Laurance, harp; Kevin Roger, violin; Tess Varley, violin; Tracy Wu, viola; Michelle Kwon, cello; Eugene Theriault, double bass; and Brenden Guy, conductor).

All in all, an extremely enjoyable concert and an auspicious inauguration for the new series. Your next chance to hear them is Tuesday, 4 June, at the Conservatory, in a program of lesser-known chamber works by centennial birthday boy Benjamin Britten. If you want to check them out before then, a note in the program said that last night's concert will be made available on CD and DVD; for more information on that, contact Curious Flights at 415-640-3165 or info@curiousflights.com.

24 April 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: May 2013 (with a little bit of April)

As noted here and elsewhere, the last weekend in April has quite the abundance of performance possibilities; nonetheless, here are a few more, before we move on to May:

The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble presents Current Events, new live music and "electro-acoustic structured improvisation" to "motion picture montages exploring the Flight AF447 disaster, drone warfare, Futurist Cities, Polar Ice Caps, and the Desert." That's Sunday 28 April at the Berkeley Arts Festival. Jack & Co. will also be back in the area on 23 May, at the Luggage Store Gallery (which does not sell luggage).

And over at the San Francisco Symphony, Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Dvorak New World Symphony on a program that also features Matthias Goerne in a couple of Wagner selections: Die Frist is um from Dutchman and Wotan's Farewell from Walkure; that's 25 - 27 April. On 28 April Goerne and Eschenbach return for Schubert's great song cycle Winterreise. It's too bad this is in the barn that is Davies Hall, but, still, I wouldn't want to miss this. And normally I'm not all rah-rah Bay Area but Cal Performances announced its new season yesterday, and it includes Gerald Finley and Julius Drake performing Winterreise (on 2 February 2014), and I just have to say I feel very fortunate to live in an area in which, in the span of a few months, I can hear two great artists like Goerne and Finley sing Winterreise.

The Symphony also has a lot going on in May, including Michael Tilson Thomas leading a festival focusing on early Beethoven; Tilson Thomas conducting the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with soloists Laura Claycomb, Sasha Cooke, Michael Fabiano, and Shenyang; and, at last, some Elliott Carter at Davies Hall: his Variations for Orchestra are on a program with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Ravels' La Valse and his Piano Concerto in D Major the Left Hand; that's 22 - 25 May, conducted by David Robertson with Marc-Andre Hamelin as soloist. There's other great stuff too, so check out their full May calendar here.

Continuing with the symphonic:

The Oakland/East Bay Symphony closes its season with a program called Saints & Sinners, conducted by Michael Morgan, featuring the Magnificat by Bach; Piano Concerto No 5, the "Emperor," by Beethoven; Le Chasseur Maudit by Cesar Franck; and Mysterium by Daniel Ritter. Terrence Wilson is the soloist in the Beethoven. The Bach features soprano Shawnette Sulker, countertenor William Sauerland, tenor Trey Costerisan, and baritone Nikolas Nackley, along with the Pacific Boychoir. That's 3 May at the Paramount in Oakland.

And from the combo platter presenters:

Cal Performances presents Canadian nouveau circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, 3 - 5 May; the Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg in Rodin, 10 - 12 May; and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, performing the Brahms 3 and orchestral works by Puccini and Nino Rota, 17 May.

San Francisco Performances closes its season with soprano Jessica Rivera and Gabriela Lena Frank at the piano on 1 May (that's part of their Salon at the Rex series, so it's 6:30 at the Rex Hotel), the Paul Taylor Dance Company in three different programs, 1 - 5 May at Yerba Buena, and a celebration of Philip Glass at 75 with the Philip Glass Ensemble accompanying Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, 23 - 25 May at Yerba Buena, and Koyaanisqatsi, 26 May, at Davies Hall.

For fans of the baroque:

American Bach Soloists presents baritone Mischa Bouvier and soprano Mary Wilson in a program of arias for bass by Bach, Silete venti by Handel, and Apollo & Dafne, also by Handel, with Jeffrey Thomas conducting; that's 3 - 6 May in various venues.

Chamber music and chamber orchestras:

New Century Chamber Orchestra closes its season with the world premiere of Lera Auerbach's Sinfonia for Strings (Memoria de la luz), birthday boy Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, and (appropriately enough) Haydn's Symphony 45, the "Farewell"; that's 23 - 26 May in their usual various locations.

Earplay closes its season on 20 May at the ODC Theater with chamber music by Alexander Elliott Miller, Richard Festinger, Ton-That Tiet, Patricia Allesandrini, and Arnold Schoenberg.

Some opera and some Lisztomania:

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents, among other things, Adamo's Little Women, 3 May.

Also at the Conservatory is a three-day festival of Franz Liszt, also featuring works by Wagner and Verdi (the theme is "Anniversaries and Connections"), with a full line-up of lectures and recitals; that's 30 May to 1 June, co-hosted by the American Liszt Society and the Wagner Society of Northern California. More information may be found here.


The San Francisco Ballet closes its season with the US premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's setting of Cinderella (music by Prokofiev), 3 - 12 May.

On the stage:

Cutting Ball Theater has the world premiere of Andrew Saito's Krispy Kritters in The Scarlett Night, directed by Artistic Director Rob Melrose, 17 May to 16 June.

Shotgun Players has extended Stoppard's Shipwreck, directed by Artistic Director Patrick Dooley, to 5 May (this is the second part of his Coast of Utopia trilogy, and it is not to be missed) and then opens Lauren Gunderson's By and By, directed by Mina Morita, which runs from 22 May to 23 June.

If you want more Stoppard, and why wouldn't you, ACT has Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff, 16 May to 9 June.

Berkeley Rep continues Pericles, Prince of Tyre, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, through 26 May, and incidentally its running time, previously listed on the site as 90 minutes, no intermission, is now 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. This month they also open Dear Elizabeth, by Sarah Ruhl based on the correspondence of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, directed by Les Waters, 24 May to 7 July.

The Playground Festival of New Works, which features new short films and full-length plays from local authors, runs 1 - 26 May; check here for more information.


Highlights at the SF Jazz Center include Regina Carter on 11 May, the Carolina Chocolate Drops on 12 May, and Dianne Reeves on 24 - 25 May, but check out their whole schedule here.

Visual arts:

At the DeYoung Museum, Vermeer's famous Girl with a Pearl Earring and other Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis are on display until 2 June.

And the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will be closing on 3 June for approximately three years, when it will re-open in expanded form, so this is the month to pay them a visit if you have any favorites you'll miss seeing. There's a new and very nicely done three gallery exhibit on the second floor highlighting the gifts of Elise Haas, including my favorite work from their collection, Matisse's iconic Femme au Chapeau.

23 April 2013

Poem of the Week Bonus: 23 April 2013

This is Shakespeare's birthday (in 1564, and also his death day in 1616, so gear up for quadricentennial of that in three years). So here's some Shakespeare:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enameled skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
Take thou some of it, and seek through this grove.
A sweet Athenian lady is in love
With a disdainful youth. Anoint his eyes;
But do it when the next thing he espies
May be the lady. Thou shalt know the man
By the Athenian garments he has on.
Effect it with some care that he may prove
More fond on her than she upon her love:
And look thou meet me ere the first cock crow.

This is spoken by Oberon the Fairy King in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I chose it for a couple of reasons. First, it fits in with the springtime theme of this month's poems (Midsummer Night is actually linked to the summer solstice and is usually celebrated on or near the feast of St John the Baptist on 24 June, but, you know, it's close enough to spring at least in mood).

The second reason is that when I was an English major at Cal I took a two-quarter survey course in Shakespeare from Janet Adelman, in which we read all of the plays except for The Merry Wives of Windsor, which she hated, which is not uncommon among those who love the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays. (She told us we could read it over the winter break if we wished.) When we read Midsummer's Night she recited this speech and paused and then said (I'm paraphrasing) that Shakespeare sometimes makes huge mistakes like putting a seacoast in Bohemia in The Winter's Tale and she and other professorial types always jump on those things, but it's because they could never produce a passage like this one, and the sheer stunning beauty of these passages is why the plays are still read and performed. And she paused again and then went on with her analysis of the play. And that moment is always in the back of my mind when the greatness of Shakespeare comes up.

22 April 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/17

April 5, 1974

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

Richard Wilbur

I thought I'd continue the spring theme with this April-specific poem by Richard Wilbur. Though different in subject from his last appearance here, it's similar in tone, with wit and lightness of touch, expressed elegantly in formal though easy-flowing meter and rhyme (notice how the rhyming couplets generally overlap rather than coincide with individual sentences, giving forward movement and a sense of sophistication to a very simple aabbcc rhyme scheme), He is skeptical without cynicism, open to the world's occasional wonders. I love the specificity of the title: he may or may not have had this actual experience on that particular date, but you can't help feeling it's all grounded in a particular time and place.

This is from New and Collected Poems by Richard Wilbur.

16 April 2013

in which I salute San Francisco Performances

San Francisco Performances announced their upcoming season today. Their offerings are varied and interesting and high-quality as usual (check them out here), but right now that's not my reason for saluting them. My reason for saluting them is their new start times for evening performances: check them out; nary an 8:00 start in the bunch, but all 7:00 or 7:30.

I have already mentioned before and described at length why I feel the once-standard 8:00 evening start time is outmoded, at least in the Bay Area, so I won't rehearse all that again here except to say that BART's recent announcement that for the next year and a half or so, due to retrofitting in the tube, all transbay trains after 10:00 PM on weeknights would be delayed by an extra fifteen-twenty minutes added some urgency to my feeling that weeknight 8:00 start times just weren't working for me anymore (most people I know had given up on them years ago). An 8:00 start time puts all the BART riders right into the delays; with 7:30 starts the problem is avoided.

Live performance is up against a lot of competition in this age of downloadable and otherwise instantly available entertainment, so organizations need to cast as wide a net as possible for their audiences. Forget the social-media flavor-of-the-month; this move to a more accommodating hour is the sort of innovative approach and fundamental rethinking (and the sort of adaptation to present realities) that organizations need.

So San Francisco Performances, consider yourself saluted. I look forward to seeing who else follows their lead.

15 April 2013

Teseo, take two

Sunday afternoon I went to First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear Philharmonia Baroque's performance of Handel's opera Teseo, conducted by Nicolas McGegan, with Amy Freston as Agilea, Dominique Labelle as Medea, Amanda Forsythe as Teseo, Drew Minter as Egeo, Robin Blaze as Arcane, Celine Ricci as Clizia, and Jeffrey Fields as the Priest of Minerva.

I had seen Teseo on stage once before, in 1985 at the Boston Early Music Festival, with McGegan conducting and staging the work (Drew Minter was also in that production, though he has risen in rank from the confidante Arcane up to King Egeo). I have some vivid memories of the show, even though it was almost thirty years ago. It was staged in the baroque style, with elaborate period-appropriate machinery carrying chosen characters on and off and up from the scene, and with sudden transformations (from garden to desert and back again), and supernatural apparitions (the cast in the playbill includes Gale Ormiston as a Horrid Monster). It was the first time I saw a baroque wave machine in action. But though a baroque audience might have seen something that looked similar, the context is different, and what looked striking and magical to them tends to look charming and quaint to us. I recall the Globe review criticizing a certain - I believe the word used was "campy" - quality, though that may have been directed specifically at the Medea, Nancy Armstrong, who had a lovely crystalline voice but was not a physically imposing stage presence; I think her efforts at stylized eighteenth-century gestures did not quite succeed in conveying danger and menace. And these operas, despite their fanciful plots, do contain real dangers and real menaces, and unless you convey those qualities seriously the operas don't quite come through. But on the whole I found it a very enjoyable evening, and it's remained such in my memory.

Some of my patience and stamina have vanished over the years, and honestly as I walked into an overly warm First Congo on Sunday, with the late afternoon sun striking directly into my eyes when I sat in my otherwise very fine seat, I wasn't sure, although Handel has always been one of my favorite composers, that I was really up for three and a half hours of him. Well, this is why we show up for these things: the performance was Philharmonia Baroque at its best. The sun sank low enough to spare my eyes and the time flew by, with consistently rich and intent playing from the orchestra and exceptionally fine singing all around; aria after aria flashed by like jewels tumbling from a dropped box.

The acoustics for singers can be tricky in that space but this time they seem to have found the sweet spot. There was an elevated platform (I think it was constructed over the altar) where the action took place, and the orchestra was clustered below and in front of the platform in a cohesive group, with the front row turned toward the conductor at the harpsichord (rather than to the audience). Sometimes I have felt that the staging at PBO can become too jokey, in a way that mocks the material; I don't really understand laughing at a literary/musical/theatrical style just because it's different from ours. This time around that problem was generally avoided, and the staging mostly fit the sophisticated humor of the piece (though there was the occasional bizarre moment - did Teseo really offer Medea some cash when he thought she was helping him to win his beloved Agilea? Or was the sun dazzling my vision?). The comic by-play was mostly charming and appropriate, as when Agilea swung her elaborate gown in gentle time with her woodwind obbligato.

The story certainly has its comedy, but it's a sophisticated Ariosto-style comedy, to go with the Ariosto-like plotline; it's a tale of romantic confusion, longing, faith, and jealousy among kings, heroes, and enchantresses, and though love ends up fairly triumphant, first the lovers must survive the horrid monsters and other malevolent spirits summoned up by the spiteful Medea. The various enchantments were left to our imagination, which was probably just as well. But the scenes were otherwise all vividly acted out, with entrances and exits (as opposed to singers sitting in a row, rising when their roles called for it). The men wore black suits and open-necked white shirts, and the women eighteenth-century-looking gowns, with Agilea and Clizia in soft patterned shades and Medea in severe scarlet. Amanda Forsythe in the castrato role of Teseo wore white pants with a long white tunic over a white shirt. She was obviously a woman, but you got the point.

The singers were uniformly strong. Jeffrey Fields was commanding in the small deux ex machina role of Minerva's priest. I had not been crazy about Celine Ricci's voice last time she was with PBO (possibly in Athalia?); I found something metallic about it; but this time I found it beautiful. Robin Blaze lived up to his surname, particularly in his first aria in the second half, Benche tuoni e l'estra avvampi (Although it thunders, and the sky is lit up, a lover's heart will not be afraid). I used to hear Drew Minter fairly often when I lived in Boston, but I have not heard him live for a very long time (though I did enjoy his recent CD). I was pleased to hear that the years had darkened a bit but not diminished the beauty of his voice. Amanda Forsythe was graceful and appealing as Teseo, and Dominique Labelle was vivid and forceful as Medea. But Amy Freston made perhaps the deepest impression as Agilea, with her sensitive and deeply felt portrayal of a woman struggling towards her love.

My program from the 1985 production, which McGegan signed for me during the intermission of this performance (it reads After 28 years I finally get to sign it / very best wishes / Nicholas McGegan)

All in all, one of PBO's more memorable performances, and quite an end to their season; check here to see what they have planned for their next one.

I have now seen Teseo live more often than I have seen Ariadne auf Naxos, Manon Lescaut, or Otello; such are the vagaries, wonders, and byways of a life spent viewing performances.

Poem of the Week 2013/16

The Pear Tree

In this squalid, dirty dooryard
   Where the chickens squawk and run,
White, incredible, the pear tree
   Stands apart, and takes the sun;

Mindful of the eyes upon it,
   Vain of its new holiness, -
Like the waste-man's little daughter
   In her First Communion dress.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I was flipping through Millay's Collected Poems looking for something else when the title of this one caught my eye, since I had just planted several pear trees in my yard, and I thought I would keep up the springtime theme with this lovely lyric, which I had never seen before. Millay is usually thought of as the glamorously louche laureate of the jazz age, which like most labels is initially helpful but ultimately useless. I'm guessing that when she wrote this she was doing some creative remembering/reimagining of Housman's "Loveliest of trees"; both feature a narrator who is struck by the sight of a seasonal flowering tree which is linked not just to rebirth and renewal but to sacred celebrations of them. I love "takes the sun," which implies not only a leisurely luxuriant basking in the sun amid the dirt and the frantic chickens, but also that the tree is taking the sun into itself (which is actually a scientific fact), almost to the exclusion of the rest of the shadowed yard. But the character I find most memorable here is one that exists only in metaphor and memory: the little girl charmingly proud of having what is rare in her life, some beautiful new finery and some momentary glory.

This is income tax due day, so here's a bonus poem: Philip Larkin's Money.

By the way, can anyone tell me how to get an em-dash in Blogger? I've tried creating them in Word and pasting them in, but it throws off the leading. Is there some code in Blogger that summons them up?

08 April 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/15

This week let us praise the piebald:

Pied Beauty

    Glory be to God for dappled things --
      For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
  For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough;
    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                          Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in late Victorian England, which may indicate some of the emotional dislocations and discontents of his life. Here he writes a psalm of praise to what he sees as God's abundance: the perfection of the unchanging reflected not just as it usually is, in variety and in abundance, but in things that might seem imperfect or flawed: the weird, the crooked, streaked, and mottled. Hopkins darts back and forth between the large and small (skies, fish,  birds, landscapes), giving them all the ultimate praise of exact and accurate observation (the reason the rose-moles are upon "trout that swim" rather than simply "trout" is that trout lose these rose-colored marks when they die, at least according to the footnote in the edition I used, the Oxford World's Classics Selected Poetry, edited by Catherine Phillips).

For a long time I would look into Hopkins occasionally and I didn't quite "get" his way of doing things. Then I read somewhere that he was very influenced by Anglo-Saxon poetry and suddenly it all fell into place: the heavy reliance on alliteration, the compound words (couple-colour, fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, fathers-forth), the oddly marked accentuation (I have omitted his accent marks, due to technological limitations). Sometimes one little remark will be the key that opens a new world to us.

01 April 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/14

Here, for the start of National Poetry Month, is the start of one of the great works of English poetry:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye -
So priketh hem nature in hir corages -
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, lines 1-18

Yes, it's Middle English! Don't freak out! I've put a paraphrase below. And if you have no idea how to pronounce the passage, check out this page, which also includes audio of these lines read by Larry D. Benson, General Editor of the Riverside Chaucer. (I took the text from the Penguin Classics "original spelling" edition, which I see differs a bit in spelling and punctuation from my Riverside edition.)

A paraphrase: When April with its sweet showers has pierced the dryness of March to the root, and bathed each root and leaf in that liquid by whose power the flowers are born; when Zephyr (the gentle West Wind) has also with his sweet breath breathed life into the tender crops in every grove and field, and the young sun* is halfway through the constellation Aries, and small birds sing and sleep with open eyes all night (so Nature inspires their hearts): then folks long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers [pilgrims] seek strange shores, and distant shrines known in various lands - and especially from every shire's end of England they make their way to Canterbury, seeking the holy blissful martyr [St Thomas a Becket] who helped them when they were sick.

* "Young" since it has just passed the vernal equinox.

Chaucer died over 600 years ago but these lines are as fresh and dewy-green, as essentially spring-like, as when he first wrote them. Despite changes in language and circumstance and custom we can still recognize the signs he notes of the earth's annual rebirth: the gentle winds and rains bringing forth tender new buds and shoots, the birds returning to caroling life, the restless stirring that urges us out into the world after gloomy sickness.

About National Poetry Month: I was hoping to post a daily poem as I did last year, but for a number of reasons I am not going to be able to do that this year. So feel free to re-read last year's poems - they're still good! And, remembering the economic basis of our culture, if you read a poem you like, click on the link (there's one in each of these entries) and buy the book(s).

Also, the Knopf publishing house will e-mail you a poem each day in April if you like; you may sign up on their homepage. Again, if you like the poem . . . support the arts and buy the book.