30 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2014/1

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
     And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
     When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
     Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
     Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
     And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
     When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
     The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
     When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It isn't quite 2014 yet, but this is a poem about transition, so it will serve to carry us forward past the last few days of 2013.

As with Rich's Diving Into the Wreck, this is on its surface a poem about maritime activity, but even more clearly, barely a fraction of an inch below the surface, it is about something else; perhaps I should write Something Else, since clearly, in both poems, something deeply significant is implied. Sunset and evening star, twilight and evening bell, and the dark, and the farewells: these signal an end to an earthly life, and the poem explores a passage from one state of existence to another, or, more exactly, a return from one state of existence to a place of deeper origin. In the atmosphere created by these words, the use of bourne (meaning a region) in the first line of the fourth stanza will bring to our minds Hamlet's description of death, in his suicide soliloquy (Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, ll 56-89), as "The undiscovered country, from whose bourne / no traveler returns." The sea, throughout human history, has been a place of uncertain returns. Fathomless, vast, and mysterious (and how much more so in the nineteenth century, before the age of deep-sea exploration), the sea is an earthly equivalent of the universe, a vast region like a physical manifestation of our unanswerable metaphysical questions, surrounding us, sustaining us, reminding us of our ultimate insignificance but also connecting us with larger forces. There is no indication of a destined land for the speaker, when he finally embarks; he will simply be carried farther and farther out on the flood. The sea, the "boundless deep," is here seen as itself the destination, as "home," though an unknown one, and the waves returning back from the shores are described as "turn[ing] again home."

What is the bar that he must cross? I'm going to excerpt the Merriam-Webster definition, because I like the way it's phrased:

2:  something that obstructs or prevents passage, progress, or action: as
c :  a submerged or partly submerged bank (as of sand) along a shore or in a river often obstructing navigation

What I like about this definition, in the context of this poem, is that it emphasizes the obstructive implications of "bar," instead of just stating that it can be a submerged bank near a shore. The bar is a difficulty that must be overcome; clearly, these difficulties are much on the poet's mind: the bar is mentioned in the title, and in the last line, and much of this brief poem is taken up with a wish that the tides might be high enough for smooth sailing past it, smooth enough so that the waves seem asleep. This is one of the great Tennysonian themes, the pull of sleep and languor and semi-stupefied dreaminess against the need to move forward and take action – no wonder he admired Virgil, another melancholy singer of another imperial power.
I take it that the bar would moan when the tides are low enough for it to emerge, so the waves lap and splash against it, and the wind hits against it, making it difficult to navigate past it. In addition, the idea of moaning connects us to mourning and wailing, which, like "the sadness of farewell," the speaker is hoping to avoid, though he realizes he can do no more than urge – he uses a non-imperative may when expressing the wish that these things be avoided. This poem may at first appear very definite, but it is actually one of great uncertainty: no moaning of the bar, and smooth sailing, and no sad farewells, are all things he is wishing for, not necessarily things he can demand, or things that he will get. He doesn't know when he will embark. He doesn't even know where he's going – the flood "may bear him far" but the use once again of may indicates that he doesn't really know, and it's not something he controls. In fact he hasn't been in control at any point; there is a Pilot, an unnamed, mysterious guiding force, who has been in charge all along. In the context of the life transition suggested by the poem, the Pilot pretty clearly seems to be God, or a God substitute, and the ending may sound like a Victorian expression of solid faith, but we have seen by now how slippery may can be. Note that the speaker does not say he shall see, or he trusts he will see, or he knows he will see the Pilot – no, he merely and modestly hopes that he will see the Pilot – which leaves open the possibility that he will not see the Pilot face to face, or even that there is, in truth, no Pilot to be seen in any form. He can only hope. A frequent stereotype of the Victorians is that they are stodgy industrious optimists, but here the poet they took to their hearts is expressing the deep religious and philosophical uncertainties that tormented the age.

For the new year, here's hoping – I was going to add more, but what more do I need to add? Here's hoping.

A hat tip to Sibyl for suggesting this poem. I took this from Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks, though I think any selection of Tennyson's poems or of nineteenth-century English poetry would include it; immediately upon its publication in 1889 it was seen as a culmination of Tennyson's work, and he wanted it printed as the final poem in all collections of his work. He said he wrote it in about twenty minutes; sometimes these things crystallize deep down and spring forth suddenly like that.

23 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/52

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out,
     On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
     Deep, and crisp, and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
     Though the frost was cruel;
When a poor man came in sight,
     Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me,
     If thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
     Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
     Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
     By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
     Bring me pine-logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine,
     When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went,
     Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament
     And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now,
     And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
     I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page,
     Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
     Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod,
     Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
     Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
     Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
     Shall yourselves find blessing.

J M Neale

We'll close out this year with this Christmas carol, which seems to be falling out of favor; I have piles of Christmas music CDs, and I'm not sure it's on any of them, and if asked to recite it last week I doubt I'd have made it much past the fifth line. There's an interesting Wikipedia entry on the song, which gathers many of the less flattering assessments. There seems to be some resentment that these mid-nineteenth century words were grafted onto an actual medieval tune, much as we now decry Victorian "improvements" on simple and rough-hewn old churches. But I find this an enjoyable example of the moral improvement school of poetry, and I'm always entranced by legends of the saints. The words remind me of pre-Raphaelite stained glass or tapestry; though there is a clear attempt to recreate a medieval style, it is even more clear that you're looking at nineteenth-century work.

The beneficiary of Wenceslas' miracle is not actually the impoverished peasant, but the young page boy; the whole thing seems like an odd reflection of Victorian capitalism, in which the employee is benefited by following his benevolent master's instructions, ending up with an exhortation that the rich should do good to the poor because that ends up helping the rich. This seems like a weird but well-meant attempt to appeal to the selfishness and self-interest inherent in capitalism with the argument that ultimately benefiting others benefits the really important person – you. We still hear versions and variants of this argument today. It is left ambiguous in the song if the "blessing" referred to is in this world, as in this story, or in the next; our contemporary versions usually aim for something in the middle, as in if you help others you "have improved self-esteem" or you "feel good about yourself."

Saint Stephen is the first martyr (his death by stoning appears in The Acts of the Apostles), and the Feast of Stephen is December 26, which is the only thing in the song that makes this a specifically Christmastime story rather than just a wintertime tale. Saying the peasant lived "underneath the mountain" rather than at the foot of the mountain may be an attempt to sound elevated and archaic, but, as is often the case with such attempts, it sounds a bit ludicrous to us, as if the peasant were the Troll King.

I took this from Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series.

16 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/51

The Maid-Servant at the Inn

"It's queer," she said; "I see the light
     As plain as I beheld it then,
All silver-like and calm and bright –
     We've not had stars like that again!

"And she was such a gentle thing
     To birth a baby in the cold.
The barn was dark and frightening –
     This new one's better than the old.

I mind my eyes were full of tears,
     For I was young, and quick distressed,
But she was less than me in years
     That held a son against her breast.

"I never saw a sweeter child –
     The little one, the darling one!
I mind I told her, when he smiled
     You'd know he was his mother's son.

"It's queer that I should see them so –
     The time they came to Bethlehem
Was more than thirty years ago;
     I've prayed that all is well with them."

Dorothy Parker

Here's a charming Christmas poem from what may seem like an unexpected source, but bittersweet is one of Parker's dominant modes. I love that she tells the familiar story through an unfamiliar voice; it's like one of those Brueghel canvases crowded with faces and action and off in one corner is Jesus preaching or walking to Calvary – speaking of which, the "more than thirty years ago" in the penultimate line is particularly poignant; traditionally, Jesus began his public ministry when he was thirty, and was killed three years later, so the ambiguity of time might mean Jesus is already dead, and his mother already grieving, by the time the maid-servant recounts this memory.

If you're attracted by the Christmas aspect of this poem, you can find it in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets collection of Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and JD McClatchy; if you are drawn to the Dorothy Parker aspect, you can also find this poem in The Portable Dorothy Parker. The very old copy I have is the one edited by Brendan Gill, so I've linked to that, though I see there's also a new collection edited by Marion Meade, but I'm not sure what's in that one.

09 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/50

Moon in the Bucket

Look out there
in the bucket
the rusty bucket
with water unclean

A luminous plate is floating –
the Moon, dancing to the gentle night wind
Look! all you who shout across the wall
with a million hates. Look at the dancing moon
It is peace unsoiled by the murk
and dirt of this bucket war.

Gabriel Okara

"This bucket war" – the bucket, like the wall and the hates shouted across it, is made by people; it is old, beat up, rusty so that the water is rendered useless, meaning the bucket itself is useless, though no one has thrown it out; it is a place of murk and dirt; it is constricted, yet it contains its own rebuke in the form of a reflection of the moon. That is what the bucket war is like. The moon is luminous, it is dancing, or rather its reflection is dancing as the gentle night wind ripples the water dirtied by the bucket. The water, the moon, and the night wind are from the natural world, interacting with yet so much larger than the rusty bucket and the war. Excluding the title, this brief poem has only 57 words, yet five of them are look, the artist's ultimate injunction: look at what is there, not what you think is there; look, observe, notice, pay attention.

Gabriel Okara is a twentieth-century Nigerian poet. I took this poem from The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry.

04 December 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December 2013

The year draws to a close. In the rather brief list below I have mostly omitted holiday events; I'm not making any sort of point there, I too love Messiah, Nutcracker, Christmas Carol, tinsel and shiny fragile things; it's just that I have had even less time than usual the past month, and the best holiday performances are the ones you go see every year in your own beloved personal traditions, and you already know about those. (I'm sorry this is not one of the years when Cal Performances presents Mark Morris's The Hard Nut; it's become part of Christmas for me.) And I have the impression that there is less non-holiday stuff going on this year than usual, and more of it seems to be happening very early in the month. So enjoy whatever holiday doings are precious to you, and let's let this year slip softly away.

Philharmonia Baroque has been concentrating on one city each concert, and on 6-8 and 10 December it follows up its terrific visits to Naples and St Petersburg with London; Nicholas McGegan is joined by soprano Yulia Van Doren and tenor Thomas Cooley in John Stanley's Concerto in B minor, Op. 2, No. 2, William Croft's The Burial Service, and William Boyce's Solomon. I'm really loving how much of their repertory this season has been rare and offbeat. OK, they're also performing Handel's Messiah, which is neither rare nor offbeat, but there are reasons it is so beloved, and you can discover or rediscover them 14-15 December (in association with Cal Performances). Speaking of Cal Performances, they also are presenting the Kronos Quartet's 40th Birthday concert, with a host of special guests and music by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and George Crumb. That's 7 December in Zellerbach Hall.

Shotgun Players continues its tradition of alternative holiday programming with Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness, written by Anthony Neilson and directed by Beth Wilmurt, which promises us "a sensual Edwardian world." I'm getting a steampunk vibe off this but I might be completely wrong; I myself won't find out until early January, but you can check it out between 5 December and 12 January 2014 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

The Berkeley Symphony presents Brett Dean's Carlo for strings, sampler, and tape, inspired by the music of Carlo Gesualdo, along with cellist Peter Wyrick (a familiar face in the cello section of the San Francisco Symphony) playing Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 as well as the Brahms 2. Joana Carneiro conducts. That's 5 December at Zellerbach Hall on the Berkeley campus.

The Lacuna Arts Ensemble performs a cappella works by Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Hindemith, and Corigliano, along with Charpentier's Messe de minuit pour Noël accompanied by baroque instruments, on 15 December at 3:00 at St Luke's Episcopal Church (1755 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco; the cross street is Clay).

Magnificat, The Whole Noyse, and the San Francisco Early Music Society join forces to present a Venetian Christmas, featuring works by Gabrieli and Monteverdi, 20 - 22 December in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

02 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/49

Two poems by twentieth-century Polish poet Anna Swir:

The Greatest Love

She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."

Her children say:
"Old fool."

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan


I Am Running on the Beach

I am running on the beach.
People puzzled.
– A gray-haired hag and she runs.

I am running on the beach
with an insolent look.
People laugh.
– Grey-haired and insolent.
They like that.

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

I should probably point out that juxtaposing these two poems is my idea, not the poet's and not the translators'. I liked that both deal with the same basic subject – an old woman finding pleasure in her current life – and end with such different reactions. The poet is clearly conscious of her audience and gives their reactions the last word in each poem. Yet you don't feel that the reaction in either case matters all that much to her; she is not abashed by her children who think she's an old fool, or encouraged to play up her insolence for the further amusement of the people on the beach. She is not only an active participant in her life, but a disinterested observer of it – was she always like this? or is this an effect of aging? (Most of her poems about flesh and eroticism were written when she was an old woman, according to Milosz's introduction to Talking to My Body, from which I took these poems.) In her short, concentrated poems, simple in language but not implication, she often writes of her body as if it were a long-time, much-loved pet: she is affectionately aware of all its moods and ways, yet there seems a gap, however slight, between her consciousness and it.