30 April 2014

Haiku 2014/120

written after being forced to listen for hours to the nonstop yapping of the brainless goddam dogs in this neighborhood:

there is a reason
the guard of Hades is not
a three-headed cat

29 April 2014

fun stuff I may or may not get to: May 2014

Shotgun Players present Daylighting: The Berkeley Stories Project, written by Dan Wolf (based on real-life stories from Berkeley residents) and directed by Rebecca Novick, 22 May - 22 June at the Ashby Stage; more information here.

Cutting Ball Theater continues its run of the American premiere of Samuel Gallet's Communiqué No. 10, translated and directed by Rob Melrose, through 25 May. And the Hidden Classics Readings Series closes out its season on 4 May with Rabinal Achí, an ancient Mayan play translated by Dennis Tedlock and directed by Lakin Valdéz. More information on the Gallet is here and on the Hidden Classics reading is here.

The Berkeley Symphony closes its season on 1 May with a concert featuring the local premieres of some new music (Salonen's Nyx and Saariaho's Adriana Songs) and some very familiar music (the Beethoven 5). Joana Carneiro conducts and mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm is the soloist in the Saariaho, which is drawn from her second opera, Adriana Mater. The San Francisco Symphony will be playing the Salonen about a year from now, so this is a rare chance to hear a new big orchestral piece twice, with different ensembles. More information on the Berkeley performance may be found here.

The San Francisco Symphony presents Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Brahms 4, Lemminkäinen's Return by Sibelius, and the Bartok Violin Concerto No 2 with soloist Christian Tetzlaff, 14 and 16 - 17 May (details here); Tilson Thomas also conducts works by Fauré, Schubert, Grieg, Litolff, and Debussy, along with the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Yuja Wang, 22 - 25 May (details here); and Charles Dutoit conducts the Poulenc Gloria, the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, and the Fauré Requiem with soprano Susanna Phillips and Hanno Muller-Brachmann, 29 - 30 May (details here).

New Music
Check out Volti (under Choral) for new music by Ted Hearne (the SF Symphony's New Voices composer for next season), Melissa Dunphy, and Kireke Mechem.

Also check out the Berkeley Symphony (under Symphonic) for local premieres of works by Salonen and Saariaho.

The Center for New Music presents Hoods, a "chamber opera mash-up of the Red Riding Hood and Hekabe stories" by Carolyn Chen on 23 May; details here. ("Hekabe" is a more authentic transcription of the name of the woman usually known as "Hecuba.")

They also present Wild Rumpus Music on 3 May in a program of "reinterpreted and reinvented materials" featuring music by Lee Weisert, Eliza Brown, David Lang, Asha Srinivasan, and Daniel Wohl; more information here.

Baroque Music
The San Francisco Symphony presents Ton Koopman leading two Bach-related programs: first by J S Bach and C P E Bach on 1 - 4 May (details here) and then only by J S Bach, including the Missa Brevis, on 8 - 10 May (details here).

The San Francisco Symphony also presents violinist Christian Tetzlaff performing Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin on 11 May; details here.

San Francisco Performances presents mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and pianist Warren Jones on 3 May at the Nourse Theater, with a program of songs by Poulenc, Ferré, Brel, Coward, Porter, and the DeSylva/Brown/Henderson team. More information here.

The San Francisco Symphony presents baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky with pianist Ivari Ilja in an all-Russian program that includes the Shostakovich Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buanarroti on 25 May; details here.

Volti presents a new piece by Ted Hearne, who was recently named the San Francisco Symphony New Voices Composer for next season, along with works by Melissa Dunphy and Kirke Mechem. That's 17 May at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco or 18 May (at 4:00) at the Marsh Arts Center in Berkeley; more details here.

Chora Nova presents an all-Zelenka concert at First Congregational in Berkeley on 24 May. More information here.

The Lacuna Arts Chorale performs works by J S Bach, Buxtehude, Mendelssohn, Hindemith, and Distler on 16 and 18 May at St Luke's Episcopal Church (at Clay and Van Ness in San Francisco); more information here.

The San Francisco Symphony plays along with Disney's iconic Fantasia (as well as its lesser sequel, Fantasia 2000) on 31 May and 1 June; more information here.

This year the San Francisco Silent Film Festival moves from July to late May – 29 May to 1 June, to be exact. This year's programs look exceptionally enticing; they have great stuff every year, but this time they seem to have a higher than usual percentage of things I haven't already seen on DVD. They have great live music at all the performances, which are held in the ornate Castro Theater. Get more information, including the schedule, here.

The SF Jazz Center presents guitarist Marc Ribot playing along to Chaplin's The Kid on 29 May; more information here.

Cal Performances presents the Marcus Shelby Orchestra in a tribute to Duke Ellington. The first half includes Ellington standards, featuring Faye Carol and violinist Matthew Szemela, and the second half includes actors from the California Shakespeare Theater, helping present the Ellington-Strayhorn Shakespeare suite, Such Sweet Thunder. That's 2 May; more information here.

The SF Jazz Center presents violinist Regina Carter paying (and playing) tribute to her southern grandfather, 1 - 4 May (more information here); they also have The Bad Plus 8 - 11 May, with their version of The Rite of Spring on the 8th and 11th (more details here).

Chamber Music
Cal Performances presents cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han demonstrating The Unfolding of Music with sonatas by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Britten; that's at First Congregational Church on 3 May; more information here.

Cal Performances presents statistician Nate Silver on 4 May; more information here.

City Arts & Lectures presents soprano Jessye Norman in conversation with Michael Tilson Thomas on 13 May; details here.

Haiku 2014/119

drooping in the heat
springtime's fading blooms litter
dusty avenues

28 April 2014

Haiku 2014/118

those crisp river waves
held me strangely captive then,
and still haunt me now

Poem of the Week 2014/18

for National Poetry Month, poets writing to poets: James Schuyler on Frank O'Hara

To Frank O'Hara

for Don Allen

And now the splendor of your work is here
so complete, even
"a note on the type"
yes, total, even the colophon

and now people you never met will meet
and talk about your work.
So witty, so sad,
so you: even your lines have

a broken nose. And in the crash
of certain chewed-up words
I see you again dive

into breakers! How you scared
us, no, dazzled us swimming
in an electric storm
which is what you were
more lives than a cat

dancing, you had a feline
grace, poised on the balls
of your feet ready
to dive and

all of it, your poems,
compressed into twenty years.
How you charmed, fumed,
blew smoke from your nostrils

like a race horse that
just won the race
steaming, eager to run
only you used words.

Stay up all night? Who wants to sleep?
It is not your voice I hear
it is your words I see
foam flecks and city girders

as once from a crosstown bus
I saw you waiting a cab in light rain
(drizzle) as once you
gave me a driving lesson and the radio

played The Merry Widow. It broke us up.
As once under the pie plate tree
it broke you up to read Sophie Tucker

– with the Times in a hammock –
had a gold tea service. "It's way out
on the nut," she said, "for service,
but it was my dream."

James Schuyler

Schuyler and O'Hara were long time friends; both were associated with what was labeled the "New York School" of poets, analogous to the "New York School" of painters, the action painters and abstract expressionist that the poets hung out with (both men worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Both led messy lives, in the echt gay Bohemian style of their times. Schuyler worked for a few years as a secretary to W H Auden; apparently he found the latter's formal inventiveness and virtuosity intimidating, and part of his reaction was to develop in the opposite direction, towards a less structured poetics (similarly, Beckett's experience as a secretary to Joyce during the writing of Finnegans Wake led him to realize he could only grow in the opposite direction, towards the stripped-down). Both of these New York poets makes subtle, conversational music out of what might look like random detritus until they make the readers see it with their amused, intelligent, enthusiastic eyes, revealing that it is actually the stuff of real poetry.

O'Hara died young, only 40 years old, after being struck early one morning by a vehicle on a Fire Island beach. In this poem, Schuyler contemplates all that is left of the man he knew: his collected poems, which will, more and more as the people who actually knew him pass on, replace the man himself as the reality of "Frank O'Hara." The line between the man and his poetry is particularly blurry in the case of an observational, autobiographical poet like O'Hara. In this poem Schuyler slips back and forth between the two entities, the man he knew and the poems that man wrote: "so witty, so sad, / so you: even your lines have / a broken nose." The "crash of words" turns into a memory of the man diving into the waves (crash there might be an oblique reference to O'Hara's death), and the reckless, enthralling way he lived. As the dead man recedes farther into memory, his influence remains in how Schuyler sees the world: "It is not your voice I hear / it is your words I see" . . . .  Schuyler moves towards some memorable glimpses of his friend, ending with a somewhat camp reference to the sort of glam performer O'Hara enjoyed (see his poem Lana Turner has collapsed!); in this case, it's Sophie Tucker with her golden tea service: a useless, beautiful, heartbreaking dream.

I took this from the Selected Poems of James Schuyler, though since Schuyler has also now become his poems, perhaps I should upgrade to the Collected Poems.

27 April 2014

Haiku 2014/117

a sudden sun-flash
the empty street briefly shines
golden, like your skin

26 April 2014

24 April 2014

Haiku 2014/114

breathtaking beauty
and then heartbreaking beauty
beauty takes and breaks

23 April 2014

Haiku 2014/113

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

Poem of the Week Bonus: for Shakespeare's birthday

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

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

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

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

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


Marcus: But yet let reason govern thy lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 April 2014

Haiku 2014/112

empty restaurant
a woman sings about love
the sun is so bright

21 April 2014

Haiku 2014/111

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

Poem of the Week 2014/17

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

To Allen Ginsberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 April 2014

Haiku 2014/110

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

19 April 2014

Haiku 2014/109

spring winds, blow gently:
delicate, eternal grass
already gives way

17 April 2014

Haiku 2014/107

hanging translucent
hallucinatory leaves
burning like green fire

16 April 2014

Haiku 2014/106

slightly out of place,
like a sandwich shop during
breakfast or dinner

15 April 2014

Haiku 2014/105

before I knew it
extravagant spring had sprung
and I missed winter

14 April 2014

Haiku 204/104

shadow bodies pass
floating over the sidewalk
a cloud blots them out

Poem of the Week 2014/16

For National Poetry Month, poets writing on poets: Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
     please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
     please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
     please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signalling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
     Please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capeful of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
     please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
     please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
     so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
     please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
     please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
     please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
     please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
     please come flying.

Elizabeth Bishop

Moore was in many ways a mentor to Bishop, and though like all such relationships theirs contained hidden tensions and anxieties as the one being mentored gradually became more independent, still the two poets maintained a deep long-term friendship (described by Bishop in her essay Efforts of Affection). This poem contains affectionate echoes of Moore's own poetry:

– the analytical but sensuous descriptions, so precise that they sometimes verge on the comically obscure: I take "to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums" to refer to the wheels on the subway train that would carry Moore from her home in Brooklyn, and the "countless little pellucid jellies / in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains" to refer to the way the sunlight plays on the little scooping wavelets as the two rivers converge;

– the intense attraction to the natural world, particularly animals: the butterflies, the musk deer, the bower-bird, the sandpipers; even the sky is "a mackerel sky" and the flags rise and fall like birds, and the grammar of Moore's conversation "turns and shines / like flocks of sandpipers flying";

– the tendency to turn these descriptions into moral assessments of how one should behave (which includes how one should speak and write): the "grim museums" will be for her "like courteous male bower-birds"; it's mentioned as an appealing point (with some gentle underlying satire) that "Manhattan / is all awash with morals this fine morning"; moralizing is not always considered a praiseworthy activity, particularly for modernist poets, but here the "wash" in "awash" helps create the sense that the city is cleaner and better because of it; the emphasis on courtesy is part of this moral view of how one should live: even the ships "are signalling cordially," and notice the salutation to Miss Marianne Moore – the use of the title shows not only a certain formal courtesy (which perhaps to some extent precludes intimacy) but also signifies how well the younger poet understands what the older woman would consider a respectful approach;

– the use of negative constructions, which is part of the emphasis on precision (saying something is not unnecessary is a shade different from saying it's necessary); and

– the erudition lightly worn, in the broad range of references and vocabulary (and I take "heaven knows how many angels all riding" on the brim of Moore's hat to be a reference to the academic joke about medieval scholastics debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and also the two poets naturally head to the reading rooms of the New York Public Library, and the lions guarding the steps are eager to follow them inside – I think that's also a bit of an in-joke, since the arranged spot for their first meeting, when Bishop was still a Vassar student, was by the lions at the entrance to the New York Public Library).

Bishop describes Moore as slightly above the dirty workaday world; she repeatedly invites her to come flying, and you get the impression this doesn't just mean "travel with great speed," it actually means flying through the air, "mounting the sky with natural heroism." There is an aura of benevolent witchery around the air-borne poet; she is costumed almost like the witches of tradition, with pointed black shoes that magically trail sapphire highlights (there are several references in the poem to things that are blue; perhaps it was a favorite color of Moore's?), a black cape (from which she can release both butterfly wings and bon mots, both flashing, elusive, lovely things), and a hat with a broad black brim (on which perch her attendant spirits, the clustering angels). This is in fact also an accurate description of how Moore dressed, at least later in life, to judge from photos of her.

But beneath this world made beautiful by Moore's presence (without seeing through the eyes of her poems, would we notice among other things how gracefully the rivers carry their "little pellucid jellies"?) there is a sense of what she feels compelled to rise above: would Moore come with a "slight censorious frown" if there weren't plenty of things to frown at? And why would Bishop suggest they might "bravely deplore" things if they both weren't conscious of how much of the world is deplorable: the accidents, the malignant movies, "taxicabs and injustices at large" – a list of the specific and the general, jumbled together in a way that must connect with Bishop's knowledge of Moore's experiences.

And there is a deeper sadness – one of Bishop's first suggestions for activities during the visit is "to sit down and weep" (followed comically by the suggestion that as an alternative they might go shopping). Bishop emphasizes that "the flight is safe" as if Moore would feel residual fear and distrust of venturing outside her borough. Her poetic calling itself helps isolate her from the world around her: she hears "a soft uninvented music" which she is trying both to invent and to share with a largely indifferent world that often sees things otherwise. Poetry is a game (Moore is of course the poet who famously declared about poetry "I too dislike it"), but a game that involves an endless botching of the irreplaceably valuable: "a priceless set of vocabularies" with which they are "constantly being wrong" – you can never quite capture and convey what you're trying to capture and convey, no matter how precise you are (even assuming that someone is paying attention at all). Failure haunts even her best efforts. And though the poet's eccentricity is part of her charm, it also cuts her off from others and hides a deeper loneliness and alienation. The poem offers Moore the comfort of showing that her friend has studied and valued her lifetime's work.

There are now several editions of Bishop's work to choose from; the ones I have of The Complete Poems 1927 - 1979 and The Collected Prose are still available, though there are also more recent versions of both poetry and prose, as well a stout volume from the Library of America.

13 April 2014

Haiku 2014/103

the sun pinks my skin
the sun descends in pale gold
the moon smiles sweetly

12 April 2014

Haiku 2014/102

walking under trees
a calm wind, the icy stars
above all, silence

11 April 2014

10 April 2014

Haiku 2014/100

in this hustling world
O petal, O wind, O worm,
I will notice you

09 April 2014

Haiku 2014/99

I woke up today.
I could breathe, and I could move.
I count my blessings.

08 April 2014

Haiku 2014/98

trudging on sore feet
trudging to work in the heat
sweet breeze, caress me

07 April 2014

Haiku 2014/97

I watched the wind rise
I watched the watchful sun set
I watched and waited

Poem of the Week 2014/15

Continuing the National Poetry Month theme of poets writing about poets: Byron on Milton

In his long comic epic, Don Juan,* Byron shows himself the heir of Alexander Pope: with technical skills as dazzling as their wit, both poets release their intense moral fervor (as well as the generally contentious nature of a born outsider) in scathing satirical attacks on the moral, political, and personal failings of their contemporaries (many of whom, as with the enemies whom Dante consigned to various tortures in his Inferno, are preserved for us like flies in amber only because they were abused by a great poet). Don Juan opens with an insolent and hilarious "dedication" that is really an attack on the Lake poets, including Wordsworth but particularly the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. Like Wordsworth, and like many others who grew up in the shadow of the French Revolution and watched as an idealistic attempt to forge a new social contract based on equality and justice degenerated into tyranny and terror, Southey had (rather understandably) pulled away from the radical beliefs of his youth. But instead of turning away from politics, Southey espoused (not consistently, but regularly) reactionary opinions that were a far cry from his youthful feelings. There was some suspicion that being made Laureate was his reward for giving the Tories what they wanted: in short, that he had "sold out."

Byron assures the Laureate that future ages will think even less of him than his contemporaries do, contrasting Southey the turncoat Tory with Milton the rejected regicide, whose posthumous reputation was strengthened by an unshakable integrity of the sort Southey lacks:

If fallen in evil days on evil tongues
   Milton appealed to the avenger, Time,
If Time, the avenger, execrates his wrongs
   And makes the word Miltonic mean sublime;
He deigned not to belie his soul in songs,
   Nor turn his very talent to a crime.
He did not loathe the sire to laud the son,
But closed the tyrant-hater he begun.

Think'st thou, could he, the blind old man, arise
   Like Samuel from the grave to freeze once more
The blood of monarchs with his prophecies,
   Or be alive again – again all hoar
With time and trials, and those helpless eyes
   And heartless daughters – worn and pale and poor,
Would he adore a sultan? He obey
The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?

stanzas 10 - 11 from the Dedication to Don Juan,  by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Byron begins by playing off the opening of Book VII of Paradise Lost, in which Milton (now blind, poor, very much on the losing political side, and actually in danger of execution) calls on heavenly inspiration (personified by the muse Urania) to see him through his epic task, hoping for at least a few readers in the future who will appreciate and understand his work:

. . . though fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers Nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East: still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

Paradise Lost, Book VII, ll 25 - 31

Byron not only quotes Milton's words, he subtly echoes his rhetorical and musical flourishes; just as Milton has "fall'n on evil days / On evil days though fall'n," Byron has "the avenger, Time / If Time, the avenger. . . ." Milton's political beliefs, so closely allied with his religious beliefs, have often been stumbling blocks even for (maybe especially for) those who share the latter: it's difficult to read critical remarks on Milton by Samuel Johnson or T S Eliot without feeling that their real problem with him is his radical rejection of royal authority. Byron of course had no problem rejecting authority and embraces this aspect of the older poet, particularly in the striking image of Milton rising up "to freeze once more / The blood of monarchs. . . ." Byron is here referencing 1 Samuel, Chapter 28, in which Saul, the King of Israel, contravenes his own orders against witchcraft by visiting in disguise the Witch of Endor and asking her to summon up Samuel, the dead prophet and leader of Israel, who informs Saul that God has abandoned him and will take his kingdom from him. It's a fitting tribute to Milton, who wrote so much based on the Old Testament, including a major work on another judge of Israel, Samson, that Byron here compares him to one of the ancient Hebrew prophets, particularly one who informed a king that he was divinely doomed.

The "intellectual eunuch Castlereagh" refers to Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who was the foreign secretary of England from 1812 to 1822, when he committed suicide. The footnote to my edition** gives a sympathetic and measured brief account of the man and his career; we don't really read Byron for sympathetic and measured accounts of political figures, but it's good to have scholars smudging our black and white pictures into various grays.

* Dazzle your friends (not the English majors, they already know this) by giving the title its correct pronunciation, Don Jew-wun. Someone will inevitably think you're an idiot (such is the price one pays for being correct!), at which point you can condescendingly explain that Byron and his contemporaries anglicized the pronunciation of the Spanish name. We know this because unless you pronounce Juan as two syllables, the lines don't scan correctly. Also Byron rhymes it with things like "new one."

** I used Don Juan by Lord Byron, edited by T G Steffan, E Steffan, and W W Pratt.

06 April 2014

Haiku 2014/96

once blackened by rain
these sidewalks are now sun-bleached
to ash gray, to bone

Haiku 2014/95

our breaks in routine
themselves turn into routines
trapped on carousels

04 April 2014

03 April 2014

Haiku 2014/93

sitting at my desk
waning like my friend the moon
both waiting for dark

02 April 2014

Haiku 2014/92

that vase in that room
filled with dusty fake roses
lit up by real light

01 April 2014

Haiku 2014/91

gentle April sun
shines winter's shabby fixtures
sequinning the streets

Poem of the Week bonus: for Whan That Aprille Day

I loathe April Fool's Day and all practical joking, so I was delighted to see that our very own Geoffrey Chaucer is bravely attempting to start a new holiday: Whan That Aprille Day, in honor of all old, middle, ancient, archaic, and even dead languages. Geoffrey encourages us to use the hashtag #whanthataprilleday on Twitter. You may read his statement here.

If you're looking for some straight-up Chaucer goodness, you should check out last year's Poem of the Week for the start of National Poetry Month (you may find it here).

Otherwise, to mark the beginning of National Poetry Month and Whan That Aprille Day, here is a lyric in Middle English. The text here is fairly straightforward, even for those with little experience of Middle English. Begild in the fourth line of the first stanza means beguiled; on in the last line of each stanza and the third line of the third stanza means one, that is, the one the speaker loves; certen in the fourth line of the second stanza means certainty; brakes in the second line of the third stanza means bracken, ferns. Unlucky in love, our woeful and anonymous poet seeks a hermitage in the wild woods:

I must go walke the wood so wild,
     And wander here and there
     In dred and dedly fere,
For where I trusted, I am begild,
     And all for on.

Thus am I banisshed from my blis

     By craft and false pretens,
     Fautles without offens,
As of return no certen is,
     And all for fere of on.

My bed schall be under the grenwood tree,

     A tuft of brakes under my hed,
     As on from joye were fled;
Thus from my lif, day by day, I flee,
     And all for on.

The ronning stremes shall be my drinke,

     Acorns schall be my fode;
     Nothing may do me good,
But when of your bewty I do think,
     And all for love of on.


This is from Middle English Lyrics, a Norton Critical Edition selected and edited by Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman.