Monday, February 28, 2011
Wherever the flamingo goes,
she brings a city’s worth
of furbelows. She seems
unnatural by nature—
too vivid and peculiar
a structure to be pretty,
and flexible to the point
of oddity. Perched on
those legs, anything she does
seems like an act. Descending
on her egg or draping her head
along her back, she’s
too exact and sinuous
to convince an audience
she’s serious. The natural elect,
they think, would be less pink,
less able to relax their necks,
less flamboyant in general.
They privately expect that it’s some
poorly jointed bland grey animal
with mitts for hands
whom God protects.
-- Kay Ryan
Hap Notes: I love Kay Ryan's (born 1945) phrase "unnatural by nature." Ryan was the Poetry Consultant (see? I said it- hate the term but I'll use it instead of laureate if that's what I have to call it) for the U.S. just last year. She was a bit of an outsider poet, no-one was more surprised than she was when she was named laureate. Her several books of verses are certainly worth the position, though. Her poetry is vividly and often eccentrically phrased and is full of surprises (as most good poetry should be.)
One of the reasons I like Ryan is because she went to a "community" or "junior" college and I find them admirable for their abilities to give you the basic requirements for a college degree without the crippling expense. If you're going to have to take English 101, how much better to take it in a small class at a community college than in one of those "teaching theaters" full of a couple hundred students. I always hated those big lecture classes- nobody knows anyone and your papers are graded by grad students you've never met. It's not at all what one hopes college is about.
Ryan was born in San Jose, California and went to Antelope Valley College and later, the University of California in Los Angeles. She lives somewhere in Marin county, just like George Lucas. Her poetry flew under the radar until she was included in a few anthologies in the mid 1990s and, of course, it certainly didn't hurt that Dana Gioia has written several good pieces about her. If there's anyone in this country that you want to impress with your poetry, former chairman-of-the-NEA poet Gioia would be the guy. She worked with community college programs while she was laureate.
Ryan privately published her poetry by subscription and only one of her books had been backed by a New York publishing house. She's an object lesson in writing poetry; write it, publish it and let it go. Her poetry style is refreshing, usually fairly short, remarkably worded observations, as if she's some amalgam of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore with a bit of Emily Dickenson in the mix. And remember what I always say; poets want to be published- it's hard and competitive and somewhat arbitrary.
A flamingo is an unusual creature, it has that reputation, like the puffin, for its odd and entertaining good looks. There are a great many analogies one could draw from this poem about people, writers, musicians and artists as well as animals. (And as a side note, I've always liked the British "grey" spelling better than the American "gray" spelling- it just seems right.) She has compression, the thing so undervalued in much contemporary poetry. It's a joy to read her thoughtful, densely packed verses with the often delightfully surprising conclusions or observations. She allows you to be a part of the poem as you read through it over and over. Her poems often strike me like some revelatory thing a stranger has said to you during the day- I keep coming back to it and pondering it.
Here's a good Ryan quote from her interview in the Paris Review: " I’d bought a tarot deck—this was the seventies—a standard one with a little accompanying book that explained how to read the cards, lay them out, shuffle them—all those things. But I’m not a student and was totally impatient with learning anything about the cards. I thought they were just interesting to look at. But I did use the book’s shuffling method, which was very elaborate, and in the morning I’d turn one card over and whatever that card was I would write a poem about it. The card might be Love, or it might be Death. My game, or project, was to write as many poems as there were cards in the deck. But since I couldn’t control which cards came up, I’d write some over and over again and some I’d never see. That gave me range. I always understood that to write poetry was to be totally exposed."
and another (and apply this to the poem, now): "I’ve always been sickened by the whole discussion of natural tone, natural voice. I think that’s ridiculous. Every tone, every voice is unnatural, and it is natural to be unnatural. So there’s nothing to talk about. It works or it doesn’t work. I don’t think that anybody ought to tolerate the tyranny of the idea of “natural” voice."
You can find a lot more Ryan here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/kay-ryan
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Small Woman on Swallow Street
-- W. S. Merwin
Hap Notes: In the past couple of decades, William Stanley Merwin (born 1927) has become more zen-like in his poetry but this isn't one of those. This poem always scares me a bit and I believe it's supposed to. The big dark gaping grins of her boots is a terrifying image as she seems to be swallowed up by her overly large footwear on her small frame.
This woman is being swallowed up by her own darkness. The world, and everything in it, is too big for her. Just don't look up at that wide expanse of sky, at things beyond your hat brim. Keep your head down, wear a big coat for protection, and hurry along. She is over 50, she's not a young woman, but she is determined to keep on moving. She's clever but nervous.
Here's what Robert Bly says about "Small Woman on Swallow Street": " The poem is cunning and strong. The evil in human nature is not related to Adam or Eve, or to theological doctrines, or to something the Greeks might or might not have done, but to kindly members of sewing circles in little towns in Pennsylvania, members of the poet's family, white protestants." It's an interesting interpretation.
Merwin's dad was a minister. He was born in New York and the family moved to Pennsylvania where Merwin grew to love the natural world. The property had a barn and a big yard and he used to talk to a tree out in the back yard when he was a kid. You gotta love a kid who talks to trees and wrote hymns for his father to see.
When my sister was around 9 or 10, my mom dressed her up as a little old lady for Halloween. She had on a long old flowery dress, a big coat, a dark blue hat with powdery pink flowers and she drew lines on her face to simulate wrinkles. The sparkle in her eyes was of a little girl but she actually looked old. She had a cane for walking. She was a little slip of a thing. Seriously, that silly costume on my sister scared the bejesus out of me. It was like looking at fast-forward mortality. I often think of my sister-as-an-old-lady when I read this poem. The story of my sister-as-an-old-lady is a tale of making sure you still have that child inside of you as you age-scary as that may seem to others. The poem is sort of what happens when you don't- when you give the child in you away. You will die anyway, but at least you'll be curious about it and not scared of it. You won't be swallowed up by your own darkness.
Merwin's career has been long and illustrious. He's won two Pulitzers and dozens of prestigious poetry prizes. He was friends with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, he studied under R.P. Blackmur at Princeton and he knew John Berryman. He was a good friend of James Wright. He has written more than 30 books of poetry and is the 2010-2011 current U.S. Poet Laureate.
Ever since he moved to Hawaii some 30 years ago, his poetry has taken on a certain open- hearted philosophical quality that is often very Zen like. I think his surroundings have something to do with this. He built his home there at the foot of a dormant volcano. He has a large garden there that has become a sanctuary for rare plants. He is a practicing environmentalist.
Here's one of my favorite Merwin quotes: "As soon as I could move a stub of pencil and put words on paper, I wanted to be a poet."
You can find more Merwin (whom we will see later on this year) here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/w-s-merwin
Saturday, February 26, 2011
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 signaling 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.
Hap Notes: Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and Moore (1887-1972) were friends and Moore served as a mentor for the young Bishop, being 24 years older. They met when Bishop was in her early 20s and Moore in her late 40s and Bishop often mentions the generational differences in the their lives. They maintained their friendship for more than 35 years, often corresponding in letters (you know, those old fashioned, hand-written missive sent through the post office. A dying art, the letter.) [Breaking off briefly to say that one hopes our correspondences will not be reduced to reproduced "tweets" on our phones. Was watching the ESPN coverage of the Carmelo Anthony (and the Knicks got Billups, too!) trade and they had graphics displaying the tweets. (!?)]
It's obvious from the poem that Bishop loved Moore and maybe even received a bit of motherly warmth from this, which she surely could have used since Bishop's own mother was in a mental institution the whole time she was growing up. Of course, Moore was a formal woman (one part of the generational differences) and Bishop never even called her "Marianne" for two years of the friendship, calling her "Miss Moore" until Moore invited the younger poet to use her first name.
Moore and Bishop's poetry have one vital thing in common in that they are both detailed observers of the things and life around them. Bishop called Moore "the world's greatest living observer" and carefully composed letters writing little observances and anecdotes to her. Moore was a good reader, a wise adviser and an honest critic and helper with Bishop's poetry.
Bishop met her through a librarian friend at Vassar. Moore and Bishop set up a time to talk. Here's Bishop describing the event.
"I was very frightened, but I put on my new spring suit and took the train to New York. I had never seen a picture of Miss Moore: all I knew was that she had red hair and usually wore a wide-brimmed hat. I expected the hair to be bright red and for her to be tall and intimidating. I was right on time, even a bit early, but she was there before me (no matter how early one arrived, Marianne was always there first) and, I saw at once, not very tall and not in the least bit intimidating. She was forty-seven, an age that seemed old to me then, and her hair was mixed with white to a faint rust pink, and her rust-pink eyebrows were frosted with white. The large black flat hat was as I’d expected it to be. She wore a blue tweed suit that day and, as she usually did then, a man’s “polo shirt,” as they were called, with a black bow at the neck. The effect was quaint, vaguely Bryn Mawr 1909, but stylish at the same time. I sat down and she began to talk."
and later in the meeting:
"Happily ignorant of the poor Vassar girls before me who hadn’t passed muster, I began to feel less nervous and even spoke some myself. I had what may have been an inspiration, I don’t know—at any rate, I attribute my great good fortune in having known Marianne as a friend in part to it. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was making a spring visit to New York and I asked Miss Moore (we called each other “Miss” for over two years) if she would care to go to the circus with me the Saturday after next. I didn’t know that she always went to the circus, wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and when she accepted, I went back to Poughkeepsie in the grimy day coach extremely happy."
I love the idea of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop at the circus together. Makes me feel as happy as the flying poet descriptions in the poem. The illustration is an epergne, if you didn't know what it was (and why should you?).
Moore, in her letters to Bishop, seems a bit cooler and less emotive than Bishop in her letters but the younger poet wisely understood that this was generational. Moore was raised in a time of more formal manners, where personal remarks were kept to a minimum and cordial relationships were not casual. Readers older than 40 may recall older teachers or relatives who were like this. Their every thought was not expressed, nor did they think it proper that it should be. Moore was anxious to help Bishop and wrote to her many times telling her this. Remember how I said yesterday that Moore spoke in complete sentences? That's how educated people generally spoke (and still speak sometimes.)
Bishop says, "She must have been one of the world’s greatest talkers: entertaining, enlightening, fascinating, and memorable; her talk, like her poetry, was quite different from anyone else’s in the world."
If you want to review what we've discussed about Bishop go here: happopoemouse.blogspot.com/2011/01/number-34-elizabeth-bishop-filling.html
Friday, February 25, 2011
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and
school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
-- Marianne Moore
Hap Notes: Since I mentioned this poem yesterday, I felt it might be good to see the whole thing today.
Marianne Moore (1887-1972), in addition to lots of other distinctive things, liked a good hat. She wore a little tricorn hat and a cape when she was the toast of New York. She loved sports, wrote the liner notes for Muhammed Ali's spoken word album, enjoyed watching boxing matches and was a great baseball fan. One of her prized possessions was a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle. She threw out the first pitch for the 1968 season at Yankee Stadium. She recognized Christy Mathewson's pitching at the first ballgame she ever attended, just from reading his book on the subject. She even wrote a poem "Baseball and Writing."
She was born and raised in Kirkwood, Missouri (it's pretty close to St. Louis) and was brought up by her grandparents and her mother as her father had left before she had even been born (he had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in the east.) She graduated from Bryn Mawr and started publishing poetry in 1915. She was the editor of the literary journal The Dial for a few years and was instrumental in the careers of Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsburg and John Ashberry, just to name a few.
Moore's Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. She was great friends with Wallace Stevens. They were both fairly conservative Republicans. (Which today means they were centrist Democrats. The Republican party has strayed a long way from its original principles in the last 40 years.) Moore never married. She lived with her mom until 1947 (when her mom passed away.)
This particular poem, "Poetry" is one of her most famous and anthologized. She tinkered with it off and on her whole life. At one point the poem was just the first two sentences, Moore claiming the rest was just "padding." Obviously the poet does not dislike poetry however she does make a scattered case for the poetry she does like and the poetry she does not. What it boils down to is that she hates affected obtuseness and wants a poem to be genuine.
It's interesting to note that when she compiled a list of what she felt were the greatest literary works, she chose Keats and Byron and even Ogden Nash but not Shelley. If you want to see what she listed visit here: www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/moore/exhibit.htm. Her handwriting, also on the website, is pretty and familiar as old school Palmer Method (with maybe a little Spencerian. Don't know what I'm talking about? It's the way many of us were taught cursive writing in school, that's all.)
Moore was a well read, clever, crisply turned out woman who was a marvel with her use and appreciation of words. In interviews she is tart and a little like a bemused educated sprite. She was one of those people who spoke in well ordered whole sentences.
Here's a good Moore quote: "It never occurred to me that what I wrote was something to define. I am governed by the pull of the sentence as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity. I like the end-stopped line and dislike the reversed order of words; like symmetry."
You can find more Moore here: www.poemhunter.com/marianne-moore/
Thursday, February 24, 2011
I Have News For You
There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood
and there are people who don't interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.
There are people who don't walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable
and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings
do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others' emotional lives
as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;
and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.
Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,
who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.
Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.
I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room
and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.
-- Tony Hoagland
Hap Notes: Tony Hoagland (born 1953) is so accessible, like Billy Collins, that you almost get blind-sided by the deep stuff lodged in its seemingly simple heart. You feel like he's chatting with you, or maybe you're overhearing him talk to someone, or talk to himself and then everything telescopes out into the larger universe. He's a guide to the cosmos that you met in the hardware store. He's an especial favorite of mine.
The difference between everyday speech and describing what is pulsing underneath it, is poetry. Hoagland is certainly poetry and not just idle conversation. Contemporary conversational poets give one the illusion of casual observances but they are laid in the cement of poetry. They claim poet as their title. They published it as poetry. It may seem like I am stating the obvious. Again, read closely.
In "I Have News For You" what is the poet saying about us, about poets? Marianne Moore, in her poem about poetry says "there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle." Hoagland is maybe saying the same thing about contemporary angst.
Hoagland grew up on Army bases, his dad was an army doctor. He was born at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. (I love the name Fort Bragg. Even though it was named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg, it always sounds to me like a perfect name for the military.) He went to a variety of colleges (I think he was on the classic ten-year plan where it takes you ten years to figure out how to pay for it and what to major in and man, wouldn't it be cool to just hang out and have a job for a year thing.) He currently teaches at the University of Houston.
Here's a good Hoagland quote (I'm always stunned to find out that people other than me did this- I used to think it was an odd thought, but apparently it's somewhat common.) : "I know that people often say "you want to learn poems by heart so that if you ever go to prison you can say them to yourself, and it will give you consolation and comfort and companionship." I think that was true for me, and that it still remains true for me."
And another: "I feel that we are so drowned in a culture whose media forces and spin-doctoring are so powerful, so pervasive, and so hard to ignore, that poetry is actually well-equipped to present a model of what our experience is like right now. It is able to name it, to name the affliction which is very, very hard to name. To name that affliction that an ordinary American experiences walking around: the enormous confusion of hierarchies; the value and information; the bombardment; the difficulty of finding stillness."
You can find more Hoagland here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/tony-hoagland
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
-- Richard Brautigan
Hap Notes: Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) has a name that even sounds like poetry to me but it may be because I loved his stories and poems and books when they were refreshingly new and somewhat shocking. I kept battered copies of Brautigan books (Most notably In Watermelon Sugar and Revenge of the Lawn) with me, in my purse or backpack or slipped into a pouch on the cover of a three-ring binder, for many years. I always think I've outgrown him. Then, I re-read something of his that hits me just right and I fall in love with him all over again.
Born in Tacoma, Washington, Brautigan grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He moved to San Francisco in 1956 but before you nod knowingly about the "Beats" and the hippies I'm here to tell you that Brautigan, when he's good, transcends all that. He has a "whistling in the dark" positivity that is un-Beat-like. He's not a "flower child", he's more of a tree. He has a whimsical bent which is often childishly referred to as "childish." There's a wounded, still hopeful soul under most of his stories and poems and while this IS childlike, it's no more so than any other person on earth.
Brautigan was diagnosed as schizophrenic/depressive and given shock therapy in his twenties. He was a shy man with a very gentle soul. His personality came to life when he read his own poetry aloud: Here he is reading "Gee, You're So Beautiful It's Starting To Rain" www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiCyDhoI1-0. His book Trout Fishing in America made him a counter-culture hero and famous enough to be featured in magazines. It has sold over 4 million copies. The books he wrote allowed him to travel and live. He visited Japan several times and loved it there.
Some writers, fans and friends of Brautigan's have expressed surprise at his suicide in 1984 but, quite frankly, I'm always surprised the gods allowed us to have him as long as we did. Here's a clue: he committed suicide in his home. When they found him, he'd been dead for weeks. He walked alone.
Brautigan's short stories are always my favorite. His stories are populated with old ladies who feed bees and people who replace their plumbing with poetry and movie directors' beautiful daughters. There's one in particular where he says he's trying to tell someone how he feels about a girl and he likens it to rural America first getting electric lights- how amazing it was that they could have bright lights on in the dark-the electricity! His work is charming, eccentric and fits into no particular genre.
He had a very rocky upbringing with several abusive step-fathers and the soggy sadness of poverty in the northwest. It's a little off but I always think of him being somewhat like Curt Cobain (Nirvana.) Brautigan, like Cobain, in spite of his fame, had no one to whom he could relate and even if he did, there was no way to put it into words as hard as he tried.
Here's a good Brautigan quote: "All of us have a place in history. Mine is clouds."
You can find more Brautigan here: www.brautigan.net/poetry.html
Bonus poem because it's so hard to select just one Brautigan- he's like a candy store- so much delicious stuff:
Moonlight on a Cemetery
Moonlight drifts from over
A hundred thousand miles
To fall upon a cemetery.
It reads a hundred epitaphs
And then smiles at a nest of
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Superb and sole, upon a plumed spray
That o'er the general leafage boldly grew,
He summ'd the woods in song; or typic drew
The watch of hungry hawks, the lone dismay
Of languid doves when long their lovers stray,
And all birds' passion-plays that sprinkle dew
At morn in brake or bosky avenue.
Whate'er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say.
Then down he shot, bounced airily along
The sward, twitched in a grasshopper, made song
Midflight, perched, prinked, and to his art again.
Sweet Science, this large riddle read me plain:
How may the death of that dull insect be
The life of yon trim Shakespeare on the tree?
-- Sidney Lanier
Hap Notes: I promise this is the last "bird" poem for a while. This one is so irresistable, though. Just the line "Whate'er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say" is just so perfect, almost as remarkable as the work of the author Lanier (1842-1881) claims the bird to be like.
Sidney Lanier often uses multiple rhythms and unusual words in his poetry which has the faint tones of Gerard Manly Hopkins (they were contemporaries in two different countries who never met- it's just an artistic coincidence.) A little help for some of the words: bosky means lots of shrubbery and/or trees, prinking is to groom a bit showily, a sward is an area of grass, twitched means the bird pulled or moved suddenly.
Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia and the state is so proud of him they named a lake and a bridge after him. He even got a commemorative stamp in 1972. That "Smith Brothers" beard he sported was the fashion of the day, especially in the south, (The Smith Brothers used to be on a cough drop package for those of you who don't know- two somber looking bearded men who looked like they could scare the cough out of you. Since the last Smith Brothers cough drop was made in 1972, it dawns on me this is an obscure reference.)
Lanier was something of a musical prodigy. He learned to play the flute and later the violin, guitar, banjo and the piano without lessons. He taught himself musical notation and wrote an interesting book on the connections of musical notations and poetry. While he was a lawyer, he also, at one time was the first chair flautist for an orchestra in Maryland. He fought for the Confederates during the Civil War, he was captured and incarcerated in a military prison where he contracted tuberculosis. He suffered from TB for the rest of his fairly short life. He also taught English Literature at Johns Hopkins University.
Lanier strikes me as one of those people who was madly talented in the arts yet felt it could not be a respectable full-time career. He was drawn to music and poetry like a magnet to steel.
His reputation was more vital in the south. He wrote some dialect poems that can make one wince now, but some of his work is brilliant and sharply observed, like our poem today.
Here's a Lanier quote: "Music is love in search of a word."
and here's a telling excerpt from a letter he wrote to his dad: "My dear father, think how, for twenty years, through poverty, through pain, through weariness, through sickness, through the uncongenial atmosphere of a farcical college and of a bare army and then of an exacting business life...think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances...these two figures of music and of poetry have steadily kept in my heart so that I could not banish them."
You can find more Lanier here: famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/sidney_lanier/poems
Monday, February 21, 2011
heron is gray, not blue, but great enough
against brown-tipped bowed cattails to be
well-named, is known for its stealth, shier
than a cloud, but won't fly or float away
when it's scared, stands there thinking maybe
it's invisible though it's not—tall, gray,
straight as a pole among the cloudy reeds.
Then it picks up one stem leg. This takes time.
And sets it down just beyond the other,
no splash, breath of a ripple, goes on
slowly across the silt, mud, algae-
throttled surface, through sedge grass,
to stand to its knees in water turning
grayer now that afternoon is evening.
Now that afternoon is evening
the gray heron turns blue, bluer than sky,
bluer than the mercury blue-black still pond.
So when did it snag the bullfrog
hanging, kicking, in its scissor beak?
To look so long means to miss the sudden.
It strides around like a sleek cat
from pond to bank and back, blue tall bird,
washing the frog, banging it against stones,
pecking almost as if it doesn't know
what to do now that it's caught such a thing.
How fast its beak must be to shoot out
like an arrow or that certain—as it's called—
slant of light. Blue light. Where did it go?
-- David Baker
Hap Notes: This is a lovely poem by David Baker (born 1954) and he's right, as you can see from the picture the "blue" heron is not really blue although some magic takes place around twilight and makes it seem so from the "violet hour" and the water and its feathers' depths.
Of course, bird nut that I am, I have to point out that it's not the "knee" of the bird one sees when looking at the odd way bird's legs seem to work. It's an elongated ankle bone, much like yours is, only extended. The "knee" of all birds, as it corresponds to human anatomy is hidden up in the feathers and it bends the same direction as yours does. The heron and the flamingo have especially long "ankle bones." Most birds have very long necks, although you don't see this because their necks are usually coiled in an "s" position (that's why dead birds' heads seem to bobble so much if you pick them up- the "s" is uncoiled.) In the case of the heron and the flamingo, the neck is uncurled and straight although some long necked birds (not the heron) fly with their necks in the "s" position. None of this is essential to the poem but close observation of our "dinosaur" neighbors is often rewarding if you know what you are looking at.
Herons move very cautiously, gracefully and slowly. They are often good at camouflaging themselves in the reeds and cat-tails but it's just because they can stand very still. The poet talks about the bird standing still thinking this will make you think it's not there. Which, once a human has spotted them, looks odd. One supposes this works better when avoiding predators. This delicately slow moving bird can snag a frog or mouse with lightning speed, though.
Baker makes his observations about the bird but already the mind is making other connections with human behavior and perceptions. The light at twilight is often called the "magic hour" because for about an hour before dark, the natural lighting is most flattering and beautiful. Then, it quickly evaporates. Seriously, even a garbage dump gets some magic from that hour.
David Baker has written nine books of poetry including his highly lauded most recent one, Never-Ending Birds. He was born in Maine, raised in Missouri and is a professor of English at Denison University in Ohio. He also edits the Kenyon Review. His prose books on poetry sparkle.
[ Little side note which shows the circuitous way poetry works:
One of the reasons I chose Baker is because I read an interview with him where he said that the first poetry he read was by James Whitcomb Riley and I was charmed by this. Riley's was the only poetry book my grandparents owned and it's a marvel that Baker (and I) grew to love poetry from this except....
Riley wrote a poem "Knee Deep In June" that is full of choppy, idiomatic vernacular like "Sort o' so's a man kin breathe/ Like he ort, and kind o' has/ Elbow-room to keerlessly/ Sprawl out len'thways" etc. and it's a bit of a gnarly read (aloud helps) but in the poem (which is long) he describes a blue jay as being in a "baseball suit" and it rings so delightfully true. I wanted to use the poem but, honestly I couldn't make ya'll hack through it. It's worth a read though and here it is if you want to tackle it- it has rewards: www.poemhunter.com/poem/knee-deep-in-june/ ]
Here's a good Baker quote: "To write poetry is to place one’s faith in music and mystery and magic and difficulty—a commitment to the imagination’s powerless power and to freedom of all kinds—and also in the long-range hope that the work of poets matters to a culture as well as to an individual."
You can find more Baker here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/david-baker
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Hap Notes: Well, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) that most meticulous selector of words has one glaring error in this poem: what bird is he exactly talking about? A Rusty Blackbird? A Red-Winged Blackbird? Is he talking about a Crow or a Grackle or a Raven? Maybe even a Starling? You find this unimportant? Sorry. It's important to me. The "Common" Blackbird (like the one in the Beatles song) is European. Crows are from a completely different family as are Grackles. Obviously there's one more way of looking at a blackbird than Stevens realized- or maybe he did, dunno. It's sort of an added mystery to the poem for me.
Stevens said that this is a poem about sensory experiences or sensations and that, my friends, is the very best explication you will find on this poem. The more you read about it the more confusing it becomes. Some people have philosophical examples that relate to each section, some deal with the words, some go out on a limb much farther than a sensible blackbird would go to make an ornate ontological statement about "being." Here's what I say-- Stevens has allowed you to feel what you feel and experience the poem in your own way (so now there are 16 ways of looking at a black bird if we count yours (and everyone else's) and mine.)
Here are a few of my guides but I don't know that they will help you:
In IV I think he's talking about the idea of all creatures being one in the universe.
In V he may be talking about the bird's inflection and innuendos or that of the language we use.
In VI he's giving a description of what it looks like when you see the flight of the blackbird through a section of icicles- you'll see moving black spaces that almost look like a kind of bird semaphore or Morse code or maybe like a broken teletype machine (if you remember those.)
In VII he said that he liked the sound of the word "Haddam" which he knew to be a real whaling town that he thought sounded "Yankee." Men often search for profit while crows see the women...
In IX the many circles could be the eye, the horizon, the latitude etc.
In X the "bawds" of "euphony" or the brothel keepers of sweet sounds is maybe a bit of a tweak to British"lyric" poetry. Lyric poets were often engaged to write specific poems for special occasions. It may be a bit of a stab at the unnaturalness of this.
In XI the "glass coach" could mean a variety of things. Trains and buses have "coach" travel. So did Cinderella. If you would look out of the window as you were traveling in one of these coaches and see blackbird shadows around it, what would it look like? Probably a little scary. By the by, the coach that Princess Di and Charles used at their wedding was called the "Glass Coach" and it was made in 1911 for the Lord Mayor of London and was subsequently bought by the royal family. I don't think he means this coach but it's possible.... many interpretations are possible which is more or less one point of the poem. Could be another tweak to British poetry? Also, the shadow of a car sometimes looks as though it's made of glass.
Number XIII needs no explanation for those who live in snowy climes. I don't know how many times this part of the poem has gone through my head during a dark afternoon (which feels very much like evening) when the clouds were relentlessly, silently snowing.
Stevens gives us sort of an American version of Haiku poems in this very cubist look at a blackbird. The bird can stand for what you can make a consistent case for, really. I tend to look at the poem as more about the nature of creatures and observations. The observation changes the creature. What you define you may diminish or aggrandize. It's all about perspective. "Thirteen Ways" was published in 1917. Pretty modern stuff, still, isn't it?
Stevens' use of the language is quite extraordinary. He comes up with phrases that will echo in your head, float up to your consciousness unbidden and mysterious. I can never rid myself of the phrases in "Sea Surface Full of Clouds", the rosy chocolate, the gilt umbrellas, the Chinese chocolate, the "paradisal green," the "breakfast jelly yellow" etc. He turns the language into a modernist paintbox and gives us normal sentence structure (the canvas) and unusual images (the cubism or abstract expressionism) with odd and exotic sounding words (the paints.) For a poet who passed away in 1955 it's amazing how his poetry is still wrangled with by students and teachers alike. He said that "Life is not people and scene, but thought and feeling. The world is myself. Life is myself."He was always trying to describe this. I love his poetry but would never claim I understood it all.
Stevens went to Harvard, then went to law school. He worked as a lawyer for a while in New York and then took at job at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (insurance) in 1916 where he was eventually vice-president of the company. Later, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard but he would not give up his position at Hartford. I suppose there were many reasons for this but I can't imagine that even Harvard would give poet more money than an insurance company. He'd been comfortable in Connecticut for years, too. Plus, I imagine he had more free time to write at his desk there than he would have gotten at Harvard. Just imagining, here.
Stevens married a woman his dad thought was beneath him and consequently he never spoke or visited his parents while his father was still alive. Stevens wife eventually had some mental illness that manifested itself in paranoia. They had one child, a daughter they named Holly. So Stevens had no family to which to turn and no wife to be his friend. This sorrow leaks out of a lot of his poems.
His first book of poetry was published in 1921 so he wrote poetry while being an insurance executive. He was a very odd and inscrutable man. He took a few holidays in Key West, after falling in love with the place on a business trip. He managed to get into a drunken argument with Robert Frost one time when he was there, they sort of "wrestled" on the sandy beach. Stevens once had a fist-fight with Hemingway at Key West, too. Hemingway won. Stevens actually broke his hand when he punched Hemingway in the jaw. That Hemingway iron man stuff wasn't all talk.
Stevens won many prizes for his work including the Bollingen and the Pulitzer.
Robert Frost called Steven's poetry "bric-a-brac" (it's harsh but a little true don't you think?) Stevens was reputedly a hard man to work for at the insurance company. He was shy and liked a couple of stiff drinks once in a while- although never at work. He was a very conservative man on the outside, on the inside? Well, from what we can tell from the coded postcards of poetry ("from the volcano" maybe?) he left behind, he was sensitive, thoughtful and strangely exotic- like a new kind of hothouse flower with brilliant colors. With maybe poisonous leaves.
Here's a good Stevens quote (he wrote a great deal of brilliant prose on poetry): "A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have."
and another: "In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all."
again: "Most people read poetry listening for echoes because the echoes are familiar to them. They wade through it the way a boy wades through water, feeling with his toes for the bottom: The echoes are the bottom.'
one more: "Nothing could be more inappropriate to American literature than its English source since the Americans are not British in sensibility."
You can find more Stevens here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/wallace-stevens
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Hap Notes: I don't suppose you'll ever see a pair of eyes filled with greater sadness than those of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). His vision was not good and he wrote most of his poetry in his head (!) and recited it to people who acted as secretary and wrote it down. He scribbled out some of his poetry himself though but it was usually fully formed in his head first. So some of this sad look may be just poor vision. However, he was a sensitive soul who retracted at criticism, was very shy and had deep heartaches over the loss of his soul-mate friend (Arthur Henry Hallam) and from the fear of mental illness which plagued his family. He was often a little depressed and required quite a bit of "alone time."
Tennyson's father, the Reverend George Clayton Tennyson, was an imposing big man with a "high temper." He had an alcohol problem and was, as he aged, somewhat erratic and difficult with his kids (he had 12 of them). One of Alfred's brothers had an opium problem, one had an explosive temper and another one was institutionalized. George suffered from several mental breakdowns which were aided somewhat by the alcohol. George said of his children,"They are all strangely brought up." It's no wonder Alfred was happy to go to Trinity College, Cambridge. His father died a couple of years after he'd been in college and he had to leave with no degree.
It was in college where Alfred met Arthur Hallam, his best pal. Hallam was later engaged to Tennyson's sister (Hallam wrote her sonnets) and when he died in 1833 (cerebral hemorrhage), it was a life blow to the shy Tennyson who enjoyed Hallam's intellect and confidence. That same year Tennyson published a book of poetry that met with unfavorable reviews. It was a crappy year for Alfred and he suffered. Of course there's always talk of the homoerotic nature of a male-male friendship. The allegations about Hallam are merely contemporary speculation, there's no proof that anything other than genuine, deep extraordinary friendship existed between the two men (and by the by, even if there was, so what?) And Alfred married the love of his life, Emily Selwood. They named their first child after Hallam.
Now before I go any farther into stories about Tennyson let me say that I believe this poem is about Tennyson himself. The "falling like the thunderbolt" may be a bit of imaginative wish fulfillment but the loneliness is all Tennyson's. [The picture at top is a Golden Eagle- he probably wasn't talking about a Bald Eagle which are indigenous to the U.S. hence it's our "national bird." Golden Eagles were common on the Isle of Wight in this era and Tennyson spent some time there.] It wouldn't be uncharacteristic of Tennyson to think of himself in this way, not in a pretentious way but as a supreme loner. He was certainly treated in a respectful and majestic manner as he was both Poet Laureate of England and given a Lordship (which he turned down when offered by both Gladstone and Disraeli and ended up taking it because Prince Albert, who loved his work, asked him to.) Notice that the bird is so high on a crag that the waving sea just looks wrinkled. All the words in the poem all so well-chosen for sound aren't they?
Queen Victoria considered Tennyson a friend and they corresponded by letter. She even wrote of the times he visited her in her diaries.
Lewis Carrol was a friend of Tennyson and took many of the photographs one sees of Tennyson and his children.
Tennyson had a large voice to equal his large frame and his usual Spanish hat and cape. If you'd like to hear it visit www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=1569 where you can hear a wax cylinder recording of him reading "The Charge of the Light Brigrade." The recording is eerily crackling but his voice is stern and dramatic still.
Tennyson is the second most quoted author in Oxford Dictionary of quotations. It is Tennyson who wrote, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." In fact, it would take forever to quote all the bright passages in Tennyson's work. His ear for English is divine.
Tennyson was sort of obsessed by the Arthurian legends and visited many of the places reputedly to be Arthur's stomping grounds. Honestly, without Tennyson it's hard to imagine that anyone would have the same feelings or images about King Arthur and the round table. Tennyson wrote many poems based on the legends and pretty much characterized all the people in the stories from Arthur to Lancelot to Guinevere to Galahad and Elaine.
Tennyson out-sold Longfellow even here in the states and he made a rather good living from it. When I was in junior high, I spent many rainy afternoons reading Idylls of the King or Maud ("Come into the garden, Maud") or The Princess or The Lady of Shallot and I thought at the time that Ulysses was one of the greatest poems ever. I still think it's mighty good. I always loved Mariana in the Moated Grange, too.
Crossing the Bar is one we may do later in the year. Tennyson said it came to him all at once and he hastily scribbled it out on the back of an envelope. He asked that any of books of his collected poetry should end with Crossing the Bar.
Here's a good Tennyson quote: "No man ever got very high by pulling other people down. The intelligent merchant does not knock his competitors. The sensible worker does not work those who work with him. Don't knock your friends. Don't knock your enemies. Don't knock yourself."
And another: "We cannot be kind to each other here for even an hour. We whisper, and hint, and chuckle and grin at our brother's shame; however you take it we men are a little breed."
You can find more Tennyson lots of places but here's one: www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/300
Friday, February 18, 2011
Why I Need the Birds
When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.
By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together —
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.
-- Lisel Mueller
Hap Notes: Lisel Mueller (born 1924) was born in Hamburg and came to America with her family in 1939 as they were fleeing Nazi Germany. English is her second language and she uses it as one who cherishes its metaphors and twists of phrase. She graduated from the University of Evansville where her father was a professor. She worked as a social worker, a receptionist, a library worker and a freelance writer and editor and translator. She was a teacher at Goddard College in their MFA writing program as well as at the University of Chicago and Elmhurst College.
Mueller's mother passed away in 1953 and she has said she started writing much of her poetry to express her grief. Those of us who have lost parents know that very deep and unusual sadness.
She's won many awards and grants including the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and the National Book Award. Her Pulitzer was for Alive Together: New and Selected Poems.
Mueller has a delicacy of phrasing that is quite unique. In the poem she shows us the world slowly revolving as the day progresses with the birds "always a little ahead" of her. The birds wake early and bring in the day, they nest in the trees at night "riding" the revolving planet with us. She notices that the birds are always around. It's amazing how many birds and creatures surround us while we are often unaware of their presence. The poem is full of curves, the curve of the earth, the rainbow and the birds a bit ahead of the curve.
By the way, I think we all really need the birds for a lot of things. Mueller's observance that they are present and watchful in their daily lives is probably something we could emulate more.
Her poems are full of common things uncommonly observed with a remarkable imagination. There is always a slight edge of sadness to her poems, I think. Her books of poetry are all tight with metaphor and the secrets of being human.
Here's a good Mueller quote: " Memory and poetry go together, absolutely. It is a matter of preserving and of remembering things."
You can find more Mueller here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/lisel-mueller
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Emperor's Bird's-Nest
Once the Emperor Charles of Spain,
With his swarthy, grave commanders,
I forget in what campaign,
Long besieged, in mud and rain,
Some old frontier town of Flanders.
Up and down the dreary camp,
In great boots of Spanish leather,
Striding with a measured tramp,
These Hidalgos, dull and damp,
Cursed the Frenchmen, cursed the weather.
Thus as to and fro they went,
Over upland and through hollow,
Giving their impatience vent,
Perched upon the Emperor's tent,
In her nest, they spied a swallow.
Yes, it was a swallow's nest,
Built of clay and hair of horses,
Mane, or tail, or dragoon's crest,
Found on hedge-rows east and west,
After skirmish of the forces.
Then an old Hidalgo said,
As he twirled his gray mustachio,
"Sure this swallow overhead
Thinks the Emperor's tent a shed,
And the Emperor but a Macho!"
Hearing his imperial name
Coupled with those words of malice,
Half in anger, half in shame,
Forth the great campaigner came
Slowly from his canvas palace.
"Let no hand the bird molest,"
Said he solemnly, "nor hurt her!"
Adding then, by way of jest,
"Golondrina is my guest,
'Tis the wife of some deserter!"
Swift as bowstring speeds a shaft,
Through the camp was spread the rumor,
And the soldiers, as they quaffed
Flemish beer at dinner, laughed
At the Emperor's pleasant humor.
So unharmed and unafraid
Sat the swallow still and brooded,
Till the constant cannonade
Through the walls a breach had made,
And the siege was thus concluded.
Then the army, elsewhere bent,
Struck its tents as if disbanding,
Only not the Emperor's tent,
For he ordered, ere he went,
Very curtly, "Leave it standing!"
So it stood there all alone,
Loosely flapping, torn and tattered,
Till the brood was fledged and flown,
Singing o'er those walls of stone
Which the cannon-shot had shattered.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Hap Notes: Popular poets take note: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was, at one time, the most popular poet in the country. There are few people born before 1940, who were not required as student to memorize one of Longfellow's works including "Paul Revere's Ride" (O Listen my children and you will hear...), Song of Hiawatha (Should you ask me, whence these stories? Whence these legends and traditions...) , or "Evangeline" (This is the forest primeval...).
Once my nephew was complaining about memorizing something for school. My mother and her friends were sitting in the kitchen chatting (they are all over 70.) I smiled and said to him, "Listen to this...." I called out to the group in the kitchen, "Under the spreading chestnut tree..."
And my mom and her friends paused in conversation and called back, "The village smithy stands/The smith, a mighty man is he/ With large and sinewy hands/ And the muscles of his brawny arms/ Are strong as iron bands." They'd have done the whole poem if I'd let them- they'd all had to memorize Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" when they were in GRADE SCHOOL and it had still stuck with them.
First of all in the poem, Longfellow means fighting men when he says "Hidalgos." He's not saying the Emperor is 'macho' like Chuck Norris, he means the word "mule." Golondrina is a Spanish word for female swallow (male: Golondrino) and it was camp slang for a deserter. The bird lasts out through a good deal of noise, eh?
Longfellow is famous (or was famous) for his lyric story poems and while he is often looked at now as a usurper of many poet's styles (most notably Tennyson) he ignited the common reader with a love of heroic stories and poetry. It might be a tad sappy to our cynical ears but the stories are always good and the descriptions and insights he creates are often quite moving.
Longfellow, by the way, was friends with everyone from Emerson to Hawthorne to Charles Sumner and Washington Irving. He taught at Harvard and knew French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German. He was the first American to translate Dante's "Divine Comedy."
He was reportedly a gentle man who suffered some tragedies. His first wife died of a miscarriage. His second wife was using sealing wax or something and her dress caught fire. She called out in panic and Longfellow ran in and tried to smother the flames with a rug and his own body. She died the next morning from her burns and Longfellow was so burned he could not attend the funeral. His facial injuries were such that he stopped shaving and thus we always think of Longfellow with a beard.
My mother used to say, when she accidentally rhymed something while speaking, "I'm a poet and don't know it. But my feet show it- they're Longfellows." Get it? This is what passed for humor in her grade school. I always thought it was funny when I was a kid.
You may think Longfellow is a tad outdated and so he is, really. In his prime he commanded $3,000 per poem. Not too shabby. Poe originally admired him, grew to see him as a bit of a copier and wrote nasty things about the poet later. Here's what Longfellow was like: when Poe died he later wrote, "The harshness of his criticisms I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong." He was a very nice man.
Longfellow is another one of those cup-of-cocoa-on-a long-winter-night poets. He's a very charming, stirring and enjoyable read. I've always loved reading his poems aloud.
Here's a good Longfellow quote:"Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad. "
And anther: "For age is opportunity no less Than youth itself, though in another dress, And as the evening twilight fades away The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day. "
One more: "However things may seem, no evil thing is success and no good thing is failure."
You can find more Longfellow here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/henry-wadsworth-longfellow
Don't forget the "Great Backyard Birdcount Week" (www.birdsource.org/gbbc/ ). We'll have bird poems until it's over- there's so many of them I could have done a year of just birds!
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Light Comes in Turkey Country
I know the forest on my farm
best at breaking day
when birdcalls seem to draw
the darkness back
that cages me.
The dim tree limbs
fragment the barely luminescent sky,
a metronomic whippoorwill
wakes the distant, lonely doves,
strangely wary when they call,
the ground and saplings come in view,
the pileated's crazy cry
is punctuated by its hammer blows on wood
and a barred owl wants to know
who cooks for me.
Distance takes the jagged edges off
the crows' more raucous sound
and then perhaps, perhaps,
a far-off gobbler's piercing call
ends all that reverie.
I move that way, very carefully.
I hardly breathe, and move that way.
-- Jimmy Carter
Hap Notes: Whaaaat? You mean Jimmy Carter (born 1924), former president of the U.S.? Yep. That's the one. The reason I include this poem in "Great Backyard Birdcount Week" (www.birdsource.org/gbbc/ ) is because he made history by being the one of the few U.S. Presidents to publish a book of his own poetry (Lincoln and John Quincy Adams did it too. I've never seen them but Carter said they did and I believe him.) Vanity press, maybe... are the poems good? Let's say they are not embarrassing. They reveal man with solid observation skills and thoughtfulness. And this poem, and most of his poetry, is not bad, I think. He was a gifted student and has been an avid reader since his youth.
"Who cooks for you?" is the phrase often used to explain what the barred owl sounds like. Sound far fetched? Here it is, what do you think it sounds like? : www.youtube.com/watch?v=fppKGJD3Y6c&feature=fvwrel . This is a great video because you see this owl's amazing face.
Carter's poem has the light gradually lifting, the birds calling and his reverent silence amidst all this magical bird talk. He is being released from the "darkness that cages" him. I think it's a good poem. I love the description of the distance taking the "jagged edges" off of the crows' call. He's a farmer who knows his land.
Published in 1994, Carter's poetry book, Always a Reckoning, is illustrated by one of his granddaughters, Sarah Elizabeth Chuldenko. Carter was the first president, by the by, to write a book for junior and senior high school students, Talking Peace. Carter said he wooed his wife Rosalyn by writing poetry to her. Some of the profits from his books always go to charitable causes. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Might be nice to have a few more poet-presidents?
Here's a good Jimmy Carter quote on his love poetry to Rosalyn: "I don't know if today I'd call them art, but at least they did the job at the time."
You can find another Carter poem here: www.bong-town.com/Bong_Town/Liberia/Poems/firestone.html
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music -- hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.
Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.
The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.
Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went --
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.
But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn't been.
Hap Notes: This is the second of the bird poems this week to highlight the Great Backyard Birdcount in which I encourage you to participate: www.birdsource.org/gbbc/. You can help for 15 minutes or 4 days- it's up to you.
I love Frost's twist on the term "sleight of hand" to "sleight of wing." It's true that at some point it is too dark in the deep woods for a bird to adjust itself on an unfamiliar branch. Birds generally sing at sunrise and sunset, although ornithologists make a distinction between "calls" and "songs." Song is generally for mating and calls are for communication. In the poem, the birds are calling out to each other just before bedtime, maybe telling each other where they are.
Frankly, to me, most of it sounds like singing. And while science says there are specific reasons for bird sounds, I think it's presumptuous to say that this is all there is to bird song. I think birds sing, at the very least, for all the all the various reasons people sing and talk and probably have reasons we don't understand, too. Frost's take on the thrush is that it has a mournful, melancholy sound. Want to hear for yourself? Visit here--
Sound of a Wood Thrush: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wood_Thrush/sounds.
Sounds almost flute-like doesn't it? Not bad for a dinosaur, eh? Imagine what this would sound like with more than one thrush singing.
When I was in school our choir sang the Randall Thompson music for this poem. We didn't sound nearly this good, but here's how the song goes- it's quite beautiful: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yysXiejsNbY&feature=related.Hard to forget a poem once you sing it. Note how the flute isn't nearly as beautiful as the thrush- it can't be- the thrush's equipment is a lot more complex. The symphony with song really adds to the drama of the Thompson song.
Of course there's a dark side to this poem but I'll let you figure it out this time. A few questions: Is the bird's song somewhat tempting? And it tempts him to go into the darkness? Is the poet fighting depression or some sadness? Just think on it and remember what it feels like in the woods at twilight- there's a loveliness but also maybe some sorrow- about what? The end of the day? The end of something? What does "out for stars" mean to you?
Here's our first Frost poem with more info: http://happopoemouse.blogspot.com/2010/12/number-7-robert-frost-design_14.html
Monday, February 14, 2011
Oh, say not, my love, with that mortified air,
That your spring-time of pleasure is flown,
Nor bid me to maids that are younger repair,
For those raptures that still are thine own.
Though April his temples may wreathe with the vine,
Its tendrils in infancy curl'd,
'Tis the ardor of August matures us the wine,
Whose life-blood enlivens the world.
Though thy form, that was fashioned as light as a fay's,
Has assumed a proportion more round,
And thy glance, that was bright as a falcon's at gaze,
Looks soberly now on the ground,--
Enough, after absence to meet me again,
Thy steps still with ecstasy move;
Enough, that those dear sober glances retain
For me the kind language of love.
-- Sir Walter Scott
Hap Notes: You may think you know nothing of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) but you are probably wrong. Ever heard the expression "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!" ? That's Scott (from "Marmion"). Do you think of Scotsman as wearing specialized tartan plaids and kilts? Scott popularized this idea as a Scottish identity. All the popularized myths of the wild Scottish highlands are mostly the work of Scott. Ever heard the verses "Breathes there the man with soul so dead Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!"? That's also Scott from his poem 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel." You always knew him, you just didn't know it was him.
The top pictures with Scott are from the "Authors" card game- did you ever play that when you were a kid? It was my favorite game and I made a point, as I grew up, to read each work (I'm a dork- you don't have to tell me, I know.)
In our Valentine's Day poem, Scott is telling his beloved that age has not affected her charm with him and that she's more lovely now than ever. When he uses the word "repair" here, he doesn't mean "fix" he means "go to." A "fay" is a Middle English term for fairy or sprite. In the second stanza he's talking about a grape vine- you probably see this already- and saying that age makes a grape/wine more tasty and that this aging process "enlivens" the world with deep maturity.
Scott is famous for writing novels like Ivanhoe (its popularity made a sympathetic case for the emancipation of English Jews -- one of the heroines of the book is Jewish), Waverley and The Bride of Lammermoor (on which Donizetti's opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" is based.) The word "Waverly" has taken on the idea of quality, hence the popular cracker: Waverley Wafers. Many suburbs, housing additions and train stations are also named "Waverly" in the hopes of retaining some dignified "English" class.
Scott , chronologically speaking, was first a translator, then a poet, then a novelist. As a translator he worked on Goethe and Burger. His poems include the famous "Lady of the Lake" and "Rokeby" and "The Lord of the Isles" and dozens and dozens more.
Born in Scotland, when Scott was two years old he contracted polio which left him quite lame. He was sent to the country to live with an aunt, was sent to the "baths" for water cures and, by gosh, by the time he was 7 he was able to walk. He was in "college" (the Brits have an education system I don't quite understand) by the time he was 12 (which was a year or two early) and he apprenticed with his father (a lawyer), studied law and became a lawyer in Edinburgh.
There's a great story about him; Robert Burns was a very famous poet and was invited to many homes and distinguished gatherings. At one such gathering, Burns was a bit ill at ease and walked around the room, looking at the pictures on the host's walls. One picture had a caption of verse that brought Burns to tears and he asked the august gathering if they knew who had written it. None of the authors and scientists knew. The host's son had some younger friends over and one of them (a "pale boy with a limp") piped up and told Burns the author and the title of the poem. Burns, impressed, beamed at the boy "You'll be a man, yet, sir." The boy was Scott.
Here's another good story about Scott: The poet had a severe stroke in 1830 and he was deeply in debt (he was working day and night to pay it off when he had the stroke). He was taken to Naples, Italy to revive his health. Scott went with his doctor and a couple of friends to the great museum there. Scott was weak as a baby, could barely walk and could not retain information- he sort of wandered around the relics aimlessly. Now, there just happened to be a large bunch of students and Italian writers at the museum that day examining an old manuscript and they found out that the "Wizard of the North," as Scott was often called, was there. They sent word they'd like to meet him but Scott declined- he knew no Italian and wasn't feeling very well. Then, about a half an hour later, his memory unclear, he asked who wanted to see him and when he was told he said, sure- he'd go see them. He mounted a staircase and entered the room and when he got to the door, cheers welcomed him, the students rushed up to the door, forming two lines, many of them on their knees to touch the genius that had given them such delight in reading. They touched his hands and kissed him and hugged him and kept thanking him in Italian. Of course, soon he was weary of the talk (most of which he could not understand) and made to leave, and the students again crowded around him, thanking him, holding him up, helping him to walk in his slow tottering steps, kissing his hands with tears and thanked him again and again. Scott's friends said it was the most moving thing they'd ever seen. (His debts by the way, were finally paid, through his work and, after his death, through the sale of his books.)
Now I'll admit right now that Sir Walter Scott's somewhat lacy poetry isn't for everybody (Mark Twain despised it.) It's sometimes clumsily rhymed and he's often been criticized for being slap-dash with both his poetry and his novels. He was a very busy guy, though, and he had a burn in him to tell stories. His poetry, if read by some great dramatic voice; Richard Burton or Lawrence Olivier or Alan Rickman or Amitabh Bachchan (my favorite, as everyone knows); would amaze you with it's charming powers of storytelling. His poetry needs a good voice reciting it sometimes to carry it.
He's another poet to curl up with on a cold winter's night with a cup of cocoa and read aloud. I love all that romantic Lochinvar stuff in "Marmion."
Here's a good Scott quote (there are skillions of them): "A sound head, an honest heart, and an humble spirit are the three best guides through time and to eternity."
Here's another: "Death - the last sleep? No, it is the final awakening"
And another: "Teach your children poetry; it opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary."
You can find more Scott here: famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/sir_walter_scott/poems
Sunday, February 13, 2011
To Christ Our Lord
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hap Notes: If you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary poem (written in 1877!) don't panic at the rush of words- let's just take it one phrase at a time, slowly- it's so worth it.
The Windhover (another word for kestrel/falcon-pictured above)
I caught this morning
morning's minion (morning's highly favored servant)
king/dom of daylight's dauphin (the son/prince of the kingdom of daylight)
dapple-dawn-drawn falcon (dapple is spotted- so the dawn and the falcon have mottled color)
in his riding/ of the rolling level underneath him steady air (the bird is riding the thermal currents in the air)
and striding /high there, how he rung upon the reign of a wimpling wing (he flew in circles with a side slip, using his wings to curve and glide from one level to another)
in his ecstasy! then off, off forth on a swing/As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend: (He's talking about a skate- the large ray under the sea, and the bow bend- is the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) the curve of it)
the hurl and gliding/Rebuffed the big wind. ( the bird's flying ability is such that it can reject the force of the wind-- it refuses the influence of the wind)
My heart in hiding ( Well, there's a lot going on here- first off, the heart is always in hiding inside the body, secondly Hopkins is perhaps talking about his heart hiding from a full commitment to God (he's writing this poem just before he's ordained as a priest) and also his decision to be a priest will hide him, his talents (he was a talented artist and writer.) And really, everyone's heart is in hiding, isn't it?)
Stirred for a bird- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. (Always good to remember that the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a bird, in addition to the actual bird's breath-taking flying abilities.)
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh air, pride, plume here/Buckle! (Another phrase with a lot going on. The bird tucks his wings and seems to be falling or changing direction. Remember that this poem is dedicated to Jesus so parallels to the life of Christ abound in this poem. The poet's pride must also buckle, give out, be humbled as Christ was.)
And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/ Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my Chevalier. ( I believe now the poet is addressing Jesus and saying that his sacrifice, his daily life, was more lovely and dangerous than this incredible falcon's daily performance. A chevalier is a knight- so it's one that must go into battle. Nature's awesome beauty is a daily thing and Christ's daily life was a billion times lovelier. Why? That's coming up...)
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plow down sillion/ shine (sillion is a strip of land usually worked by a tenant farmer. The plow, by going through the earth on it's daily plodding job, shines from the friction of the dirt. I have to admit, I always thought he meant the earth itself had a shine from the plow's daily upturning of minerals. I think both are correct interpretations. So the poet is saying common daily hard work makes the plow/earth shine.)
and blue bleak embers, ah my dear,/ Fall gall themselves and gash gold vermillion. ( A dark ember, when it falls, often reveals a core of heat and fire still within it. Bleak, apparently dead coals, may still be alive with fire. See the Christ reference in this?)
There. That wasn't so hard, huh? What Hopkins is saying, then, in a nutshell, is that the flight of this bird reminded him of the glory of God's earth, the life of Christ, the Holy Spirit and his own thoughts of ordination. That dedicating yourself to the daily work of God may be plodding, humbling work but is no more so than Jesus' own example. And that there is a glorious aspect to it.
There's more in the poem, but you can read it and get your own interpretation. I've always felt there was a joyous ecstasy of the discovery of the beauty of everyday life in the poem. That the regular plodding world is actually full of the beautiful mysteries of nature and God.
It's the startling way Hopkins uses words and sounds that make this poem so effective. He packs so much into this sonnet. And dig the way he uses the rhyme in such a way that you barely notice it except it scans so gorgeously with the sounds. There is nobody like Hopkins when it comes to the sheer force and color of words. Each verse is packed with phonemic surprises, stops and starts.
This is the start of a week of birds in poetry (except for tomorrow when I have an interesting Valentine's Day poem for us) because Feb. 18 is the start of the four-day Great Backyard Bird Count (sponsored by Audubon and the Columbia Lab of Ornithology) and I hope you will participate. You don't have to do it for all four days, you can do it for one day or one time on one day. You only need to watch birds for 15 minutes and write your count. This citizen-scientist count is so important- it gives so much information on the environment and how healthy it is or isn't. It tracks birds to see where they are as opposed to where they were years ago. It helps protect the species of many endangered birds.
Go here for more information: www.birdsource.org/gbbc/
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Life of the Cupboard
The cupboard grows old, gnawed by moths,
In the lukewarm sisterhood of friendly furniture.
She is dulled by time and now and then creaks
As if about to die. If the children are noisy
At their round games, the poor thing suffers like a grandmother
Who wants to doze alone in her tepid silence.
She has forgotten the odor of ripe fruit
And of that grapejuice every Sunday
And, little old thing that she is, remembers something
Only when the house canary grows lyrical.
Little thieves in search of apples
On summer nights have damaged her doors
And now the poor cupboard is empty...
But when the lamp opens its yellow eye
She stops being motionless and mute as if perhaps
She remembers in ecstasy the image of two children,
My cousin and I absorbed in a picture book,
Seated at the tall old pine table,
Or that sunrise in which her soul
Took flight to the star upon which lost lovers gaze.
--Jorge Carrera Andrade (trans. by H.R. Hays)
Hap Notes: In the current pantheon of Latin American poets (Borges, Neruda, Paz, Vallejo) Jorge Carrera Andrade ( 1902-1978) is often ignored and that's a shame because he writes with a descriptive vision unlike anyone else. Who else would describe grasshoppers as "on crutches" or chimneys as commas or say "the velvet theatre of night"? Almost every poem he writes holds a verbal treat, a strange summing up, a singular vision.
The poem is taken from his book Wreath of Silence (La Guirnalda del Silencio). First off, younger readers may not know what a cupboard is, or rather, think of cupboards as a built in feature of a kitchen so I've added a picture to illustrate. I don't know that this is what the cupboard was like, it could have been shorter or more decorated, but cupboards were not included as "built-ins" in many homes before the 1930s. My grandparent's kitchen had two cupboards, one short for pans with a shelves over it for storage and one much like the picture. So many extraordinary visions in the poem; now what do you think a wooden cupboard would remember when she hears a bird sing?
The children in the poem are probably the second or third generation of kids who have played around her. She has seen this family grow up and looks more enlivened by the "yellow eye" of the lamp remembering her younger more functional days, seeing the poet and his cousin reading a picture book when they were children. Of course the cupboard would be a woman- nuturing, and part of a "sisterhood" but her life has become tepid/luke warm- not full of the fire of sunrise anymore when she was useful each day.
Carrera's poetry was more famous in the U.S. in the 40s when the first book of his poetry was published in English. He was lauded by Archibald MacLeish, Carl Sandburg and William Carlos Williams. He had a lot of diplomatic posts in Ecuador (France, Nicaragua, Belgium, the U.K.) and was once Secretary of State. After he retired from politics in Ecuador he taught at the State College of New York (SUNY) at Stonybrook for two years before retiring in Quito (he was born there) where he was director of the National Library.
Some things that a foreign poet writes will have depths we cannot see, even if we know the language. (How many times I have struggled over those "eye apples" in Rilke's "Archaic Torso" I cannot even say- it just confounds me.) Some of the delight of Carrera's work I'm positive I'm missing because I'm so truly enchanted by the translations already- if that makes any sense at all.
The amazing part of Carrera is that each poem holds some wonderful nugget, even in translation, that transcends the natural barriers of two languages meeting. To many, Ecuador is considered the "center" of the vibrations of the "earth mother." Maybe that has something to do with it. His poetry talks of fire, ice, sugar, fruits, stars, insects, birds, horses and trees. His love of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador is epic. His talents are, at any rate, revelatory.
His book Reflections on Spanish-American Poetry is an enormously helpful read for understanding Latin poetry.
Here's a good Andrade quote: "I am not exactly sure what success means. If it has to do with the sale in bookstores of a large quantity of copies, I must confess that none of my works are in that category."
And another: "Regarding the global meaning of my poetic work, it gives me pleasure to quote Goethe's phrase: " all my works are fragments of a long confession." My poetry as a whole is also a confession, though on a lesser scale. It is a confession of love for the marvel of the world and-- supreme, incorrigible candor-- a confession of a feeling of universal brotherhood."
You can find more Andrade here: www.thedrunkenboat.com/andrade.htm