Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Poem of My Own Composition (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 22)

I write a lot of things -- SF, comics scripts, history papers, blog posts -- and have plans, schemes and hopes to write a lot of other things as well; -- but not, for the most part, poetry. I like to think I write prose well; I can't bring myself to think I write poetry well. Generally speaking.

But I did go through a period (nearly two decades ago now) of writing poems, in which I wrote perhaps a dozen that I thought ranged from the pretty good to the good (tout court). (There were also another dozen or so that showed promise, although they never got beyond the needing revision/incomplete work phase.) I even tried to publish a few, with no luck (although I wasn't very persistent nor very realistic about where I might be published the first time out). But since it's not an area I am currently planning to pursue (although who knows) I thought I'd share one with my Noble Readers as a climax (or anti-climax) to my Originally-Accidental-But-Long-Since-Quite-Deliberate Poetry Month™ that I've been indulging in.

If you like it, or even find it interesting, leave an encouraging comment, and maybe I'll post another.


So will I end:
Stand overlooking the vast reed plain
Bent in periodic waves by the wind;
Eternally poised,
With a solid sort of dignity--
The wisdom of a king
Etched upon a not quite human face;
Lifelike-- once-life-- the finest
Details of scarf and nail
Preserved in glimmering gold:
Eyes on the mountain,
Hand carelessly on a thigh;
Statue, not carved,
But an ellipsis in time:
Iridescent flesh
Made solid by my own caress.

-- Stephen Saperstein Frug (1994)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

John Hollander's Shaped Poems (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 21)

In addition to Randall Jarrell, my other discovery* of this Increasingly-Inaccurately-Named Accidental Poetry Month™ has been John Hollander. I've mentioned browsed two of his anthologies (Committed to Memory, which is online (follow the links), and The Gazer's Spirit, which led me to this month's first Jarrell poem), and then -- reading in his anthologies having led me to read his poetry -- posted one of his poems from his Oulipian work Powers of Thirteen.

My next step was to the library -- which, in this case, was useless. So my next step was to order two of his books, which just arrived. One was his Selected Poetry (1993) -- which in addition to having samples from many of his books, has his Oulipian book Powers of Thirteen included in its entirety. But that I haven't yet had time to even dip into.

The other book of his which I ordered was one of the books which was not excerpted in Selected Poetry, but which I nevertheless was distinctly interested in reading: a book of concrete poetry he wrote called Types of Shape (the "new, expanded edition" of 1991).

Concrete poetry is poetry whose visual shape on the page is a crucial part of the poem.** The most famous shaped poem in the language (as Hollander notes in his introduction) is The Mouse's Tale from Alice in Wonderland. I hadn't read much of it before, but I was interested to see what Hollander did with it.

Well, as I said, I just got the book, and normally I'd wait a little while longer before posting any of it; but since Accidental Poetry Month™ is rushing to a close, I decided that I'd go ahead and post my two preliminary favorites -- chosen, note, before I've even read the entire book through (despite its including only 35 poems!). Maybe I'll like others more. But I definitely do like these -- more than enough to post them.

For the obvious reason, I'm putting these up as jpgs rather than as text. The title of the first one is "Kitty" (subtitled -- or described as -- "Black domestic shorthair"):

What I like about this -- indeed, about both of these -- is that they really work as poetry: the language is rich and interesting, and what is said is interesting too. Which is to say, it's not just about the form: it's also just plain good verse.

Here's the other, a companion piece (it seems), titled "Kitty and Bug" and subtitled (or described as) "Grey domestic shorthair and black beetle":

Do click through to see larger versions, by the way: the shapes are cute, but the words are actually worth reading -- and they're much more legible at the larger size.

I'll try to get around to reviewing the book properly once I've gotten around to reading it properly. But these instant discoveries seemed to me -- wonderful as they are -- things I was happy to post at once.

Coming tomorrow: the climactic (or decidedly anti-climactic) final entry in Accidental Poetry Month™! Stay tuned!

* In a I've-heard-of-him-and-even-read-a-book-of-his-without-remembering-his-name sort of way; the book I'd read (or read in) in Hollander's case being Rhyme's Reason.

** The difficulty in laying it out, and the amount of sheer page space they require, are presumably two of the reasons why Types of Shape was not excerpted in the 1993 Selected Poetry -- along, perhaps, with the fact that a new edition had just recently come out.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Poems of the Day: Still More by Randall Jarrell (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 20)

And now here's a third helping of Randall Jarrell, who I've already posted three poems by this month.

I said in one of my earlier posts that I was seriously reading Randall Jarrell for the first time this month, but that is, in fact, not quite right: there is one book of his I'd read many times over: one of his children's books, The Bat Poet. I hadn't remembered, prior to my recent explorations, that Jarrell was its author (I knew it was a famous-but-not-all-that-famous poet, but no more); but the book itself I remember extremely well from multiple readings during my childhood. I will definitely read to my son when he's old enough.

(And I certainly didn't remember that The Bat Poet was illustrated by Maurice Sendak, most famous as the writer & illustrator of the all-time children's book classic Where the Wild Things Are.)

The Bat Poet is about a bat who tries to be a poet, but is misunderstood by all the other bats -- and by lots of other creatures, too. It's a charming and wonderful story. Here's a part from early in the story where the Bat Poet tries for the first time to recite one of his poems to the other bats:

At dawn, the sun shines like a million moons
And all the shadows are as bright as moonlight.
The birds begin to sing with all their might.
The world awakens and forgets the night.

The black-and-gray turns green-and-gold-and-blue.
The squirrels begin to--
But when he'd got this far the other bats just couldn't keep quiet any longer.

"The sun hurts," said one. "It hurts like getting something in your eyes.

That's right," said another. "And shadows are black -- how can a shadow be bright?"

Another one said: "What's green-and-gold-and-blue? When you say things like that we don't know what you mean."

"And it's just not real," the first one said. "When the sun rises the world goes to sleep."

"But go on," said one of the others. "We didn't mean to interrupt you."

-- Randall Jarrell, The Bat Poet, pp. 5-6

The entire work is fabulous, and I recommend it unreservedly.

This week, however, I've been exploring the adult poetry of Jarrell; so here's yet another one -- another war poem (a genre he wrote much in). It's a less famous war poem than the one I posted last time. I think the general preface for the other might be justified -- that it might be a better poem overall -- but this poem has a few lines (the last few) which strike me as far more perfect, and far better, than anything in the other poem. But judge for yourself:
A Lullaby

For wars his life and half a world away
The soldier sells his family and days.
He learns to fight for freedom and the State;
He sleeps with seven men within six feet.

He picks up matches and he cleans out plates;
Is lied to like a child, cursed like a beast.
They crop his head, his dog tags ring like sheep
As his stiff limbs shift wearily to sleep.

Recalled in dreams or letters, else forgot,
His life is smothered like a grave, with dirt;
And his dull torment mottles like a fly's
The lying amber of the histories.

-- Randall Jarrell
That final line is just stunning, summing up something deep and important and true in a few perfect words.

Stray Thought

Poor Isaiah Berlin is remembered for just one sentence -- "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". And he didn't even say it!

(But he did, however, offer an interpretation of it that is so persuasive that other possible interpretations are impossible to see through its mist. And I suppose he's better off than Archilochus, who's remembered for nothing -- not even the sentence that he wrote but Berlin is remembered for!)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Translations of Baudelaire's "L'Albatros" (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 19)

I've mentioned before that I like comparing translations -- indeed, I've done two such posts recently. In this case, however, it's different for me, because I can actually read the original.* At the same time, it's foreign enough for me that I really appreciate a good translation as well. So in a lot of ways this is, for me, a multiple treat -- the original reflecting on the translations, and then vice-versa, each increasing the pleasure in the other.

But before I present three translations that I really like, here's the original:

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.

-- Charles Baudelaire
I was trying to think of how to order the translations -- most to least favorite, or vice-versa? -- when I realized that I couldn't decide which I liked best, either. So I'm going to present them in rather random order here.

First up is a translation which I found in a book called Selected Poems From Les Fleurs du Mal: a Bilingual Edition, which has "English renderings" by Norman R. Shapiro, and well as engravings by David Schorr and a forward by Willis Barnstone (which may have been what drew my attention to the book in the first place).
The Albatross

Often will sailors, for their sport, ensnare
The albatross, flying with languid sweep--
Sea-bird companion, soaring on the air--
Behind their boats, plying the bitter deep.

Scare are they thrust on deck than those proud kings
Of azure climes, awkward and mortified,
Let droop, pathetically, their vast white wings,
Like two oars, trailing useless by their side.

How clumsy this winged voyager! How weak
Comic, and ugly! He, so fair of late!
Some, with their clay pipes, taunt him, jab his beak;
Some ape the esrtwhile flier's limping gait.

So too the Poet, like that prince of space,
Who haunts the storm and scorns the archer's bow:
Mocked, jeered, his giant's wings hobble his pace
When exiled from his heights to earth below.

-- Translated by Norman R. Shapiro

Next a translation by Richard Wilbur, one of the great translators of our time I (and not only I) think -- particularly from the French. (Although in this case I do think that Shapiro is just as good.) Here's Wilbur:
The Albatross

Often, for pastime, mariners will ensnare
The albatross, that vast sea-bird who sweeps
On high companionable pinion where
Their vessel glides upon the bitter deeps.

Torn from his native space, this captive king
Flounders upon the deck in stricken pride,
And pitiably lets his great white wing
Drag like a heavy paddle at his side.

This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who late was all grace!
A sailor pokes a pipestem into his beak;
Another, hobbling, mocks his trammeled pace.

The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds
Familiar of storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings.

-- Translated by Richard Wilbur
And finally a translation by A. Z. Foreman, who I've already posted translations by twice this month, and whose site was one of the things that lead me to go so crazy with poetry this particular March.
The Albatross

Often for sport the crewmen will ensnare
Some albatrosses: vast seabirds that sweep
In lax accompaniment through the air
Behind the ship that skims the bitter deep.

No sooner than they dump them on the floors
These skyborn kings, graceless and mortified,
Feel great white wings go down like useless oars
And drag pathetically at either side.

That sky-rider: how gawky now, how meek!
How droll and ugly he that shone on high!
The sailors poke a pipestem in his beak,
Then limp to mock this cripple born to fly.

The poet is so like this prince of clouds
Who haunted storms and sneered at earthly slings;
Now, banished to the ground, to cackling crowds,
He cannot walk beneath the weight of wings.

-- translated by A.Z. Foreman
If you click this link, you can hear Foreman read the original French.

There are a lot of other translations too -- this site has five more, for example -- but those three are definitely my favorites among the ones I've come across.

* Yes, I can. My French is too poor to read any random text without much trouble; but when I've read the text enough times, then I get it.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Forms of 'In a Station of the Metro' (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 18)

One of Ezra Pound's most famous poems, "In a Station of the Metro", is only two lines long. (I'll quote it in a bit, but I want to hold off for now, for reasons that will momentarily become clear.) Pound himself described it as a "hokku" (which seems to be an archaic term for what today we call (in English) haiku). In describing the poem's composition, Pound quotes two "hokku" (naming neither poet). The first he describes as "the substance of a very well-known hokku":
The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.
The second Pound describes as written by a "Japanese naval officer":
The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:

I must admit that those two poems, read in sequence, just reinforces something I had long thought: that I don't quite see what the deal is about this particular poem. It's not that I don't like Pound at all -- this, for instance, is a great poem (although not one whose view I agree with, and which is all the more disturbing given where that view ultimately lead Pound to go, politically). I just never thought this quintessential "imagist" poem was all that much. Reading those two hokku, it seems even less special, since it seems that Pound was walking (however well) oft-trod ground.

But a few weeks ago, preparing for one of the lectures on modernism I'm giving in my class this term, I came across, in Jo Anna Isaak's The Ruin of Representation in Modernist Art and Texts (1986), a reproduction of what she presented as the long-lost original form of this poem. Here's how she gave the poem:

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd:

Petals       on a wet, black    bough.

Stunning. At least for me, it was almost a revelation: a whole new poem. The adding of the spaces, the forced pauses, the breath of the page, brought what had been, for me, a fairly flat two-line image to life.

So I looked around. Most reprintings seem to have ordinary (flat, dull) spacing, but this web site reproduced almost the precise same spacing as did Isaak (the difference being that at the end of both lines they put extra spacing between the final letter and the punctuation mark too).

Just to be sure, however, I tracked down a (scanned page image of) the original magazine publication. Here's a jpg of that:
-- So Isaak was right -- except insofar as the web site editors were right, and there was, indeed, space before each closing punctuation mark, too.


Alas, however, the story does not quite end there. This web site quotes a chunk of an article called "The Punctuation of ‘In A Station of the Metro’", by one Steve Ellis, which tells more of the story. (The journal the article originally appeared in is given as Paidenma, about which I have found out nothing -- googling turns up mostly reprints of this article. Anyone know what its story is? Update: A commentator says that it was a typo on that page, and that the name of the journal is actually Paideuma, which explains why I couldn't find any information before. Here's Paideuma's home page; here's what the word "paideuma" means (more).)

Ellis does quote the original, white-space bejeweled version of the poem -- although he quotes it without any punctuation mark in the first line -- not, in an article specifically about the punctuation of the poem, a reassuring sign about his accuracy (perhaps the reproducing web site is at fault here? I can't think of another charitable explanation.) But setting that concern aside, Ellis reports that Pound reproduced this version precisely once, in another magazine -- but that subsequent reprintings of the poem (and, indeed, in one that came between the two space-inclusive versions as well) he omitted those spaces. There was a coma added, and then removed again, after "petals", in various versions; but the spaces never reappeared.

A few years later, Pound made one final punctuation change, changing the colon into a semi-colon. Ellis writes of this change that it was
The final and most important change Pound had made to the punctuation... [T]his alteration makes the relationship between the two lines appreciably more subtle and suggestive than was previously the case: the colon tended to subordinate the first line to the second by indicating that by itself line one was incomplete, its function being primarily that of introducing the "Image" in line two which the colon informs us is necessary to complete the first line’s meaning. With the semi-colon the first line is, so to speak, less definitely a "prologue" to the second, the linkage between the two lines being insisted on less emphatically. The relationship between them can be said to be not only more subtle but even more equivocal, and the cost of not foregrounding the "Image" is the possibility, as some of my sample readings indicate, that the semi-colon assists the first line in overturning its subordinate position and becoming foregrounded itself.
I can see Ellis's point about why the semi-colon is better, although the colons in the other hokku Pound quoted would seem to argue the other way -- if, indeed, the colon is traditional in the form. (Do they have colons/semi-colons in Japanese? Or, rather, did they when Pound was writing? I haven't the foggiest idea.) At any rate, I would certainly argue against that being the "most important change": I think the most important change was his decision -- his quite unfortunate decision -- to give up those spaces. Which, for me at least, made the poem.

Yet it does seem -- assuming that our doubt about Ellis's reliability doesn't come to anything -- that Pound himself gave the spaces up. And it's his poem, alas, so I suppose they're gone. Although Auden revised many of his poems in versions that most poetry lovers simply ignore --- indeed, he cut from his "complete poems" one of his very best poems, which most Auden fans (I among them) count among their favorites. If we reject Auden's revisions, why not Pound's? But I don't think Ellis is right about the semi-colon; there's no question, certainly, that I would trade the semi-colon (however much it adds) for the spaces. If that's the trade -- original versus final -- then I'd go with the original.

But do we have to trade? To be sure, Pound himself never published a version with both semi-colon and spaces. But the poem is there, in the language, waiting to be read. See?:

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd  ;

Petals       on a wet, black    bough  .
Maybe Pound didn't write that. But if it's a better poem then the almost-identical two he wrote, do we care?

A complex philosophical question, that, and quite possibly not one with a determinate answer.

For my own part, however, that is the version of this cluster of nearly-identical poems that I like the best; and the one that I will most often reread in my own memory.

(File under 'possibly-interesting-links-I-found-while-researching-this': Metafilter discusses the poem here.)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Frank Sidgwick's Fourteen Word Sonnet (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 17)

In contrast to most of the poems I've posted during Accidental Poetry Month™ (although not, to be sure, all of them) this is a poem I've known (indeed, known by heart (not hard)) for years. Sadly, I rarely remember its author (doing the poor fellow no justice), but his name is Frank Sidgwick, and you can find more about him in this obituary here -- hosted by (somewhat randomly) the site of The Baker Street Irregulars, since Sidgwick apparently is also the author of what they describe as a "groundbreaking essay" in the form of an open letter to Dr. Watson. Who knew.

I first read this poem in the introduction to an anthology called something like The Sonnet, but it was originally collected in a 1921 book of Frank Sidgwick's poems called More Verse; you'll find it there on page 47.
The Aeronaut to his Lady



-- Frank Sidgwick

I don't have the book handy, so I might be wrong; but my memory is that the anthology where I originally read this poem quotes it only in the introduction, and says that it is "clearly intended to be a sonnet" -- far too much hesitation, as it happens, since in More Verse it's published as the second of a little collection called "Two Sonnets": Sidgiwck meant it as a sonnet, tout court, and I think he's not wrong to consider it such.

I'd quote the other of the pair, but frankly it's not nearly as charming as "The Aeronaut to His Lady" -- not nearly as charming as it's trying to be. If you want to read it, click through to the book and have a look for yourself; but I wouldn't particularly recommend it. Sidgwick's Aeronaut, on the other hand, is a keeper.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Leaping from Death by Fire to Certain Death Below: Two New York Tragedies

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: you can read about it here, talk about it in this thread, or listen to a good radio report from today's Democracy Now! here.

In brief, a sweatshop factor in New York caught fire; 146 people, mostly poor immigrant women, died. The deaths were caused in large part by the fact that exit doors were chained, on the theory that workers would otherwise steal from their employer. In other words: women burned to death in a building because they'd been locked in by their employer.

It was a major scandal at the time, leading to a lot of reforms; a lot of the fire codes you see can be traced back to the Triangle fire.

But what struck me today, listening to the Democracy Now! report while driving to work, was the detail that some of the women leapt to their death from where they were trapped on the 10th floor.

Sound familiar?

While all the murders of 9/11 were equally criminal, I must admit that the ones that touched me the most emotionally -- tied, I suppose, with the deaths of the firemen who raced into the building to help those inside and died -- were those who leapt to their death from the top of the World Trade Center. Something about the sheer horror of that act was incredibly palpable; the images of those falling bodies, shown on TV, were among the most horrifying of all those shown in that horrifying time.

And I suspect I wasn't the only one for whom those deaths helped symbolize the sheer, unthinkable evil that would cause such a thing.

Well, it's worth remembering that it's not only murderous religious/political ideologies that can do that. Other things can too.

It would be nice and simple to chalk it up to the greed of the owners of the factory; but while they were fully morally culpable, their reform would not have solved the issue: as long as such a practice was legal, any given virtuous capitalist will simply be driven out of business by a less virtuous one.

No, what caused those deaths were the evils of unregulated capitalism -- that, when not held back by law, will burn women and children to death if there's profit in it.

And, of course, law is not enough: to sustain those laws, we need political counterweights to the ever-increasing power of money in our politics.

We need organizations who fight for the poor -- or, rather, which enable the poor to fight for themselves.

What the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory needed was a union.

Laws to regulate capital, and unions to balance its political power: or a foe ever bit as evil in its deeds (albeit not in its motives) as any other we face will burn us all alive.

In the memory of those who died, let's fight for that.

Poems of the Day: Two More by Randall Jarrell (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 16)

Since my discovery of a great Jarrell poem earlier this month, I've been reading a lot more Jarrell -- and liking a lot of it. I'd known who he was before of course (he's pretty famous, although moreso as a literary critic than as a poet), but I hadn't ever focused on his work. But I think he's fabulous. So here's not one, but two poems of his that I recently read for the first time.

The first is one of Jarrell's war poems -- he was in the Air Corps in WW2 (what was later turned into the Air Force), and wrote a lot of poetry from his war experiences. Here's one:
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

-- Randall Jarrell

But while I like his war poetry, I think I like a lot of Jarrell's other work more. Here's another one -- picked partly because I liked it a lot upon reading it, and partly because in comments to my previous Jarrell post Holly mentioned that it was one of her favorite Jarrell poems:
90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe's impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff fur knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child's bed
After the night's voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

-- Randall Jarrell

I may not be able to resist posting even more Jarrell later this week -- there are so many great ones out there. So stay tuned as Accidental Poetry Month™ continues...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Poem of the Day: Another Foreman Translation (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 15)

In an earlier installment in Attempts' Accidental Poetry Month™, I extolled the virtues of linguist A. Z. Foreman's site Poems Found in Translation, and included his version of a poem by Classical Chinese poet Li Bai, "Thoughts on a Quiet Night". Here's another translation of his, this time from the Arabic, by a Syrian poet named Nizar Qabbani (of whom I'd not previously heard). Here's the translation; click through to his site for the original (both written and in an audio file, read by Foreman himself).
Less Beautiful

When I see you, I despair of poetry
As only you can make me.
You are beautiful
And if I ponder your beauty
My breath is choked up
My language choked off
My words choked out.
Save me from this. Be less beautiful
And let me find my inspiration.
Be a woman of make-up, perfume, pregnancy and childbirth
Be like other women.
Reconcile me with language
And give me words again.

-- Nizar Qabbani; translated by A.Z. Foreman.
I think you could make a decent case for this poem's being misogynistic -- or, if not that, then at least presenting a very undesirable politics. (I'm thinking primarily of line 10 here.) But it's also, to my ears, a great poem -- a poems' politics having little to do with a poems' quality -- alas, and thank God.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Willis Barnstone's "The Secret Reader" (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 14)

Willis Barnstone is, I think, most widely known as a prolific translator of poetry from various languages, including Spanish, Greek and Chinese. (Barnstone was friends with Borges, and not only translated some of Borges's poetry, but has also published a book about their friendship and a book of interviews with him.) So far as I can tell (as an amateur monoglot), he's quite a fine translator from all of those languages.

But he's also a formidable poet in his own right. His most famous book of poems, I believe, is his collection The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets, which is composed (just as the title says) of 501 sonnets of Barnstone's own authorship, plus (belying the title somewhat) another two-dozen-plus translations he did of others' poems used as epigraphs to various sections of the book (many but not unanimously sonnets; these are mainly from the Spanish, Greek and Chinese but also include poems from other languages, including Hebrew (Judah Ha-Levi), French (Louis Labé) and German (Rilke)). I've browsed rather than read through The Secret Reader, and I'd say that its quality is variable; but overall I like it a lot, and think it's well worth getting ahold of.

501 poems: here's the first. ("Apocryphon", incidentally, is the singular of "apocrypha")
The Secret Reader

I write my unread book for you who in
a life or day will find it in a box
or cave or dead man's pocket or the inn
of mountain light where we awake while cocks
of twilight scream our solitude. Our fate
is to be free. No public ink. No hot
or cold inferno of the previous wait.
Just this apocryphon which I forgot
for you, the secret friend. You are like me:
one soul fleshed out for ecstasy and night,
this planet's only birth and death, unknown
like everything. Saul lied about the light,
for no one rose again. We are alone,
alive with secret words. Then blackly free.

-- Willis Barnstone
For the other 500, see his book.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sourcing a Superlative Cento (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 13)

Centos -- poems composed by quoting lines from previously existing poems -- have been mentioned on this blog before; in the latter case, I did what I propose to do here, and cited sources for all the lines from one of my favorite centos. (The word is pronounced with a soft c, incidentally -- 'sento'.) This cento is by R. S. Gwynn (what a marvelously voweless* name!); I found it on p. 68-69 of the anthology Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism. Oddly, despite that book's having an index of forms, and including this cento, they don't list "cento" among the forms the book uses.

Anyway, first just the cento, with no links, so you can just enjoy it as a poem (and personally I think it's a very good one).
Approaching a Significant Birthday, He
Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
And somewhat of a sad perplexity.
Here, take my picture, though I bid farewell,
In a dark time the eye begins to see

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall—
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
What but design of darkness to appall?
An aged man is but a paltry thing.

If I should die, think only this of me:
Crass casualty obstructs the sun and rain
When I have fears that I may cease to be,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain

And hear the spectral singing of the moon
And strictly meditate the thankless muse.
The world is too much with us, late and soon.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.
Again he raised the jug up to the light:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Downward to darkness on extended wings,
Break, break, break, on thy cold gray stones, O sea,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

-- R. S. Gwynn
Anyone who's read even a little English poetry will recognize some -- maybe even many -- of those lines. They are all -- as the title of course indicates -- extremely famous. Nevertheless, as a public (not-really-all-that-significant-a) service, here is the poem again, with each line linked to its original source:
Approaching a Significant Birthday, He
Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
And somewhat of a sad perplexity.
Here, take my picture, though I bid farewell,
In a dark time the eye begins to see

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall—
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
What but design of darkness to appall?
An aged man is but a paltry thing.

If I should die, think only this of me:
Crass casualty obstructs the sun and rain
When I have fears that I may cease to be,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain
And hear the spectral singing of the moon
And strictly meditate the thankless muse.
The world is too much with us, late and soon.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.
Again he raised the jug up to the light:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Downward to darkness on extended wings,
Break, break, break, on thy cold gray stones, O sea,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

-- R. S. Gwynn
And here's a list of the sources, in order:
John Dryden, "Mac Flecknoe"
Wallace Stevens, "Peter Quince at the Clavier"
Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"
Percy Bysshe Shelly, "Ode to the West Wind"

John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"
William Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey"
John Donne, "Elegie: His Picture"
Theodore Roethke, "In a Dark Time"

Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Tithonus"
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73
Robert Frost, "Design"
William Butler Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"

Robert Brooke, "The Soldier"
Thomas Hardy, "Hap"
John Keats, "When I have fears that I may cease to be"
John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"

John Crowe Ransom, "Piazza Piece"
John Milton, "Lycidas"
William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us"
Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur"

Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night"
John Milton, "Lycidas"
Edwin Arlington Robinson, "Mr. Flood's Party"
Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning"
Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Break, Break, Break"
William Shakespeare, Richard II, 3:2.
T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
I suppose that just reading the 26 poems quoted in that one poem would be a pretty decent syllabus for an introduction to English poetry. (Not a perfect one, to be sure -- I note, just as a fer'instance, that there isn't a single female poet on the list). Most are very famous -- several are among the most famous poems in the language -- although in a number of cases (Donne, Roethke, Ransom, Hardy, Robinson) I hadn't heard of that particular poem previously, although I knew other poems by all of them (indeed, many poems fairly well in some cases). Rupert Brooke I don't think I'd ever heard of at all.

A couple of further notes:

• Gwynn twice uses two lines from a single poem: Lines 5 & 16 are both from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale"; Lines 18 & 22 are both from Milton's Lycidas. (Thus, while there are 28 lines in Gwynn's poem, it has only 26 poems for sources.)

• Gwynn uses lines by 20 poets. He takes three lines each from Tennyson (from three separate poems) and Keats (two lines from one poem, one from another); he uses two lines each from Stevens, Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Milton (in the first three cases, from two separate poems; in the final case, two lines from one poem). That's half the poem. The other fourteen lines come from fourteen different writers.

• In Gwynn's use of Hopkins in line 20, he doesn't actually use the entire line, which in its original setting is "It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil". For his antepenultimate line, Gwynn makes a single line out of what was a pair of lines in its original home in Tennyson's poem. These are the only times that Gwynn uses something other than a single, full line of poetry from another source. (Unlike Harry Mathews, I might add.)

• I'm curious about whether all these poems are really in the Norton Anthology of Poetry (do they include speeches from Shakespeare's plays, for instance?), but not curious enough to check.

Finally, a word about the poem overall. I said above that I thought that Gwynn's was a very good poem in its own right. A cynic might note that of course it was a good poem: he stole from 26 of the best poems in the language! And there's some truth in that, I suppose. But of course he didn't just pick lines higglety-pigglety. He put them in an order that made sense -- a new (and interesting and aesthetically powerful) sense that none of the original poems had. And he did so in a way that followed his own aesthetic form (alternating quatrains, quoth the back-matter of Rebel Angels). So while he may not have written any of the lines, he definitely wrote the poem -- which is to say, he created its structure and its meaning. All this is just to defend collage as a genuine artistic practice, which despite its obvious validity in power is somehow always needs redoing.** But as Montaigne said, there have been a great many centos, including "some very ingenious ones". And there have been many equally so since Montaigne wrote; among which I'd number this poem of R. S. Gwynn's creation.

* Yes, I know 'y' counts as a vowel.

** I grant this is an odd way to put it, since the cento is an ancient form, while collage was invented by Picasso. But for all cento's age, it remains an obscure practice; while collage is done, I'd guess, in every preschool in America.

Quote of the Day

Americans will tolerate a lot of casualties in a humanitarian war, just so long as none of them are ours.

-- Peter Beinart
The two responses to this observation are to say that America should be more willing to suffer casualties of our own in a humanitarian cause, and to say that America should be less willing to cause casualties of others even in a purportedly humanitarian cause. Count me in the latter camp.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Robert Frost "takes up life simply with the small tasks" (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 12)

You can pass your eyes over a Robert Frost poem pretty easily, but it takes a lot of focus and concentration to really read it. Here's one which I've passed my eyes over many times over many years.

The poem below is from Frost's first book, A Boy's Will (1915), which, I was told by a teacher in college, contains (along with his second book, North of Boston, also 1915) his best work; my professor said that Frost's quality went sharply downhill after that. I have no idea if this is the critical consensus or just one outlier's opinion. Some of my favorite Frost poems are from his first two books; but I like a lot of others, too. (Do I like a vast majority of the ones I've really read? Or is it that I only bother to really read the ones I like? I'm not sure.)

In the table of contents to A Boy's Will, Frost includes a one-line description (?) of each poem; the poem below is described as "He takes up life simply with the small tasks." (The question mark is because, if they're descriptions, then in at least some cases they are misleading in the extreme -- deliberately so, I can only assume -- making the term a very odd one to apply.)


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

-- Robert Frost

Sunday, March 20, 2011

John Hollander's 13-line American Love Affair (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 11)

Two recent posts each referenced to (different) poetry anthologies by John Hollander, who I also knew as the author of the classic work Rhyme's Reason: a Guide to English Verse. This serendipity made me wonder about Hollander's own poetry which (grading still undone) I went and read some of. I like him -- I think I may come to like him a lot, although far from having come to any considered judgment, I'm still processing my first impression. But as part of Attemps's Accidental Poetry Month™ I thought I'd share my favorite of his poems so far.

The poem I've selected is from Hollander's 1983 collection Powers of Thirteen, which won him the Bollingen prize and which was included in its entirety (unlike his other books, which were selected from) in his 1992 Selected Poems, so it seems like at least some people (including, presumably, Hollander himself (assuming he selected the selections in Selected P)) think it's representative of his best work.

Powers of Thirteen is, by the sound of it (so far I've only read a few selections I've found online) a rather Oulipian work.* It consists of 169 (13 squared) poems, each of 13 lines, with 13 syllables in each line. I can't (yet) comment on the success (or otherwise) of the whole, but the following poem (which may or may not be titled An Old Song -- the online source I've found is ambiguous on this), which is the 29th poem in the series, is quite wonderful.
Powers of Thirteen: 29

What she and I had between us once, America
And its hope had; and just as I grieve alternately
For what I know myself to have lost of what had been,
And for all that loss I was suffering all that while
I was doing, I thought, so well, so goes the nation,
Grieving for her hope, either lost, or from the very
Start, a lost cause. All our states and I are one in this.
O my America, my long-lost land lady of
The hardening ground, the house neither ancient nor in
Good repair, the brackish stream, the half-abandoned mill,
The red plastic bucket that hung in the place we kept
By the beach where, I remember, August evenings
Rang with hilarity until we trembled with cold.

-- John Hollander

There are a limited number of poems that seem to me to say something genuinely insightful about America; but this is, I think (again, I'm still assimilating it) one of them.

I hope to get ahold of Hollander's Selected Poems in the near future; if so, I'll share further thoughts (and, probably, further poems) then.

* The Oulipo is a French literary group that studies and promotes the notion of literary constraint; any poetic form, whether old like a sonnet or new like Hollander's 13s, counts -- and the fact that the work contains 169 such poems makes it doubly (squaredly?) so.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Randall Jarrell's Rebuttal of W. H. Auden (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 10)

One of my very favorite poems is W. H. Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts (link to my earlier posting of it). The other day, however, while procrastinating on some grading perusing a book review by John Crowley I saw his reference to John Hollander's awesome-sounding anthology The Gazer's Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art, which contains poems, reproductions of artworks they're about, and Hollander's commentary on the twain. (Incidentally, the term for Hollander's subject -- namely, "written descriptions, in prose or verse, of works of art" -- is "ekphrasis", as Crowley mentions in his review.) One of my first questions was whether he discussed Auden's poem, so I went onto google books to look at it.

Browsing through the anthology, I came first upon the following quote from Plato's Phaedrus (which is, I think, at the top of the list of those-of-Plato's-dialogues-I've-never-read-but-really-ought-to-get-around-to-reading (as opposed to the shorter but not insubstantial list of those-of-Plato's-dialogues-I-have-read-but-really-need-to-to-reread)), which has nothing to do with Auden per se, but which I liked so I'll requote it here:
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. (trans. Harold N. Fowler)

Then I proceeded to read Hollander's discussion of Auden's' poem -- and yes, of course, he did include and discuss it. In his discussion he referred to a rebuttal poem (my term, not his) to Auden's poem written by Randall Jerrrell. (Hollander also referenced Williams Carlos Williams's poem about the same painting by Brueghel, and affirmed my sense that it just wasn't in the same league as Auden's.) I found Jarrell's poem online and read it, and it's fabulous. So I thought I'd reproduce it here, as part of Attempts' ongoing Accidental Poetry Month™. It doesn't erase my admiration for Auden's poem, of course -- but it does comment very powerfully, perhaps even inescapably, on it: I'm not sure, not so early, but I wonder if it isn't one of those later literary works which forever change our reading of an earlier one.

Damn you, Jarrell! I love that poem. The only excuse for you is that your poem is really amazing to.

Here it is. But do go read or reread Auden's poem before you read this one, since it really is quite a direct commentary.
The Old And The New Masters

About suffering, about adoration, the old masters
Disagree. When someone suffers, no one else eats
Or walks or opens the window--no one breathes
As the sufferers watch the sufferer.
In St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene
The flame of one torch is the only light.
All the eyes except the maidservant's (she weeps
And covers them with a cloth) are fixed on the shaft
Set in his chest like a column; St. Irene's
Hands are spread in the gesture of the Madonna,
Revealing, accepting, what she does not understand.
Her hands say: "Lo! Behold!"
Beside her a monk's hooded head is bowed, his hands
Are put together in the work of mourning.
It is as if they were still looking at the lance
Piercing the side of Christ, nailed on his cross.
The same nails pierce all their hands and feet, the same
Thin blood, mixed with water, trickles from their sides.
The taste of vinegar is on every tongue
That gasps, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
They watch, they are, the one thing in the world.

So, earlier, everything is pointed
In van der Goes' Nativity, toward the naked
Shining baby, like the needle of a compass.
The different orders and sizes of the world:
The angels like Little People, perched in the rafters
Or hovering in mid-air like hummingbirds;
The shepherds, so big and crude, so plainly adoring;
The medium-sized donor, his little family,
And their big patron saints; the Virgin who kneels
Before her child in worship; the Magi out in the hills
With their camels--they ask directions, and have pointed out
By a man kneeling, the true way; the ox
And the donkey, two heads in the manger
So much greater than a human head, who also adore;
Even the offerings, a sheaf of wheat,
A jar and a glass of flowers, are absolutely still
In natural concentration, as they take their part
In the salvation of the natural world.
The time of the world concentrates
On this one instant: far off in the rocks
You can see Mary and Joseph and their donkey
Coming to Bethlehem; on the grassy hillside
Where their flocks are grazing, the shepherds gesticulate
In wonder at the star; and so many hundreds
Of years in the future, the donor, his wife,
And their children are kneeling, looking: everything
That was or will be in the world is fixed
On its small, helpless, human center.

After a while the masters show the crucifixion
In one corner of the canvas: the men come to see
What is important, see that it is not important.
The new masters paint a subject as they please,
And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition
For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ,
The earth is a planet among galaxies.
Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract
Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts
Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe
In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner
Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.

-- Randall Jarrell

Friday, March 18, 2011

I Have Not Been Writing About Current Events This Year

-- because my head has been elsewhere. I have a lot of posts in the pipeline for the next week: none on current events. (All on poetry, actually: it's Accidental Poetry Month™ here at Attempts!) Which is perhaps all the excuse I need to link to this beautiful, anguished meditation of Chris Floyd's on living in a world that invites political despair, yet which has so much beauty in other areas. That's not precisely why I've not been writing about politics -- but it's not entirely disconnected, either.

But somehow the internal dybbuk of keeping-current is whispering in my ear loudly enough that I'm just going to say one or two things -- in part about why I'm not saying anything. There will be no links for a lot of this stuff because you've already seen it -- or can do so just as easily as I can link.

1) The revolution in Egypt was one of the most thrilling and positive events in recent history, and one that will likely be remembered for years; the devastation in Japan was one of the most horrific and negative likewise. I have been riveted by both, with opposite but equally strong emotions. But I've posted on neither because I having nothing to say on either except that, in the case of Egypt, I am delighted, and Japan, horrified -- that is, the obvious felt by everyone of good will.

2) I wish we weren't going to war in a third Middle Eastern country -- although it seems we are.

2a) It's particularly depressing because the person initiating the war was the one I voted for in no small part because he'd opposed the last war. More fool I.

[Update: 2b) I should say I do see a significant moral difference between our attacking Libya now and our attacking Iraq in 2003, which is that in Libya the fighting is already ongoing. We're not starting the shooting. I think this is very important. So I don't feel that it's clear that an intervention would be immoral. (It might become so (or be revealed to have been so to those of us who know diddly about Libya) as things go on; but it's not obviously so now.) What I don't see is that it is any wiser than intervening in Iraq was, nor a sensible means for humanitarian ends any more than Iraq was.]

3) Of course Congress needs to declare war if we're going to attack Libya. This is utterly obvious. (Candidate Obama said so, just to name one relevant person.) If Obama attacks Libya without Congressional approval, it will be an impeachable offense so far as I can see.

4) Of course, Obama already belongs next to Bush at the Hague, on trial for the war crime of torture; in Obama's case, he's doing it against an American citizen who has not been convicted of any crime -- and who's crime, whistleblowing, was praised by candidate Obama back when he was trying to win my vote. The normalization of torture in this country is one of the truly horrifying things of the past few years -- and Obama, who I had hoped would push back against it, has instead ratified it as part of the normal political consensus.

4a) Steve Randy Waldman had a particularly a propos comment on Manning's detention: "Oddly, Manning's treatment helps to justify his actions ex post. Is a govt that would do this a govt we should trust to act in secret?" Consider this a retweet. (Via)

5) Oh, and by the way we're still burning down the house of our planet.

...back to poetry tomorrow morning.

Actually, no, fuck it: I think that a poem sums all this up pretty well:
Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

-- Robert Frost
See how whatever I do this March it comes back to poetry? Accidental Poetry Month™ continues!

Back to politics free poetry tomorrow.

Attempts' Accidental Poetry Month Continues: Hollander's Anthology of Good Poetry to Memorize

Anyone who's been coming by Attempts regularly may have noticed that I've been putting up a lot of poetry this month -- seven entries under the Poems (Entire) tag so far in March (not to mention three last February too). There is, as usual, no particular reason for this -- I happened to come across a bunch of poems I liked and wanted to share, so I put 'em up.

Now, in most cases there was an occasion of sorts: I put up a poem by Wendy Cope in connection with a related poem my students were reading for my class, and a poem by Seamus Heaney for St. Patrick's Day; the multiple translation of Li Bai's poem was occasioned by my finding and recommending a new poetry site*; and the poems by Robert Frost and George Eliot both related to quotations that I have long loved. The poem by Richard Wilbur I... discovered and liked. Okay, no occasion there. But even if there were motivations in most cases, the coincidence of this being such a poetry-heavy month here has been just that, a coincidence. So far as I know.

However, I've decided to go with it, and declare March to be Accidental Poetry Month™ here at Attempts, and put up a bunch more poems and poetry-related program activities, because... I found a bunch more I wanted to post, so why not?

Today we have not an individual poem, but a poetry anthology, online in its entirety. I'll let the editor of the relevant site take it away from here:
In 1995, the Academy [of American Poets] commissioned poet John Hollander to assemble a poetry anthology that emphasized the pleasure of memorization and recitation. The result was Committed to Memory...
...which is online at the site of the Academy of American Poets: the link goes to his introduction, which is followed by the list of 100 poems with links to each.

It's a fun list, I think. I like memorizing poetry, and looking over the list there are ten poems on it I've memorized in their entirety, and another dozen or more that I have significant chunks of. (I often, irritatingly, will find I know most of a poem but be unable to get a few lines straight.) Even if you're not particularly interested in memorizing poetry per se, it's a good little anthology of poems, largely fairly short (for the obvious reason), the longest one being Tennyson's Ulysses, (which is a favorite of mine and one of those that I've got about half memorized), clocking in at 73 lines. The rest are shorter, mostly considerably so -- a lot of sonnets, for the obvious reason.

Editor Hollander does say something about about some poems being too short as well as too long -- a sentiment that makes no sense to me: if he means too short to memorize, it's just bizarre; if he means (as I assume he does) poems to short to memorize and really count, then I at least understand the sentiment, but I think it's pretty silly. The advantage of him so doing, however, is that he quotes, in its entirety, an example of a too-short-to-memorize poem, a marvelous little couplet by John Donne that I'd never read before. (Thus, of course, giving it as a poem to memorize -- and upping his total to the Scheherazadianly pleasing 101 from the overly-round 100.**)

The poem is an epitaph (Hollander's word) for Hero and Leander; for those who don't know the story, here is how Wikipedia tells it***:
Hero and Leander is a Byzantine myth, relating the story of Hērō, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Dardanelles, and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way. Succumbing to Leander's soft words, and to his argument that Aphrodite, as goddess of love, would scorn the worship of a virgin, Hero allowed him to make love to her. This routine lasted through the warm summer. But one stormy winter night, the waves tossed Leander in the sea and the breezes blew out Hero's light, and Leander lost his way, and was drowned. Hero threw herself from the tower in grief and died as well.
Wikipedia also notes that the myth is the subject of two far more famous (and much longer) poems, by Christopher Marlowe (which contains the famous line "Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?"****) and a later one by Leigh Hunt (which so far as I know contains no particularly famous lines).

At any rate, with that as background, here is Donne's complete poem:
Hero and Leander.

Both robb'd of air, we both lie in one ground ;
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drown'd.
Not a bad little poem, as even Hollander recognizes; in fact, he gives a little half-sentence reading of it, which hits the high points, noting "its invocation of the four elements and its interplay of 'both' and 'one'".

Good grief, why not memorize it? I mean, it's short...

But if you want some longer poems to memorize -- or just read -- check out Hollander's anthology. And check back here in a day or two, as Attemps' Accidental Poetry Month™ continues!!

* New to me, anyway.

** A deliberate irony on his part? Or unnoticed? I have no idea.

*** At least as of this writing, who knows how it'll be edited tomorrow...

**** Is that a rhetorical question? Because if not, I can think of a few examples.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Poem of the Day: Second Annual St. Patrick's Day Edition

Brief historical background: the Croppies were the rebels during the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Vinegar Hill was the site of a battle in which the Croppies were badly defeated; the dead were thrown in unmarked mass graves.

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley...
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp...
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching... on the hike...
We found new tactics happening each day:
We'd cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until... on Vinegar Hill... the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August... the barley grew up out of our grave.

-- Seamus Heaney

Happy St. Patrick's day!

: In case you're curious, here's a link to last year's St. Patrick's Day poem.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Poem of the Day: Robbing God

I first read the line "If I slack my hands, I rob God: for God cannot make Stradivarius violins without Stradivarius" quoted, just like that, in a book when I was a child -- some book of plays for children, I think, which quoted it in its preface. But perhaps I misremember. At any rate, I quoted it that way for years, until, at a party, a graduate student writing his dissertation on Stradivarius gently informed me that Stradivarius left very little writing, that he'd read it all, and that that line is not among them. (He was kind enough to suggest perhaps there was a source he didn't know, hence gentle; but it was clear that I was wrong.) I mentioned this to a group of friends at college, and one did the obvious thing, that I had never thought of, and looked it up in Bartlet's. It's dialogue put in Stradivarius's mouth by George Eliot, writing well over a century after his death. (I mention this in part because (and you can see if you google it) it is still occasionally misattributed the line to Stradivarius.

Here's the actual source -- which doesn't have the precise wording I remember so clearly, but near enough.

God Needs Antonio

Your soul was lifted by the wings today
Hearing the master of the violin:
You praised him, praised the great Sabastian too
Who made that fine Chaconne; but did you think
Of old Antonio Stradivari? -him
Who a good century and a half ago
Put his true work in that brown instrument
And by the nice adjustment of its frame
Gave it responsive life, continuous
With the master's finger-tips and perfected
Like them by delicate rectitude of use.
That plain white-aproned man, who stood at work
Patient and accurate full fourscore years,
Cherished his sight and touch by temperance,
And since keen sense is love of perfectness
Made perfect violins, the needed paths
For inspiration and high mastery.

No simpler man than he; he never cried,
"why was I born to this monotonous task
Of making violins?" or flung them down
To suit with hurling act well-hurled curse
At labor on such perishable stuff.
Hence neighbors in Cremona held him dull,
Called him a slave, a mill-horse, a machine.

Naldo, a painter of eclectic school,
Knowing all tricks of style at thirty-one,
And weary of them, while Antonio
At sixty-nine wrought placidly his best,
Making the violin you heard today -
Naldo would tease him oft to tell his aims.
"Perhaps thou hast some pleasant vice to feed -
the love of louis d'ors in heaps of four,
Each violin a heap - I've naught to blame;
My vices waste such heaps. But then, why work
With painful nicety?"

Antonio then:
"I like the gold - well, yes - but not for meals.
And as my stomach, so my eye and hand,
And inward sense that works along with both,
Have hunger that can never feed on coin.
Who draws a line and satisfies his soul,
Making it crooked where it should be straight?
Antonio Stradivari has an eye
That winces at false work and loves the true."
Then Naldo: "'Tis a petty kind of fame
At best, that comes of making violins;
And saves no masses, either. Thou wilt go
To purgatory none the less."

But he:
"'Twere purgatory here to make them ill;
And for my fame - when any master holds
'Twixt chin and hand a violin of mine,
He will be glad that Stradivari lived,
Made violins, and made them of the best.
The masters only know whose work is good:
They will choose mine, and while God gives them skill
I give them instruments to play upon,
God choosing me to help him.

"What! Were God
at fault for violins, thou absent?"

He were at fault for Stradivari's work."

"Why, many hold Giuseppe's violins
As good as thine."

"May be: they are different.
His quality declines: he spoils his hand
With over-drinking. But were his the best,
He could not work for two. My work is mine,
And, heresy or not, if my hand slacked
I should rob God - since his is fullest good -
Leaving a blank instead of violins.
I say, not God himself can make man's best
Without best men to help him.

'Tis God gives skill,
But not without men's hands: he could not make
Antonio Stradivari's violins
Without Antonio. Get thee to thy easel."

-- George Eliot

Monday, March 14, 2011

Poem of the Day: Robert Frost Quarrels with Horace's Ode

The famous phrase "carpe diem" -- most often translated "seize the day" -- is, of course, from the Odes of Horace (1.11). In this fabulous poem, however, Robert Frost takes exception to that ancient advice.

Carpe Diem

Age saw two quiet children
Go loving by at twilight,
He knew not whether homeward,
Or outward from the village,
Or (chimes were ringing) churchward,
He waited (they were strangers)
Till they were out of hearing
To bid them both be happy.
"Be happy, happy, happy,
And seize the day of pleasure."
The age-long theme is Age's.
'Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it.
And yet not know they have it.
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine.

-- Robert Frost

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quote of the Day: the Value of Life

Où que vostre vie finisse, elle y est toute. L'utilité du vivre n'est pas en l'espace, elle est en l'usage: tel a vescu long temps, qui a peu vescu: attendez vous y pendant que vous y estes. Il gist en vostre volonté, non au nombre des ans, que vous ayez assez vescu. Pensiez vous jamais n'arriver là, où vous alliez sans cesse? encore n'y a il chemin qui n'aye son issue. Et si la compagnie vous peut soulager: le monde ne va-il pas mesme train que vous allez?

-- Michel de Montaigne, Essais, livre 1, Que Philosopher C'Est Apprendre à Mourir

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way?

-- Ibid., as, "That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die", trans. Charles Cotton

Wherever your life ends, there all of it ends. The usefulness of living lies not in duration but in what you make of it. Some have lived long and lived little. See to it while you are still here. Whether you have lived enough depends not on a count of years but on your will. Do you think you will never arrive whither you are ceaselessly heading? Yet every road has its end. And, if it is a relief to have company, is not the whole world proceeding at the same pace as you are?

-- Ibid., as "To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die", trans. M. A. Screech

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it. It lies in your will, not in the number of years, for you to have lived enough. Did you think you would never arrive where you never ceased going? Yet there is no road but has its end. And if company can comfort you, does not the world keep pace with you?

-- Ibid., as "That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die", trans. Donald M. Frame
This marvelous passage is definitely from the chapter "Que Philosopher C'Est Apprendre à Mourir", which is definitely in Book 1 of Montainge's Essays; but, oddly, this chapter appears variously as chapter seventeen, nineteen and twenty, depending on which edition you look it. I don't have time right now to unravel this mystery, but would be interested in hearing the answer if anyone does. (I'm assuming it's really twenty... but what's left out if it's nineteen?)