Poetry Friday: Simplicity, Summertime, and Li Bai

I wanted a nice poem about summertime—something lighter than a lot of the fare I’ve offered in recent weeks.  I’m gearing up for some WWI poetry in the weeks ahead, since we’re a few days from the centennial anniversaries of battles and death and such things, and I really thought I needed a little break myself (and perhaps you did too) before taking such a plunge.  When you need a reliably cheerful poet—not a humorous poet like Ogden Nash or a silly poet like Edward Lear, but a truly optimistic, look on the bright side, life is good poet—where do you turn?  I’m reminded of something Garrison Keillor once said (in a musical context) about the composer Johannes Brahms, one of Keillor’s favorites.  He contrasts Brahms to a lot of other composers by noting that he’s not a dark, tortured artist—instead, Keillor says (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing, since I can’t find the quote) that Brahms is the kind of guy who thinks life feels good, and he just wants you to feel good too.  For me, that kind of description could apply to a poet or two that I think of as reliable in their defense of the goodness of life, and probably chief among them is the classical Chinese poet, Li Bai (or Li Po), who more than twelve hundred years ago wrote the poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day” (this is the 1919 translation by Arthur Waley):

Li Bai keeping an eye on his poem still, after all these years...

Li Bai, still keeping an eye on his poem, after all these years…

“Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.”

Bai, at least in translation, isn’t too interested in clever turns of phrase, unexpected metaphors, that sort of thing.  He’s not out to plumb great depths or lay his soul bare.  He wants you to slow down and breath deep.  Here, he is in the mountains and that’s all he wants to capture for us.  The stillness of the air that would cling to him a little if not for his gentle fanning.  The very simple sense of surroundings—the wood is “green” but we see little else; the day must be warm enough for an open shirt and a removed cap but we feel little else—and of a man letting himself be for a while.  There is a wind that “trickles”, which is an odd turn of phrase that I assume is Bai’s but of course may be the translator…even so, it’s not all that bizarre an image and I know the feeling, that suddenly cold breeze that does feel almost like a drop of ice water crawling along you.  And that’s all.

There are probably dimensions we miss here either by not being able to read the original, or by not totally understanding the cultural context of life in eighth century China.  But truthfully I don’t expect we miss all that much.  Bai intends this to be a broadly identifiable human experience, I think, and certainly many of his other poems follow in that vein.  On a hot day in the mountains, he knows that we would be like him—overcome enough by heat to enjoy some rest, fan ourselves, loosen our clothing, hot enough that our attention and our consciousness doesn’t ever really reach too far beyond the boundaries of our bodies.  To read Li Bai is to become more mindful of everything there is on and in yourself, and less interested in the world too far out there.  Your gaze travels to your immediate surroundings and not a distant horizon.  If you’re in the wrong mood, he feels banal, naive, unambitious.  But read him in the right mood, and he has a way of centering you, making you glad about life’s smallest wonders, like the pleasure of a feather fan or the subtle scent of pine in the air.  Whether or not you need him this weekend, he’s here for you—and if you don’t need him today, he will be here for you tomorrow.  Li Bai knows the foundation of the simplest human joys, after all, and he will wait there quite happily until you return.

“So passed a pleasant period in the well-cushioned limousine in which Lanny Budd was rolling through life.”

That’s right, I’m back on the Pulitzer train!  After a very, very long delay, I’ve picked up Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and am charging through as fast as I can just to get it over with.  I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and thought I could share at least a few of my reflections, although truthfully Sinclair doesn’t give me much to talk about.

The reason for that is something I discussed last year when I began the novel—Sinclair’s more a propagandist than a prose stylist, and the novel is therefore more an opportunity for him to talk about politics and economics than it is a work of literature.  The Budds and Robins (our two principal families) are still doing their respective things as American and Jewish-German munitions dealers during the interwar period (specifically, 1930, at this point in the book), and it’s still giving Sinclair plenty of opportunity to talk about all the things he cared about in the aftermath of WWI and the slow rise of the conditions that created WWII.  I still don’t think these characters are very deep or interesting, and I still find that a shame, since there ought to be scope for some really artful psychological stuff here, especially for the Robin paterfamilias whose status as a rich, arms-dealing Jew in Berlin society as the National Socialists rise to power should give him a lot to chew over.  We just don’t see it.

What we do see, jarringly, is the first fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler I’ve ever read.  Oh, of course I’ve seen him on television and in film portrayed by actors, I’ve read non-fiction about him, and I’ve certainly seen some of the footage taken of his speeches in the 1930s.  It’s just odd to have him as a character in a novel I’m reading—a man Lanny Budd is invited to luncheon with, and with whom Budd then has a long, strained conversation.  In some ways I liked it—Hitler is so clearly one of the most important men in world history, and the notion that a novel might explore what he was like outside the carefully scripted world of speech-giving and military planning is kind of intriguing.  But of course I have Sinclair’s limitations as a writer of character, and unfortunately, with Hitler, even slightly wrong tones can start to feel really odd—you wonder if the novelist is being too sympathetic to a genocidal maniac, or too sloppy in caricaturing a complex man, or any number of other things.  In short, a good novelist should try this (and maybe they have), but this isn’t a good idea for Sinclair.

I do like that Upton allows us some complexity in the main characters, at least.  For instance, when they spend the summer of 1930 at their villa, Lanny and his wife have a real liberal argument about the poor.  Lanny sees them starving and wants to buy cheap food and distribute it to them.  His wife, Irma, thinks it’s better to buy their usual expensive food, which puts more money in the hands of locals who will use it in the local economy, and not to bother with charitable handouts, which she thinks will at best encourage laziness and at worst will make people feel disrespected and dependent.  As much as I feel more sympathy to one side of the argument, there’s undeniably a case on each side, and Upton, to his unexpected credit, lets both sides have their say.

One complaint, and a common one for me: if you can’t, as an author, get the little details of your setting right, don’t bother writing at all, because it wrecks my concentration to see badly misrepresented reality.  For instance, Sinclair in a passage I just read notes that Lanny’s infant, which is a few months old, just said her first word and is now trying to learn to stand.  But the timing of these events is weirdly backwards, as I know now (as a parent of an infant).  It’s a small thing, Upton, but because it’s small, can’t we fix it?

I will keep plodding—there are much better books ahead, and I want to get to them!  But the above is all I have for now.

Poetry Friday: Poem of the End

I’m immersing myself in the violent world of a century ago—reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the summer of 1914 when the world sped headlong into war, reading Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth (Yes, gentle reader! There will be a Pulitzer novel update post soon!) which, despite its setting in 1930, is very much consumed with the question of what led to the Great War of 1914-1918 and what it meant—and then of course at the same time, because I am alive and human and I want to learn about what it means to be those things, I am reading news online about the violent world around me, both close to home and far from it.  The death of passengers in a Malaysian airplane, the death of so many, including so many innocents, in the Middle East as Gaza erupts in blood, and the deaths of young people on the streets of Chicago in the violence that each summer brings and we seem unable to diminish, despite our efforts (I will not call them “best”: I don’t think we’ve given an effort worthy of that adjective yet).  And Friday comes and I’m supposed to select a poem that says something about something.

I’ve been looking at the poetry of 1914.  A lot of it is from August and later, the world changed by war, and I’ll get to them.  Many of them are exquisitely moving.  But for now I’m thinking of exactly a century ago, as the peoples of Europe held their breath in the long July that stretched between Ferdinand’s death in Sarajevo and the German army’s assault through the Low Countries.  So I don’t want to use the poems of war yet, and then on the other hand all these things on my mind make it hard for me to take the easy way out and pick up a short poem from one of Robert Frost’s collections, say, that appeared in 1914.  So you get “Poem of the End”.

“Poem of the End” appeared in 1914, or so my sources claim—some say it came out in 1913, but in either case I think it captures the mood I’m grappling with, and the tension of that Europe just before the war began.  It’s the work of a Russian poet named Vasilisk Gnedov, a futurist and experimental poet who pushed a lot of boundaries.  He published a collection entitled Death to Art, a series of poems that get progressively shorter and shorter.  You’re probably wondering by now why I’m blathering on about this when I normally just give you the text of the poem.  Well, the last poem in Death to Art is simply the title, “Poem of the End”, and a blank page.

If this reminds you of other famous works—maybe music lovers will especially think of John Cage’s 4’33”—I think that’s fair.  But I think there’s also something distinctive about this work.  When Gnedov performed it, supposedly he would simply walk on stage, announce the title, make a gesture with his hand, pause for some length of time, and then sit down.  Different observers recorded the gesture differently, so it’s not clear to me if the gesture was intended to be difficult to interpret, or if Gnedov simply changed it for different performances.  Each description makes it sound somewhat violent—a hand thrust suddenly up over the face and then dashed away from it, or a hand making a slashing motion first one way and then another, etc.—and deliberate.

This may be silly poetic posturing, of course, the kind of performance art that gets mocked more than it ever actually gets undertaken by a performance artist.  You may think it very silly for me to offer it to you today, and I may be.  But something about “Poem of the End” spoke to me tonight.  If I may attempt to interpret Gnedov, or at least to make him speak to how I feel today and how the world looks, both in his time of 1914 and ours of 2014, here’s what I see.  I see a poet acknowledging that there is a boundary to what our words can encompass and address.  There is a threshold beyond which it’s hard to see what art can do, other than to stand before us in silence and ask us to examine what is left when the words fall away.  A quiet man, poised on a stage, moves with suddenness and then nothing follows—we expect to be given some meaning to engage with, and instead find ourselves left with only our thoughts and the context around us that we’ve been ignoring in order to attend to our art.  Is it cheeky to print a blank “Poem of the End”?  Of course it is.  But what other poem will suffice to show us what an ending means?

I hope that the world is full of more beginnings tonight than endings, of more hope than despair.  But there is no denying that these past days and weeks have seen too many voices silenced forever, unfairly and before their time.  Gnedov offers us this gift tonight—a space without words into which perhaps those voices can speak.  May we listen well.

Poetry Friday: Independence Day with Emma Lazarus

For this Poetry Friday, which falls on a holiday here in the States—and not just any holiday, but the most fireworks-laden and brass-band-in-the-park bedecked of them all, Independence Day—I’m keeping it short and sweet.  There are a lot of hymns to patriotism and ruminations on America in poetic form, but one sonnet seems to me just the right one to ponder a little as we prepare for cookouts and parades and sparklers lighting up the night.  This is “The New Colossus”, by Emma Lazarus, published in 1883:

"Liberty Enlightening the World", perhaps better known these days as "The Statue of Liberty"

“Liberty Enlightening the World”, perhaps better known these days as “The Statue of Liberty”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus wrote this little poem as part of a fund-raising effort in connection with the impending arrival of an immense statue, a gift from the French government, Bartholdi’s “La Liberté éclairant le monde” (or “Liberty enlightening the world”).  This little sonnet in some ways reshapes American identity, in that it changes the character of the lady who stands in New York’s harbor, and in doing so changes something important about America’s symbolism about itself.  As conceived, the statue was a monument to the American Revolution, which had only succeeded with the support of the French—it was an ode to American greatness, to achievement.  And then along comes Emma Lazarus to tell us we misunderstand the work, before it is even completed and standing on American soil.

“Not”, she begins—“Not”, because before we can hear her real voice we must unhear the misconceptions we have already taken on board—“Not like the brazen giant”, the Colossus of Rhodes, this will be no statue to honor military triumph, she tells us.  She sees the statue not as an emblem held aloft from the American shore: if she did, surely Lazarus would describe Liberty as a sunrise figure, no?  Her torch held aloft at the eastern edge of the continent?  But Lazarus sees her at the “sunset gates”, she sees her from the Old World, from the boats that came by the hundreds, the refugees teeming across the Atlantic by the thousands, peering and squinting into the sunset to see that torch held aloft that proclaimed a journey’s end, and a new beginning.  An apocalyptic figure, Liberty is mighty, she cages lightning for a beacon, and yet most importantly, her name is no warrior’s slogan, no epithet worn by a hero of battle.  She is Mother of Exiles.  The torch does not drive off the foe—it welcomes the world.  Her eyes are not piercing or stern, but mild.  She is a gentle god, a pillar of strength that shields more than it threatens, that guards more than it goads.

And then Lazarus executes the turn from octet (first 8 lines) to sestet (last 6) perfectly—we no longer hear the poet, but now simply the voice of Liberty herself.  She rejects all that glitters, the “storied pomp” of the Old World, the shimmering jewels on the crowned heads of a Europe then in its absolute ascendancy, a handful of empires who then held under subjection most of the surface of the Earth.  “Give me your tired,” she says, send me those you cannot abide and who cannot abide you.  Turn out those who have found emptiness with you, that they will find plenty with me.  Cast out the weak that I may teach them to be strong.  She does not glamourize them—they are “huddled masses”, “wretched refuse”, “homeless”.  It will not matter.  If they enter under her lamp they will find a home.  You know these words, of course.  Years later, some of them were carved on a plaque that can be seen by all who visit Liberty in New York.  She is forever the exiles’ mother, the welcomer of the “tempest-tost”—and because she is so fully identified with the United States, in a way we will wear that badge, as well, forever until the statue crumbles into the harbor.

We can be cynical, of course, and undercut the poem’s naivete.  The Land of Opportunity denied opportunity to many.  Even as many immigrants found success here, many other found failure—some sank into inescapable poverty here, others returned broken to the poverty they had left at home.  Liberty was a welcome sight but for some arrivals, her face would be the last welcoming one they would see for some time.  And yet…

And yet what is today for if not for appealing to the better angels of our nature?  If America has not always lived up to the promise in Lazarus’s poem, surely that promise was kept for many, at least—among them a butcher from Schleswig-Holstein and a tailor from central Sweden, who found homes here and enough success to raise families and see grandchildren born, not knowing that the years would lead, among other places, to me sitting here now writing this.  Lazarus’s sonnet can inspire us as well as disappoint us; it can call us to live out our duty to the world’s bedraggled.  These sentiments are not wholly welcome to all Americans these days, and of course they never really were universally American sentiments.  We have always had anti-immigrant sentiment, though I fear our current predicament is deeper and more pernicious than most of what’s preceded it.  The news is full of talk, much of it by people who would call themselves patriots, but in whose anti-immigrant phrases and attitudes I find not very much to call “American” in the way that Liberty herself is American.  I am sad for them, and about them, but I do not give up on them.

Today, let them come to Liberty Island to sit at the feet of Bartholdi’s masterpiece.  Let them read the words of Lazarus and ask themselves what it would mean for us to embrace our identity as the Mother of Exiles, the home of the world’s cast-offs.  Let them look into our country’s past and see not just rich men signing a Declaration, but the generations of the poor and the homeless who passed beneath that torch, had their papers stamped at Ellis Island, and declared a kind of personal independence from all that had held them down back home, and all they had left behind.  This land belongs to them, too, and to the many who have not yet come to our shores, but for whom Lady Liberty will someday mark a turning point in their lives.  So today I honor them all, past, present, and future, who have come here with nothing: may America richly reward you for placing your hopes in her hands.

Poetry Friday: The Approach of War

Tomorrow marks a century since the Yugoslavian nationalist Gavrilo Princip fatally shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie—the violent act was precipitated by Austria’s long occupation of the Slavic territories surrounding Serbia, and of course it then precipitated the maneuvering of the Powers of Europe until, in August, the guns rang out and what they then called The Great War (and what we would, many years later, call World War I) commenced.  The shadow of that war still hangs over us—World War II and all its aftermath are really dominos toppling in a chain leading back to the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, to Versailles and the carving up of the world.  Today, in Iraq, ISIS and the Kurds and the Maliki-led military forces are clashing over a fictional idea that was created by World War I, namely the idea that Iraq, a melange of faiths and ethnicities and national peoples, is a single country that can be ruled by a single government.  Like Kevin Bacon, the Great War unifies all 20th and 21st Century conflicts—it’s hard to point to any war since then that is not connected, usually in only one or two moves, to what began in the streets of Sarajevo on the 28th of June.

As we go through the next few years of 100th anniversaries of key moments in that conflict, I know I’ll reflect from time to time on the poetry of that war.  Most of the Pulitzers I’ve reviewed so far have been impacted in some way by WWI, and some have been explicitly interested in it (His Family and One of Ours, especially).  My current Pulitzer novel deals with families forged in that war.  So reflections on it, and on what the writers at the time made of it, are part and parcel of the long ongoing project here in which I try to make sense of my nation and its art.

Some of the Great War’s poems have already been featured here at one time or another, often on November 11th when I observe Armistice Day.  I haven’t decided yet whether to return to any of them for a second look.  For now, there’s plenty of unused material to work with, beginning with the verse written in this time of anticipation, when war was beginning to seem inevitable but no one yet could anticipate what that would mean.  This summer, the summer of 2014, starts to feel that way with the news out of the Middle East—I hope I am wrong about that.  Certainly, though, whether or not my country goes again to war, there are millions of people caught up today and for the foreseeable future in a war zone in Syria and Iraq.  I think of them as well as of us, when I suggest that it’s time for us to consider this century’s history of war, and what we are to make of it.  This is “Channel Firing”, written in that tense summer of 1914 before the war began, by Thomas Hardy:

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening…

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Hardy begins where this tale will inevitably end—in the grave, among the dead, who are the nameless collective first person throughout this poem.  They are uneasy in their rest because of the thundering cannons that echo through the churchyard, the sound of naval gunnery practice as Great Britain’s dreadnoughts prepare for the war that is to come.  All nature is disturbed, it seems—the images in the second stanza are of a world knocked a little from its moorings, insecure.

God’s sudden appearance is strange for anyone who knows Hardy: his cynical atheism is at the heart of a lot of his work, and I’ve even explored it a little in a previous Poetry Friday post.  But the cynicism remains even with the arrival of the Deity.  He reassures the dead that it’s not the last trumpet—only the thudding of guns.  A line like “the world is as it used to be” is in one sense soothing, but of course in context it’s also deeply depressing: the dead are being consoled by the simple fact that war and killing remain a major human preoccupation.

I’ll admit, I think the central portion of the poem is weakest for me—the attitude is too easy, too predictable, as God deplores the waste of all this energy on blood and death, and suggests that these folks are lucky it isn’t the Second Coming, since they’d all be doing hard time in Hell for their sins (although why God thinks any delay will change that, under the circumstances, isn’t really clear).  I do like the dryness of God’s laugh “Ha, ha”, not a giggle or a chortle but that flat, open-mouthed laugh that blasts out of you when you can hardly believe what you’re seeing.  It’s a rueful laugh, and it’s followed by a much sharper observation than the previous stanzas—that humanity is in such dire need of “rest eternal” that God’s considering just not waking anybody up, ever, and dispensing with this whole “glorious return” and “renewing of the earth” business that prophecy associates with the judgment day.

And the poem continues to improve, for me, after God’s exit: one of the dead, very naturally, asks if any of the centuries to come will bring a more peaceful era in human history, a better time than the days these sleeping souls once knew.  The bones rattle as the corpses demur—no, they suggest, humanity is on some level unimproveable.  The dead parson laments wasting his time on those sermons, the fruitless words cast out like seeds on rocky soil, doomed not to take root.  Better, he thinks, to have spent his days in a little private pleasure, a little smoke and alcohol to while away this mortal life.  And then that last great stanza as though the camera pulls suddenly back—no, “pulls” isn’t violent enough a word, the camera shoots backward like a fired munition—as we watch the thunder of the gunfire echo inland to Stourton Tower (associated with the “first” English king, Alfred the Great), then Camelot (deeper into the mythic past, and the legendary Arthur), and lastly to that monument under the starlight, the mute trilithons of Stonehenge.  Peering farther and farther back in time, Hardy finally quiets down: he shows rather than tells us that we cannot see back far enough to an age before war, and implicitly invites us to imagine the long, bloody road ahead.

Channel Firing is not the most moving of the Great War’s poems, in part because it is written before the war itself begins.  Hardy cannot yet know or draw on the agony of the trenches, the mad waste of a generation mowed down by machine guns and clouds of mustard gas.  And because it’s grounded in Hardy’s trademark depression, it does seem to weigh us down with its burdens—there is no suggestion that war can be averted, or that humans have any real role to play other than as pawns in this never-ending cycle.  But I see it as valuable, in part because I think it challenges me to argue with the poem, to suggest that there is a side to humanity it does not see.  And in part because I think it reminds me how real these truths are about the human condition, that to fight and die is deeply ingrained in us, and that it will take more than kind intentions and a pledge not to forget to get us off of this course we’re on.  The men and women who survived this war swore it would be the last such conflagration.  They sent their children to die, again, 25 years later.  I don’t think we should be fatalistic, but Hardy demands that I be realistic—when the dead hear the guns again, they will need to hear a better argument than I yet have, if I’m going to convince them that, this time, the cycle will be broken.

Poetry Friday: Summer and Siegfried Sassoon

At the end of a busy week, sometime all I can do is see the wheel of time turning and be glad it rolls only one direction—forward.  With that in mind, let’s turn our minds to the road ahead, to the promise implicit in this Midsummer’s Eve that summer is upon us with all its heat and light, and to the hope that the future tense brings with it—the delightful recklessness of verbs like “shall” and “will”.  Our guide tonight is Siegfried Sassoon, a poet you may know from his grisly World War I poems (about which more next weekend, on the centennial of the war’s beginnings), but who tonight is nothing but romance and confidence.  This is “Idyll”, by Siegfried Sassoon:

“In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day-break and the morning hills behind you.
There will be rain-wet roses; stir of wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
Till that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread, quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.”

Sassoon’s couplet rhyme may be cloying to some of you, but in the exuberance of a summer evening it’s hard for me to resist him.  Who does he await—a lover surely, but one dead? one long since married to another? one who sits beside him even now as he writes and who is reforged by his words?  Love is more than this poem knows, of course—darker, stranger, much more complicated and much heavier as a burden—but it is also all that this poem promises, the days when everything about the world seems to hum with the tune you have been singing.  When no thing flies or walks or creeps past you but you see some beauty in it.

Can we find Sassoon’s joy in the world?  Perhaps we can tonight, and perhaps not.  But on this warm Friday evening, poised on the brink of summer, I think there are grey summer gardens ahead for us all, sooner or later, and maybe Sassoon wrote this poem to remind us to look for them.  Regardless, I hope some turn of phrase here catches your eye and turns up a smile in you this weekend.

Poetry Friday: Superstition

It’s Friday the 13th, and in the triskaidekaphobic cultures in the Western world, it’s time for at least some of us to freak out a little based on some notion we have, I guess, that we may be on the brink of betrayal (a la Judas Iscariot) or that we are about to be inadvertently stabbed to death by a spear made of mistletoe (seriously, folks: Loki‘s bizarre murder of Balder is one reason your friends are making nervous comments on social media today).  And here at FP, what can we do but slavishly follow these cultural imperatives in an attempt to capture a wider audience for poetry?

The only problem here is that I’m really not familiar with too many poems even about the basic concept of “superstition”, let alone anything set inside the superstitious world of people who are afraid of Friday the 13th.  I nosed around a little today, and ended up at least finding a poem that talks about superstition a little—whether that’s enough to be thematically appropriate today, I leave to you to judge.  At least it’s a worthwhile poem—another sonnet spun from the mind of America’s best sonneteer (that should be a word, even though spell-check says it isn’t), and maybe this blog’s most frequent featured poet.  Here’s hoping it’s a nice addition to your Friday the 13th: from her 1921 publication Second April, this is the ninth in a series of untitled sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

“Let you not say of me when I am old, 
In pretty worship of my withered hands 
Forgetting who I am, and how the sands 
Of such a life as mine run red and gold 
Even to the ultimate sifting dust, ‘Behold, 
Here walketh passionless age!’—for there expands 
A curious superstition in these lands, 
And by its leave some weightless tales are told.

In me no lenten wicks watch out the night; 
I am the booth where Folly holds her fair;
Impious no less in ruin than in strength, 
When I lie crumbled to the earth at length, 
Let you not say, ‘Upon this reverend site 
The righteous groaned and beat their breasts in prayer.'”

Millay has hits and misses, but most of her sonnets (in my experience) are hits, and this is no exception.  It feels loosely based on Shakespeare, and of course how could Millay, so devoted to the sonnet, not be richly familiar with his work—enough so that maybe it would creep in to her verse, intentionally or un-?  Certainly the opening line here feels a lot like “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow“, although of course the two sonnets quickly chart very different courses.  Really Millay is interested in the deepest of our American superstitions, what some have called “the last taboo”—our fear of death, and all the euphemism and sentences trailing off and social conventions that fear gives rise to.  Honestly, for me the octet (the first eight lines) is the weaker half of the piece: I like the tone she’s striking, and of course Millay (as usual) gets a rhythm and sound that’s gorgeous spoken aloud, rhythmic and passionate and harmonious.  But there’s something about the images that struggles to land—she’s clearly irritated with how we try to talk around old age, how we idealize the aged to the point that we refuse to acknowledge how a body withers, that we pretend anger and zeal and lust and all the other passions, both “red” and “gold”, fade away from an elderly person, so much so that the King James Version peeks its head in here with “walketh”.  But fitting these pieces together is more work than it should be.  I can work out that the weightlessness of these tales is her really saying that the words we say about the aged are often so carefully parsed that they become insubstantial, I think, but the ideas don’t interlock as smoothly as the sounds of the words and phrases do.

The sestet (the final six lines) is where she brings it roaring out, I think—tackling the real fear she has about what they’ll say of her once she’s gone.  It’s not the innocent white lies about her aging beauty that really bites at her, not the pretense that she’ll lose the fire inside.  It’s the anxiety she feels that in her wake she’ll leave people muttering pious nonsense about her.  In her, as she tells us, “no lenten wicks watch out the night”—she’s not a lighter of candles at saints’ statues, she is not a reverent or a devout person when it comes to these rituals of faith, and she utterly rejects the notion that even at the end, when she lies “in ruin”, anything like that will be discovered in her.  So she admonishes us not to make any false claims on her behalf, and to keep clear the mourners who will.

Superstition operates on several levels here, since on the one hand I think we’re meant to understand that she sees religion as nothing much more than that, but on the other hand she really is surveying a broader landscape of superstition that surrounds everything we say about the dying and the dead.  Our culture is so in love with vitality and youth that it’s easy to understand how uneasy we feel when confronting our mortality, but as Millay points out, we do seem to act like we can simply hold it at bay forever with our words, and that’s ultimately really paralyzing (and even infantilizing) to us as a society.  If we never say she looks old, will that preserve her?  If we reinvent life stories about the deceased that make them sound more peaceful, more socially acceptable, will that remake them?

I won’t always strive for topicality here, but until I get the Pulitzers back on track, my more usual approach of sticking to poetry from my Pulitzer year will have to be on hold too, so look for thematic poetry in the short term ahead—summer poems, Independence Day poems, poems about fatherhood and watching a baby grow into a child.  I’ll try to mix up who shows up at the table, but keep to folks who are pretty approachable and easy to grab on to in their writing style, if I can.  I hope Edna was a welcome return visitor today, and we’ll see what I can spin up for next weekend: in the meantime, I hope you have a great Friday, and that the week ahead holds some good reading and time to indulge in it.