Poetry Friday: Entering the friend zone with W. B. Yeats

Because we approach a three-day weekend, and I am loath to burden your holiday relaxations with some somber poem about the Great War, you get one more week off from World War I, which by this time 100 years ago was about to become the horrifying, human-eating trench war that almost no one saw coming.  Instead, I offer another fling with one of Poetry Friday’s favorite guests, William Butler Yeats, whose stuff is always worth talking about (and, in my opinion, almost always really good).  A blog I read has been inviting reader submissions all week long of books and poems that have profoundly affected people, and “stuck with them” long term, and when one reader mentioned this poem, it reminded me of some thoughts I’ve always had about it.  I used to discuss this poem with high school sophomores, and I always enjoyed the chat, so it seemed to me it would be interesting to offer it this afternoon, and see what your various takes are.  This is a work of Yeats’ very early career—arguably his first famous poem—written by a man in his 20s and published in 1892: this is “When you are old”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Yeats employs the style that too many imitated in poor, sing-song fashion—iambic pentameter (with occasional tweaks), end-stopped couplet rhyme, reliance on simple turns of phrase and familiar words—and shows what a master he was of words, and how in the right hands an approach to poetry that might look “greeting card” on first blush will open up and reveal some real depth of feeling.  The approach is direct enough, since each of us as the reader is the second person, the “you” who will one day be old and grey.  Yeats is gentle from the very beginning, the softest of sounds and phrases, a cadence that wraps around us like a well-worn shawl, and rocks us to sleep by the fire.  The woman is asked to imagine herself at the end of her life, looking back on who she once was, and leafing through an old book of poems written by a man she once knew.

And not just any man—not a man like all the others, who “loved your moments of glad grace / and loved your beauty” (though it’s not clear to me that those are very similar bases for love, at all).  No, this was the one man who saw something else in her—a pilgrim soul, whatever that phrase conjures for us.  Perhaps an image of a heart never quite at rest.  A woman who, despite her calm outward appearance, inwardly was forever journeying in search of some meaning not near at hand.  And he “loves the sorrows of [her] changing face”—as I used to ask my sophomores, “what, does that mean he likes it when she cries?” But of course not; instead, it seems to me that the changes here are the weathers of age that take away the outward appearance she once prized.  They may be sad to her, or perhaps some frown lines and wrinkles will arise out of sad expressions, but they only increase his devotion to her.

And then, he envisions, seeming almost eager at the scene imagined, she will bend beside the fire, murmur to herself about how she lost that one true love, who (unmarked by her, it seems) set out for the wilderness to travel lonely there, or else lost himself in the urban chaos of faces, one more pedestrian blurring past her every day.  And I would always ask my class then, and I ask you now, what is this poem?  Is it a love poem?

It seems to me (and of course I tipped my hand early on, in the post’s title) that Yeats is writing on some level about the “Nice Guy problem” that men seem to complain about online these days, or at least there is a sudden awareness of what I think is a long-standing male complaint.  It’s sometimes colloquially called “getting friend-zoned”—the nice, timid, devoted male friend thinks he’s the only guy who REALLY gets how special this beautiful girl is who spends all her time surrounded by admirers, and he feels somehow unjustly treated by her, since she never takes him out of “the friend zone”, this conjectured mental space where lovely women apparently deposit their opinions of “nice”, timid, devoted male acquaintances.  This isn’t all that nice a poem, if my thesis is right—it begins and ends where it does because that’s what’s emotionally satisfying to him.  The image of her, old and alone, staring sadly into the fire and leafing through the poetry of the guy she never gave a fair chance (but now knows was probably a little too good for her—certainly miles better than those flashy guys she dated).  Talk about some serious emotional issues, eh?

But that’s not the only reading, of course!  Usually I could count on students to advance other possibilities, but I’ll just take the clearest one (and the reason this has been one of Yeats most-anthologized poems).  The poem is simple, direct, and sweetly phrased—there’s almost no hint of bitterness in the words chosen.  It’s wistful—the poet hoping that someday she realizes what she meant to him, not because he wants to twist the knife, but because his feelings meant so much to him (drove him into the mountains and the faceless crowd, ultimately) that he wants to believe that she will, at least once in her long life, recognize them and understand.  The poem shuts no doors, draws no lines in the sand, casts no judgments, and pronounces no decrees.  So why assume it’s the claws of an angry cat?

And I turn it over to you—what kind of poem is this?  Why did Yeats write it, and what are we to make of it?  Is it a bitter “friend-zoned” poet soaking luxuriously in the thought that the woman who spurned him will one day ache with sorrow over it?  Or a nostalgic wish from a man who will always remember that girl with the haunted look and wish her well, wherever she is?  Or something else entirely?  Perhaps the Labor Day weekend will afford us all time to mull it over, and to offer a comment or two here on this post, if you like—thanks, as always, for your attention to this humble space and the poems that fill it!

Poetry Friday: Dorothy Parker

In my ongoing mission to weave back and forth between the somber poems of death, war, and loss and the cheerful poems of life, love, and satisfaction, today is slated to be a more fun week, in the wake of G. M. Hopkins’ sonnet of depression seven days ago.  And so it commends to our attention a poet who, whether or not she was as happy as she led us to believe, always had a spark in her sentences and a quick jab at the end of every poem to turn a grimace into a knowing grin.  I speak of today’s birthday girl, Dorothy Parker, who would be 121 today if she was alive (and yet I’m sure she wouldn’t look a day over 107).

Happy birthday, Dorothy!

There’s an earnestness to those eyes, I’ll admit, but it’s the firm set line of that jaw that tells me she was no one to trifle with.

You know her work even if you don’t immediately recognize her name—her witty barbs were the centerpiece of the famous Algonquin Round Table, and her talents as a screenwriter earned her two Academy Award nominations, most famously for A Star is Born.  She had her dark side—a lifelong battle with depression, which culminated, like Robin Williams’, in suicide late in life (in Dorothy’s case, well into her 70s)—but the face she showed the world in her poetry was normally a brave one, tough enough to take the hardest life offered, and keen-eyed enough to see through society’s little games.  And so I offer, in her memory and as a birthday salute to her, Dorothy Parker’s poem “Interview”:

“The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints…
So far, I’ve had no complaints.”

Parker never clarifies how this is an “interview”—is this a set of remarks she envisions making to some fictional journalist, or is she casting heterosexual romance in the setting of a job interview (where what’s described and what’s expected are often two different things)?  Or something else entirely?  It’s hard to say.  What’s easy is to grab right away the poem’s key thesis, the casual way Parker describes the sheltered life of the supposedly desirable woman and how her eyes must gleam as she remarks to us, finally and so coolly, “so far, I’ve had no complaints”.  It makes me laugh every time—Parker’s ease in branding herself as a wild, untamed, painted woman, and her obvious amusement at the idea, proponed by goodness-knows-who, that men would find a woman like her anything but fascinating and desirable.  You feel it right away in all her phrases, which are almost condescending as she imagines the kind of person who would be scandalized by a “wicked word” (I think “wicked” is very intentional there) and are so innocent that they cannot even recognize when the man in front of them is suggesting a dalliance.  There’s a power to the poem, beneath (and intricately involved in) its humor: the strangeness of our society’s double standards for women seeking relationships with men, which suggest a norm of purity that few can live up to, and yet confront women simultaneously with the reality that impurity is encouraged rather than frowned upon by the other side of the equation.

It’s not subtle, despite how sly it is—you’ll note that Parker never actually admits to anything, herself, instead allowing us to infer whatever we will from the simple admission that she’s “had no complaints”—because Parker knows how easily she’ll win us over.  Even the most conservative among us, folks who well might see themselves as pure and who would in fact never read an erotic poem, would (I think) have to acknowledge that the saucy smile Dorothy beams at us in that last line is a winning one.  If she entered the room you were in, whether you wanted to imitate her or not, it’s hard to imagine you could take your eyes off of her.  Her poetry certainly has that fixating effect, for me, and for many others.  So I hope it brings a little smile to your Friday, and that those who like what they saw here will nose around a little to find some of Parker’s other stuff—not all of it is quite this level of genius, but most of it is just as cheekily irreverent (and therefore captivating).

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.

A daughter, and Veterans Day: A poem for both

Those who’ve followed the news here at FP for a while know that my wife and I were expecting a daughter.  I am glad (and exhausted) when I tell you she arrived on Friday in the wee hours of the morning.  We are all tired and learning our new roles and doing our best to care for each other, so blogging will proceed at goodness knows what pace in the short term.  I like writing here, and I think someday she will like reading what I wrote, looking back on these days when her father was so young, so sure of his opinions.  And I have a novel that is at least plausibly about young parenthood, so I should return to it.  For now, I hope I will be forgiven a little radio silence.

And it is, again, Veterans Day—a day when I recognize the horrors of war and lament the dead, a day when I both remind myself of the ugliness of the human condition and am simultaneously inspired by the ability of the noblest side of the human spirit to thrive even in war’s darkness.  I have written about this in the past, and what I think it says about my country that November 11th is a day for car sales and undelivered mail (who sends letters, anymore?) and maybe a few school kids at an assembly that’s more about rah-rahing and flag-waving and the glory of war than it is about the day’s true meaning.  You can read them, if you like: 2010 is here, and 2011 is here, and last year’s entry here.  This year, all I can add is that the birth of a daughter enhances rather than diminishes all my feeling about war and death—my admiration for those who have borne the battle (many of them unwillingly) and how they have found ways to express humanity thereby rather than giving in to depravity, and my dejection when I think of how many nations, mine included, have sent thousands if not millions to die for no good purpose.  So here, in a poem that expresses just a bit of all those sentiments, is a poem from the Great War, the war whose ending gives us today as a holiday—this is T. M. Kettle, an Irishman who went willingly into the fray because he believed he was working for a free Europe and a free Ireland, who died leading his men at the Battle of the Somme and whose body was never found.  This is the poem he wrote to the daughter he never came home to: “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God”.

“In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”

English: Thomas_M._Kettle_memorial_in_St._Step...

A memorial to Thomas Kettle in a Dublin park. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing I could say could add meaning to this, nor could any detractor diminish what these words move in me. Today I remember with sorrow and with joy Lieutenant Thomas Kettle of the Irish Volunteers, and the daughter Elizabeth who never knew his face. May God bring them together in glory. May God forgive the human hatred and violence that parted them.

Poetry Friday: How to tell a whole story in 30 words, by Anna Akhmatova

English: Anna Akhmatova Español: Ana Ajmátova

Anna Akhmatova, circa 1925, the year her poetry was first subject to censorship by the Communist Party. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right, time to jump back into the swing of things here at FP with a poem to liven up our Friday night and maybe give us something to ponder this weekend.  One of the great neglected poets is Russia’s Anna Akhmatova, whose work I’ve loved for years, but who I’m realizing has only been featured once on Poetry Friday in 3 years (and it wasn’t one of her better works, either).  Anna was a modernist, a lively thinker and a woman willing to speak the truth about gender and inequality—and, perhaps even more bravely, a Russian willing to speak out against Stalin’s murderous treatment of his people.  She was censored and denounced, harassed by the state police, and saw her son dragged off to a decade in a prison camp, but she refused to leave her beloved Russia, and she didn’t let the censors keep her from writing.  Today, I’ve chosen a piece from early in her career—it predates not only Stalin but the Revolution—but in the boldness of the writing, I think you can imagine how she might have spoken about totalitarianism on a national scale.  As always, I’m left to read in translation: I’ve read many translations of this poem, but I like this translation by Jerome Bullitt best.  This is “On lyubil“/”He Loved Three Things” from her 1912 collection entitled Evening:

“He loved three things:
White fowls, evensong,
And antique maps of America.

He hated the crying of children,
Raspberry jam at tea,
And female hysteria.

And I was his wife.”

This is a marvelous thing, to me—as I promised in the post’s title, I think this is a whole story contained in 30 precisely chosen words.  The character of “him” is so vivid it leaps off the page: the detachment of a man who prefers his cooing pets to handling the emotions of his children, the austerity of a man who prefers the crispness of a choir in song to the lusciousness of jam at tea.  I love the exactness of his hobbies—he’s not a generic “map nerd” but this (presumably) Russian man is specifically obsessed with “antique maps of America”.  And I think we know without Anna having to tell us that the phrase “female hysteria” is not the speaker’s—it’s a phrase she has heard him say, perhaps often, his lips curling back from it slightly with disdain.  Sometimes it takes half a novel to feel we see into a man’s head as fully as we are seeing into this nameless husband here.

And then the beauty of that dagger—“And I was his wife”!  In the punch of those five words, we see it all, don’t we?  Or enough to immediately step empathetically into her shoes, and see what kind of life unfolds from these premises?  Yes, yes, I’m taking a lot of liberties here, assuming this and extrapolating that, but the poem invites us to, and I think it suggests quietly all along “No, you’re not wrong to see all this; it’s all here just as you expected it would be.”

I own an anthology (somewhere in the serpentine labyrinth of the bookshelves that wind sinuously throughout the apartment) entitled The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, where the editors solicited 55-word stories from a wide range of authors (a few of them famous), and they’re delightful, but I think Anna manages to out-punch them while leaving 25 words on the table, which as I understand it is something like a hip-hop artist dropping the microphone.  She’s almost too good at this.  But I think it’s a fun challenge, and an easy one to complete (compared to most writing tasks): can you write a 30 word story (poetic or not) that feels alive?  Why not have a run at it on the back of an envelope, or in the margins of your weekend edition of the newspaper—heck, you can probably tweet it, as long as your words average 4.66 letters long (or less).  And whether you do or not, have another read at this tiny delight by Anna Akhmatova that may be over a century old but feels, to me, as fresh as an apple straight from the tree.

Poetry Friday: 1943

As I prepare to embark on a new Pulitzer novel—1943’s Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair—it’s time to embark on 1943’s poetry, as well.  We’ll start with a short one this week, and a poem written under unusual circumstances.  Leo Marks was a young British cryptographer working on encryption as a part of the war effort: he missed the cut to get into Britain’s now-famous (then, of course, top secret and unknown) Bletchley Park code team, but found work elsewhere in the military.  Marks was one of the first cryptographers to develop and use the incredibly secure one-time pad cryptographic method: I’ll leave out the details (reading about cryptography is one of my many weird habits), but the long and short of it is that one-time pad cryptography works because the code is created using an encoding document that is unique.  Unique pads, though, are incredibly difficult to generate, so the British were taking a less secure shortcut: they’d have an agent memorize a poem or two, and use the poem as the key to a cipher that would ideally be very difficult to decode.  The Germans, however, learned to crack those simply by looking through poetry anthologies and adopting a “trial-and-error” approach.  So Marks resorted to writing his own poetry for the purpose, sending agents out into occupied Europe with original poetry of his own devising, which would force the Germans to use much slower and more complicated methods of decryption and increase the agent’s chances of operating undetected.

Today’s poem, then, is one Marks wrote for a purpose—a weaponized poem, we might almost call it, and yet it is a strangely personal poem.  Marks could easily have written little ditties about flowers and springtime, since artistic achievement was irrelevant to his purpose, but instead it seems he was willing to be forthcoming about himself…honest in the way that poets are honest.  This is a poem he ended up entrusting to Violette Szabo, a French woman working for the British behind enemy lines who was ultimately captured, tortured, and killed by the Nazis.  He wrote it after the death of his girlfriend, a young woman named Ruth, who had died in a plane crash in Canada, half a world away from Marks.  So here’s a poem that fought the Nazis, a work inspired by a Canadian tragedy, written by a British intelligence officer, and smuggled across the channel into the hands and mind of a French woman who gave her life in defense of her country.  This is “The Life That I Have”:

“The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.”

Marks writes a poem that is not initially all that complicated—simple words, almost the simplest, really.  Not a word of the poem takes up more than one syllable, and there probably isn’t a word here that would be unfamiliar to a first grader.  But the depth of feeling here is real, I think.  At first it seems like a love poem you would write for someone still living: Marks is dedicating his life to her, he is giving himself to her.  It feels like the kind of thing someone might say as a part of their wedding vows, or might whisper on bended knee as a way of preparing to ask for a wedding.  The intimacy is too close, almost, for me—I feel I have opened the door on a moment no one else should witness, I am profaning somehow the sanctity of that pure love by eavesdropping like a village gossip.

The poem opens itself up, I think, as some of the phrases turn out to be more complex than they appear at a distance.  “The life that I have is yours” is easy enough, but what is “the love that I have of the life that I have”?  Is he talking about the love in his life?  The love he feels in his life or the love others feel toward him?  Is it how he loves his life?  And what, in any case, does it mean that this love is “yours and yours and yours”?  There is something so generous about this kind of self-emptying, because it does not feel remotely self-deprecating.  This isn’t the kind of sacrifice someone makes when they feel worthless.  This is the kind of sacrifice we make when we discover something beyond value, something whose worth we could not begin to calculate.

The third stanza is just a little too trite for me—we’ve heard other poets, better craftsmen and craftswomen, tackle the notion that death is only a sleep, that we have the hope of waking in another world, and a better.  But then the fourth stanza breaks over us again with that complexity.  Is “the peace of my years in the long green grass” him talking about his death, his burial in a cemetery?  Or the long life he will have without her, sunny days and picnics in the park, a life lived fully and not cut short like hers was?  And again, in either case, what does it mean for that peace to be “yours and yours and yours”?  I feel I understand him implicitly, and I have absolutely no way of translating it directly.

This is a beautiful little poem, and I don’t want to overanalyze it.  It strikes me not only as a fine start to 1943, but also as a nice poem for Valentine’s Day weekend, if any of us are in the mood for talk of real love in the neighborhood of a holiday that beats us over the head with a prepackaged notion of what it looks like.  Love can come from a pink card, I know—from the dozen roses and the heart-shaped box of chocolates that make their appearance on doorsteps across the nation.  But it also comes from heartbreak and sorrow, from the shaking pen of a 23 year old who has lost a woman he loved and who worries he may yet lose his country, from a poem tucked inside the coat of a woman who will go to her death bravely.  I hope it strikes you as the right poem to ponder this weekend; it’s certainly given me plenty to think about.

“Nobody could look at you and not want to stand up and face what is coming.”

Holy crud, people, it finally happened.  Two characters in In This Our Life had a real conversation—a talk in which they did not say everything a novelist could wittily think up for them to say given all the time in the world, a talk in which their moments of candor are really vulnerable and even unexpected, a talk that does not simply reveal the next nine plot twists without either of the characters figuring them out.  It comes almost 250 pages into a novel that is a little under 500 in total, so it’s much too late in the game to salvage the book’s reputation with me entirely.  But it’s a start.

Here’s what’s up—Roy (whose husband, Peter, has left her) and Craig (the man who was engaged to Roy’s sister, Stanley, until Stanley left him in the lurch to run off with Peter) have been seeing more of each other, and this point in the book is the first time we’ve gone off and actually followed them into the world.  They’re an odd pair in some ways—Roy is ridiculously sensible, to a fault, really, a hard-headed gal who buries her emotions and who initially finds Craig a bit frivolous.  Craig, on the other hand, is a passionate idealist, the sort of fellow who attends lecture series and political rallies and talks about fighting the capitalist plutocrats.  They initially share nothing other than their status as survivors, crawling away from the blast zone that was Roy’s marriage and Craig’s near-marriage.  But they’re coming to love each other in a fragile, fractious way that feels really honest, and their conversation reveals it—Craig singing out some idealism about how the two of them could have a real marriage that they could both rely on (one of his remarks is this post’s title), and Roy smacking him down out of an intriguing mixture of practicality and fear of her own feelings.  They stop on their drive and have a talk with a simple fellow who farms out in the sticks, and runs a filling station on the highway to make a little cash for seed-money.  Roy remarks on Craig’s easy ability to relate to working men, and reflects inwardly about what it reveals about Craig (and how it contrasts with other aspects of his personality).  Ultimately their conversation doesn’t really resolve their underlying tensions—some promises are made, but not really binding ones, and both of them aren’t playing all their cards just yet.

Where the heck was this author for the last 248 pages?

What’s maybe most strange is that her early dialogue is full of over-shares and characters being much too forthcoming, in ways no person ever really is even with their closest loved ones, but now that Roy and Craig really have developed an intimate relationship (intimate emotionally—not physically, not yet at least), we finally get a dialogue where people are holding back and behaving cautiously.  There’s not much else to say right now—the other subplots are either terrible (in the name of all that is holy, will Asa just leave his terrible wife and go be with his friend’s widow who actually treats him like a human being? those wheels have been spinning for hundreds of pages without getting ANYWHERE) or almost forgotten (the poor young black man, Parry Clay, is finally re-emerging thanks to a commitment Craig is making towards Parry’s education, but I swear we’ve seen the kid for maybe 2 pages of the last 180).  There isn’t really a novel here worth reading.  But I at last know, at least, that Ellen Glasgow did have the talent available to her to write something decent, which reduces a little of my ire at the selection of this novel.  Depending on how much more of that she can bring to the surface, this book may climb out of the most wretched depths of my ranking of the Pulitzer winners.  Grapes of Wrath this ain’t, though, and frankly it would take a lot of work for it to rise even to the level of Arrowsmith.  Onward and (hopefully) upward.