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.

Poetry Friday: 1940, part 4

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (r...

Auden (on right) at about the time he wrote the poem; pictured with him is Christopher Isherwood, a writer with whom he had a close friendship/relationship at the time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have moved slowly with The Grapes of Wrath because I’m savoring it (as, some of you will remember, I did with The Age of Innocence back in 2009 when I “discovered” Edith Wharton), but the vat of poetry to draw from in 1940 is getting shallow, and I need to get moving.  As a fan of W. H. Auden, whose verse has appeared here on Poetry Friday several times by now, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I would take on what is now his most famous poem, thanks to its prominent role in a hit movie a couple of decades ago.  While he finished it and first published it in an anthology in 1938, it first appeared in a collection of Auden’s poetry in 1940—the book was called Another Time.  The poem’s name is a topic of much debate.  Some argue that Auden intended us to see it as a section of a larger poem called “Two Songs for Hedli Anderson” (or possibly “Song IX” in a poem called “Ten Songs”), while others feel the evidence is pretty strong that he meant it to be titled “Funeral Blues”.  In his collected poems published at the end of his life, when Auden was revising his past somewhat aggressively (cutting poems he no longer agreed with on a moral level, etc.), it appears simply under the heading of its first line.  Most of my generation, though, will know it simply as the poem Matthew reads for Gareth near the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

Auden’s mourning here is a little strange for me, emotionally—honestly, one reason I didn’t deal with this poem back when PF was in 1938 is that I’m not as profoundly touched by it as I know a lot of other people are.  It was much more resonant for me in the context of the film (and the relationship those characters had) than it does here, where it feels just a little disembodied on the page.  Let’s take one of the moments that for me works both beautifully and weirdly—the opening salvo against the mundane, against the notion that there can be life and normality in a world where this man is gone.  This is great conceptually, but personally I find the “juicy bone” very distracting, the sort of detail that would come up in a comic strip or a children’s book, but jarringly out of place here.  Is that Auden’s purpose, or a slip?  It’s hard for me to tell.  Certainly what surrounds it is genius…the stopped clocks, the muffles on the drums, the imperiousness of grief in the command that the mourners come forth.  There’s a distance there—the speaker, who is clearly almost paralyzed by grief, is separated from “the mourners” as though he doesn’t want to admit the fact, as though he will not be taking his place beside them.  I like that element: it feels honest to me.

The second stanza wobbles most for me—I understand how absurdity can surface in a poem about grief (see my take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s ballad, which is full of this), but to me the absurdity is too measured, too restrained.  Lorca lets fly: the grief twists the whole world and everything explodes and distorts like a Dali painting, and the absurdity of the imagery is a reflection of the brokenness of the world.  Auden, here, by contrast, is too tame for me—the image of the circling aeroplanes feels juvenile, adolescent in its melodrama without signifying much.  The crepe bows are almost comical….totally wrong in tone, if you ask me.  The gloved policemen are hardly better.  Is he mocking grief?

I might draw that conclusion, but then he snaps back into almost prime Auden form, since the beloved as compass, as center of gravity, is totally believable.  The simple cadence, the repetition, feels sobbed out, and the terrifying thud of the last line—“I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.”—is overwhelming to me.  In a few relatively simple phrases, suddenly it does feel like being inside someone who is collapsing on themselves, a person for whom grief is the straw that breaks.  I don’t have to know anything about the dead man to know what he meant.  And the fourth stanza works for me, despite its melodrama, because I can feel these images playing out in the darkness at the heart of this shattered human being: deep inside, where sorrow has driven them, the light cannot find them, and stone and wood, earth and water, are meaningless to them now.  The structure of the poem, weirdly, conveys the disastrous damage done to the structure of the speaker’s inner life.

So, here I am, the Auden fan who’s just fired a couple of shots into one of his most well-loved poems.  I wonder if I’m a bit too hard on the poem, or whether other people see what I do.  Given that a number of us have probably encountered the poem (either in the movie, or at a memorial service—since the film was released, this had a surge of popularity as a reading for such things), I’m hoping a few of you will speak up and say how the poem strikes you.  If I’ve missed out on the beauty of this work, and the way in which the whole thing really does work together, nothing would make me happier than having one of you help me see it.

Poetry Friday: 1940, part 3

I return to the poems of 1940 to celebrate an American poet I haven’t taken much time for on the blog—the enigmatic and experimental E. E. Cummings.  (Yes, E. E. Cummings—modern scholarship has basically determined that he never meant to go by “e. e. cummings”, despite the orthographical choices of some of his editors.  Save that one for a bar bet, I guess.  A really unusual bar.)  Cummings’s work is always daring and weird, sometimes (for me) totally impenetrable, but sometimes breathtakingly lovely.  He has captured the minds (and pens) of a lot of young poets, I know, and I taught him almost every year I was a teacher, since I think he raises (and answers) a lot of questions about what poetry is, and what it can do.  Here, in 1940, he plays with meaning, syntax, and other conventions of writing in one of his more famous compositions—a poem entitled “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:

“anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain”

My appreciation for the poem has grown over the years, aided by a recording I’ve heard of Cummings reading it aloud in a very expressive and high-pitched voice, trembling just a little—the closest comparison I can make for the sound is the voice actor who played Winnie-the-Pooh in the Disney animated featurettes of the 1960s and 1970s.  The innocence and the optimism suddenly came through the poem in a way that it doesn’t quite on the page (for me).  But what is the poem really about?

Love isn’t a bad initial answer—Cummings slowly develops the story of anyone and no one, a simple man and the woman who loved him.  His choice of names, which is of course a distinctively him thing to do, allows him to get a lot of resonance out of very simple lines: take, for one example, the difference between “one day John died, I guess (and Mary stooped to kiss his face)” and “one day anyone died i guess (and no one stooped to kiss his face)”.  There’s something incredibly emotional and moving about the image he presents—my brain yaws wildly from the sadness of the initial meaning (no one mourns him?) to the sudden heart-breaking gladness of the real image (it’s her!  No one mourns him!).  There is a fragile beauty to their love, like a delicate flower or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: the way it grows “bird by snow and stir by still”, the way their wedding vows and honeymoon rush by us as “they said their nevers and slept their dream”.  Even the deep hope of their graves is powerfully connected to their love for each other, where they now “dream their sleep” in these fantastic phrases—“earth by april”, “wish by spirit” and “if by yes”.  What does that mean?  I know I understand, but I cannot shape that understanding into words.  There is a resurrection inside those phrases, of a form and purpose that not even Cummings, I reckon, fully realizes or could possibly describe.

Time is a good answer also, the way Cummings turns again and again the seasons “spring summer autumn winter” and the weather “sun moon stars rain” to give us a story unfolding on a large canvas (yet an intimate one).  His decisions at times to shift the phrasing are surely significant, but what do they mean?  When he says “stars rain sun moon” right after anyone and no one marry, and before he asides to us his marveling that the children are apt to “forget to remember”, what do we make of that?  Something about the poem wants to get its arms around time, but what?

And much of the poem is left to us to ponder—what does it mean to live in a “how town”?  Who are these children, and do they serve any purpose in the poem other than acting as a kind of Greek chorus?  What are these bells, these floating bells?  I can’t answer it all for myself, let alone for you.  What I do know is that this poem, which once baffled me and even alienated me a little, is now a source of hope.  There is something undying about it, something resilient and human, especially in the lines “little by little and was by was / all by all and deep by deep / and more by more” that lead to his contemplation of the dreaming sleep of the dead.  Cummings is easy to caricature or parody, but difficult to pin down—the man was wise, and I hope there’s some wisdom locked in this poem for you to unearth this weekend.