Poetry Friday: Autumn 2014

The best time of year is back—I cannot speak for where you live, but here in Chicagoland it was a glorious day, sun and light breezes, warm in the light but never oppressive, a day that makes you feel like yourself and at ease in your own skin. Each autumn’s arrival leads me to dig for a poem that captures some aspect of this wonderfully changeable season, and there are so many sides to the fall, rain-drenched and sun-dappled, drearily stormy and boldly colorful, etc., that I will probably never run out of angles to take. For whatever reason, this afternoon I feel like revisiting Poetry Friday’s most frequent poet, a man who (judging from the reactions I got) I perhaps didn’t treat totally fairly last time out. That’s right, it’s time for the Irish bard, William Butler Yeats, to sing us into autumn with his famous poem from 1919, “The Wild Swans at Coole”:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Yeats knows his way around a poetic phrase—there are better opening lines, I’ll admit, than “The trees are in their autumn beauty”, but man, there aren’t many, are there?  In those first four lines, collectively, he captures something of the cold evening air and the loveliness of a woodland path at this time of year that is almost magical—I see and feel so much more than he literally says if I just grab onto the literal meaning of each word.  He knows how to weave a spell, or least for me, he does.  The specificity of his counting—59 swans, 19 autumns—is a little jarring for me, though.  Maybe he’s playing with numerology, or perhaps just being really literal and observant.  Either way, I guess I could do without it.

But the agonizing beauty of the swans is real, as Yeats captures that tug that C. S. Lewis describes feeling when he read Norse myths as a boy.  It’s the call of something numinous: Lewis capitalizes it as Joy, but of course Yeats may have called it something else.  I love his attention to the senses—the clamor of their wings, the “broken rings” of their wheeling flight—and his simultaneous attention inwardly to the condition of his own heart, and his sense that everything changed with that first “bell-beat of their wings”.  Just what it is that changes him, we don’t know.  Yeats himself, I think, could hardly say.  He only knows that sometimes you see something so wondrous, so soul-stirring and spell-binding, that you never get over it.  And nature, in all its slime and strangeness, all its “red in tooth and claw”, has the capacity to dazzle and delight us more than almost anything that’s human.

Which of course leads to that powerful, moving fourth stanza in which the swans take on unearthly and marvelous qualities—they are “unwearied still” as though they were angels circling in Heaven, they move in concert by water and air like dancers, like lovers, ageless in heart and so self-assured that to Yeats they seem like the earth’s conquerors, above all this mortal striving.  He cannot imagine where they will next go, or what they will accomplish while his back is turned.  He is caught by their loveliness like a fly in amber, and the poem leaves with him still there, transfixed and adoring, his eyes on the swans as they move to and fro.

Autumn will not do this to us at every turn; for this, we can be thankful, since we could hardly get to the grocery store if every pinecone caught us in its spell.  But I am grateful for Yeats’s exuberance and his honesty—this kind of beauty is there for us if we will look, and Yeats helps us look by attending so carefully and in such detail to the simplicity of a gathering of birds in a forest pool.  I hope the fall’s arrival brings such moments with it for each of us, and that, sometime between now and the day when frost strips the trees of their last leaves, we can each find a moment that enthralls and haunts us with its beauty as much as W. B. Yeats was haunted, for the rest of his days, by the wild swans of Coole Park.

Poetry Friday: The Bard and Children

It’s been a quiet month here at FP—I really ought to blog farther with Upton Sinclair, comment on the new Pulitzer winner (yet another book in the way of finishing my quest!), and of course share poetry more regularly.  Among my many excuses (some of them valid) is the fact that we’ve learned we’re expecting a child, and the prospect of parenthood has consumed some time that would otherwise have been devoted to the blog.  Exciting and busy times, as you can imagine!  But it was William Shakespeare’s birthday this last week (we presume) and I can’t let it go by without a poetic nod to the Bard of Stratford—fittingly, of course, I’ll post his 2nd sonnet, with a few comments to follow, given that it follows along the lines of my news.  All my best to everybody out there in the blogosphere: here’s Bill—

“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tottered weed of small worth held.
Then, being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer, ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.”

W. S. has a lot of famous lines, of course, and I couldn’t rank them if I tried, but this makes one of the volumes of his greatest hits, I think—it starts so nicely with a clear image that is both concrete (the weight of those winters, the furrows in the forehead) and yet abstract (winters don’t “besiege” anything, after all, and “beauty’s field” is a lovely turn of phrase but obvious metaphor: this isn’t about a farmer).  Yet Shakespeare’s sonneteering—a word I’ve just invented—is, truth be told, not at the very top of his game in this one.  It’s so straight-forward: unlike many of the best sonnets, #2 doesn’t shock us at the “turn” where the octet gives way to the sestet, nor does it say anything to us we might be shocked by.  “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” is a bold move, a poet who wants to startle us a little and see something new.  This “forty winters” fellow is a bit simpler, a bit less artful.

But that’s also the poem’s strength, I think.  It acknowledges age—not just in the fair youth being addressed, of course, but also implicitly in the speaker, who we can imagine is speaking from experience when he ponders deep-sunken eyes and tottered weeds.  It sets aside self-regard.  It’s one of the purest possible poetic ideas, I think—the reality that nothing physical about us lasts, and that we have therefore to invest ourselves in something else in order to be who we are.  Billy tells us that this, in fact, is how to become young again, not by chasing some phantom of a youth that will not return (ah, Hollywood, how you need this verse), but by passing it on.

There’s a quiet bigotry here, of course, in the poem’s broad generalizations—it suggests pretty strongly that child-bearing and rearing are more or less the only paths to this kind of immortality, and it implies, I think, the idea that someone who chooses not to procreate is someone clinging to their “proud livery”.  I think Will, if we could corner him tonight in some dim corner at the back of a Southwark pub, would acknowledge that there are plenty of other ways to invest in the future and accept our own mortality.  So, while there’s a lovely literal message in this poem for a parent (or prospective parent) to take to heart, I feel like there’s a broader truth here for anyone to ponder.  We need an answer, when time begins to lay us low—what did we make of all our beauty, and where now is the treasure of our salad days?  It cannot be, and must not be, simply ourselves.  To be human is to be more than that.  It gives me something to think about today, in part as I begin to confront the reality of becoming a parent, and in part because I recognize that simply to bring a child into the world is not enough to “sum my count and make my old excuse”.  Whatever I owe that child, and the future, that work is not ending—it is only begun.

Poetry Friday: 1932

For today’s poem, I shift back from my poet friends to the time period I’m reading in—I feel like this kind of pendulum will be good for me, as I grapple with fresh poems and wrestle also with work from the era I’m trying to understand.  In 1932, an American poet named Robinson Jeffers published a work called Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems.  I’ve never read Jeffers before, but this poem lets me know I need to track down some more of his work.  This is “Fire on the Hills”:

The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brushfire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the black slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders.
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.

I had been scrounging for a good poem from 1932, without much luck, when I stumbled into Jeffers, and picked this title out from a list of those published in the Thurso’s Landing anthology.  The verse hit me pretty forcefully and totally unexpectedly, and I hope you can feel some of that strength and vitality in this too.  So many images that are, as Jeffers suggests, beautiful without being lovely—the deer like leaves on a stiff breeze, the insolent eagle, “cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders”.  That one image of the eagle grabs me by the throat.  There is something elemental about him, something archetypal, like the shadows in Eliot’s “Hollow Men”.

And Jeffers knew he needed it—you have to get me in 14 lines (what, is this a sonnet? Sneaky, isn’t he?) from a standing start to accept that “the destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy”.  And the poem gets me there despite myself: I couldn’t even tell you now if I think Jeffers is really right, or if I fully understand what he’s trying for.  The sheer helpless sense of gratitude is imposed on me by the poem—a gratitude that there are beauties like this in the world, terrible ones, fat with slaughter.  A reminder that beauty is not virtue, and is no less beautiful for it.  Jeffers had that imposed on him too, not by a poem but by the fire: he makes no secret of his resistance.  The thought comes to him painfully, but with his whole mind: there is no corner, no shadow, no refuge from his wonder at the eagle.  He cannot put himself out of the thought’s reach only to emerge later when it is safe.

I could go on a lot, but I worry I’ll diminish the poem’s power by overexplaining how it works on me.  It just does work, in part because of the beauty of the language—“with the fire for his beater to drive the game”, I mean, how can you not read that and wish for a moment you were Robinson Jeffers so you could sit back and bathe in your own splendor?—and in part because unlike many poems that pretend profundity, Jeffers really did see something in the wake of the fire that is True.  We can wrangle over what that might be.  But I hope in any case that you like the poem.

Poetry Friday: 1927 (The Final Edition—I promise!)

I know, 1927 should have finished, but I haven’t picked up 1928’s novel yet, leaving me in the gap.  Besides that, I’m obsessed with the poetry of a cockroach named archy, and have one last chance to get it out there.  The moth is a strangely poetic subject—you may have read Virginia Woolf’s take on moths, though I personally prefer Annie Dillard’s—and archy (Don Marquis) gives it his best shot in this last poem I’ll give you from 1927, “the lesson of the moth”:

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


Poetry Friday: 1925 (part 2)

As I was leaving the library today after work, I checked out Color by Countee Cullen, which was published in 1925 (and is, I believe, his first book).  Man, can that fellow write a poem.  I’ve always liked Cullen (and almost always had students read at least one poem of his when we reached the Harlem Renaissance), but I haven’t read a lot of his work previously.  I want to post a dozen poems, but I’ll limit myself to two reasonably short ones–a double billing for the first Friday in Advent.  Countee Cullen offers for our consideration “A Song of Praise”, and “Saturday’s Child”:

A Song of Praise (for one who praised his lady’s being fair)

You have not heard my love’s dark throat,
Slow-fluting like a reed,
Release the perfect golden note
She caged there for my need.

Her walk is like the replica
Of some barbaric dance
Wherein the soul of Africa
Is winged with arrogance.

And yet so light she steps across
The ways her sure feet pass,
She does not dent the smoothest moss
Or bend the thinnest grass.

My love is dark as yours is fair,
Yet lovelier I hold her
Than listless maids with pallid hair,
And blood that’s thin and colder.

You-proud-and-to-be-pitied one,
Gaze on her and despair;
Then seal your lips until the sun
Discovers one as fair.


Saturday’s Child

Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—
For implements of battle.

Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.

For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.

For I was born on Saturday—
“Bad time for planting a seed,”
Was all my father had to say,
And, “One more mouth to feed.”

Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.

“To her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

It’s nice to be back at my Pulitzer readings: Selina DeJong continues to be a plucky character, and someone I find it easy to cheer for.  As the above quotation rightly notes, there is something unsinkable about her—I don’t know if it’s true to say that the ability to find beauty in simple things is sufficient insulation against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but it’s an attractive thought.  Selina certainly doesn’t seem to give in to despair very easily.

And this is a woman with plenty to despair about.  Her marriage to Pervis DeJong was a mistake from the beginning—he loved her, true, and she loved him.  But neither of them knew how to show that love in ways the other would understand, and both of them seemed to think of the other as a sweet but naive person in need of “looking after”.  Love may conquer all, but not this kind of love.  We deceive ourselves too easily.

Pervis’s death is expected (the book begins, after all, with Selina alone with her son, Dirk “Sobig” DeJong), and not particularly sad.  It’s not that he’s a villain; he’s just an obstacle to the plot, and he’s cold enough outwardly that it’s hard to feel a connection to him.  I find his farm as isolating as Selina does, and I am as reluctantly relieved as she is to think that her world will become larger.

It’s a scary world, though, that she steps out into.  She has to figure out how to get goods to market and make sufficient sales to stay alive.  This is a world that doesn’t respect women in such a role, and the road to Chicago is long and dark.  No one will buy from her, and she and her son sleep out in the cold.  It’s fascinating to look at the Haymarket through her eyes–a chaotic flood of peddlers and maids dashing about buying fresh produce.  It hasn’t struck me before how profoundly supermarkets have changed our lives, but I’m certainly thinking about it now.  This was a tough experience, though, watching Selina sink deeper into the mire and believing that there would be no way out of disaster.  A delightful and somewhat unexpected discovery, though, clutches her out of danger, at least for the moment.  I’m hopeful that the story’s taking a good turn for her and little Dirk—this is a story where I’d be really glad to get a happy, storybook ending.  We’ll see if I get it.