Poetry Friday: 1943, part 3

In perusing the books of poetry issued in 1943 that grace the shelves of my library—librarianship has its advantages, especially for the literary blogger—I stumbled into an unfamiliar title and poet.  After skimming it, I thought the project interesting enough, and revealing enough about life in that year, to select a poem from the work to share today.  Richard Church was a minor English poet of the mid-20th Century, a man who wrote as a hobby until his late 30s and then dove into journalism, poetry, novel writing, and even a little autobiography to pay the bills from there on out.  In 1943, he brought out a small collection of poetry called Twentieth Century Psalter.  Modeled after the psalters of the Middle Ages, and structured as though these were poems to be used liturgically, like in the daily office at a monastery, the poems speak as bluntly and humanly as the Hebrew poetry preserved in the Tanakh’s book of Psalms.  After a dedicatory preface, acknowledging King David (the traditionally credited author of much of the Psalms) and suggesting that he was a “modern man”, Church simply presents pairs of poems assigned to each day of a thirty-day month—“The First Day: Morning” and “The First Day: Evening”—implicitly offering them as a reading to be added to Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (service maybe still most widely known by their ancient names of Matins and Vespers).  The poems are not particularly sacred, though, or at least they are certainly not mild little pieties, as they turn their attention instead to the grim realities of life in an embattled England, a landscape of bomb craters and evacuated children and a resilient people enduring a modern war.  I thought that it might be best, here on the first day of the month of March, to just take what he’s assigned us this evening.  So, this is a poem by Richard Church, entitled “The First Day: Evening”:

“The instruments of death throughout the world;
They are the child’s desire, the young man’s training.
Women are forging them, by night and day.
Civilization cowers; bombs are raining
Upon the ripening corn; cities are hurled
Into the past, the Babylonian clay.

Some ancient god of wrath might look on this,
And, mumbling in his beard of human folly,
Call down a dozen plagues for punishment.
To-day, only a critical melancholy,
Self-conscious from the very soul’s abyss,
Warns us what follows when our rage is spent.

There have been many gods; there has been one.
All gods, and one, by many a name and token,
Are living still, are gathered in my brain,
A memory of duty, of vows broken,
A quiet conviction of what must be done
To build the broken cities up again.

The city and the cornfield; these are set
At history’s extremes. Between them lies
The story of the gods. Our art and science
No longer feature hell and paradise.
But still the ancient longing and regret
Govern our actions; still the old defiance.

The old defiance! It was this that first
Snatched at the fire and let destruction loose.
Defiance dealt the unpolitical blow,
Blundered in strength, mistook the best for worst,
And shattered adoration with abuse.
Defiance of what? Ah, still we do not know.”

Church—and yes, it occurs to me to that, consciously or unconsciously, his name may play a role in his desire to deal with psalms and liturgy—offers a poem that strikes me as very 1943, and movingly so.  The war is beginning to turn again the Axis powers, but no confidence can really be there yet for a man who’s heard the crump of bombs from an underground shelter, or seen the boys straggle back from Dunkirk.  So he opens the poem with the image of weaponry and how these “instruments of death” are ubiquitous—children imagine them as toys, soldiers train, women toil in factories to build them.  Do you think this is England or Germany he’s thinking of?  Is he envisioning the machine-like society that raises up these lethal tools to threaten his nation, or the machine-like society his nation must become to defend itself?  Both seem plausible readings to me.  There’s something very moving about the end of that stanza—we often use phrases like “bomb them back to the Stone Age”, but I can see it happening in Church’s words.  The debris in some parts of London must have seemed like a Near Eastern tel, the great heaps of pot-sherds on which a new city would rise—but whose city?

There’s something like Thomas Hardy inserted into in the second stanza—a poet wishing he could believe in a vengeful god—although in this case it’s not Hardy’s depression, but Church’s righteous anger and desire for justice and retribution, that fuels the dream.  The stanza, honestly, feels very allusive here, since he’s building in some ways on the work of English poets from a previous generation or two, like Matthew Arnold‘s “Dover Beach” which laments the loss of faith and hope in a world given over to these new scientific ideas.  And something about the final phrase “when our rage is spent” reminds me of John Milton’s famous sonnet “When I consider how my light is spent” that meditates on his blindness and his willingness to serve God.  There are layers here of three centuries of English poets struggling with belief, with the question of whether God is there above the clouds somewhere, and with the question of what we all will do if we have only ourselves and our world for consolation.

That’s what makes the third stanza really interesting to me—the way Church surprises us a few times as he turns it one way and then the other.  He brings up the images of polytheism and monotheism, seemingly acknowledges their validity, and then steps back a little—these gods live, but only in his brain.  And what resides there beside them?  Are these the modern gods—our sense of duty (to ourselves? to each other?), vows we know we have broken and will break?  What is that quiet conviction that Church has, and what does he think must be done to rebuild?  It’s hard for me to see whether that conviction is as ephemeral and imaginary to him as this panoply of gods are, or whether he really believes it….I think he does have that conviction, but hasn’t the poem undermined any reason for him to feel that confidence?  Maybe conviction and duty are all someone can turn to (other than madness) in the face of these broken cities.

And then the camera pans back again and the view sweeps out to all of human civilization—something that, in the 1940s, probably did look very simply like a march from the cornfield to the city, from one end of history to the other.  “Between them lies the story of the gods.”  But it’s our story also.  So Church is telling us something about ourselves—in part it’s really clear to me, because he’s so direct about how the “old defiance” survives even if talk of Heaven and Hell, of reward and judgment, has more or less passed out of “polite society”.  But in part it’s not clear, simply because I don’t think Heaven and Hell have totally walked off the stage (for one thing, how could he know then that in 3 years the world would learn of Auschwitz, of Treblinka, of Chelmno, these scars left in the wake of war, so abhorrent that we would revive an old word, “holocaust”, to capture the magnitude of the evils done).  And I think the stanza anyway is asking us to see more than that: he’s given us a very visual metaphor to work with, the city and the cornfield extended out in front of us, and the space between, and I think we’re meant to look at it and ask ourselves what we see.  What is all this for, and what has it gotten us?  A fair question any day, but maybe especially fair from the perspective of London during the Blitz.

And that ambivalence, that uneasiness, persists in the final stanza—the “old defiance” lingers on here, and now I wonder what it really signifies.  Fire, that critical human invention, here is a result of this defiance, and yet its only purpose seems hostile and violent.  Defiance brings harm where it could have brought health, breaks the old icons without understanding the new world it makes, deals “the unpolitical blow” (a phrase I confess I do not entirely understand in context).  And what, he asks us, are we defying anyway?  We do not know.  But what does he mean by that?  Is it that human defiance is rejecting the old faiths, but that we don’t understand them?  Or simply that, because a lot of people now doubt God’s existence, it’s hard for them to “defy” someone they don’t believe is there?  There’s not much old about that kind of defiance anyway—it’s a modern impulse—so maybe I’m misreading it entirely, and really he’s talking about something else….the “original sin” of ambition or pride, perhaps?  I am unsure.

What I do like about all this is that it does operate just like a psalm ought to—challenging, heartfelt, obscure.  If it was read in a real prayer service, a priest or minister could really chew on it for a while: who are humans, really, and where is God in England in 1943?  What are we doing with our lives and what will it mean?  How can we (Can we?) ever escape these old patterns, the circle of defiance and destruction that more or less characterizes a lot of human endeavor?  I may possibly come back to Church if I’m still reading 1943’s Pulitzer novel at the end of the month: I wonder if this poem is intended to raise questions that he really means to wrestle with himself by the last few days of the month, or if he’s just opening doors he has no intention of closing.  In any case, the anthology is an interesting idea—one another poet could easily steal here in the 21st Century, and maybe someone should—and if it’s in a library near you, I suggest you pick it up and give it a look.

Poetry Friday: Rest in peace, Jack Gilbert

It’s not often that a poet I read and admire shuffles off the mortal coil—most of my favorites have long since made that voyage, and of the living poets I enjoy, most are young(ish) folks in my social circle who I’m grateful to say seem well-positioned to live long and happy lives.  The passing of Jack Gilbert on November 11, 2012, then, was an unexpected and unusual event for me—I knew when I read Facebook posts about his death that I’d want to devote a Poetry Friday to Jack and his work, and so here we are.  Gilbert is not among the most famous or celebrated American poets of his era—in my opinion this is because, unlike most of the vaunted poets of this era, he can actually, you know, write worthwhile poetry (and I have to imagine that galls the many hacks who take up space in poetry journals).  But I digress.

Gilbert wasn’t unrecognized for his work—a Pulitzer nomination (in poetry) in 1983, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1964—but I imagine his is a name most folk are unfamiliar with.  I’m indebted to my friend, the poet Graham Isaac, for introducing me to Gilbert’s stuff by giving me a copy of his book The Great Fires for Christmas a few years back.  Jack Gilbert’s stuff is devoid of much in the way of pretense, and full of humble honesty.  Wikipedia says his work is characterized by “simple lyricism and straightforward clarity of tone” and that’s pretty spot-on (and not a bad epitaph for any writer to have).  I had a hard time picking a poem—so much of his work is more or less perfect for Poetry Friday, brief but dense with lines to gnaw on, direct enough not to be puzzling but also just elusive enough to inspire the chase.  Whether or not this particular poem grabs you, in general I think you should go looking for some of his stuff online or in a bookstore or library, but I’m hoping I chose well.  It struck me as the right kind of poem to honor Jack’s passing, anyway.  This is a poem from The Great Fires entitled “I Imagine The Gods”:

“I imagine the gods saying, We will
make it up to you. We will give you
three wishes, they say. Let me see
the squirrels again, I tell them.
Let me eat some of the great hog
stuffed and roasted on its giant spit
and put out, steaming, into the winter
of my neighborhood when I was usually
too broke to afford even the hundred grams
I ate so happily walking up the cobbles,
past the Street of the Moon
and the Street of the Birdcage-Makers,
the Street of Silence and the Street
of the Little Pissing. We can give you
wisdom, they say in their rich voices.
Let me go at last to Hugette, I say,
the Algerian student with her huge eyes
who timidly invited me to her room
when I was too young and bewildered
that first year in Paris.
Let me at least fail at my life.
Think, they say patiently, we could
make you famous again. Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.”

Gilbert is moving despite never being sentimental.  I love the ambiguity of the opening line—a poem otherwise so sturdy and grounded on real physical details (the steaming pork in the winter air, the streets of his French town, etc.) begins with the gods making amends with Jack Gilbert.  “We will make it up to you,” they say.  What had they done to him?  What redress did they think he deserved?  Gilbert does not tell us, and we are left to imagine whether he had experienced some special sorrow that merited this offer, or whether he envisioned all human beings reaching the end of their days and finding that there would be some compensation for the agony of living.  The delight in this poem begins for me, then, in Jack’s total unwillingness to play by the rules.  In opposition to the very abstract and grandiose offer made by these nameless gods, Jack is specific—he wants those squirrels back, playing in the trees like they used to, and good hot roasted meat, a little more than he could usually afford.  Over the rich-voiced protestations of the divinities who offer unfathomable wisdom, he concludes with the third wish—one night of intimacy with a woman, restored to that last stretch of his life before he was brave enough for intimacy.  A window into a life he might have experienced but shied away from.  All of these wishes are so thoroughly sensory and almost Falstaffian in their embrace of the world as-it-is, the here and the now.

And then that remarkable abstraction that seems to sum up those three wishes—“Let me at least fail at my life.”  That one harrows me, cuts right down to the bone.  One has to try in order to fail, after all, and the bleak honesty of this admission (and this plea) is so self-aware.  He’s not asking for a fairy tale in which the do-over leads to a life of glory.  He’s just looking back on the days he wishes he had shown up to play, so to speak—the days when he hurried past some brief beauty without noticing it, when he saved his pennies and walked past the street vendor, when he felt so safe in the coziness of rejecting opportunities offered that he never even knew the satisfaction of being struck down by the world.  The humility and the wonder inside this phrase almost undo me—he is offered the freedom to take any gifts he wants, and he asks for the life he had back again, to savor failing at things he was afraid to hazard.

The offer is pressed on him a third time—what about fame, Jack, the fame you might have thought would follow that Guggenheim or that Pulitzer nomination but was never really in the offing?  The chance to be a Laureate, to be his generation’s Frost or Cummings, to be a Somebody.  And now he sets aside those physical particulars from early in the poem (stumbling just a little as he does, I think—the line about falling in love one last time is wasted, I think, following on the heels of the much more evocative image of the Algerian student), and asks for the great abstractions that these gods will not be glad to grant.  No wisdom or fame here, not for Jack Gilbert: he’ll take mortality that frightens him into the urgency of now, he’ll take whatever it is that teaches him how weighty and how real each day’s living really is, and lastly he’ll take a full night and a feral heart, going to the grave ungentle like Dylan Thomas‘s father, as full of ferocity and love for the world as a man’s heart can be.  Like the fairy tale Jack who traded a cow for some magic beans, I feel as though Gilbert is pulling the wool over the eyes of these gods—taking from them something they hardly think worthwhile, and finding in their gifts an immense value we can hardly guess at from the outside.  Faust could have struck no better bargain.

I don’t know what more to say than this—there’s a lot in this poem that rattles in my chest, and keeps me mulling it over.  The same is true of a lot of Jack Gilbert’s work.  Go out there and pick up a copy, read a little bit, and hoist a glass (or a steaming hunk of whatever roasted delicacy your neighborhood specializes in) in memory of Jack.  We didn’t have enough like him to spare his going, but we’re glad to have had the pleasure of his company while he was here.