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.

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Poetry Friday: New Year’s 2013 Edition

Last year I turned to two more modern poems to grapple with the emotions and the ideas that a new year’s beginning gives rise to—one of them, Richard Wilbur’s “Year’s End”, is just extraordinary and if you didn’t read it last year (or even if you did) click on that link and go read it.  But one of the classic poems about a year ending and a new one beginning is a little bit older, and I’ve been meaning to tackle it one of these years—given the national mood (and, honestly, my mood much of the time) here in December 2012, with the Newtown shootings all over the media, and news of other terrible shootings cropping up seemingly every day, it feels like the right year to tangle with Thomas Hardy, one of the most melancholy of the great English novelists and poets.  Hardy has been wrestled with before here on a Poetry Friday, but I haven’t yet taken on his most widely-read verse, in part because I hadn’t yet known what I wanted to say about it.  I think I may know now.  The poem for the end of 2012, then, and the beginning of 2013, is a work originally titled “Century’s End, 1900” about the final days of the 19th Century and the beginning of a century Hardy could not have envisioned—a century of world wars and moonwalks, of genocide and civil right movements.  The original title is now more or less forgotten, and the poem is known for one of its principal characters, if not the only one who really matters—this is “The Darkling Thrush“:

“I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.”

The poem is more or less famous for its ambiguity, so I hope others will offer their takes on the poem in the comments: this is how I read Hardy here, and I think in some ways I’m grabbing the poem’s steering wheel as I do so.  That is, I don’t know that the poem I read is the one he felt he wrote.  That doesn’t bother me, much.

The opening stanza, then, sets the scene—there’s enough death-imagery here to rival Melville’s description of the Pequod, with a spectral image of the cold personified as “Frost”, and all humanity reduced to doing the work of ghosts as they “haunt” their own homes.  In that context, even slightly more innocent images—“weakening eye of day” in other settings might not be too ominous, but here it feels to me like the failing eyesight of someone at death’s door, and even Hardy’s lean on the coppice gate feels like a man accepting the approach of mortality.  The tangle of dead brush is tied to, of all possible similes, the “strings of broken lyres” as though the angelic choirs of Christmas have been cast down from Heaven in disarray (too much? I don’t know—the lyre is an unusual choice and very closely identified with “traditional” depictions of angels).  And then that second stanza!  The outline of the distant hills like the outstretched corpse of the 19th Century, the gray sky the stone of its tomb, the wind a funereal dirge, the very pulse of life absent from the Earth and from Hardy and from all of humanity…yikes.  Hardy’s obsession with death and loss is well-documented—much of Hardy’s writing after the suicide of his close friend and mentor Horace Moule in 1873 certainly gives evidence of how shaken Hardy was by that event—but I have to say, these two stanzas lay it on thick even for him.  If he had published instead a photograph of himself wearing a sandwich board reading “The Century is dead. And so am I. And so are you, basically.” it would hardly communicate his emotions any more clearly.

song thrush again!!!

A song thrush, Hardy’s muse as he looks from one year into the next. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, what am I doing, dragging someone’s clinical depression (in rhyme!) into your winter mood as you start to look ahead to a new year?  I’m hoping you’ll stick with me into the back half of the poem and our star—the title character, that little twilight thrush, battered but unbroken.  On one level, it might seem like a cheesy choice for Hardy to bail himself out of this funk by bringing in a little animal to cheer us up, but I don’t really feel that way.  The appearance of the thrush is like the first crack of light opening into a dark room, and it reaches us because it has the power to reach Hardy.  Out of death (those “bleak twigs” are about as lifeless as anything in the first two stanzas) comes forth life—and not just life, but faith, in the form of an avian “evensong”, a sung prayer service familiar to Hardy and any 19th Century Anglican.  Hardy ascribes too much to the thrush, of course—it’s not singing an “evensong” any more than it’s singing Greensleeves, and it’s not “flinging its soul” anywhere.  Or is it?  The poem has dragged us down enough with cheating images—the century doesn’t have a corpse, and the wind is not a lament—so why not let ourselves rise again with these new images?  I love the detail about the thrush, the sense of its age and experience, the hint that its song is a song of experience and not of innocence.  Animals are often used to exemplify happiness because their lives are so simple and untroubled compared with ours, but Hardy intentionally gives us a bird that is “frail,” “gaunt,” and “blast-beruffled,” I think because he wants to acknowledge on some level that the peace he’s hearing in the thrush’s song is a peace that’s available to us also.

Hardy is struck by the dichotomy between Earth and “Heaven” here—the sadness and deathliness of “terrestrial things” like him and the landscape as opposed to the brightness and hope present for the bird who is not tied to the land (he even uses “air” as a synonym for song, which is clearly him wanting to lift the bird up away from the muck of the Earth).  Hardy’s long tussle with faith is pretty consistent—he often uses this image of himself as a man who wishes he could find the peace in believing that others do, whether here with the Hope the bird can see and he cannot, or the possibilities present in his beautiful little Christmas poem, “The Oxen”.  I think it works here at the end of the poem, in part because it feels very genuine to me—Hardy’s looking around himself to confirm the bleakness of his outlook, and then maintaining just enough open-mindedness to accept that this may not be a situation where a simple-minded bird doesn’t get it, and he does.  Maybe it really is a case where the thrush is the wiser of the two—certainly I find that interpretation compelling.  Why?  Other than my inclination to optimism (which is shaky at best, as plenty of folks could tell you), there’s a lot about the poem that Hardy may or may not have intended to put us on the thrush’s side.  Hardy’s set himself up as someone whose vision is limited—he’s next to a “coppice”, where the trees obscure at least some of his view, and the light is fading rapidly.  He’s also set himself up as someone without energy or purpose—he’s leaning on the gate, after all, even though there’s clearly no reason for him to be outside, and he’s “fervourless” to boot.  He’s barely even there—somehow despite the fact that “all mankind” is indoors at their fires, Hardy is still outside.  Do we make of this that he’s so far gone he barely counts as alive, as human, any longer?  Or that he’s somehow outside that community by choice?  Hard to say, but he certainly doesn’t come across as someone in the know, someone aware of the realities surrounding him.  By comparison, the thrush comes across as the reliable figure—unlike the empty Hardy, he is “full-hearted”; unlike Hardy’s weak frame leaning on the gate, he’s actively flinging himself at the darkness as though attacking it.  His vantage point is higher than Hardy’s, atop a tree that ties the air to the earth—symbolically, I feel like he’s being presented as the one figure who can see the whole picture.

So, as we ready ourselves for 2013—the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and of Gettysburg, the first year not envisioned by the Mayan calendar—I personally walk with a word of optimism from Hardy that he may or may not have intended.  There are hopes we cannot always see, and sometimes we need the music of that hope from someone who has a perspective we don’t yet.  The more we can stay open to the prospect of life even in the midst of death or despair, the more we may come to find it.  It’s what I need to hear in “The Darkling Thrush”, anyway, and hopefully it doesn’t do too much injustice to Hardy’s poem in getting there.  Again, I hope other thoughts and reactions will surface in the comments—a happy new year to all!

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.

The Way I Read: Do novels ennoble the human condition?

Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to talk a little about books and what I love about them—and one specific book I love (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, about which I am happy to talk if you’re interested).  A classmate/colleague/friend is teaching an online course in which she wanted some recorded examples of regular ol’ library students talking about books, and I was asked to participate.  It was an enormous amount of fun, so much so that to talk excessively about it will seem like bragging, and blogging is already an exercise that makes me feel perilously close to Narcissus at times, so I’ll focus only on one moment that’s sticking with me.  Having spoken about Doomsday Book and why it resonates for me, another classmate/colleague/friend (Althea, who blogs with The Bookaneers—I need to add them to the blogroll in the right sidebar!) commented that the way I often talk about books emphasizes how they inspire optimism about human beings.  I tend to read for (and talk about) things like hope, and courage, and dignity.  I can read very sad or even disturbing books (Doomsday Book is often perilously sad, and another book I love, The Sparrow, is a really harrowing experience to read), but I seem to look for those things, and to savor them when I find them.

I mention this because I think it’s worth pondering as a key to why I’ve reacted to the Pulitzer winners thus far as I have.  His Family, the first novel I read on this quest, has been panned by some of my fellow travelers (the witty and wonderful ladies of Along With A Hammer, to be precise), and I get why they disliked it.  But I found it really comforting, and as I look back I think it’s because it emphasized that sunny-eyed hope of a better world that had not quite lost out to jaded cynicism yet in 1918.  I think my attachment to One of Ours, a Willa Cather novel that was also pretty darn idealistic, is another example of this kind of reading.  I like reading the way I do, but I wonder if it will make me miss out on really good books that do not quite brim with hope.  I don’t care for saccharine things, so I don’t fear that I’ll “overindulge” in some really excessively sentimental writing, but I worry that I can be too dismissive of the bleaker stuff.

I share this just because I’m pondering it.  I’m wondering if The Age of Innocence shows anything noble about humans (if so, I’d love opinions as to why, and if not, I’m wondering why I fell in love with it).  I’m wondering if I’d have responded better to a novel like Arrowsmith or Alice Adams (sorry, Able McLaughlins, but no amount of reflection could salvage your reputation) if I was a little more open to that more cutting, sarcastic, cynical perspective that I think both Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington really thrived on.  And I’m wondering if in the long run this way of reading serves me well or not—whether it’s this kind of search for optimism that makes literature such a sustaining presence in my life, or if I risk becoming a 21st century Miss Prism, primly informing people from my pedestal that to be a good novel, the good must end happily and the wicked unhappily, for that is the meaning of fiction.  I threw down American Gods by Neil Gaiman after 50 pages of despair, after all: I make drastic decisions about books (even books beloved by people I respect), and I wonder what this is symptomatic of.  Comments are, as always, welcome, but if none appear, I’m sure I’ll muse on this again before too long, especially once I pick up Laughing Boy again.  Happy reading!

A Poem for Ash Wednesday

Actually, a portion of a poem—T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday”, which is too long to reproduce here in full (but I encourage you to go looking for it).  Below, I offer part VI of the poem, and wish you a blessed Ash Wednesday:

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Poetry Friday: 1926 (part 3)

Hey, it’s still Friday in Anchorage, so I think this counts.  1926, among other things, was also the year that Dorothy Parker published her first volume of poetry, entitled Enough Rope.  It’s the source of many of her famously witty (and bleak) quotations about love and other such matters.  Among the poems is one I can’t quite make sense of–is it merely a joke?  Is it a satire?  A comment on some aspect of life?  I leave it to you—Dorothy Parker’s “Inventory”:

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.

Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.