Poetry Friday: Simplicity, Summertime, and Li Bai

I wanted a nice poem about summertime—something lighter than a lot of the fare I’ve offered in recent weeks.  I’m gearing up for some WWI poetry in the weeks ahead, since we’re a few days from the centennial anniversaries of battles and death and such things, and I really thought I needed a little break myself (and perhaps you did too) before taking such a plunge.  When you need a reliably cheerful poet—not a humorous poet like Ogden Nash or a silly poet like Edward Lear, but a truly optimistic, look on the bright side, life is good poet—where do you turn?  I’m reminded of something Garrison Keillor once said (in a musical context) about the composer Johannes Brahms, one of Keillor’s favorites.  He contrasts Brahms to a lot of other composers by noting that he’s not a dark, tortured artist—instead, Keillor says (and I’m very loosely paraphrasing, since I can’t find the quote) that Brahms is the kind of guy who thinks life feels good, and he just wants you to feel good too.  For me, that kind of description could apply to a poet or two that I think of as reliable in their defense of the goodness of life, and probably chief among them is the classical Chinese poet, Li Bai (or Li Po), who more than twelve hundred years ago wrote the poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day” (this is the 1919 translation by Arthur Waley):

Li Bai keeping an eye on his poem still, after all these years...

Li Bai, still keeping an eye on his poem, after all these years…

“Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.”

Bai, at least in translation, isn’t too interested in clever turns of phrase, unexpected metaphors, that sort of thing.  He’s not out to plumb great depths or lay his soul bare.  He wants you to slow down and breath deep.  Here, he is in the mountains and that’s all he wants to capture for us.  The stillness of the air that would cling to him a little if not for his gentle fanning.  The very simple sense of surroundings—the wood is “green” but we see little else; the day must be warm enough for an open shirt and a removed cap but we feel little else—and of a man letting himself be for a while.  There is a wind that “trickles”, which is an odd turn of phrase that I assume is Bai’s but of course may be the translator…even so, it’s not all that bizarre an image and I know the feeling, that suddenly cold breeze that does feel almost like a drop of ice water crawling along you.  And that’s all.

There are probably dimensions we miss here either by not being able to read the original, or by not totally understanding the cultural context of life in eighth century China.  But truthfully I don’t expect we miss all that much.  Bai intends this to be a broadly identifiable human experience, I think, and certainly many of his other poems follow in that vein.  On a hot day in the mountains, he knows that we would be like him—overcome enough by heat to enjoy some rest, fan ourselves, loosen our clothing, hot enough that our attention and our consciousness doesn’t ever really reach too far beyond the boundaries of our bodies.  To read Li Bai is to become more mindful of everything there is on and in yourself, and less interested in the world too far out there.  Your gaze travels to your immediate surroundings and not a distant horizon.  If you’re in the wrong mood, he feels banal, naive, unambitious.  But read him in the right mood, and he has a way of centering you, making you glad about life’s smallest wonders, like the pleasure of a feather fan or the subtle scent of pine in the air.  Whether or not you need him this weekend, he’s here for you—and if you don’t need him today, he will be here for you tomorrow.  Li Bai knows the foundation of the simplest human joys, after all, and he will wait there quite happily until you return.

Poetry Friday: Another birthday

It’s come to that time again on Poetry Friday—34 years ago today I was on my way (and disrupting any wedding anniversary plans my parents may have had), and 34 years ago tomorrow I was born.  It’s an especially thought-provoking birthday since it’s my last before a new birthday is added to the list for my family—my wife and I are counting down the last few weeks to my daughter’s arrival—and so I’m mulling over all sorts of things.  The passage of time, of course, and what it means to be born and to grow old, what it means to become who we become and what we lose and gain along the way.  Last year, I quoted from Dylan Thomas‘s incomparable “Poem On My Birthday”, and while my inclination was to turn elsewhere this year, I just can’t do it.  The Welsh Whitman’s effect on me is hypnotic at times, and this poem—the last he published before his untimely death—is almost impossibly rich and dense and intoxicating, and is, to boot, a poem he wrote facing a birthday in his mid-thirties.  I hope I have a lot more years ahead of me than Dylan did when he wrote this, but his words always remind me to savor the days, regardless.  So, with minor apologies (as this is the first poem “revisit” in over four years of Poetry Fridays), I turn to a passage from Dylan Thomas’s birthday poem—a slightly different one than last time—and will reflect on it below.

“Oh, let me midlife mourn by the shrined
And druid herons’ vows
The voyage to ruin I must run,
Dawn ships clouted aground,
Yet, though I cry with tumbledown tongue,
Count my blessings aloud:

Four elements and five
Senses, and man a spirit in love
Tangling through this spun slime
To his nimbus bell cool kingdom come
And the lost, moonshine domes,
And the sea that hides his secret selves
Deep in its black, base bones,
Lulling of spheres in the seashell flesh,
And this last blessing most,

That the closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
The louder the sun blooms
And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;
And every wave of the way
And gale I tackle, the whole world then,
With more triumphant faith
That ever was since the world was said,
Spins its morning of praise,

I hear the bouncing hills
Grow larked and greener at berry brown
Fall and the dew larks sing
Taller this thunderclap spring, and how
More spanned with angels ride
The mansouled fiery islands!”

The only way to really appreciate Thomas is to read him aloud or to hear him read aloud.  Maybe two or three poets, at most, have ever loved the sounds of words as much as he loved them, or treated them with such passion.  Read these lines above again, aloud, if you can.  Let your self-consciousness go and really dig into the sound patterns, the alliteration, the vowels that echo.  It’s worth it.

This is a strange passage for me to ponder, I suppose, just as it was strange for him to write—a huge piece of a birthday poem devoted to mourning.  But Thomas is keenly aware of what will linger and what will not, and he confronts it.  He imbues the world around him with meaning—the herons standing like silent priests of a religion remote from him, the secret name of the sea lost, deep beneath the waves that are framed to hide itself from us—and addresses this powerfully symbolic earth.  He laments what becomes of us as we age, this “voyage to ruin” that we cannot check or reverse, but as he does so, he blesses this same life.  And it floods over him: the beauty of a world made of earth and water, fire and air.  The beauty of fragile human bodies, the curves of the moon as it waxes and wanes, and then the last blessing, the one that still startles me with joy.  That the same step that takes me, one by one, closer to my last day is a step closer into knowing the greatness of living—the sun whose light grows sweeter and the gale whose wind tusks and ramshackles the ocean waves.  Life gives more than it takes: or if not, it should, and where we can find the way to believe it, we ought to.

As always, I am wordless by the end.  What a mansouled fiery island is, I cannot tell, but I see them in my dreams.  Maybe those are the lands where Elijah‘s chariot was built.  What a dew lark is, and why its songs would grow taller in the thunderclap spring, I have no way of knowing, and yet as I read I feel I know exactly what he means.  It’s like looking into Plato’s world of forms—the perfect images of things we can only see partially here on earth, all of our surroundings shades and echoes of some more intense and glory-filled plane.  I am light-headed, almost transported, when I read his best work, this poem in particular.  And that’s not figurative language: I literally feel as giddy as when I’ve had more than one beer (I know, what a scandalous fellow I am), the sensation is that physically real.

Every time I write about Thomas, part of me senses I’m writing just for me.  He never starts much dialogue in the comments, or provokes much reaction.  I think that, for many of you, what attracts me about him is what you find too obscure, too strange, too difficult to make sense of.  And I can respect that—maybe Dylan and I are kidding ourselves.  Maybe his work is less visionary and insightful than I credit it with being.  All I can say is how it moves me, how it grabs me by the throat and drags words out of me, or shouts of joy as I read, or tears.  If once a year I pick a poem just for me, not because I think it will appeal to others, necessarily, or because it comments on something worthwhile, or adds insight to the Pulitzer novel, I’m glad it’s him, and this time of year is as good a time as any to do that.  Next week we’ll be back to something a little more accessible, I promise; and for those who got something good out of Thomas today, I’m glad, and I hope what we both see in him is as real as it feels.

“My dear, Uncle Pio is the most delightful man in the world, your husband excepted…”

“…He is the second most delightful man in the world.  His conversation is enchanting.  If he weren’t so disreputable, I should make him my secretary.  He could write all my letters for me, and generations would rise up and call me witty.  Alas, however, he is so moth-eaten by disease and bad company, that I shall have to leave him to his underworld.  He is not only like an ant; he is like a soiled pack of cards.  And I doubt whether the whole Pacific could wash him sweet and fragrant again.  But what divine Spanish he speaks and what exquisite things he says in it!”

This penultimate section of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, focuses on the character of Uncle Pio, who I couldn’t possibly describe more succinctly or scathingly than the Marquesa just did in that excerpt from a letter to her daughter.

He is a delight.  His whole life is a poem, and I don’t want to say too much about it—I just want you to pick up the novel and read it.  The central aspect of his life is the complicated relationship he develops with the temperamental actress Camila Perichole (a woman who is woven in and out of this novel, beginning with her mockery of the Marquesa on stage and the subsequent astonishing apology), who he looks on with—what?  Love, yes, but what kind of love?  The whole question of love and humanity is present in everything Uncle Pio does, and Wilder soars to real heights in this section.  I haven’t quoted him extensively since he’s not normally turning phrases that demand to be shared, but he finds a rhythm and a style in this section.  Just look at this paragraph describing a social gathering he and Camila attend—

“All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul.  They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news.  They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries.  Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men.  The flood of golden light struck across the Andes and entering the great window fell upon the piles of fruit, the stained brocade upon the table, and the sweet thoughtful forehead of the Perichole as she lay sleeping against the sleeve of her protector.”

It’s not ornate like Fitzgerald (who would have taken far more words with this party, and forced me to the dictionary at least once), but it feels incredibly powerful to me.  I think I’ve discovered what makes Wilder work, and what makes this novel so different from the others I’ve read.  Wilder thinks that a person’s life moves at a much gentler pace than other novelists do.  Most writers tackle detail with a passion, revealing character in the thousand tiny moments that make up a day, a conversation, an encounter.  Wilder sees us as speaking our selves in the long cadence of our lives, an unbroken line of chant that arcs up and down over the course of years, of decades.  Some writers gloss past details that they can’t quite make work, hoping we’ll follow the plot past the speed bump, and for a while it seemed like that was Wilder’s M.O.—a long sloppy plot that hadn’t been worked out well.  But I see how this book works on me.  He reveals the details of a life carefully, stacking the dominoes gently and slowly, until when we reach those rare moments of dialogue (written dialogue occurs perhaps 5 or 6 times over 40-50 pages on Uncle Pio) we can see all the threads of his life weaving together in the simplest of sentences.  It heightens the tensions underlying every conversation because Wilder has established why that conversation matters.

There is more to say, but I won’t say it.  How Uncle Pio comes to the end of his life, and the shock I felt when I read the last vignette before his plummet from the bridge, need to be experienced directly, not through the filter of this blog.  The next post on this book will surely be the review—the last section is short, and will (I now trust) tie together these lives in a way that both clarifies and deepens the mystery.  Wilder’s trying to get a good hold on life, deep in the marrow, and see it for what it truly is.  I think he’s getting somewhere.  Go get the book and read it.

1927: Early Autumn, by Louis Bromfield

Literary Style:

I know I’d suggested there would be another post before this review, but I got swept up in the book and raced to the finish (being home sick plays a role in that, I think).  There’s a lot to say about where the book took me in the end, but I’ll try to keep it at least relatively brief.

Bromfield is very good at a lot of things, which makes the book a really excellent reading experience.  He’s at his best, I think, in long conversations between two characters, in which both are saying things that are difficult to say.  That sense of breathlessness, of revelation and reluctance, is really well developed.  His one drawback here, which I’ve mentioned before, is that Bromfield has a tendency to show rather than tell, at times—he doesn’t always do the work he needs to do to make it clear that someone is behaving out of character, or to reveal a side of someone that they would rather have kept hidden.  And so he ends up telling us that this is happening, or that a character notices it…not terrible, but certainly worse than letting us see and feel it ourselves.

And in many other ways this book is also a real work of art—characters are not, in fact, what they seem to be, and yet they feel very real throughout.  The plot moves rapidly and in ways not always easy to anticipate.  There is a real richness to Olivia Pentland, in particular, and Bromfield really gives her a full range of emotions and impulses that makes it wonderful to stay at her side through some very difficult patches.

In the end, the book has much more to say than I would have expected about duty, and about belief, and love (in a strange way).  By the end of the book, despite my certainty that this was a story about Olivia and Michael O’Hara (the man who loves her), or Olivia and Anson Pentland (her cold yet possessive husband), it seems it was a story about Olivia and her father-in-law, John Pentland.  Bromfield lures you in with the promise of a romance, but he’s after something much harder to put into words than that.  He makes it seem obvious, at the beginning, that this is an old and withered family, and that the outsiders in this place are much better and wiser people than the dusty old Pentlands…but in the end Bromfield lays that bare, also.

I liked that approach, personally—Olivia, in the end, finds herself to be a different person than she might’ve guessed along the way.  She certainly finds herself with a different impression of the people around her, even those people she was most certain in her judgments about.  I like the fact, perhaps most of all, that I could not remotely guess what would have happened next, if the novel had gone on even one more page, and yet I reach the end with a strange sense of hope.  Strange, I think, in part because there is something happy about death in the book—death being preferable to an existence characterized, as Bromfield says at one point, by “living only through watching others live”.  I don’t want to overinterpret the book’s title, but I wonder if there is a way to see this as an inevitable Autumn that comes before the Spring—a dying that is better than clinging to life because the death clears the world for what will come, and provides ground in which to be reborn.

This book isn’t, in the end, a masterpiece like Wharton’s novel (that still ranks, for me, atop the Pulitzer pile), but I think it does more than any book I’ve yet read to confront what it is that America was losing in the 20th Century, and how it was deceiving itself as it turned slowly into modernity.  This is not the whole picture, of course—there are many wonderful things ahead, in 1927—but what was lost is something that is too easy to worship (as Tarkington does) or to dismiss (as someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald did, I think), and Bromfield finds the right tone in seeing it for what it was, and why it would die.  A very lovely story, in the end, and a melancholy one—but beautiful even in its sadness.

Historical Insight:

As I just noted, this book does a wonderful job of getting into the reality of a fading “high society” and the rise of whatever the 1920s would bring.  The book, in a sense, picks up where The Age of Innocence left off, exploring the lives of old people who feel they missed their chances at love, and the younger generation whose passion runs away with them.  It does a better job with the old folks than the young—I wouldn’t read this book to explore “what it was like to be a flapper”—but it’s so good with those older generations that it’s well worth the read, independent of plot and style, for a chance to see into a fading New England village, and the dying old family that sees it as their birthright.


I have to give this a “you ought to read this book”.  It’s not quite as definitive as The Age Of Innocence, which I (as I recall) said you really had to read, no excuses allowed.  It’s a very good book, but no one would mistake this novel for “The Great American Novel”…it stumbles often enough to show Bromfield’s limitations, though thankfully it doesn’t stumble often.  I’d rank it, though, in the top 3 of the Pulitzers I’ve read, and perhaps at #2—I hope some of you read it, and comment here, as I’d love to hear other takes on the book.  I may be a little too taken with old New England families, after all!

The Last Word:

Bromfield leaves many excellent passages at the end of the book, but I think it’s best to finish with a piece of a strained conversation between Olivia and her husband, Anson.  Many things have happened which I’m reluctant to reveal (lest I spoil the plot), but I can at least give this much context—the family has been through a very difficult time, there’s a sense that scandal (of one type or another) may ruin them entirely, and Anson’s worldview is being thoroughly challenged by his wife, as we see here (all the ellipses . . . are in the original):

“Let’s leave the gentleman out of it, Anson,” she said.  “I’m weary of hearing what gentlemen do and do not do. I want you to act as yourself, as Anson Pentland, and not as you think you ought to act.  Let’s be honest.  You know you married me only because you had to marry someone . . . and I . . . I wasn’t actually disreputable, even, as you remind me, if my father was shanty Irish.  And  . . . let’s be just too.  I married you because I was alone and frightened and wanted to escape a horrible life with Aunt Alice.  . . . I wanted a home.  That was it, wasn’t it?  We are both guilty, but that doesn’t change the reality in the least.  No, I fancy you practised loving me through a sense of duty.  You tried it as long as you could and you hated it always.  Oh, I’ve known what was going on.  I’ve been learning ever since I came to Pentlands for the first time.”

He was regarding her now with a fixed expression of horrid fascination; he was perhaps even dazed at the sound of her voice, slowly, resolutely, tearing aside all the veils of pretense which had made their life possible for so long.  He kept mumbling, “How can you talk this way?  How can you say such things?”

Slowly, terribly, she went on and on: “We’re both guilty . . . and it’s been a failure, from the very start.  I’ve tried to do my best and perhaps sometimes I’ve failed.  I’ve tried to be a good mother . . . and now that Sybil is grown and Jack . . . is dead, I want a chance at freedom.  I’m still young enough to want to live a little before it is too late.”

Poetry Friday: 1926 (part 2)

Another of the country’s great poets bursts onto the stage in 1926: with his first published collection, Langston Hughes establishes himself as one of the chief voices of the Harlem Renaissance.  From that c0llection, today I offer you “Mother to Son”:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Poetry Friday: 1926

It’s a busy day, as the due dates for final assignments loom large, but I couldn’t leave you without a poem (all three of you who look for poems faithfully every Friday).  In 1926, e. e. cummings published a collection entitled is 5. It’s allegedly influenced by his experiences as an ambulance driver in the Great War.  I’m not sure.  So read the following with me, and offer your opinion in the comments of what it is he’s trying to say.  Like almost all of cummings’ poetry, it has no title, and is referred to simply by its first line:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Poetry 11/11: The Great War

I never let this day pass without reading and reflecting on the poets of World War I.  I thought it would be nice to offer two brief poems for you to see and consider, as well.  To any veterans who may happen by, thank you for your service.  And now, two poems from a war we should not forget:

“The Dead” by Rupert Brooke

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W.B. Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.