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: Spending the first day of autumn with Rainer Maria Rilke

Photo of Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet writing at the fin de siècle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weather of fall has come at last to Chicago, one of many cities where, this summer, heat records fell and the grass scorched in the sun and people cowered indoors behind the whirr of window air-conditioning units.  Now, at last, there are clouds and rain—the air is cool enough to walk in, and the green is back in quick little glimpses on lawns and in hedges.  So it seems as fair a time as any to turn, at least for one week, to the contemplation of my favorite season, and to the poets who praise it.  I pondered plenty of good choices for today to usher in the fall, but finally I settled on a lovely little piece by Rainer Maria Rilke entitled “Herbsttag”, or “Autumn Day”.  There are many translations of the poem, but the one I prefer comes from William Gass‘s book, Reading Rilke, and so it is the one I share with you below.  This is a poem Rilke composed in Paris exactly 110 years ago—that is, on September 21, 1902—after traveling to that city alone that summer:

“Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadow let the winds throng.

Ask the last fruits to ripen on the vine;
give them further two more summer days
to bring about perfection and to raise
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will establish none,
whoever lives alone now will live on long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters,
wander up and down the barren paths
the parks expose when the leaves are blown.”

Rilke writes an elegy to a season of changes and closing doors, and there is a deep presence of relief in the poem’s opening lines.  It is initially addressed to God, but more as a man might speak to an authority figure he knows personally—the German there is “Herr”, which can mean “Lord” as Gass translates it, but the connotation is usually less divine.  It’s more like saying “Sir,” as though you were addressing your supervisor or your landlord.  Rilke is being formal, but he is also trying to advance the plot, so to speak.  He needs to nudge God—to remind Him of a task that should be attended to.

Sir, he says, it is time.  There’s a loveliness to that phrase—in a sense, all of the poem is an expression, an unfolding, of that one idea.  It is Time.  That is the subject of the poem.  Time as duration, as the summer that lingered too long.  Time as the shadow thrown by the gnomon that counts the hours, time as the ripening and reckoning of the harvest.  Time as the coda that brings an end—what has not yet been done by now, will not be done—and time as the ellipsis, the unfenced expanse of lonely days and roads that stretch on forever.

There is also a sense in the poem, for me, of how natural all these events will be—the winds will be freed now, and the last fruits will finally reach the end of their long journey. Even though there’s a melancholy to the last stanza, there’s also a peace about it—the unsheltered will roam the earth, and the lonely will immerse themselves in their loneliness and find something there.  Whatever conditions we have now (with maybe the minor adjustment of a last sunny day or two), they will persist and this is no bad thing.  It is, to the contrary, what we ask for—to end the summer of striving and take some refuge in rest.  To an extent, I’m being led by Gass here, who doesn’t translate “unruhig” (restless, anxious, literally “unpeaceful”), a word Rilke uses to describe the wanderings of the lonely.  But I wonder if he’s not right to pass it by…there is something so gentle and unanxious about the preceding lines, reading and writing long letters and so forth, that maybe softening the blow of “unruhig” is faithful to Rilke’s meaning on a deeper level.

Ultimately, this quiet, understated poem captures many of the things I love best about autumn—the desire to see a hot summer fade, the sweetness and richness of the foods associated with the fall, the way that the outside world inspires me to more reflective and introspective moods.  It isn’t particularly soaring in this translation (nor is it in the original German, to the extent that I can read it with any feeling) but autumn isn’t that kind of cymbal-crashing trumpet-blowing season, at first.  The real winds and storms will come, and are their own kind of joy.  For now I’m relishing the beginnings of the peaceful autumn I love—the weeks stretching from my birthday to my wife’s, generally speaking—and Rilke helps me sink into them with comfort.  If you have a favorite autumn poem or poet, I hope you’ll mention them in the comments section: I’d like to return to the season at least one more time on an upcoming Friday, and would gladly share a poem suggested by one of you, if it catches me right.

Poetry Friday: 1937, part 3

English: Giorgos Seferis

Giorgios (George) Seferis, our poet, whose career as a diplomat had taken him to Albania in the winter of 1937. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a lot of great poetry out there in the world, but I’ll admit it’s surprisingly hard to pin down poems from a particular year.  I had excessive good luck with 1936, but am straining a little to find poems I want to talk about that were published in 1937.  So I’m shifting back to a trick I used two weeks ago, which is to use a poem written about 1937—a poem by Giorgios Seferis, a noted (and Nobel Prize-winning) poet from Greece.  This is “Epiphany 1937”, or more precisely, the English translation of that poem by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon’s waning
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden; the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.

I’ve kept a rein on my life, kept a rein on my life, travelling
among yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.
I’ve kept a rein on my life; on your left hand a line
a scar at your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions nor does the woman
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.
I’ve kept a rein on my life whispering in a boundless silence
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
like the breathing of the cypress tree that night
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness’.

I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting-place of the waters
under the ice the sea’s smile, the closed wells
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.
I’ve kept a rein on my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings
living trees and your eyes riveted.

This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep, in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you’ve loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief; I’ve kept a rein on my life.

                                                                           The snow
and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.

Seferis’s poem is image-laden to the point of being almost overloaded—a cornucopia of vivid moments, generally connected with the natural environment, that all seem to circle around an unnamed person and the feeling that he has “kept a rein on his life”.   But what does all this signify?

I’m fascinated by the poem because I feel tantalized by it…always on the verge of understanding it but never quite getting there.  For a while I was convinced that this was an expression of his closeted affection for a man—his hiding these feelings being the “rein” he’s kept on his life, but the effusion of lush imagery being an expression of this passion felt for the other person alluded to at times.  Except that I went searching for information about Seferis this week, and I didn’t turn up anything in the usual biographies that indicates any known gay or bisexual relationships with men.  Maybe I missed something, but it kind of looks like it’s back to the drawing board.

I really like the opening stanza because its structure suggests that it is a key—a list of images presented simply, with no analysis or explanation of their connections.  What do these things have to do with each other?  Simply a passionate night spent in that “closed bed”?  But the emphasis is all on the world outside and not the humans present—the sea aflower and the stone by the fig trees, the pairing of the Northern Cross (Cygnus, the Swan) and the giant red star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull.  It is a slightly weird world—I’m not sure how easy it would be to see both Cygnus and Aldebaran at the same time (they’re a good ways apart), and honestly I don’t know that Cygnus is ever visible in Greece in January.  But maybe I’m overthinking that kind of detail….if they weren’t actually there, though, it makes me wonder what the symbolism is of using those two celestial objects.

I like the sense of “about to happen” that pervades the poem, the feeling that whatever reins have been kept on life thus far, the steed is about to be given his head to gallop.  And there are some gorgeous lines—“under the ice the sea’s smile” is a doozy, and “that man / who walks blindly across the snows of silence”.  Shoot, half the poem is that beautiful.  So what is it about this snow and ice, other than being the surroundings Seferis would have seen on January 6, 1937—what does it represent in connection to that missing someone, who murmurs “happiness” in memories, whose scarred knee and golden hair haunt the poet?  Why does the poem end so starkly, not with the beloved and missed, but with the snow and the (ominous?) hoofmarks full of ice?

Why is the poet so isolated—beggars do not beg him any longer, faces do not question?  Who is on the road without relief—the poet on his journey, or the missing someone on theirs?  Or both?

I am bewitched by the poem, and think I need to read some more Seferis.  For now, I am hesitant to commit to a reading of the poem.  The one reading I have not yet suggested is that it is a farewell, that the rein on his life has been Seferis waiting for this missing someone, and that he is turning away and riding off now.  It feels as though the poet’s summer of his great content has been made desolate winter, and that in some ways he has made peace with that change.  I do not detect that another season is necessarily imminent—the changes seem to be inside him, and not pregnant in the world around him.  But maybe I’m missing something in the flurries of imagery.  I do love to read it, though, and I hope you did too.  If anybody thinks I’m misreading this one (or overthinking it), speak up, will you?

Poetry Friday: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Greetings all—it’s only a smidge past midnight, but I still feel bad posting Poetry Friday on Saturday.  It was a busy week.  In any case, this week for a class project I briefly toyed with the idea of using some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and although that didn’t pan out I remembered how much I liked his work and decided to post some of it here.  Like almost all of his work, this is a poem that didn’t appear until well after he had died (the man was shockingly humble—a fascinating life story, if you know nothing about him): it first appeared in 1918 in “Poems”, a posthumous edition put out by his friends.  It is entitled “Inversnaid”:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

This is a poem that, once I had read it aloud, I couldn’t get the sound out of my head.  I memorized it (maybe the first poem I ever voluntarily memorized) and still recite it to myself sometimes, especially out-of-doors on blustery days.  Once I had chosen it for today’s poem, I asked myself if it had some kind of deep meaning, or if it was just Hopkins using the extraordinary sounds of his poetry (based on some of the Old English poetic styles but also his own invented style called “sprung rhythm”) to describe a cool natural scene.  I think the last stanza comes closest to any kind of philosophical statement, but even there it seems to me that it’s largely just the poet’s natural exuberance about the beauty of nature—he’s been staring at this gorgeous stream and pool and stand of trees, and he can barely contain how glorious it is and how desperately it’s needed.  Hopkins suffered deeply from depression (his “dark sonnets” are excruciatingly beautiful and tragic), and I think being next to a pool that “rounds and rounds Despair to drowning” was even more invigorating for him than it would be to the average person.  But this still isn’t a very “deep” reading.  What do you think—is the surface reading I’m getting the only thing that’s there?  Or is there some cool symbolism here I’ve jumped past?

Poetry Friday: 1929 (part 5)

Although this is more “Philosophy Friday”, given the turn Rilke takes here…he’s clearly responding to some specific concerns expressed by the “Young Poet” in a reply to him.  From the fourth letter in Letters To A Young Poet:

“Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own; for even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very delicate, is almost unsayable.  But even so, I think that you will not have to remain without a solution if you trust in Things that are like the ones my eyes are now resting upon.  If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Poetry Friday: 1929 (part 3)

Today, and maybe for the next couple of Fridays, I’ll be taking a different tack with the Poetry Friday post.  1929 was the year that Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet were published in English (the original letters were sent circa 1905-1908).  They are powerful, and I think posting an excerpt from a letter or two will get us thinking (and talking) about poetry in a good way: I’m not sure I agree with Rilke all the time, and I wonder if you do.  Today’s excerpt is from the first letter Rilke sent to a young poet friend of his.  It reminded me of plenty of conversations I’ve had with friends about our writing…except, of course, Rilke is a bit wiser and more articulate than any of us ever manage to be.  So, an excerpt from Rilke’s first letter to a young poet:

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me.  You have asked others before this.  You send them to magazines.  You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work.  Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing.  You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.  No one can advise or help you—no one.  There is only one thing you should do.  Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?  Dig into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.  Then come close to Nature.  Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.

Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance.  So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty—describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.  If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.  And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds—wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?  Turn your attention to it.  Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance—

And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not.  Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it.  A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.  That is the only way one can judge it.  So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice about this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create.  Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it.  Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist.  Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside.  For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.”