Poetry Friday: Another new year’s poem (Or, I have got to get out of 1942 and move on with my life)

So, here we are, another Friday passing and I’m still mired in Ellen Glasgow, and out of poems I’m familiar with for 1942.  I need both to find some more good 1942 poems and to finish that novel.  Anyhow, so as not to leave your weekend unpoemed, I thought I’d pull out another poem about the new year—last year I posted two, after all, so why not again here to acknowledge 2012’s passing and 2013’s arrival?  This is a poem by a poet previously unfamiliar to me—Kenneth Patchen, who wrote this verse entitled “At the New Year” in 1939.  I share it with somewhat reduced commentary (in comparison with my usual musings) and a pledge that I’ll spend the time I’m saving trying to read further through my current Pulitzer novel.  Anyway, here it is—Kenneth Patchen’s “At the New Year”:

“In the shape of this night, in the still fall
of snow, Father
In all that is cold and tiny, these little birds
and children
In everything that moves tonight, the trolleys
and the lovers, Father
In the great hush of country, in the ugly noise
of our cities
In this deep throw of stars, in those trenches
where the dead are, Father
In all the wide land waiting, and in the liners
out on the black water
In all that has been said bravely, in all that is
mean anywhere in the world, Father
In all that is good and lovely, in every house
where shame and hatred are
In the name of those who wait, in the sound
of angry voices, Father
Before the bells ring, before this little point in time
has rushed us on
Before this clean moment has gone, before this night
turns to face tomorrow, Father
There is this high singing in the air
Forever this sorrowful human face in eternity’s window
And there are other bells that we would ring, Father
Other bells that we would ring.”

Some brief thoughts to share—I like the rhythm of the first 3/4 of the poem, the long string of phrases that feel like a breath drawing in more and more and more until at last the air comes forcing out in one long statement at the end.  I like the expanse of those in-breaths in part because they feel almost liturgical and sacred as they stack on each other, the prayer offered for everything from “these little birds” to “the deep throw of stars” (love that phrase) to “the sound of angry voices”, as incongruous as some of those negative images are in this context.  I also like how the poem juxtaposes two very different moods and purposes—the whole poem seems to be building to make a request of the “Father” (God, I think we can safely presume from context?) and yet no request ever comes.  Rather than seeking the Father to do something—to hallow these humble places, to dwell in these empty spaces, to be or to act in any way—the poem’s purpose in the end is revelatory, not intercessory.  It is a declaration to the Father—in all of these things of earth, and before anything else comes to interrupt or distract us, we hear the high singing and the sorrow of the human race, and we say that “there are other bells that we would ring”.  What bells are these?  Why do we speak of them?  I have my own theories.  I think the speaker is being bolder than the phrases may suggest—that what is being hinted at is that we don’t want just another new year, but something world-altering, a turning that overturns something about the cities and fields that are familiar to us.  Just how apocalyptic this vision might be, or how radical the poem’s underlying message is, I don’t think I can fully say.  But it gets me thinking, and I hope it gets a few of you thinking also.

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!

First post of 2012: The blog’s new look

Welcome (back?) to Following Pulitzer, the blog that attempts to answer a variety of questions about literature, America, life in the context of these two things, and many other sundry topics.  If you’re a regular, you may notice (unless you’re not particularly affected by visual cues) that the blog looks different.  I’ve been holding off for months now—the blog “theme” I built FP in, back in 2009, was superseded by a hip new update early in 2011, and WordPress has been “nudging” me to make the update ever since.  I haven’t wanted to, being the kind of guy who doesn’t like change even when he is sure it’s a good idea, and I wasn’t sure this was a good idea.  But it’s 2012, and the arrival of the new year is time to take a few leaps personally.  I know, I know: it’s a bit pathetic to suggest that adopting a slightly different blog theme is some kind of important step in my journey of personal growth.  But I take what I can get.

I do like some new features: it’s MUCH easier now to see how to leave a comment (instead of a tiny link, it’s a big button), and I think the blog’s tags are much more visible now.  It seems to me that there’s a lot less wasted space on the margins, and the right sidebar looks a little less cluttered to me now.

I also am not happy with some changes—I feel like the expanded top sidebar (it’s not a “sidebar” if it’s on top, is it….what, is it a “topbar”?  I am almost painfully unhip about these things) is cluttered and I can’t fix that without a major reorganization of the blog’s page structure…although that structure, admittedly, was merely designed to fit the last theme’s oddities, and not based on some cool and careful logic on my part.  The text of the blog’s subtitle in the header is in a wretched font that is far too thin and I can’t alter it in any way other than its color.  Blech.  And at first, I was getting weird giant tildes in the middle of posts that obscured the text—word to the wise: if this is happening to you, update your browser to solve the problem.  If you’d rather not update your browser, and find the tildes irritating and troublesome, I feel your pain, but I’m afraid I can’t do anything about it.  It’s one of the vagaries of hypertext markup language with which a mortal cannot hope to contend.

If other weirdness arises from this (or if no weirdness arises and you think the new look is wicked—that’s “wicked!” in a cool way, and not malevolent as though originating from an ancient evil), let me know.  I will say, though, the old theme is gone.  I took a leap knowing there was no way back up.  So it’s this or one of WordPress’s even worse free themes.  I’m hoping this will do well enough to allow you and me to continue enjoying this little dialogue we have (it’s a bit one-sided, I know, but such are blogs).  Cheers to you all, and welcome to the new year.

New Year’s Eve: Another poem, because I can’t not share it

Yesterday, I swam a bit in my melancholy, offering up a poem by Linda Pastan on the juxtaposition of beginnings and endings: specifically, death and the New Year.  This was a good thing for me to do for me—heaven only knows if it worked for anyone else (judging by the comments, it did for my good friend Paul Hamann: thanks, Paul!).  But I did leave it feeling that neither Linda nor I had really gotten it right, despite our best efforts.  And then today I was directed by happy chance to a poem by former Poet Laureate (and 2-time Pulitzer winner) Richard Wilbur entitled “Year’s End”, and the work gives in almost excruciatingly gorgeous fashion the words both Pastan and I did not quite find yesterday.  Without further ado, for this year’s end (and the next year’s beginning), “Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur:

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

For me, Wilbur captures with seemingly effortless beauty the bittersweetness of these thresholds in a way I marvel at. (And in end-rhyme that is perfectly understated.  There’s a reason he’s a Laureate and we’re not, my friends.)  Poetry should do this to us—open up words for the feelings we cannot frame, and push us to see something marvelous in our own lives.  The hushed, almost inaudible phrases with which he describes the glow in our houses—the “gathered light”, the “shapen atmosphere”—awake in me a realization of the comfort of being in a home, wherever that is.  Wilbur is dancing down paths Robert Frost knew well, which is part of what I love about the poem, since it’s clearly an homage to Frost’s view of the world but also clearly original and not remotely imitative of Frost’s structures (the ones I know, at least).

The description of the frozen leaves alone, a sight I know very well (I imagine most of us do), brought me up short with wonder at his phrasing.  I mean, come on—“graved on the dark in gestures of descent”?  What Muse did this guy bewitch to win these words, and where can I get her number?  And the thing about the poem that inspires perhaps the most elation, for me, is the way he ties these homely visions—the snow-filled streets, the living-room lamps, the leaves dancing in ice—to the grand motions of time.  To the ashen figures of Pompeii, the creatures of lost worlds adrift in unmelting snows, the fossils locked for epochs beneath the soil.  We become part of something greater as Wilbur links image to image with a steady hand and a bright eye.  He knows where he is going.

I’m still wrestling with the last stanza, but in this case I think it’s because it’s saying exactly what I want to say for myself, and I’m still figuring out how to do that.  Portions of it (“more time, more time”) feel like last words, and others (“the sudden ends of time must give us pause”) like a benediction.  Mostly I’m struck with the tension he is winding between the first and last stanzas—the way the new year’s bells do battle with the “settlement of snow”.  He’s doing good work, whatever it is he’s doing.  I’ll be pondering this one a while.

Poetry Friday: The New Year

Friends, we come again to a year’s end, and a beginning.  I’ve been pondering holidays this month and felt this would be a good Friday to devote to something poetic in that vein.  In part, this is a way of apologizing for not having offered reflections on Christmas, as was promised.  I could tell you that the week before Christmas was busy (it was) or that my feelings about the holiday had rapidly become too complicated and potentially easy-to-miscommunicate for me to blog about them (they had), but I think more than that I have been detached this holiday season from holidays.  There is something strange about being so far from everyone I’ve known (with a few delightful exceptions—you know who you are), and I hadn’t realized how much that would affect my experience of December.  The time has been out of joint for me (though not quite in the same way it was for Hamlet).  New Year’s Eve looms close and I find myself as unprepared for it on an emotional level as I was for Christmas.  This driftwood feeling is probably good for me, but I can’t call it enjoyable.  I’m the kind of fellow who likes an anchor, or if not an anchor, at least a sail by which to steer.  I don’t know where the current is going.

All of that is a rather cryptic and probably confusing way to say that I haven’t known what to say.  I went looking to see what poets have said about new years in the past, and found most of them saying all the things I can’t find right now.  This poet, though, got a hold of something somber that got my attention, at least.  I don’t think she and I are in the same place.  But I felt a connection with someone who (presumably) won’t be wearing a party hat tomorrow because that’s not what the new year will mean for her.  Her name is Linda Pastan, and this is a poem called “The Cossacks” that bears the inscription “For F.

For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming.
Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm
is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate
New Year’s Eve by counting
my annual dead.

My mother, when she was dying,
spoke to her visitors of books
and travel, displaying serenity
as a form of manners, though
I could tell the difference.

But when I watched you planning
for a life you knew
you’d never have, I couldn’t explain
your genuine smile in the face
of disaster. Was it denial

laced with acceptance? Or was it
generations of being English—
Brontë’s Lucy in Villette
living as if no fire raged
beneath her dun-colored dress.

I want to live the way you did,
preparing for next year’s famine with wine
and music as if it were a ten-course banquet.
But listen: those are hoofbeats
on the frosty autumn air.

I warned you it was grim.  But I think sometimes we need to be honest—to acknowledge that beginnings are not always exciting because sometimes we are sorry to leave behind whatever is ended.  To acknowledge that sometimes we are people who dwell on sorrows because that’s the kind of people we are: we haven’t read a self-help book that tells us this is a good idea, we haven’t weighed our options and decided this is the most productive way to go, we are not proactive.  We simply enter the doorway in front of us.

Pastan here is wrestling with this because the one she misses, this new year’s night, is someone who (ironically) didn’t wrestle with this.  Pastan, at the brink of something new and full of possibility is struck by her apprehension and fear.  And that this absent friend of hers managed to walk to the edge of death—of the denial of possibility, the end of hope—with optimism and cheer is beyond her ability to take in.

She can’t get free of it.  In the end, for her, no music can drown out the sound of the approaching horsemen and what they bring with them.  I wonder how much of this is a choice.  We believe in free will as humans (and as Americans, in particular, I think)—we like to commit ourselves to the idea that we are in utter control of ourselves, at least.  That all our actions, our thoughts, our emotions are at our disposal at any given moment.  Pastan faces the fact that we do not have that kind of freedom.  Is this brave?  Is it wallowing in depression?  Maybe more importantly, can it possibly be both at once?

I don’t know.  I have a lot to be glad about, and yet I can’t shake the shadow this evening—the feeling of “growing gloom” that Thomas Hardy wrote about in his own New Year’s poem for 1900, “The Darkling Thrush”, where he goes for a walk in despair and is surprised to find that a little bird can sing so brightly, as though it has access to a hope he is denied.  No catalogue of my many blessings is an adequate response.

These feelings pass.  Sometimes in cliché fashion, when we see the sunrise or hear a baby laugh or smell a flower, but not usually.  Life is more complicated than that.  Complicated enough that I both understand Pastan tonight, feeling (like her) that a new year is a chance to reflect on the dangers of the possible, and I do not, because I am not overwhelmingly convinced that a Cossack is at my door.  When I reflect on the dangers of the possible, I am more likely to realize how far off the Cossacks really are.  The danger gradually dissipates.  Calm returns.  I’ll do that, tonight, and perhaps you will too—or perhaps you’ve been free of this kind of melancholy lately.  Either way, may 2012 exceed your expectations, and bring you (among other things) plenty of excellent poetry and prose.

A beginning of a year

I use the indefinite article with care. There are many kinds of years, after all, and this January 1st business is not the only beginning, nor is 2011 the only year, in my life. It may not even be the most important. For 18 years, now, my “work” years have been school cycles—either college or high school—years that begin in late August or somewhere in September with the anticipation of new classes, new challenges, new readings, along with the comfort of the very (and increasingly) familiar. January, in these contexts, begins a new phase or maybe merely returns to a life frozen in place. I now expect that this cycle (or one like it) may continue for most of my lifetime, though the future is (as always) seen through a glass, darkly. Another kind of year, for me, is a liturgical year that begins in either late November or early December with the first Sunday of Advent—a season of anticipation and patient hope. It is a year that proceeds wholly unaffected by January 1st; a year whose rhythms antedate the Gregorian calendar; a year divided to call attention to the various experiences of and encounters with a reality that is in some ways separate from the comings and goings of my everyday life, and in other ways is remarkably immanent in who I am and what I do. Yet another kind of year is the year that begins for each of us on a different day, and for me on the twenty-eighth of September—the year that marks another revolution of the Earth since conscious arrival as an independent human being, the years that (subjectively) pass more quickly now than before, the years that are starting to bring me closer to those who have preceded me and make me feel the increasing distance from those newly come to these strange shores. January 1st is yet another day to see that turning, but it is not an unusually good day to see my life in that perspective.

I say the above things for a few reasons. In part it is because these are the kinds of things I think about, and a blog is a place to write such things. And in part it is me starting to acknowledge that this blog is going to change if it is going to live. Not entirely—I still have my ridiculous Pulitzer aims, and I intend to see them through (even if, as now seems likely, the work may last much of this decade). But I’ve tried too hard to divorce the blog from my life—to operate under the assumption that I either talk about Pulitzer novels, or nothing at all—and that way of thinking is too barren. I read a lot of books (many of which have not won any awards), I think a lot of things about them, and my larger ideas about things like art and beauty and meaning have to do with even more sides of my personality than are encompassed by the books I read.

So, as I return from a quarter where I didn’t blog at all, I’m saying that I should have been blogging. I’ve been reading some interesting novels, and thinking about reading and readers in interesting ways, and I wish I had been sharing that here. I think at the very least it would have been more interesting/relevant/accessible to most of you than me posting my latest thoughts about Laughing Boy (though I will be posting more of those soon!), and I think it would make for interesting comparisons. This quarter, I’m taking a seminar on printed texts (part of the Textual Studies graduate curriculum at the U.W.) and I think it will give rise to some thoughts. I’m intending to share more of those. Sometimes it will be obvious how it connects to the Pulitzer Prize, but I’m going to take that obligation more broadly from now on.

I’ll still be posting the same kinds of comments on those Pulitzer winners, though, with the same consistently idiosyncratic reviews. Poetry Fridays, in one form or another, ought to remain with us. But other things may change. I will say (because I think it needs saying) that the blog will not become a mere outcropping of my whole life. Many things that interest me will not be here (politics, for example), so those of you who don’t share all my opinions about the world needn’t worry. This will more or less still be about me having a fully-awake encounter with literature, and what it says more broadly about who we are as people and where we’ve come from—and it will continue to derive its primary momentum from my interest in seeing what the Pulitzer winners do to me, and how I think they reveal (or conceal) America. I don’t know how frequently I’ll blog, but I know I’ll be doing it much more regularly than I have in months, and I hope a few of you will still be along for the ride: I’ll try to keep it interesting!