Poetry Friday: Superstition

It’s Friday the 13th, and in the triskaidekaphobic cultures in the Western world, it’s time for at least some of us to freak out a little based on some notion we have, I guess, that we may be on the brink of betrayal (a la Judas Iscariot) or that we are about to be inadvertently stabbed to death by a spear made of mistletoe (seriously, folks: Loki‘s bizarre murder of Balder is one reason your friends are making nervous comments on social media today).  And here at FP, what can we do but slavishly follow these cultural imperatives in an attempt to capture a wider audience for poetry?

The only problem here is that I’m really not familiar with too many poems even about the basic concept of “superstition”, let alone anything set inside the superstitious world of people who are afraid of Friday the 13th.  I nosed around a little today, and ended up at least finding a poem that talks about superstition a little—whether that’s enough to be thematically appropriate today, I leave to you to judge.  At least it’s a worthwhile poem—another sonnet spun from the mind of America’s best sonneteer (that should be a word, even though spell-check says it isn’t), and maybe this blog’s most frequent featured poet.  Here’s hoping it’s a nice addition to your Friday the 13th: from her 1921 publication Second April, this is the ninth in a series of untitled sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

“Let you not say of me when I am old, 
In pretty worship of my withered hands 
Forgetting who I am, and how the sands 
Of such a life as mine run red and gold 
Even to the ultimate sifting dust, ‘Behold, 
Here walketh passionless age!’—for there expands 
A curious superstition in these lands, 
And by its leave some weightless tales are told.

In me no lenten wicks watch out the night; 
I am the booth where Folly holds her fair;
Impious no less in ruin than in strength, 
When I lie crumbled to the earth at length, 
Let you not say, ‘Upon this reverend site 
The righteous groaned and beat their breasts in prayer.'”

Millay has hits and misses, but most of her sonnets (in my experience) are hits, and this is no exception.  It feels loosely based on Shakespeare, and of course how could Millay, so devoted to the sonnet, not be richly familiar with his work—enough so that maybe it would creep in to her verse, intentionally or un-?  Certainly the opening line here feels a lot like “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow“, although of course the two sonnets quickly chart very different courses.  Really Millay is interested in the deepest of our American superstitions, what some have called “the last taboo”—our fear of death, and all the euphemism and sentences trailing off and social conventions that fear gives rise to.  Honestly, for me the octet (the first eight lines) is the weaker half of the piece: I like the tone she’s striking, and of course Millay (as usual) gets a rhythm and sound that’s gorgeous spoken aloud, rhythmic and passionate and harmonious.  But there’s something about the images that struggles to land—she’s clearly irritated with how we try to talk around old age, how we idealize the aged to the point that we refuse to acknowledge how a body withers, that we pretend anger and zeal and lust and all the other passions, both “red” and “gold”, fade away from an elderly person, so much so that the King James Version peeks its head in here with “walketh”.  But fitting these pieces together is more work than it should be.  I can work out that the weightlessness of these tales is her really saying that the words we say about the aged are often so carefully parsed that they become insubstantial, I think, but the ideas don’t interlock as smoothly as the sounds of the words and phrases do.

The sestet (the final six lines) is where she brings it roaring out, I think—tackling the real fear she has about what they’ll say of her once she’s gone.  It’s not the innocent white lies about her aging beauty that really bites at her, not the pretense that she’ll lose the fire inside.  It’s the anxiety she feels that in her wake she’ll leave people muttering pious nonsense about her.  In her, as she tells us, “no lenten wicks watch out the night”—she’s not a lighter of candles at saints’ statues, she is not a reverent or a devout person when it comes to these rituals of faith, and she utterly rejects the notion that even at the end, when she lies “in ruin”, anything like that will be discovered in her.  So she admonishes us not to make any false claims on her behalf, and to keep clear the mourners who will.

Superstition operates on several levels here, since on the one hand I think we’re meant to understand that she sees religion as nothing much more than that, but on the other hand she really is surveying a broader landscape of superstition that surrounds everything we say about the dying and the dead.  Our culture is so in love with vitality and youth that it’s easy to understand how uneasy we feel when confronting our mortality, but as Millay points out, we do seem to act like we can simply hold it at bay forever with our words, and that’s ultimately really paralyzing (and even infantilizing) to us as a society.  If we never say she looks old, will that preserve her?  If we reinvent life stories about the deceased that make them sound more peaceful, more socially acceptable, will that remake them?

I won’t always strive for topicality here, but until I get the Pulitzers back on track, my more usual approach of sticking to poetry from my Pulitzer year will have to be on hold too, so look for thematic poetry in the short term ahead—summer poems, Independence Day poems, poems about fatherhood and watching a baby grow into a child.  I’ll try to mix up who shows up at the table, but keep to folks who are pretty approachable and easy to grab on to in their writing style, if I can.  I hope Edna was a welcome return visitor today, and we’ll see what I can spin up for next weekend: in the meantime, I hope you have a great Friday, and that the week ahead holds some good reading and time to indulge in it.

Poetry Friday: The Bard and Children

It’s been a quiet month here at FP—I really ought to blog farther with Upton Sinclair, comment on the new Pulitzer winner (yet another book in the way of finishing my quest!), and of course share poetry more regularly.  Among my many excuses (some of them valid) is the fact that we’ve learned we’re expecting a child, and the prospect of parenthood has consumed some time that would otherwise have been devoted to the blog.  Exciting and busy times, as you can imagine!  But it was William Shakespeare’s birthday this last week (we presume) and I can’t let it go by without a poetic nod to the Bard of Stratford—fittingly, of course, I’ll post his 2nd sonnet, with a few comments to follow, given that it follows along the lines of my news.  All my best to everybody out there in the blogosphere: here’s Bill—

“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tottered weed of small worth held.
Then, being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer, ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.”

W. S. has a lot of famous lines, of course, and I couldn’t rank them if I tried, but this makes one of the volumes of his greatest hits, I think—it starts so nicely with a clear image that is both concrete (the weight of those winters, the furrows in the forehead) and yet abstract (winters don’t “besiege” anything, after all, and “beauty’s field” is a lovely turn of phrase but obvious metaphor: this isn’t about a farmer).  Yet Shakespeare’s sonneteering—a word I’ve just invented—is, truth be told, not at the very top of his game in this one.  It’s so straight-forward: unlike many of the best sonnets, #2 doesn’t shock us at the “turn” where the octet gives way to the sestet, nor does it say anything to us we might be shocked by.  “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” is a bold move, a poet who wants to startle us a little and see something new.  This “forty winters” fellow is a bit simpler, a bit less artful.

But that’s also the poem’s strength, I think.  It acknowledges age—not just in the fair youth being addressed, of course, but also implicitly in the speaker, who we can imagine is speaking from experience when he ponders deep-sunken eyes and tottered weeds.  It sets aside self-regard.  It’s one of the purest possible poetic ideas, I think—the reality that nothing physical about us lasts, and that we have therefore to invest ourselves in something else in order to be who we are.  Billy tells us that this, in fact, is how to become young again, not by chasing some phantom of a youth that will not return (ah, Hollywood, how you need this verse), but by passing it on.

There’s a quiet bigotry here, of course, in the poem’s broad generalizations—it suggests pretty strongly that child-bearing and rearing are more or less the only paths to this kind of immortality, and it implies, I think, the idea that someone who chooses not to procreate is someone clinging to their “proud livery”.  I think Will, if we could corner him tonight in some dim corner at the back of a Southwark pub, would acknowledge that there are plenty of other ways to invest in the future and accept our own mortality.  So, while there’s a lovely literal message in this poem for a parent (or prospective parent) to take to heart, I feel like there’s a broader truth here for anyone to ponder.  We need an answer, when time begins to lay us low—what did we make of all our beauty, and where now is the treasure of our salad days?  It cannot be, and must not be, simply ourselves.  To be human is to be more than that.  It gives me something to think about today, in part as I begin to confront the reality of becoming a parent, and in part because I recognize that simply to bring a child into the world is not enough to “sum my count and make my old excuse”.  Whatever I owe that child, and the future, that work is not ending—it is only begun.

Poetry Friday: 1928 (part 2)

I know, I know, this is a blog about American literature, and so I ought to focus on American poets.  But some of these guys are just too good.  1928, among other things, was the year W. B. Yeats published The Tower, a little book that contains many poems of real note—“Leda and the Swan”, “A Prayer for my Son”, “Meditations in a Time of Civil War”—but perhaps none more moving (for me) than the following piece.  As we head for Palm Sunday, the Triduum, and beyond it, Easter, I think it’s a good night to envision a journey to a holy city—W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Poetry Friday: 1921 (part 2)

Being still in The Age of Innocence, Poetry Friday will remain in 1921.  I’m sorry it’s so late on Friday–long-term subbing is definitely draining reading and blogging time, but I’m staying in this game, I promise you!  The following poem is by William Carlos Williams, from his collection, Sour Grapes.  I hope you have some reactions to it—have an excellent Labor Day weekend regardless (and I hope to post again at least once before it’s over!).

“To Waken an Old Lady”

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind—
But what?
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested,
the snow
is covered with broken
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.