Poetry Friday: Rupert Brooke

W. B. Yeats called Rupert "the handsomest young man in England"...and it's not hard to see why.

W. B. Yeats called Rupert “the handsomest young man in England”…and it’s not hard to see why.

Returning, as I am semi-regularly, to poetry in connection with the 100th anniversary of World War I—an anniversary that does not loom large enough in our popular culture right now (at least, I think we could learn a lot from reflecting on it, and we seem not to be)—coming to Rupert Brooke was more or less a necessity.  The first WWI poet I ever featured on the blog (a poem posted for Veterans Day 2009), Brooke is the archetype of the World War I poet—a bright young thing, sent off to war with glorious notions about valor and duty, writing a few beautiful poems that express some deep truths about his experience and then dying a tragic young death in some gas-filled trench.  Except that almost none of that is true of Rupert Brooke, who lives in the imagination (when he is remembered) a life he didn’t exactly live in real life.  Today I want to reflect on a lovely sonnet by Brooke but also to consider how myth and truth come together to form images that our society will accept.

First, then, a quick reality check about Brooke—he’s usually talked about as though he was one of the many teenagers rushing off to war, a perception made easier by the fact that his poetry (for all its charms) comes across as a bit naive, the sort of thing a man might write before his twentieth birthday.  But the Rupert Brooke who headed off to the Great War was in his mid-twenties, an associate of a very “adult” and artsy crowd in BloomsburyLytton Strachey was a romantic rival of his, at one point, and while at university Brooke once went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf; Brooke was a man of the world by the time the war came, possibly a father of a child born to a Tahitian woman who had known him during his travels in the South Seas.  The glory, valor, and duty part?  Oh yes, we can give him that.  But we can’t fill in the rest of the story—unlike many other famous poets of the war (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, etc.), Brooke does not become disenchanted with those starry-eyed ideals once he encounters the blood and darkness of combat in the trenches.  He will not, in fact, see any meaningful combat at all—no trench will color his writing about the war, and his death (untimely though it was, and tragic) occurs far from the battlefield, as Brooke perishes of a mosquito-borne infection in a hospital ship in the Greek islands.  He will be buried there in haste before his regiment moves on to the assault on Gallipoli: I wonder what the sweet, golden verse of Brooke would have made of that living nightmare.  We will never know.

So again, Brooke wasn’t the ideal “World War One poet” as far as his biography goes.  But the verse he left behind is more than worthy of remembering, and here at the beginning of September, with the trenches (for the most part) not yet dug in the fields of France in 1914, I think it’s time to give him the floor again.  This is one of the five poems in a series of sonnets he entitled “1914” and wrote sometime in the autumn of that year—two of the sonnets, oddly, have the same subtitle, “The Dead”.  This is the latter of them, the fourth sonnet in the cycle of five, and I think perhaps his best work.

“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.”

Brooke composes a sonnet in praise of the war dead that, as I suggested earlier, is free of any of the realities of modern warfare.  But it is undeniably beautiful, and I think there are truths here to grapple with regardless.  Look at those almost effortless opening lines—presenting the dead to us as though carving them in monument.  The dead are strangely alive in Brooke’s hands—marvelous in sorrow, swift to laugh.  He comforts us by weaving an image of life that makes death bashful to show its face.  For who can dwell on the awfulness of death in the face of this joy?  Time itself is a kindness to all who have had the gift of life.  Each human shares in the possession of light and life that beams in on us from the sky and erupts around us from the fertile ground.  Each moment of their living is something to wonder at, for Brooke—that there should be music to hear, sleep to comfort ourselves with, friends to cheer us, somehow all of it is amazing to him, and therefore by extension to us.

He executes the turn then, with the last half of the eighth line, “all this is ended”, and it is so abrupt and unexpected, we think we see where the sestet will go—the sonnet is turning from life to death, we feel instinctively, and brace ourselves for it.  But there is a pause and a rush of air and we find something else.  The commotion of human life is ended, but Brooke seizes on that, not to lament, but to pull backwards and appreciate this immense, vibrant space in which this life took place.  Humans are entirely absent from this second half of the sonnet: instead, the light and laughter have moved on from human contexts and into the waters and winds.  The frost freezes them in appreciation of the magic of the dance, holding immobile, at least for the moment, water in the midst of the wind.  What else he does, as winter approaches, is to leave something else incredible “under the night”, some physical presence that Brooke sees as peaceful and glorious and overflowing with light.

Few soldiers could have written this even several months later; truthfully, Brooke could hardly have written it himself past mid-1915, given both the likelihood that he would have died at Gallipoli and the likelihood that a man who survived Gallipoli would be able to write something this impersonal and idealistic afterwards.  But there’s something I like about it—the sense that the immense splendor of the earth compensates us in ways we can hardly calculate for injustices that we may face along the way, the reality that no human death stops wind or wave and that therefore all life does go on, even when we do not.  This is a commonly anthologized poem and it’s not hard to see why.  To the extent that this obscures the grim reality of war, and makes it seem so noble and significant that it encourages our politicians to be cavalier about conflict, I’ll criticize the poem.  But tonight it’s more important for me to appreciate it—to step back and ask myself where I can draw joy from unexpected places in my life, and how moving out away from human cares can provide real clarity about how to care more effectively.  Whether it calls you to that or not, I hope it engages with you, on some level, and provides insight into our place in a lively and busy world.

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Poetry Friday: Depression

I promise, this isn’t going to be a full blog post about a celebrity death you’ve probably read and seen enough about already this week, no matter whether you were grieving or indifferent to the news.  But Robin Williams filled the news feed on my social media platter, and probably yours too; and in the wake of the news of his suicide came an echoing rush of posts about depression, suicide prevention, and people generally reaching their hands out into the void to reassure whoever was listening that they were not alone, that someone cares and is ready to help them.  It certainly put those topics on my mind—my own experiences with depression and those of people I love, and what I’ve heard and read from people who went to the brink of suicide, even attempted it, and what that experience felt like.  So today, even though I’ve put aside WWI for now, it won’t really be a sunshine-and-puppies poem.  But it will, I assure you, be a good poem.

You see, I had a long L ride today to the doctor’s office—the cold that knocked me out last Friday (hence no PF post a week ago: my apologies) hung around this week until I had to see if I had strep or something—and I took along for the ride a book I haven’t read in many years.  It’s a title I picked off the remainder table in the basement of Village Books in Fairhaven, probably in about 2002, and it was my introduction to one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner.  Buechner is one of the nation’s greatest memoirists and essayists, in addition to a very fine novelist, but I haven’t had much call to mention him here.  He wrote (as far as I know) no poetry, and his greatest novel, Godric, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize but failed to win (losing to A Confederacy of Dunces, which, when I get there, had better be amazing, because Godric is one of the most moving and wise books I’ve ever read), so I have no real way to mention him here, except by horning him in to this post right now, which I hope you will forgive. In any case, I picked up Buechner’s Speak What We Feel; Not What We Ought To Say, in which he explores, sensitively and with the care of a man who loves words with a passion only exceeded by how much he loves those who write the words, four authors who wrote their way through some of the darkest feelings in their lives.  And the four authors he chooses are incomparably talented: G. K. Chesterton (featured on Poetry Friday only a couple of weeks ago), Mark Twain (who needs no introduction), William Shakespeare (ditto), and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hopkins is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps my favorite poet ever, but I haven’t brought him in here very often—only twice, in fact, in five years of Poetry Fridays (can you believe it’s been five years?).  In part that’s because he’s not American and we are America-obsessed here at FP, perhaps too much so.  And in part that’s because so much of his work deals with faith and the divine, and while that speaks to me I know it doesn’t to many of you, and I haven’t wanted to push that between us too much since the purpose of these posts is really just to make you love poetry and think about it more often.  But I’m going to risk it today, because I think the despair Hopkins wrestled with near the end of his life is universal enough to reach us all, and even when he is expressing himself in terms of his Catholic faith I think he says things that can mean something to anyone, and move them, if they listen.  So today we take on one of the “terrible sonnets”, named not because they are poorly written, but because they were birthed amid terror, and there is something terrible and awe-inspiring about how raw and real Hopkins is as he opens up his soul to our eyes.  None of them were ever given titles, and I think in some ways it’s because Hopkins was reluctant to give any name to poems, however brief, that spoke such real and fearful truths.  This is, then, just a sonnet written in the mid-1880s by a middle-aged Catholic priest who, unknown to him, is only a few years away from dying of typhoid fever:

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

Hopkins has his old demon by the throat, here—too close to be at ease but also strangely in command of himself.  Despair, he says, I’m not going to give in to you, not swallow you down like spoiled meat, dead flesh that will rot inside me.  I love the repetition of “not” in that first line, three times as though he’s having to shout back an advancing beast, and then even a fourth time to begin the next line as he holds depression at bay.  He pushes back against the suicidal impulse to “untwist…these last strands of man”, even referencing a Shakespearean figure by saying he’ll not “cry I can no more” which was the last line of Mark Antony before he commits suicide in Antony and Cleopatra.  Hopkins can, he tells despair, but he can do what?

Something, he says, knowing that it’s a near thing here, depression will have him if he can’t stay on his feet, stay agile and avoid the shadows; something, he says, like hope, or wish that dawn would break, or even (here comes that NOT like a swordpoint again) not choose not to be, as though he can turn the “no, not, never” voice of depression in his head, the voice that tells him to give up and give in, somehow against itself, that negativity suddenly negative about the notion of suicide.  He is grasping at straws, we know, but we are in his corner, aren’t we, cheering him on because we can see what he sees—that he has the fight in him and despair is starting to show its weak points, the soft hollow in its underbelly where, like Smaug the Magnificent, a keen-eyed blow might bring the monster down.

And then Hopkins wheels, shouting to the heavens now at “thou terrible” because it is God, really, who angers him, God who seems to have bet the house on Despair just when Hopkins thought he stood a chance.  Why, he implores to Heaven, would a God who made the Earth his footstool hold a man down when he’s at his lowest, why would the famed “Lion of Judah” slash out with a fierce paw, why do his bones creak and crack as though they are being prepared for a butcher to tear them open and why does the cold wind turn and toss him, fling him from his feet when he would be most ready to run away?  Hopkins, a devout man who had profoundly disappointed his family with his conversion to the Catholic Church and his choice of the priesthood, a poet who once burned all the verse he had (up to that point) written because he worried his pride in writing took too much of his attention from God, is saying some of the most awful and true things he can think of about someone he once (in an earlier poem) called his “first, last, friend”.  He has been in the den of a predator, deep in the darkness, for who knows how long, and he knows the pad of depression’s clawed feet and the stink of its breath, fresh from some other kill.  How, he asks, can he have been so abandoned?

And then the poem turns, even as we wonder how it possibly can, as we ask ourselves what words could come out of that tempest to give Hopkins a fair answer.  He looks at his life and sees that the winds have blown clear from him the things that do not matter and never did (this “chaff”), leaving him in possession of the only things he would have wanted to keep.  Something turned for him, we realize—out of all that crying into the wind, all those accusations levied against the monstrous figure of a silent and uncaring God, his hand found another hand in the darkness.  It was a kingly hand, to be sure—a hand to be kissed, holding a scepter to be kissed as well—but it moved something in him.  His heart began to take strength like an animal drinking from a calm pool, and from some unknown storehouse he came away bearing joy with him like a thief, because it can feel that way to find joy after the despair lifts, as though all the happinesses in your life couldn’t possibly have been earned, couldn’t be yours by right, and yet they are there and real and cheerful.

But this is no easy poem, no Precious Moments depiction of depression and Hopkins’ anger at God.  Because even as the cheer lifts from his throat, he asks himself who he is cheering for.  Is it this strangely doubled divine figure, the heroic hand that both saved him and flung him into the storm?  Or is it Hopkins himself, the man who in anger addressed the terrors he knew, despair and divinity both, and called them to account?  He wonders if somehow it can be both of them (or if not, which one it could possibly be).  He looks back now—and it is back, although we may not have understood it until this very moment—into a year of “now done darkness”, a fight he somehow survived, perhaps even won, and recognizes that in grappling with despair he wrestled also with God, as though he were some Old Testament patriarch.  And it shocks him (“my God!”) even as he affirms that it simply was the case (“my God.”)  And there the poet ends.

I think it’s one of the more convincing portrayals of depression I’ve read—it rings true for me, anyway.  Despair doesn’t lend itself to neat and tidy outcomes, to the “happily ever after” we seek in fairy tales or to the guns-blazing take-out-the-big-bad-guy finish of a big action film.  Coming out on the other side is always a struggle, and it leaves its mark—in the case of Hopkins, leaves him still fencing with Despair after the year of darkness ends, leaves him angry with God (while acknowledging God’s critical role in his escape), leaves him uncertain even how he feels about all that’s transpired and whether he should be thrilled by this tough, loud, litigious voice he hears himself flinging back at Heaven.  It’s also, I should note, a very convincing portrayal of what faith feels like to those of us inside it—not the cheesy, saccharine anecdotes of some twinkly-eyed minister who claims faith is all about happiness and the easy life (I’m sorry, Joel Osteen, but if you know anything about faith, it sure doesn’t come out anytime you’re on television), but the real battle of contending with an often cruel universe and a God who is certainly not present at all times and in all ways exactly as we would expect God to be.  Hopkins’ ambivalence—both about God’s role in his depression and his reclaiming his joy, and more generally about whether or not he sees himself or God as the hero of the piece—is what people who work at faith really experience.  He joins a long list of criers into the darkness and the storm, from Job of Uz to Elijah to a Nazarene carpenter and itinerant preacher who cried famously (and desperately) into the darkness from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I know this won’t all work for all of you.  Some of you—and I’m thankful for this—don’t know what it’s like to stare down Depression….not “depression” with a little d, which hits anybody who feels a bit down now and then, but Depression the serious, long-term, often crippling psychological condition.  And others of you don’t know what to make of my occasional words about faith, either because you use that word to mean something very different, or you really don’t use it for much at all because it doesn’t mean much to you.  I appreciate your reading this far anyway, and listening to Hopkins (and me) ramble on a little about these things that have made us who we became.  And for those of you who know one or both of these topics up close and personal, I hope something resonates here, whether it’s a sense of kinship with an experience you recognize, or else perhaps a sudden insight into a side of the experience that you hadn’t considered before.  What means most to me about the terrible sonnets, and this one in particular, is that, bleak as they are (another is, I think, much worse than this one, as it’s written before the despair had yet lifted), they helped me see a path out, and understand how to walk it.  I discovered Hopkins before Depression found me, and reading him was one of my ways through my year-plus of “now done darkness”.  He and I had different experiences in many ways, of course, and expressed it differently, but it was good to have him as a fellow on the journey.  I hope Robin Williams had someone like Hopkins for his 63 years, as I expect Depression was an old foe of his and not a recent discovery—I hope you, too, if you face the same enemy, have some good friends at your side.  And if you feel you don’t, I hope you know to reach out for hands beside you in the dark, or to call into that wind that seems to blow only in opposition to you: whether it’s me or someone else, I know there’s someone who could take your hand, or call back through the storm, and though that doesn’t complete your journey out it’s the only way I know of to get started.

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: 1943, part 2

One of the nice things about inching my forward through 20th Century poetry is that I get to keep revisiting old favorites, poets who gain maturity each time I find them (this aids some, and works against others).  Here in 1943, I get to jump into a slim little volume called New Poems, a brief collection of what Dylan Thomas, the Welsh genius, had been working on in the early 1940s.  This is Dylan’s 4th appearance here on a Poetry Friday, and so it’s time to delve just a little deeper, I think, than the man’s most famous poems.  I’ll admit at the outset that what makes him a genius also makes him sometimes challenging to read, but I’ve selected a poem that I, at least, feel I can wrestle with somewhat successfully, and I hope you find a lot to like about it.  This is a poem entitled “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged One Hundred”:

“When the morning was waking over the war
He put on his clothes and stepped out and he died,
The locks yawned loose and a blast blew them wide,
He dropped where he loved on the burst pavement stone
And the funeral grains of the slaughtered floor.
Tell his street on its back he stopped a sun
And the craters of his eyes grew springshoots and fire
When all the keys shot from the locks, and rang.

Dig no more for the chains of his grey haired heart.
The heavenly ambulance drawn by a wound
Assembling waits for the spade’s ring on the cage.
O keep his bones away from that common cart,
The morning is flying on the wings of his age
And a hundred storks perch on the sun’s right hand.”

Dylan brings the realities of war in a besieged Britain to the surface here, in a poem that’s as bluntly and plainly titled as his perhaps-more-famous “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” which I’ve reflected on before.  Unlike a lot of his work, then, we get to begin with our bearings well in hand—we know the situation, and we have no need to ask who the “he” is who appears almost immediately.  This is where I think Dylan’s power is most effective—when he restrains his wild menagerie of images just enough to turn these lines out that are direct enough to land a blow.  The morning comes to the city, seemingly an indication of hope and survival, and then out of nowhere this aged man “put on his clothes and stepped out and he died”.  And then the rest of the poem is Dylan urging the poem on at the highest speed he can risk, letting the horses run a little wild in places (and unloading phrases that are almost impossible to make rational sense of) and then raining them in enough to keep us aware of the situation and what he means to say.

There are images that almost seem to possess Dylan Thomas at times—they surface again and again in poems written one after the other, as though he cannot quite capture the image in his head, or else the image is taking over his art.  The use of keys and locks is one of those images in New Poems, and so I wonder what the presence of that image means here: I get the impression, in this context, of our defenselessness against this kind of raw violence.  No locked front door could protect him; indeed, the locks themselves, these sturdy metal structures that are symbolic of security, fly apart in the urgent power of the blast.  The image swarms up to and surrounds that sad image of the old man dying “where he loved on the burst pavement stone”, the whole familiar scene of his home and his block turning into an altar, or a tomb.  And there, packed in among these images, is another of Dylan’s favorite images—the association of death and the dead with “grains” (something he does also in the poem about the child killed by fire in London), these seeds that lie in wait for some kind of rebirth.  And then there’s something lovely about the way Dylan weaves these images together in the next few lines, as that familiar old pavement, broken under the blast, becomes personified—we should tell the street, he says, of the old man’s glorious end.  Because it does seem suddenly glorious, as that aging body “stopped a sun”, a power that seems almost divine, and out of that shattered form the shoots of spring, the grains that will grow, come bursting along with that fire that consumes.

And then he executes the turn (yes, once again, we are inside a sonnet with another old master), the shift in tone from the octet that established our scene to the sestet that will change the poem somehow (teach us? surprise us?).  And what are we told?  Do not seek the old man out—let him go, it seems to say, because the moment his blood struck the ground, it called out to Heaven.  There is an assembly gathered now invisible, waiting for the ring of the spade and the fall of earth that will release him from these chains.  And what is “that common cart” we are to protect him from?  I’m not quite sure—there are associations there for me with the carts of the dead from plague-infected villages, or the dismal poverty of medieval serfs or squalid Victorian street merchants.  I can’t quite tell why Dylan wants him protected from whatever this is.  It seems to me though that, on some level, if we can protect the old man here at the last, that will allow this startling beauty to emerge at the end of the poem.  The morning is soaring now on “the wings of his age”—in dying, he has given something back to the world that animates it, surges the dawn’s light onwards.  Who are those hundred storks, then?  Emblematic of the children entering the world to renew it?  Or simply the years of his life, flown now to some more wondrous realm?  Whatever it is, it strikes me as optimistic and confident—a poem about death that is determined to end in hope.

I’ll admit, as much as I find a lot of beauty in the poem, I think it’s ultimately a little ambiguous, or at least I’m not totally sure I know how we’re supposed to take it.  The old man’s rebirth may be a more personal assurance—Dylan Thomas’s obsession with the ideas of resurrection and reincarnation (which reappear in other poems of his) taking this one death and calming us with the certainty that the 100 years of life ended in that bomb’s blast are not all there is for the man (and, by extension, for us).  But I see at least some indications that this may be a larger statement about societal survival, something important to all of Great Britain at the time: the old man passes and the block is destroyed, but the street survives and it is time for us to turn our thoughts to the living and to the future (again, possibly as symbolized by the storks?).  Regardless, it’s a poem that reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s power as a writer, and as I weave these images in with images I see elsewhere in his poetry, I think I get closer to an understanding of what all his art may have been driving at.  I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him here on the blog.

Poetry Friday: Christmas 2012 Edition

The talk in the air has been more apocalyptic than festive today—it still amuses me that people who could not find the Mayan civilization on a map or name one true fact about the Mayans (up to and including how to spell “Mayan”) are pretty sure that the Mayan calendar is of serious relevance to their lives—but it’s the last Friday before Christmas, a holiday I celebrate, at least, and one I always like to acknowledge with a poem.  There’s a lot of Christmas poetry out there, much of it soppingly sentimental, and while that has its time and place I suppose, I like to choose something more interesting or challenging.  With that in mind, I offer today a poem from 1925 (in Pulitzer terms, that’s reaching all the way back to So Big by Edna Ferber, for those of you who’ve been around the blog that long) that I read earlier this month and felt it gave me plenty to chew on.  It’s a short verse by the great Edwin Arlington Robinson, probably more famous for his depictions of the ennui and angst of modern life in such poems as “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy“, both of which I taught every year like clockwork, and both of which I really love.  This little poem, though, is new to me: this is “Karma”—

“Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God’s images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,
Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.

Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.
Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fullness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.”

Robinson denies us, as is his custom, much comfort in the coziness of human relations, but what reaches me about this poem is how despite Robinson’s pessimism there is something bright shining deep down between the lines.  Here we have our unnamed protagonist—a man, perhaps much like us, pleased with himself and his life more or less, happy enough in the convivial air of Christmas and looking forward to the holiday.  Somewhere at the back of his mind he mulls over a friend whose business dealings are in some way intertwined with his, but he tries to detach himself from the affair.  I get the sense that he “doth protest too much” as he suggests internally that he can’t really be blamed for the consequences of his friend’s choices.  Robinson frames the line to make it clear to us that he’s more morally responsible than he wants to admit.  The man thinks of this as a flaw in God’s image (that is, humanity)—but is it a flaw in his friend?  In the cruel world that can bring someone down so low?  Or in himself?

Into this situation the image of Santa Claus is imposed, and he’s a little out of his element, isn’t he?  Santa is usually a jolly soul, associated with warm steam rising from a mug of something good, fresh-baked cookies, and the like.  But here all we get is that he’s “slowly freezing”, and yet somehow he gets the attention of our “hero”.  This executes the turn (that’s right folks, another sonnet—I love the various ways we get to see poets build little octets and sestets that fit together this neatly) and with it something rises in the man’s heart.  He envisions the sudden appearance of his friend, a man just brought down by “improvident surprise”, and the possibility of saving him from the wreck.  Is this sincere?  Or only a “fancy”, as Robinson somewhat glibly puts it?  Maybe I have more optimism than Robinson wants to allow, but I see something real at the heart of this sorry scene—like the poem’s central character, how often we wish in retrospect that some action of ours could have been different.  We tell ourselves later, after the event, the critical moment where our choice could have made a difference in someone’s life, that we really wish we could go back and help them.  We imagine the happy accident that crosses our path with theirs again, and in our minds we see ourselves doing the right thing this time—extending that mercy to the outcast, that charity to the friendless, that risked offer to the hand likely to turn us away out of pride or fear.  Like the poem’s figure, we maybe are only kidding ourselves, building an image of a better self in our head that will let us sleep at night.  Maybe.

I only know that even the almost comically weak sacrifice that closes the poem has the power to move me.  Yes, Robinson’s eye is probably more than half-scornful at that dime cast into the red pot—so cheap an offer to the absent friend we have ruined, so failing a gesture at the figure of Jesus implicit behind the “Saint” in the Saint Nicholas costume, the “Salvation” in the Salvation Army bell.  And yet, to quote another literary figure, “so shines a good deed in a weary world”, even the most trivial of good deeds in the face of a world we ourselves make more weary with our faults and our foibles.  There’s something tiny but hopeful in its possibility at the end of this poem, I think, because that man casting a thin dime away from himself is acknowledging something about himself and the world as he does—the notion that there are wounds we must give of ourselves to heal, that on some level we are obligated to each other and that, in Western society at least, we choose this time of year when the nights are longest and the winds are coldest to remember humanity.  Not just the warmth of those people we draw closest to us in love, either, but the shadows at the edges of our vision, the cold bodies who may not last this winter out if we do not help.  So the cheapness of that dime is galling, yes, pitiful in its inadequacy in the face of human need.  But it’s also where we all must start, especially those of us as hardened by the world and as shielded from pain by our cynicism as the figures in all of Robinson’s poetry.  So I offer the poem today as something to start our thinking about gratitude and giving, about how we see ourselves and who we really are, about what modernity has made of us modern folk and about what we must build in each other.  Apart from all the significance Christmas holds for the Christian on a religious level, I think its value and its worth for a society of people unconnected with the church is that its art does turn our heads to thoughts like this each December.  May they work on us, and may we work them out in our own lives, and the lives of others.

Poetry Friday: 1936, part 4

As I have been saying, 1936 is an excellent year for great poetry and great poets.  I’ll turn here to a great poet who is not yet on his game—Wystan Hugh Auden, whose Look, Stranger (a title he hated—he changed it to On This Island in the American edition) is published in 1936.  Much of the work is, in my opinion, Auden struggling to find his voice—some tentative love poetry, none of which yet manages the beauty of his “Funeral Blues” (perhaps most memorably recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral) which will be perfected in 1938, and some imitative stuff on time that seems obviously influenced by Eliot’s better work.  Auden’s keen eye for the humdrum and the here-and-now, which I think hits its stride in the late 1930s (and which I’m sure you’ll therefore see here on a Friday later this year), hasn’t yet fully developed, to my taste.  But I think there’s a spot or two in Look, Stranger where Auden latches on to something worth mulling over, and it’s to one such poem, then untitled but later titled “Who’s Who”, that I’d like to turn your attention:

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

In this sonnet, Auden takes advantage of the form by executing the “turn” at the ninth line beautifully—the octet establishes the “important” figure, only to have the sestet undercut that importance by acknowledging the person who is simultaneously unremarkable and vitally central to both the poem and the “important” man.  This isn’t the kind of poetry that really elevates me out of my chair, whooping at the beauty of it or kicking myself for never having conceived of such a brilliantly obvious idea.  It’s like the compulsory program in figure-skating—the goal is not to surprise the judges, but rather to show them how flawlessly a double axel can be executed by someone in whose DNA the axel has been helixing since birth.  Auden, still a young poet (in his mid-20s, or thereabouts), shapes an almost ideal sonnet, and totally independent of any of its content, I think it’s really beautiful for that reason.  It’s like looking at a painting and realizing how exactly the painter has captured the color of the sky at dusk—the rest of the painting may be emotionally powerful or fairly cliche, but the perfection of that one color might be enough to take you through the day.

To turn, though, to the content of the poem, I’m struck by what Auden does and doesn’t say.  We are given two characters—the first, a man of importance, and the second, a person (whose gender is not specified—important to note since Auden was gay, and increasingly openly so in the 1930s) of no particular importance.  The sonnet’s structure and our fairy tale notions may lead us to a very simple conclusion about the poem: “Ah,” we say, “Auden’s pointing out that the people we think are important usually aren’t.  It’s the simple folk who count.”  But is the poem all that clear on the point?  The public figure has achieved real things—he has survived a violent childhood, struggled to make his impact on the world, done things of note (generally feats involving some kind of courage or adventure), and remained human and reachable despite it all.  The private figure is a person of no real talent: he or she can manage basic household tasks, whistles, and is apparently content in the most simple of circumstances.  When this private individual receives “long marvellous letters” from the famous man, on occasion an answer will be penned, but the letters are little thought of.  None survive the dustbin.  Who are we really being asked to sympathize with?

I wonder.  I wonder in part because Auden by the mid-1930s is becoming a figure of some note—a political poet whose left-wing idealism is drawing a lot of young people to his art.  By the mid-1930s, he’s starting to become disenchanted with all of this.  Is he in this poem?  If so, I think he must be the famous man in the octet, lamenting the distance that separates him from the private fellow who won’t answer many of his letters, who doesn’t understand how much he means to Auden.  But I’m not sure of this interpretation at all—the sonnet is so formal, so carefully structured that I’d be a little surprised if it was a welling-up of some private pain of Auden’s.  Art can mask pain, of course, but I’d like to think I could feel it just a bit more than I do, if it really is there.

But what are we left with, as a response to the poem?  I may be jumping too far, by expecting that I’m asked to take a side—to see one or the other of these figures as in the right and therefore admirable (or at least pitiable).  I wonder, though, if Auden really intends us to sympathize with the private person in the sestet.  The language there, to me, suggests a person so withdrawn from the world that their lot is not really enviable.  And I can’t help but feel that there is something significant in the twin details of only responding to some letters, and keeping none—not just that the love is not reciprocated, but that somehow there’s something emotionally stunted about the quieter half of this star-crossed pair.  To respond to the poem’s eventual title, Who is Who, really, in this poem?  Does even Auden know the answer?  He takes a somewhat obvious jab at the “astonished critics”, but can this really just be a poem about the fact that “some people might not believe it, but famous people don’t always find true love”?  I kind of doubt it.  Anyway, I may be reading this entirely wrong, and I’m hopeful some of you will chip in with your own thoughts or reactions to the piece.