UD’s First of Three Poetry Lectures at the Georgetown Public Library.

A good crowd showed up yesterday for the first lecture in UD‘s three-lecture series at Georgetown Public Library. Friends, former students, people from the community around the library. She was thrilled.

The library is steps away from Dumbarton Oaks, a place with two claims on UD: Her mother, and her mother’s mentor, Wilhelmina Jaschemski, spent a lot of research and conference time there; and UD has all her life been visiting its gardens. So after her talk she and Mr UD and UD‘s sister walked through the gardens.

It was a good day.

****************************************

Poetry, and Being Too Much for Ourselves

When you think of the apparent general appraisal of poetry in this country today, it’s maybe amazing that anyone is in this room.

Some of you may have seen the recent film, The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse. In that film, which reflects on the fraudulent nature of our capital markets, and the propensity of people to blind themselves to what’s going on in those markets – either because they’re fraudsters themselves profiting from the system, or because they’re dupes who think they’re going to profit from it – in that film, a person says the following: “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

No wonder the government had to designate National Poetry Month. Is there a National Fiction Month?

So there’s one definition of poetry or one approach to a definition of poetry, with which we can begin. Americans don’t want to hear the truth; they’re more comfortable in their soft, bogus, self-deceiving world, a world that English majors learn to call “simulacral,” and poetry expresses the truth. Poetry is the hated truth-teller in the land of affluent comfortable swaddled reality-averse people: the Cassandra, the Tiresias who sees the difficult truth of present and future but perhaps precisely for that reason is disbelieved, disrespected, hated. Poetry tells you that the seeming returns of life are too good to be true. You’re in Madoff-world.

But here’s the first paradox I’d like to introduce in this talk about poetry and paradox: Huge numbers of people in this country will tell you they love poetry, respond to poetry.

Or is it poetry, really, that they love? Maybe they love pleasant verse, happy rhymed sentiments. Pretty metrical lies. The sort of thing, I suspect, we’ll be hearing a lot during National Poetry Month. Do we want to call that poetry? Do we intend that sort of thing in our definition of poetry?

Remember what Mario Cuomo once said, in a much-quoted line: “You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.” Well, if you campaign in poetry, this cannot mean that everyone hates it, since you’d like to get elected and you want to talk to the largest number of people in a way that will help make that happen. So here Cuomo indeed must have in mind the idea of poetry as the complete opposite of the sort of stuff the library has kindly copied and collated for you today. He must have in mind easily understood, inspirational (rather than truth-bearing) language, aspirational language. We couldn’t be farther, it seems, from poetry as understood in the first statement, from the film.

Don’t people often mean by poetry elevated, rousing, in some sense “fraudulent” or at least unreal language? And in campaigning one appeals to grand and encouraging sentiments – love of country, love of party, love for one another, yes we can – after which, having used this language to whomp up voters in order to get elected, you turn to the pragmatic, grubby, prosaic, no we can’t reality of governing. Poetry is not the antidote, the truth serum, against our con-man, Ponzi world. It is itself one more Ponzi scheme. We invest our emotions in it and then we stand there like idiots, waiting to get our investment back.

We might want to say at this point that we’ve got very roughly speaking two senses of poetry in play: There’s what you might call serious private “hated” poetry which can be said to be truth-bearing (although just how poetry conveys the truth of existence to us will be at the core of my arguments about the genre poetry in this series); and there’s unserious public poetry which conveys the lies or half lies or unlikelihoods we all like to hear, triggers the sentiments we all like to feel.

I’ll be arguing in this series of talks that though most of us are suckers for the easy, affirmative, flattering, shared emotions of “campaign” poetry, to take on poetry with any seriousness, poetry as a meaningful, complex, and beautiful human utterance, surely means taking on the more “hateful,” truth-bearing writing we’re looking at today. One of my favorite descriptions of poetry has it that Poetry is the tunnel at the end of the light. The poet Maxine Kumin said: “All poems are elegies at their core.” So sure most people hate poetry.


Campaign Poetry

Before we look at these poems, poems about snow and our relationship to the natural world, let me say one more thing about campaign poetry.

A strange thing is happening in the current presidential campaign cycle, on the Republican side. If these candidates are campaigning in poetry, they are channeling Allen Ginsberg. Spontaneous, unscreened, rageful, deeply self-revealing, even obscene – this is hardly the language of poetic campaigning that Cuomo had in mind. Postmodern American culture has generated two presidential primary finalists whose edgy unvarnished bizarre emotional figurative utterances look a lot like avant-garde poetry, with a special emphasis on the surrealists.

Ted Cruz for example has recited – I assume he wrote – a modern 17-syllable haiku, in the rat haiku tradition. There are lots of haikus about rats. Cruz didn’t break it up into short lines adding up to seventeen syllables – I did that. But his utterance does have the right number of syllables and the feel and the characteristics of a haiku.

Here’s a rat haiku – not Cruz’s:

Rat feet on wood floor

Thunder running left to right–

Small things make big noise.

Here’s the Ted Cruz haiku:


Trump may be a rat

But I have no desire to

Copulate with him.

Again, this cannot be what Cuomo had in mind by campaign poetry, yet it does sound something like poetic utterance, in the tradition of Baudelaire and Rimbaud as well as Ginsberg, with their enigma, sexual darkness and unhinged bitterness and aggression.

Indeed, isn’t this all too much? Aren’t many of us unsettled by this campaign because of its scorched earth, barnstorming, desublimation? When Anderson Cooper castigates a presidential frontrunner for talking “like a five-year-old,” he makes explicit the uncontrolled escape of the id from the clutches of the ego at the highest levels of public discourse in our time. Indeed, the other night, Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump “an id with hair.”

Trump reminds us of a truth that the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips expresses in this way:

[E]verybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves… We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts. One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost. Freud gets at this in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It’s as though one is struggling to be as inert as possible — and struggling against one’s inertia.

So there you have another paradox, the sort of paradox poetic language may be supremely suited to express and explore: struggling to be as inert as possible and struggling against one’s inertia.

What does this have to do with out of control presidential candidates?

The Republican front-runners are showing us what it looks like when nothing’s too much, when you let it rip. This makes us embarrassed for them, and anxious about the intensities in the general population that they may be stirring up.

Most of us, after all, tend to be appalled when we act too-muchly. A character in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, an ordinary Chicago lawyer, gets so enraged by his life-frustrations that he routinely shatters glasses in his kitchen and then “[weeps] with anger. And also at himself, that he should have such emotions.” That we should have such emotions! That we should harbor such intensity of feeling!

For most people, the problem with their intense emotional capacities is how effectively they’ve repressed them, as Phillips suggests. Perhaps they have repressed them too much – another too-muchness in response to a too-muchness – or in disastrous ways.

Along the same lines, the poet Kenneth Rexroth says this about poetry and other arts:

People are by and large routinized in their lives. A great many of our responses to experience are necessarily dulled. If to a certain extent they weren’t, we’d all suffer from nervous breakdowns and die of high blood pressure at the age of twenty. The organism has to protect itself. It cannot be completely raw.

What the arts do, and particularly what the most highly organized art of speech does, is to develop and refine this very rawness and make it selective. Poetry increases and guides our awareness to immediate experience and to the generalizations which can be made from immediate experience. It organizes sensibility so that it is not wasted.

Poetry then can be understood as among other things a modulation of our aliveness; poetry helps us be not too alive and not too dead, but just right. This aliveness may take place within the “safe” aestheticized concision of the short intense lyric poem; but precisely because it is “housed” in this way, controlled and “organized,” as Rexroth says, we feel we can give expression to that aliveness. And perhaps that aesthetically induced and controlled aliveness can be an opening onto more actual real-world aliveness.

I find this an intriguing idea, especially from the point of view of the poet him or her self. We’ve so far been talking about why one might read poetry (not forgetting that there are plenty of other reasons – love of beautiful language, etc. – why one might read poetry); but why does one write poetry? What does it mean to write poetry? Here’s what Ted Hughes said about this:

Almost all art is an attempt by someone unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi… in other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session. [inert and not inert] [Poetry is] nothing more than a facility… for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction… [T]he physical body, so to speak, of poetry is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.

For the poet, Hughes suggests, the written poem is what you do with your unacceptably intense emotions, your deep and persistent wounds (Delmore Schwartz refers in one of his poems to “the wound of consciousness”). The successful poem allows for the dulling or suspension of pain, to be sure; but its capacity to clarify also becomes “a healing session” which helps you avoid the destructive deadness that Phillips describes when he talks about our all in some sense running the risk of becoming “alcoholics” as we look for ways to dull ourselves, to be inert, to anesthetize.

When one speaks of the experience of catharsis in art (an observation with roots in Aristotle’s Poetics), one typically has in mind an experience of intellectual as well as emotional clarity. Watching a tragedy onstage brings you to such a peak of pity and terror as to illuminate in a cathartic moment the truth of human existence, and this experience ultimately helps reconcile you to the human condition.

For in yet another paradox, we are clearly both truth-evading and truth-hungry beings, and serious poems have a capacity to bring us to the truth in one of the few ways we can stand to be brought there. “We have art,” Nietzsche wrote, “in order not to perish of the truth.” Art gives us truth aestheticized, fictionalized – not in your face, but embroidered, mythicized, so that – yet another paradox – even as we willingly enter into a safely “other” world of truth, we are in fact consorting with our truths through that fiction. This I think is the healing session Hughes has in mind – a kind of constant reiteration for the poet writing and the reader reading of elegiac truths that we can somehow both see and accept.

The Irish poet John Montague has said, “The urge to comprehend is so deep. It would make little sense to live a life if you didn’t understand what you had done.” And, once again in his novel Herzog, Bellow has his emotionally overwhelmed hero say to himself:

[He wanted] to live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live…

This is Herzog trying to figure out how much of his own aliveness he can bear, trying to articulate what it would mean to live under the snow holding his breath and trying to evade death by not living. And trying to articulate the too-muchness of his desire to avoid human limitations by freely and fully and with clarity consummating existence.

This deep urge to comprehend reminds me of a comment a woman who left an extremely orthodox sect of Judaism made to an interviewer recently. The interviewer first notes that “Ironically, [the woman] misses the very religious life that pushed her away.” Here is what she says:

“I miss the faith. Having faith like that is very empowering — the feeling that you think you know the code of life.”

Poetry at its best will never give you the code, the key, all the answers (and note that all the answers as given are almost always redemptive) to all the questions. It will set out all the difficult paradoxes beautifully and fully and with intellectual and emotional honesty.

Winter Kept Us Warm

With this idea of too much, and what poetry does with it, the way poetry acknowledges, expresses, and somehow modulates inner excess in a non-destructive way, I’d like now to turn to the too-much snow we recently had in Washington, to remind you of the great blizzard last January – an event which, if you’re like me, you’ve already pretty much forgotten as the plants in your garden that you thought would never survive the onslaught now burst with bloom.

So to begin with The Waste Land by TS Eliot, I want to concentrate on his famous opening lines:


April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

So here again is poetic paradox: winter kept us warm. Winter was the kind month, not springtime’s April. We had modulated our intensity in such a way as to procure for ourselves “a little life,” sufficient “heat” to survive, and this was bearable, serviceable; it shielded us from our past (memory) and any future (desire); and the blanket of snow was exactly the appropriate corresponding natural world for our existential condition: “forgetful snow” (here Eliot projects a human attribute – the capacity to forget – onto a non-human object – snow – another way of saying that during the winter the world “cooperated” sympathetically with our need to bury our aliveness) suspended our painful and emotionally provoking memories; snow allowed our “roots” to dull and dry and eke out just enough sustenance for us to get by.

And yes, there are historical peculiarities to Eliot’s post World War One Waste Land despair; yet if you read the poems of one of America’s most important living poets – Charles Wright, a recent poet laureate – they are full of similar images of shrunken nature – he’s particularly fond, for instance, of his “dwarf orchard” and of myriad other symbols of a reduced post-Romantic, world. John Asbery’s work shows the same sorts of miniaturized images throughout. So the spiritual/psychological condition of dryness, confusion, withdrawal, and fear that dominates Eliot’s poem is there also in plenty of much later poems (think, in England, of Philip Larkin).

Those lilacs – the flowers symbolize love, and they bloom around Easter, so they cruelly provoke thoughts not merely about the possibility of new life, but the possibility of new passion. The hectic riot of spring blooms, the colors, the warmth, the flowing life-giving water, the intensity of life reasserting itself in a world that had been quiet and manageable and half-dead, is actually felt as cruelty when one feels that intensity as impossibly threatening, when one wants to keep one’s vivacity tamped down because it will end in incomprehension and betrayal and wounding, as in that line from Eliot’s equally famous poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, when Prufrock dreads the possibility that if he finally tells the woman he loves what is truly in his heart, she will turn out never to have wanted his intimacy or confidences:

“That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.”

It is easy to cite other examples, in the art of our time, of characters shrinking from the challenge to be adequate to the world at its most beautiful and temperate and intense. Recall the 1987 film White Mischief, where a woman living in luxury in Kenya after WW2 sits on the terrace of her beautiful house, looks up at a gorgeous African sunrise and groans: “Oh God! Not another fucking beautiful day!”

Or think of the narrator of Bellow’s Ravelstein, sitting in Paris, on a perfect June morning, on the balcony of a grand hotel, with a view of the most stunning part of the city.

The gloss the sun puts on the surroundings – the triumph of life, so to speak, the flourishing of everything makes me despair. I’ll never be able to keep up with all the massed hours of life-triumphant.

There is a keenly felt disparity, in other words, between our inner life and this outer world; we experience ourselves as depressingly inadequate to the provocations and seductions of a fully alive reality. Better the blanketed blizzarded-in world where, relieved of the need to attend to a busy, animate setting, we can at least be provoked to thought – although typically, in this setting, it is the thought of nothingness, as in the final lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man, which describe a listener

who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

In reducing the world to zero, the snow allows abstract thought – there is nothing to distract us from elemental questions of being and nothingness.

Robert Frost finds the woods “lovely, dark and deep,” and you can feel his attraction to their morbid nothingness as he drags himself back to a world where he has “promises to keep.” The eighteenth century poet James Thompson found that the “wild dazzling waste, that buries wide / The works of man .. exalt[s] the soul to solemn thought.” And it is the “strange / And extreme silentness” of frost at midnight that provokes Coleridge to meditation. To grappling with the “hated” truth.

The Curtain

In the second poem I’ve included for today – Hayden Carruth’s The Curtain, we see this process of enclosure by the snow and provocation to thought very clearly. Interestingly, this provoked thought will be thought about our evasion of thought, evasion of the truth.

Just over the horizon a great machine of death is roaring and rearing.

We can hear it always. Earthquake, starvation, the ever-renewing sump of corpse-flesh.

But in this valley the snow falls silently all day, and out our window

We see the curtain of it shifting and folding, hiding us away in our little house,

We see earth smoothened and beautified, made like a fantasy, the snow-clad trees

So graceful. In our new bed, which is big enough to seem like the north pasture almost

With our two cats, Cooker and Smudgins, lying undisturbed in the southeastern and southwestern corners,

We lie loving and warm, looking out from time to time. “Snowbound,” we say. We speak of the poet

Who lived with his young housekeeper long ago in the mountains of the western province, the kingdom

Of cruelty, where heads fell like wilted flowers and snow fell for many months

Across the pass and drifted deep in the vale. In our kitchen the maple-fire murmurs

In our stove. We eat cheese and new-made bread and jumbo Spanish olives

Which have been steeped in our special brine of jalapeños and garlic and dill and thyme.

We have a nip or two from the small inexpensive cognac that makes us smile and sigh.

For a while we close the immense index of images that is our lives—for instance,

The child on the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico sitting naked in 1966 outside his family’s hut,

Covered with sores, unable to speak. But of course we see the child every day,

We hold out our hands, we touch him shyly, we make offerings to his implacability.

No, the index cannot close. And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never

Know. Beyond the horizon a great unceasing noise is undeniable. The machine,

Like an immense clanking vibrating shuddering unnameable contraption as big as a house, as big as the whole town,

May break through and lurch into our valley at any moment, at any moment.

Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.

This brings us back to that affluent oblivious world I evoked at the beginning of these remarks. Snow is keeping the poet warm and cozy in his wonderful cat-warmed bed; “the curtain of snow” keeps hidden from him a world of “implacable” cruelty and atrocity, and he reckons, in this poem, with his morally unconscionable position of comfortable immunity from it all – or, at best, a passive, spectatorial relationship to it. Like the snow, it comes over you in mysterious, overwhelming drifts.

And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never

Know.

How does one not only survive a world of profound human suffering but even thrive inside one’s own wood-stove-warmed domesticity? Well – another poetic paradox – one doesn’t and can’t but one does. It’s morally unsustainable and morally sustainable. Again we see the reduced world – the manageable world – in which the poet makes himself snug: “our small inexpensive cognac,” the cutesy cat names – versus the “immense index of images that is our lives.” It is all – yes – “too much” for us – we index it away in a file of images which we allow to haunt us; we evoke the memory of the child covered with sores; we aestheticize it and hope this dignifies and immortalizes it and gives it meaning and on some level lets us off the hook for living our unconscionable beautiful lives while it never stops happening. The snow falls in symbiosis with us, just as it falls in sympathy with the speaker of The Waste Land, a natural extension of our impulse to shrink into a small removed life, a delicate helpful shielding gesture from the nature world.

A war photographer in Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II stops doing that form of photography because, she says: “No matter what I shot, how much horror, reality, misery, ruined bodies, bloody faces, it was all so fucking pretty in the end.” We can index it all, aestheticize it largely away; and hated poetry is there to tell you that you do that, and to invite you to hate yourself because you do. When the poet, in the final lines of The Curtain, turns to his lover with a toast, it’s a sardonic, ugly toast:

Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.

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But let’s end on an up note. Here’s our final poem, Louis MacNeice’s “Snow.”

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.


And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world

Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –

On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Well, it’s a mad riot of paradox, and it’s a nice way to prepare for the poem I’ll be talking about next week, Hymn to Life by James Schuyler. Fire bubbles like water, things are both collateral and incompatible. And it’s madly affirmative, a drunken rush of delight in the face of a world full of magic and richness. Only one word in the poem spoils the fun – spiteful. (Spiteful picks up nicely on, somehow extends, spit.) That fire – it can burn spitefully, but its flames also move about gaily, beautifully.

The situation here is not that different from the situation in Carruth’s poem: the poet sits inside a nice house with roses and bay windows and looks at the snow raging outside. Unlike Carruth, however, who is prompted to recriminate against himself because the snow comes to symbolize his unconscionable immunity from the reality of suffering, MacNeice regards the snow as part of the amazing thrilling paradoxical show the world sometimes puts on. How can there be in the midst of winter huge roses? He watches the foreground of the roses against the background of the snow and marvels at the “rich,” “plural,” “various” nature of earthly existence, an earth which on special occasions tosses up these amazingly beautiful and really almost impossible dualities – huge pink roses, so delicate, and at the same time the massive whirling snow.

Of course the windows are keeping the roses from destruction by the snow – the roses enjoy the same interior immunity from threat as the speakers of all three of today’s poems are – but MacNeice is going to go somewhere very different from the huddled guilty paltry warmth-making of Eliot and Carruth – the scene will instead prompt thoughts of the extraordinary, humanly incomprehensible, magical, astonishing, richness of the natural world. There’s so much more in it than we could possibly see:

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

What worlds of particles and insects and God knows what swarm invisibly within what I can see – the glass, the snow, the roses! This is an expansive, Whitmanesque sentiment – sheer ecstasy at the sheer overflow of stuff — the — okay — the too-muchness of the world. And of course that too-muchness is really our own too-muchness — our capacity for feeling ourselves to be brimming over with vivacity, excitement. This is William Blake: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Next Saturday we’ll look at a ridiculously excessive poem full of MacNiece’s sentiments and ask whether that’s true – whether excess leads to wisdom.

Conclusion

Meanwhile, to end with a return to campaign poetry: If Donald Trump is our next president, I think we will at least have to say that the road of excess leads to the White House. And – being meaning-seeking creatures – we will want to grapple with that fact. We will want to grapple with the paradox that this desublimated public poet, this troubadour of our time, is both madly popular and the most hated politician in modern history.

It’s worth noting that Mario Cuomo, to return to another very public man not above using “campaign poetry,” also was able to describe life in this way:

“You go from stone to stone across the morass.”

This is pure undistilled Samuel Beckett, and while The Big Short fraudsters might hate its elegiac sadness, people who take poetry seriously are liable to appreciate it – not only its compelling imagery, but its approach to important truths.

Poetry is one art form that allows us to experience simultaneously ecstatic communion with an over-generous world, and stony despair. It tempers our too-muchness – organizes our sensibility – so that we can remain in excess and in the truth.

UD’s Poetry Lecture is TODAY.

Join her at the Georgetown Public Library this afternoon.

Details.

‘Other embarrassing episodes surfaced as well, including racially insensitive comments about Asians and Jamaicans, and sexually crude comments about women.’

Rob Ford, 1969 -2016

********************

Yet weep not:


What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all…
Nor is the earth the lesse or loseth aught,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought…
For there is nothing lost, but may be found, if sought…

 

*********************

Do not allow yourself with grief to slump…
The blesséd tide hath brought us Donald Trump.

A Political Evolution.

The word of the day is “thuggery.”

Check Google News and you’ll see that large numbers of journalists, cultural observers, and opinion columnists are using it to describe Donald Trump, and in particular the violence he’s whipping up at his rallies.

So how did the conservative movement turn into thuggery?

I

It started with briefs against buggery
And excitement about Atlas-Shruggery.

II

Then ordinary party skulduggery
Evolved into mad hugger-muggery.

III

Then out of his big triplex snuggery
Crawled America’s captain of thuggery.

**********************

UD‘s talented readers have augmented the uggery. (SOS has done some very light editing.)

IV

His fans, full of loutery and luggery,
Meet the oppo with to-the-nose sluggery.

V

Our UD for this deserves huggery.
Trump no more can flaunt out all his smuggery.

Come to UD’s Lectures on Poetry…

… at the Georgetown Public Library. Details here.

Here’s the flyer…

… for UD‘s April poetry lecture series at the Georgetown Public Library.

Register! Via email: georgetownlibrary@dc.gov

Poetry Lectures April 2016apdf(1)

Three Saturdays in April at 2:00:

April 2, 9, and 16.

Address:

Georgetown Library
3260 R Street NW
Washington DC

A few words about the heart for Valentine’s Day.

… [H]ow could I have
Told them what was in me, within my heart, trembling and passionate
Within the labyrinth and caves of my mind, which is
Like every mind partly or wholly hidden from itself?
The words for what is in my heart and in my mind
Do not exist. But I must seek and search to find
Amid the vines and orchards of the vivid world of day
Approximate images, imaginary parallels
For what is my heart and dark within my mind:
Comparisons and mere metaphors: for all
Of them are substitutes, both counterfeit and vague:
They are, at most, deceptive resemblances,
False in their very likeness, like the sons
Who are alike and kin and more unlike and false
Because they seem the father’s very self: but each one is
— Although begotten by the same forbears — himself,
The unique self, each one is unique, like every other one,
And everything, older or younger, nevertheless
A passionate nonesuch who has before has been.
Do you hear, do you see? Do you understand me now, and how
The words for what is my heart do not exist?

Delmore Schwartz, “Narcissus”

A Magazine Poem (Almost All of Its Words Are Taken from a Magazine Article) to Mark the Discovery of Gravitational Waves.

THE MOTION OF THE WIND IN HANFORD

The motion of the wind in Hanford
Or of the ocean in Livingston
Or imperfections in the light
Through fluctuations in the grid…

The jittering of single atoms
Within mirrors
Or distant lightning storms…

Interferences beyond reckoning
In earth’s purest vacuum!

A trillionth as dense
As the atmosphere at sea
Yet somewhat undone by
Miniscule seismic tremors
Or passing cars
Or aeroplanes
Or wolves.

***************************

(In the style of Wallace Stevens.)

“Speeding, without destination, after dark…”

Ravi Shankar, until recently a creative writing professor at Central Connecticut State University, writes about his favorite activity: driving at very high speed until he hits something and/or gets arrested.

I mean, the poem whose first line appears as this post’s title doesn’t really go on to describe

driving with a suspended license, and …evading responsibility for an accident that he fled from… two DUIs, operating with a suspended license, reckless driving over 85 mph…

(And that’s only his driving offenses! He’s also into shoplifting and credit card fraud and other stuff.)

No, no, the poem goes on, dutifully, pretentiously, emptily, to gush about a double rainbow. Shankar’s a bad poet (you can read some of his work here), which one would think would add up to two strikes against the guy in terms of being given permanent employment by a university: He writes bad poetry, and he’s always in courtrooms or jails. And he will always be in courtrooms and jails because there are quite a few cases pending against him. Plus I guess he’s still driving! Whatever.

Maybe he’s a helluva teacher! Hm, let’s see.

No midterm. Paper worth 50% at the end. I had him for a three hour class on Mondays and we always got out early. Did not give too much homework and we had to watch a movie one class. When it came time for the final I felt like I barely knew any of the material. However, if you want an easy 3 credits do good on the paper and go to class.

[He] missed 5 out of 15 classes (yet if you miss 3 you fail) & had us buy 100 dollars worth of books which were barely used (money down the drain). He liked my poems but was pretentious n rude to students whose work he didn’t like. If you go to him for help, he will ignore you.

Cut him some slack. Do you have any idea how many court appearances we’re talking about?

Great class, when he shows up. Had to meet online a few times, poetry is not the kind of class where online classes are really helpful.

Online, films, missed classes, routine early dismissal, no midterm – No wonder Bernie Sanders is calling for free public university education. This should definitely be free.

Maybe Bern can also look into professors assigning a hundred dollars worth of useless books.

And maybe Bern can figure out how this guy – who was promoted while in pre-trial confinement – got promoted.

UD dearly hopes someone recorded the discussion among his colleagues.

He’s a madman, a wildman, a Hunter S. Thompson right here in New Britain!

I love his scofflaw ways!

An artist, a bad boy, our own Robert Lowell…

Robert Lowell?

Robert Lowell went to jail for evading the draft.

He’s thrillingly sketchy, a swaggering anti-bourgeois with a lot to teach us and our students about going against the grain.

A lot of people would just say ‘career criminal’ and drop the guy, but what if they’d said that about Jean Genet?

Despite the university’s effort to keep him, the criminal renown of Shankar reached the stick-in-the-mud state legislature, which has today engineered his exit from the school.

Come to UD’s Poetry Lectures…

… at the Georgetown Public Library on three Saturdays:

April 2
April 9
April 16

Haven’t set the time yet, but it will probably be late morning/early afternoon. Here’s a description:

Lecture One: Winter kept us warm: Poetry as Paradox

In a year that began with a great blizzard in Washington, we’ll look first in this lecture series at what poetry makes of the snow: as an image, a symbol, a mood, a setting. We’ll focus on three poems – T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow,’ and Hayden Carruth’s ‘The Curtain’ – and ask not only what sort of utterance poetry is, but also what it offers us intellectually and emotionally as we experience the power of nature.

Lecture Two: Stirring dull roots with spring rain: Poetry as Life Itself

April is the month of these lectures; April is National Poetry Month; April marks the renewal of life in the spring season. That all sounds great, yet Eliot calls April “the cruellest month.” Our focus in this lecture will be James Schuyler’s exuberantly long poem, ‘Hymn to Life,’ which is set in Washington DC in the spring.

Lecture Three: Flying off into nothing: Poetry as Death

Our final two poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Spring and Fall,’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘Berck-Plage,’ complete our seasonal exploration of what poetry is, and what it can do by way of clarifying our relationship to our lives in nature.

The Snow Begins.

Just now, with thin innocuous drifts.

I’ll watch the show from a bedroom whose sliding doors give me all I’d like of the white as it falls on the forest.

UD‘s been down with bronchitis for a couple of weeks anyway, so settling in’s no big deal. She’s in a warm bed with tightly layered blankets and a heating pad and her dog Emilia. Three eucalyptus soy candles rest on a small Tunisian plate in front of the window. Eucalyptus is good for the lungs.

My soundtrack: The mad madrigals of the mad Gesualdo (“the highest expression of pain in music”). Eerie chords for eerie snow.

*********************

It’s sticking to the holly leaves and coming down more thickly. They tell me this snowfall’s in it for the long haul. Okay.

Although we worry about outages and treefalls, we’re basically calm. And why not? The setting is sedate to the point of morbid. Our lives are calm, settled lives. Settled far away from peril. The inside/outside contrast puts this protection in high relief.

There’s a poem for that, by Hayden Carruth. Read it here. Read my commentary below.

The Curtain

[The poem will compare the curtain of snow now obscuring and now revealing the reality of the world to the poet’s troubled conscience as he lives his comfortable life, fitfully aware of a world of atrocities.]

Just over the horizon a great machine of death is roaring and rearing.
We can hear it always. Earthquake, starvation, the ever-renewing sump of corpse-flesh.

[From their easeful bed, the poet and his lover can figuratively hear – cannot intellectually escape – the perennial actuality of human suffering.]

But in this valley the snow falls silently all day, and out our window
We see the curtain of it shifting and folding, hiding us away in our little house,
We see earth smoothened and beautified, made like a fantasy, the snow-clad trees
So graceful.

[Suffering is way up over the hill; in their snug valley the lovers now experience the smoothing and silencing of even the sound of suffering by the blanketing snow, which makes the world a beautiful fantasy.]

In our new bed, which is big enough to seem like the north pasture almost
With our two cats, Cooker and Smudgins, lying undisturbed in the southeastern and southwestern corners,
We lie loving and warm, looking out from time to time.

[The camera gradually moves in more intimately on the lovers, placid, with cutely-named cats, on their massive “undisturbed” bed. They watch the snow.]

“Snowbound,” we say. We speak of the poet
Who lived with his young housekeeper long ago in the mountains of the western province, the kingdom
Of cruelty, where heads fell like wilted flowers and snow fell for many months
Across the pass and drifted deep in the vale.

[Maybe a reference to John Greenleaf Whittier, author of “Snowbound,” which narrates a snowbound family passing the time telling each other stories. The lines perhaps also allude to Whittier’s many anti-slavery poems; that is, Whittier was the sort of poet Carruth would like to be – someone whose writing might have some impact on human suffering. “We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature. Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events …”]


In our kitchen the maple-fire murmurs
In our stove. We eat cheese and new-made bread and jumbo Spanish olives
Which have been steeped in our special brine of jalapeños and garlic and dill and thyme.
We have a nip or two from the small inexpensive cognac that makes us smile and sigh.

[They can stay warm amid the cold; their cozy woodburning stove is softly, aromatically doing its thing. Plenty of food, too, and all their exotic spicy (hot: another form of heat) favorites. Alcohol too of course will warm them, calm them.

This evocation of the delightful private small habits of their private life reminds UD of this passage, from Paul Monette’s essay collection, Last Watch of the Night:

In the moving premonitory memoir of his approaching death from cancer, Donald Hall discovers that what he will miss the most are the dailiest of things. Padding out onto his porch to retrieve the morning’s Globe; a quiet cup of coffee as he peruses the headlines; the dozen small nesting motions that bring him at last to his desk. Finally the picking up of his pen to start afresh. The things of life are so ordinary, the habits so engrained, that it’s stupefying to think of them taken away. One wonders that the universe would bother to kill off such a modestly focused life, circumscribed by hours of quiet on every side.
]

For a while we close the immense index of images that is our lives — for instance,
The child on the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico sitting naked in 1966 outside his family’s hut,
Covered with sores, unable to speak.

[The deeply interior, deeply comfortable scene, the doubly deep warmth inside all that cold, temporarily suspends their awareness – via indexed image rather than personal experience – of the suffering over the horizon.]

But of course we see the child every day,
We hold out our hands, we touch him shyly, we make offerings to his implacability.
No, the index cannot close.

[The poem is an offering to the implacability of suffering; the poem is written out of the poet’s inability to close the index.]

And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never
Know. Beyond the horizon a great unceasing noise is undeniable. The machine,
Like an immense clanking vibrating shuddering unnameable contraption as big as a house, as big as the whole town,
May break through and lurch into our valley at any moment, at any moment.

[Why don’t we die of our anguish at what human beings do to one another? Not only don’t we die; we live for the most part quite comfortable lives. We survive our knowledge of the suffering of others quite nicely. Maybe someday suffering will spread to the point where it has no other place to go but our own quiet little valley.]


Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.

The genial – even self-celebratory – self-absorption of private life prevails. The snowy curtain that had been drawn aside to give the poet a glimpse of how stark things really are has fallen back, leaving him comfortably numb, with cognac.

Line by Line Through the Poem “Provinces”…

… in memory of C.D. Wright, who died yesterday. The uninterrupted poem can be found here, read by Wright.

The title, “Provinces,” refers on a literal level to provincial places far away from urban centers, and to the remote and – as times passes – frustrated lives lived there. It refers more obliquely to the sensually distant and unused “places” of the aging, lonely, and unloved human body. The poem will be an extended indirect discourse meditation about a speaker’s relationship to his or her sexless and increasingly useless body, shrunken from the world of other people, and shrunken even from the speaker. The poem is maybe also about the speaker’s useless life.

Where the old trees reign with their forward dark
light stares through a hole in the body’s long
house.

Morning breaks, and the old and isolated speaker, sunlight in her eyes, awakens. The old trees will return at the end of the poem.

The bed rolls away from the body,
and the body is forced to find a chair.

Motion and agency belong to the natural, extra-human world, not the speaker’s body. Trees reign, light stares, the bed rolls. (Note also how the sad slow and somewhat creepy feel of the poem is accomplished in part through its simple monosyllabic words, coupled with short lines.) The speaker does not rise from the bed; the bed rolls away from the speaker, who is “forced” by this action to find another object on which to assume motionlessness.

At some hour
the body sequesters itself in a shuttered room
with no clock.

See also her poem, “Privacy” (“Stiller than water she lies / As in a glass dress // As if all life might come to its end / within the radius of her bed”). Wright is interested in the body at rest, alone in some sequestered out of the way (provincial) unchanging (no clock) setting; she is interested, let’s say, in the self in its full starkness, unmixed with the social world, with worldly activity. She wants to examine what we most deeply, most starkly, are, when all of the activity and distraction of life falls away.

When a clean sheet of paper floats by,
the head inclines on its axis.

Again the sense of the self reduced to a passive almost mechanical (axis) being, reflexively swiveling up to look at a sheet of paper floating by… This is a surrealistic, imagistic, symbolic poem, composed of a series of strange descriptions that somehow add up to an existential truth, or to a persuasive existential mood. That piece of paper carries the possibility of life’s meaninglessness, being “clean” and without writing.

It is one of those
common bodies that felt it could not exist without loving,
but has in fact gone on and on without love.

Once more you see the ambition to speak for the destiny of all of us (a common body) as we move away from youthful passion and toward a passionless solitude whose starkness allows us to see the truth of existence. This body is now not merely passive but ghostlike in its persistence despite the end of its affective life.

Like a cave that has stopped growing, we don’t call it dead,
but dormant.

Now we begin a series of lines comparing the “dead” human to a hibernating bear in a cave; but again – weirdly – it’s the inanimate thing that has being (the cave has stopped growing and become dormant). That image of the cave is continuous somehow with the poem’s first lines, which describe light finding a hole in the body as light will fill the hole of a cave. That “long house” of the body aligns it with the long deep habitation that is the cave. The speaker’s body has housed her for a long time in its (increasingly dormant) depths.

Now the body is on all fours, one arm
engaged in pulling hair from a trap, an activity
the body loathes.

Have we moved from the bed to the morning shower, where we get down to pull hair out of the drain? Are we also the bear, caught in a trap and trying to free itself? A loathsome activity either way, reminding the speaker how caught in the private/visceral life she is – no lover, no higher, non-material nature (there’s nothing in the poem to suggest that this solitude has a spiritual component).

When the time comes, the body
feeds on marinated meats and fruits trained to be luscious.

So we move on to lunch, as our human creature “feeds” on highly prepared, highly artificial food — an image that deepens our sense of her passivity. She lies in bed, or sits in a chair, waiting for the meats and fruits provided for her…

Once the body had ambitions — to be tall and remain
soft. No more,

Tall – stretched beyond mere materiality, mere grubbing passivity. Soft – permeable by the world of other people. But that’s over – it’s curled asleep/dead in hibernation.

but it enjoys rappelling to the water.

Every now and then the dried out sterile old body makes its difficult way to natural sources of replenishment.

Because the body’s dwelling is stone, perched over water,
we say the body is privileged.

How lucky we are not to be mere nature! To be able to distance ourselves, protect ourselves from, nature red in tooth and claw. We can look at water; we can rappel down to it when we need it; but we need not be drowned by it. We need not be drowned by passion. (Remember the old Paul Simon song: I am a rock. I am an island.)

Akin to characters
in Lawrence books, its livelihood is obscured.

Then what is the body for? If you are Gerald Crich, you can actually die of not knowing – or denying – your body’s vocation.

It owns
a horse named Campaign it mounts on foggy morns.
That was the body’s first lie. It has no horse
and wouldn’t climb on one.

A send-up of a culture that boasts endless best-selling books called things like The Purpose-Driven Life.

Because the body lives
so far from others, it likes reading about checkered lives
on the metrópoli.

I have my books and my poetry to protect me, sings Simon. I keep my distance in my simple animal existence, but I access the complex (checkered) lives of others through art.

It likes moving around at night under its dress.

Autoeroticism is better than no eroticism at all.

When it travels, bottles of lotion open in its bags.

All hell breaks loose as it threatens to become “soft” (see earlier line about the speaker’s earlier ambition to be soft, to not be stone) when it nears the world of other people.

Early in March the big rains came — washing all good thoughts
from the body’s cracks and chinks.

You can’t stop the cycles of nature from happening. The world is going to wake up and destroy all of your nice fortifications (see the famous opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: Winter kept us warm...) and to some extent you’re going to have to wake up as well — to the world as it is.

By now the body admits
it is getting on, and yet, continues to be tormented
by things being the way they are.

Who is ever really reconciled to the human condition? You can try living as far away as possible from it, even in a cave, but the light of the world will find you and madden you.


Recently the body took
one of the old trees for a wife, but the union has broken down.

Try the pagan approach; make yourself one with nature. Yet your possession of a mind and a soul and a passion-seeking body will make this an impossible match.


The light has bored out of the body’s long house.

In the first lines, light “stared” into the body; by now – the end of the day – it is boring its way out of the body. This is not merely a mechanical image; it is pretty sadistic. It is painful to be invaded, and then abandoned, by the light of the world, the touch of other human beings.


Fog envelops its stone flanks.

Once more, time for (quoting Yeats) stony sleep.

Still the body
enjoys rappelling to the water.

But this would be the enjoyment of a dream, the unconscious climbing down each night into the realm of fertility, passion.

And it likes the twenty four-hour stores,
walking up and down the aisles, not putting a thing in its basket.

Or you could wake up, any old time, and sleepwalk along the aisles of the stores where your luscious pretend nourishment marinates forever.

UD’s old friend…

Harvey Markowitz, got her this book for her birthday many years ago. She still has it somewhere. He wrote a note to UD on its first page, and UD recalls that this note was amusing.

The bar is an eight hour, nineteen minute flight for UD, so she will not be able to attend the poetry reading.

For Another New Year at University Diaries, a Poem.

Of course a poem. A Philip Larkin poem. Your blogeuse is mad about poetry (Speaking of which: She’ll be giving a series of lectures this April at the Georgetown Public Library on the subject. Dates TBA.), and she agrees with Christopher Hitchens that it’s strange and amazing, the way

[Somehow from Philip Larkin’s drab, resentful life he evolved] his own sour strain and syncopation of Words­worth’s “still, sad music of humanity.”

But let’s not stop at strange and amazing and somehow. Let’s analyze one of his poems! “New Year Poem.” Written not just from the ruins of his life, but from the ruins of Coventry, 1940. The poet has come home for a visit, and he surveys the bombed out city.

Just look carefully at the first few lines to see some of the ways Larkin distills his sour music.

The short afternoon ends, and the year is over;
Above trees at the end of the garden the sky is unchanged,
An endless sky; and the wet streets, as ever,
Between standing houses are empty and unchallenged.

The first thing to notice is the endless use of “end” and variants on associated sounds. Ends, and, end, garden, endless, wet, ever, empty. Eh! That drab shoulder shrugging barely there eh sound resounds in these lines, their mushy muddiness of mood conveyed in the vagueness of that eh, whose opposite can be found in a happy Romantic poem like Wordsworth’s Daffodils, with its bright open vowels, sharp consonants, and exact rhymes. Note that Larkin’s submerged mood can only manage half rhymes, their not-quite-thereness conveying the poet’s self-protective evasion of clarity and sharpness in the face of an emotionally devastating landscape. This is not only the short-afternooned end of a year but the end of an entire humanly constructed world (and there’s more bombing to come). The sky to be sure is “endless,” but this isn’t the visionary firmament of the Romantics. It’s the infinite nothingness that hangs indifferently over an eviscerated, barely standing streetscape.

From roads where men go home I walk apart
–The buses bearing their loads away from works,
Through the dusk the bicycles coming home from bricks–
There evening like a derelict lorry is alone and mute.

“Men” sustains the eh music as this quatrain leads us further into the city, the poet maintaining his safe sense of non-implication in the distress of Coventry (“I walk apart”) as he observes the city’s demoralized unrushed rush hour. And note that the only “I,” the only human with agency in this stanza, is the poet. For the rest, objects – buses, bicycles, lorries – rather than human beings have presence and agency. People are merely the “loads” coming back from a day at the destroyed factories (or are the buses being used not for human transportation, but to transport fragments from the shattered works?), just as the poet in the vague dusk sees “bicycles coming home” from fallen bricks rather than people riding bicycles. The strange simile in the final line (evening is like a derelict lorry) puts one in mind of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting

This hideously mechanized world, with its armaments factories and its bombs raining down on the armament factories, reduces everything to faltering idling machines. And here the poet is implicated; he and the evening and the lorry are “alone and mute.”

These houses are deserted, felt over smashed windows,
No milk on the step, a note pinned to the door
Telling of departure: only shadows
Move when in the day the sun is seen for an hour,
Yet to me this decaying landscape has its uses:
To make me remember, who am always inclined to forget,
That there is always a changing at the root,
And a real world in which time really passes.

I’ve said so many times on this blog that poetry is our dreamworld, poetry marks the fact of our passing so much of our lives in dream, fantasy, unreality. The vista of Coventry forces upon the poet a salutary recognition of, a bracing awakening to, a real world in which time moves forward and dereliction happens. In a Paris Review interview, Larkin says:

I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way — making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.

Larkin famously stayed in Hull most of his life and never married and never had children and held onto the same job – and this was his way of trying to make time stop. Instead of doing a lot, he did very little – and correctly noted that neither approach works.

So the coincidence of the big shift into a new year and the shock of a new, blasted Coventry has jolted the poet into recognitions he tries to avoid, and this is useful.

For sometimes it is shown to me in dreams
The Eden that all wish to recreate
Out of their living, from their favourite times;
The miraculous play where all the dead take part,
Once more articulate; or the distant ones
They will never forget because of an autumn talk
By a railway, an occasional glimpse in a public park,
Any memory for the most part depending on chance.

Simply an elaboration upon the dreamlife we live, in which time dies away and the dead are restored and even all the small random unforgettable encounters one has had over one’s life are reassembled and rehearsed.

And seeing this through that I know to be wrong,
Knowing by the flower the root that seemed so harmless
Dangerous; and all must take their warning
From those brief dreams of unsuccessful charms,
Their aloof visions of delight, where Desire
And Fear work hand-in-glove like medicals
To produce the same results. The bells
That we used to await will not be rung this year.

Like the poet who tries to maintain apartness as he walks through a setting that shrieks TIME CHANGE DERELICTION, we elaborate throughout our lives “aloof visions of delight,” where things never change (“the same results”). But this is “wrong.” Coventry Cathedral’s bells will not ring this year. It is a mute ruin.

So it is better to sleep and leave the bottle unopened;
Tomorrow in the offices the year on the stamps will be altered;
Tomorrow new diaries consulted, new calendars stand;
With such small adjustments life will again move forward
Implicating us all; and the voice of the living be heard:
“It is to us that you should turn your straying attention;
Us who need you, and are affected by your fortune;
Us you should love and to whom you should give your word.”

Forget the bubbly – no champagne this year. Just sleep. Changed time doesn’t need us to mark it – all the small, and all the large, alterations will happen regardless.

And now, in his final stanza, the poet admits his implication in all of this, the impossibility of aloofness: “life will again move forward / Implicating us all.” Very much like Derek Mahon’s famous “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” Larkin will end by turning not to buses and lorries and bicycles and phantoms but to the actual people all of these things convey. Don’t evade us, with your straying attention, your “intricate evasions of as.” Write about us as we suffer time and dereliction – give us your word.

Return to …

Spender.

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