Seamus Heaney has died.

Colm Tóibín remembers him.

UD writes about one of his poems here.

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Heaney’s charming translation of a ninth century Irish poem reminds UD of Auden’s translation of the poem, set to music by Samuel Barber.

Poets&Writers Magazine features UD in an article…

… about MOOCs.

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More attention.

“[I]n college I was learning that Dostoyevsky, James, Proust, George Eliot—as well as novelists as different as Jane Austen and Laclos—were major texts for secular moral instruction. We used to think that, at any rate, if you’d read enough French novels, you had no right to whimper, in the middle of some erotic, social, and spiritual catastrophe you’d prepared for yourself, ‘How could this happen to me?’”

John Hollander, a clever poet who has died, at the age of 83, said this clever thing in a 1985 Paris Review interview.

Vespers

Dartmouth boy stands at the foot of the bed,
Drops on a woman his little gold thread.
Hush! Hush! Stop him who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

God bless rummy! I know that’s right.
Wasn’t it fun drinking rum tonight?
The beer’s so cold, and the rum’s so hot.
Oh God bless vodka – I quite forgot.

I know it will make her get even more sore
If I pull out my pecker a little bit more.
It’s a beautiful red and it hasn’t a hood.
God bless my pecker; it’s so damn good.

It’s so damn good as I stand by the bed
And pull it out further right over her head
And I shut my eyes and I squeeze my hose
And I wet the woman from head to toes.

Oh Thank you God for a lovely day
And what was the other I had to say?
I said “Bless Rummy,” so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember it. God bless Me.

Dartmouth boy stands at the foot of the bed,
Drops on a woman his little gold thread.
Hush! Hush! Stop him who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

A poem for a Friday afternoon in late August.

For a warm, musing, quiet time, a time when things slow down or stop, a poem by Stanley Kunitz, full of quiet musing. UD stops the poem when she feels like it, thinking aloud about its form and its meanings.

The Abduction

Some things I do not profess
to understand, perhaps
not wanting to, including
whatever it was they did
with you or you with them
that timeless summer day
when you stumbled out of the wood,
distracted, with your white blouse torn
and a bloodstain on your skirt.

[This is a wispy, thin-lined, first-person account - directed to a man's lover - of a memory involving her that continues to baffle and unnerve him. The thinness of his poetic line, and his opening admission of his inadequacy, create a mood of lassitude, vagueness, half-thereness. The poem will be a narrative - the story of the lover's abduction - but it will be told in the sketchy thin-lined manner of a man in fact defended against the story's meanings.

We are in a fog, in short, of the sort one knows from Kafka stories, or from novels like The Good Soldier. It's the condition - the pathology - of not knowing that interests writers like these.

That summer day on which the abduction took place was "timeless," which is to say it has made on the speaker (and presumably his lover) a permanent mark; they both return to it again and again in memory and in desire. Timeless too in the sense that the events the poet is about to recount seem mythic, unreal, out of time altogether, some miraculous break in the fabric of time. Think here of that unnerving Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock which also features virginal women in white dresses "taken" by an alien force, taken out of time.

Here the lover returns from her abduction, spilled sexual blood on her whiteness...]


“Do you believe?” you asked.

[Do you believe the transformation that has happened to me? Do you love me enough to believe the bizarre tale I'm about to unfold? To believe my way of knowing/not knowing what has happened to transform me from white to red? To love is to enter into the deepest, most wounded, most obscure mental world of the loved one, as in this poem, by Stephen Spender. Or this one, by Richard Wilbur. Are you willing to do that?]


Between us, through the years,
we pieced enough together
to make the story real:

[This is love: That together you give life and even plausibility to... hell, you honor the particular myths, repetition compulsions, odd ways of making sense of one's destiny, that the loved one has generated out of her experience, her imagination, her - to anticipate the end of this poem - rapture and dread.]

how you encountered on the path
a pack of sleek, grey hounds,
trailed by a dumbshow retinue
in leather shrouds; and how
you were led, through leafy ways,
into the presence of a royal stag,
flaming in his chestnut coat,
who kneeled on a swale of moss
before you; and how you were borne
aloft in triumph through the green,
stretched on his rack of budding horn,
till suddenly you found yourself alone
in a trampled clearing.

[So here's the medieval myth itself, the way-weird account of her torn and bloodied self she offers the lover. The hunting dogs first appear, and then what sounds like flagellants, and they all lead her to a major stag who stretches her on his "budding horn." Here is her dream of her triumphant sex, her initiation into the power ("kneeled... before you") of her own body.]

That was a long time ago,
almost another age, but even now,
when I hold you in my arms,
I wonder where you are.

[Same thing Spender and Wilbur wonder, gazing at their lovers. If these men are going to get anywhere near where these women are, they will indeed have to "believe," have to enter lovingly into the far country that is the soul of any other human being. The poet feels his inability/unwillingness to enter the deepest, strangest, sources of this woman's being; yet, loving her, he wonders.]

Sometimes I wake to hear
the engines of the night thrumming
outside the east bay window
on the lawn spreading to the rose garden.

[There is a world inside the world, as Don DeLillo has Lee Harvey Oswald repeat to himself throughout Libra; there is that realm of power, of being, that thrums through our existence, a constant dark engine pulsing through us, making us and making our lives, generating our stories. You can be upbeat about this, and suggest that eventually we can have access to these deep sources of ourselves and even others:

... then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the Sea where it goes.

Or you can be far less upbeat:

...in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.]


You lie beside me in elegant repose,
a hint of transport hovering on your lips,

[A hint of transport hovering -- always an allusion, in her repose, to that transformative mythic moment of transport which has nothing to do with her lover.]


indifferent to the harsh green flares
that swivel through the room,
searchlights controlled by unseen hands.

[Always, ecstatically, she returns to her primal triumph, and this in some sense protects her from the harsh temporal material world that seeks her out, seeks to awaken her to the end of power, eros, solace.]

Out there is a childhood country,
bleached faces peering in
with coals for eyes.
Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?

[Outside their bedroom rages a world of monsters out of childhood; outside their haven of life intensified lies death (bleached faces... with coals for eyes), and even as she circles endlessly into her glorious scene of transformation, she - and he - are being otherwise transformed, spun out from the world of life into the world of death.

So this is where we are; this is all we know -- the rapture of our death-defying embrace of existence, and the dread of our knowing/not wanting to know how this compulsively reiterated erotic fable will end.]

Dark sky poems.

This afternoon Les UDs travel to a cottage on a sheep farm near Sugarloaf Mountain. Late this evening they will leave the cottage with two folding chairs. They will set the chairs out on a pasture, and, lying back, they will see what perseids they can see.

Is the farm far enough from city lights? Will there be too much cloud cover? No sense worrying the thing. Do not ask what is it? Let us go and make our visit.

And speaking of T.S Eliot, there’s this excerpt on the dark from East Coker:


O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

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Dark is mental confusion, our brief weak being in the vastness. Dark is also our death, and dark is the apocalypse that will kill the earth forever; but meanwhile dark is consciousness – our living consciousness, but a consciousness that understands nothing. Darkness is where, unable to think, we do best to wait in the humility of not knowing. We do best to write poetry like this – poetry of still souls sitting in the stilly night, circling the same words — dark dark dark — to make a weak work of bricolage.

Or a frankly terrified work of bricolage, as in the Wallace Stevens poem, Domination of Black:


At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry — the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

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Same redundancy on the words, our marooned awareness circling the thin evidentiary setting of our mind’s and the world’s dark nature. The brilliant colors of the peacocks’ tails – the brilliant words of the poet’s beautiful and exceptional consciousness? – might lighten all of this. But no.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.

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So again and again these repetitive bricolages are the poems of our climate, as in this contemporary one, by John Taggart:


Orange Berries Dark Green Leaves

Darkened not completely dark let us walk in the darkened field
trees in the field outlined against that which is less dark
under the trees are bushes with orange berries dark green leaves
not poetry’s mixing of yellow light blue sky darker than that
darkness of the leaves a modulation of the accumulated darkness
orange of the berries another modulation spreading out toward us
it is like the reverberation of a bell rung three times
like the call of a voice the call of a voice that is not there.

We will not look up how they got their name in a book of names
we will not trace the name’s root conjecture its first murmuring
the root of the berries their leaves is succoured by darkness
darkness like a large block of stone hauled on a wooden sled
like stone formed and reformed by a dark sea rolling in turmoil.

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Pure distilled Stevens: The list of negations, as in The Snow Man; multiple deflecting similes in place of any approach toward assertion; the absence of foundations, roots, meanings, and the presence only of a dark perennial unapprehended tumultuous process of existential forming and reforming; and of course the rolling repetitive style. We are here as on a darkling plain.

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But here are meteors, light streaking across darkness, and we see our own light in them.


“They’re human souls,” I said, “tired of that dazzling dream,
Returning to the sweet, cool fields of earth.”

This line from a poem about watching the perseids is like Cathy’s dream in Wuthering Heights:

“Heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels grew so angry that they flung me out onto the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.”

We see our imperishable earthly bliss in the meteors, as when Shelley saw Keats as “a dying meteor” that “stains a wreath / Of moonlight vapour.”

This is James Merrill, too, in Prose of Departure, contemplating, in a shop in Japan

… the most fabulous kimono of all: dark, dark purple traversed by a winding, starry path…

Dyeing. A homophone deepens the trope. Surrendering to Earth’s colors, shall we not be Earth, before we know it? Venerated therefore is the skill which, prior to immersion, inflicts upon a sacrificial length of crêpe de Chine certain intricate knottings no hue can touch. So that one fine day, painstakingly unbound, this terminal gooseflesh, the fable’s whole eccentric

star-puckered moral –
white, never-to-blossom buds
of the mountain laurel —

may be read as having emerged triumphant from the vats of night.

My Poetry MOOC…

… just passed the three thousand students mark!

UD thanks her sister, without whose technical assistance, and enthusiasm for the project, she never could have done it.

Creative Writing Professors!

Take note!

UD thanks “Green Hornist,” a reader, for pointing out that Vice President Biden…

… did it again. At 9:35, in this speech today, he again cited Keats as the author of the line “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In this post, UD pointed out that the source of this line, about as unKeatsian a line as I can think of, is John Milton:

318. On His Blindness

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

No one seems to care; there wasn’t any commentary when he did it before; there’s no commentary this time. Two people – UD and a reader – care.

“One of the promising aspects of Soltan’s project is that the tool of the computer expands the tradition in an inspiring, democratic manner.”

UD‘s poetry MOOC gets a wonderful review here. She is very grateful.

A MOOC Morsel: Today’s Poetry Lecture

Lecture 18: Poetry and the Way it Undermines Us: Weldon Kees and Donald Justice

After a break of a few months, I’m back to conclude this lecture series on poetry. This is Lecture 18, titled Poetry and the Way It Undermines Us: Weldon Kees and Donald Justice. I will be producing five more lectures after this one, before I conclude the series.

I’ve been delighted by the response to my poetry talks – there are 2,205 of you and growing, from all over the world – and I encourage your continued comments, questions, and ratings.

For those of you interested in great prose as well as great poetry, I’m planning a new MOOC when I finish this one, and the subject will be the novels of Don DeLillo, author most famously of White Noise, and a person many people consider the best novelist currently writing in and about America. I invite you to sign up for that series when Udemy introduces it.

I’ve always been intrigued by this statement from the French philosopher, Albert Camus:

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings.

Sounds very negative, doesn’t it? We’re told again and again that the unexamined life is not worth living, but, as one of Saul Bellow’s characters once said in one of his novels, “sometimes the examined life makes you wish you were dead.” Society is where we all act together and keep smiles on our faces; poetry – like philosophy – is a more private place, where we do not act; we think, and we think in such a way – such an intense and exploratory and honest way – that the results can, Camus suggests, undermine us, literally erode the foundations – spiritual, moral, whatever – that keep us upright in the world.

Of course poetry differs from philosophy because it is not just thinking – it is thinking and feeling at the same time. Imagine a word which would be thoughtfeeling, or feelingthought – this is poetry. Here are some quotations from people attempting to get at the strange coincidence in poetry of thought and feeling, idea and emotion. Robert Frost, the great American poet, wrote that “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” You see the coincidence – in poetry, feeling and thought are inseparable; Frost says feeling has found “its” thought, as if all feelings are somehow matched by their appropriate thought, and the job of the poet is to make that match. Poetry renders how it feels to have thought something, and how particular thoughts carry with them particular feelings.

The successful poem can be understood as the verbal synthesis of these two drives – the drive to understand, and the drive to feel. Muriel Rukeyser writes that “Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling . . .. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too— but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.” The truth of feeling is an odd phrase, but it’s trying to capture what I’m trying here to capture about poetry: poetry is the verbal form that clothes ideas in feelings, indeed that makes it clear that no idea, no thought, is without emotional substance, a foundation of feeling. We think what we think because of the way we feel, because of what we feel. We sense ideas as we move through life sensing our emotions.

You might even say that many poems are in this sense retrospective gestures – They are the poet saying okay, this is what I’m feeling right now (think of Auden feeling empty and nonexistent in Brussels, Larkin feeling the same way on the beach) and I feel this right now because … .well, let’s backtrack. How did I get to these feelings? Where did this sense of emptiness, say, come from? Hm, well, by following this feeling back, as it were, to some life experiences that formed buried but life-shaping convictions about life in me, I can arrive at some knowledge of those convictions…

Maybe most people remain in the realm of unselfconscious feeling most of their lives; maybe most people don’t undergo this sort of emotional/intellectual retrospective exercise… but the poet is a supreme thoughtfeeler, a feelingthinker, always at once feeling and thinking about what these feelings mean, how they are symptoms, if you like, of ideas.

The truth of feeling, Rukeyser says, as if we might well be suspicious of ideas as such, but emotions come at us with an unanswerable authenticity – this is what I feel, this despair, this elation, this fear, this confusion, this passion. And we can get at intellectual truths through a poetic arrestation of all that feeling (I’ve said throughout these lectures that poetry arrests life, and in this case arrests that cascade of feeling that most people are tumbling through for most of their lives.), through a special aesthetic examination of it, and ultimately through an ordered verbal rendering of it.

Remember that short funny poem we looked in Lecture 17, “Niagara River” by Kay Ryan. Remember how she describes life as an oblivious passage down the Niagara River – a river which, if we allowed ourselves to think about it, in fact finally dumps us into the Niagara Falls. But we don’t allow ourselves to think about that, because it would undermine us. It would make it more difficult for us to keep our balance, to keep floating on our little life raft on the Niagara River. Instead we feel the curious emotion Ryan features in that poem – a kind of pleased ignorant enjoyment of the passing moment, a willed cow-like not knowing…

So through poetic arrestation of this not-knowing, through an examination of the feelings that not-knowing (in the case of the Ryan poem) generates in us, we will get at truths – the most important truths, arguably, because they are the most human truths. They are not coldly deduced concepts and claims, but emotionally grounded actualities: This is what it means to be a human being; this is what it means to live in the world. Somehow I’ve gotten to this point; somehow I’ve evolved into a person who feels this and feels that – How did that happen? How did I get here? Only by bringing reflective intellect to the fact of a present emotional reality will I be able to thread together the complex interaction of thought and feeling that got me to this place.

“The office of poetry is not to make us think accurately, but feel truly,” writes Frederick William Robertson, reiterating what we’ve already heard from Frost and Rukeyser. I think that when you grasp this point, you also grasp what Mark Van Doren means when he writes, “The job of the poet is to render the world – to see it and report it without loss, without perversion. No poet ever talks about feelings. Only sentimental people do.” It is of course a typical and popular misreading of poetry that it’s all about sentiment, about the statement and airing of feelings. No sirree. You know you’ve got hold of a bad poet, a fake poet, a manipulative poet, when you’ve got someone panting away about the beauty of nature or whatever. (Recall my discussion of the unfortunate American poet Joyce Kilmer, and his thrill at the sight of trees. Recall also my discussion of the wallowing-in-her-own-emotions poet Anne Sexton.) Poetry is emotion under very tight control – under the control of serious thought.

I want to focus in this lecture on two great twentieth century American poets – Weldon Kees and Donald Justice – who did this sort of retrospective thoughtfeeling and feelingthought exercise at a very high, beautiful, and enlightening level. I mean that – to use Rukeyser’s language – when you REACH their poem, when you understand it, when you feel it, when you feelunderstand it, you feelunderstand a lot. And of course this is the payoff of the reading of poetry – not just that we get to consort with beautiful language and that it is, on a very simple, musical, level, an exhilarating delight to consort with glorious rhythm and words, but that as we read those words, crucial truths of human life, of our life, roll out of the poetic lines.

As with listening to music, those thoughtfeelings emerge slowly, line by line, as we listen, as we read. I made this point in my lecture on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem At the Fishhouses; most of it reads like pure description with no idea attached to it; yet in fact as we read there’s a gradual and sly gathering of meaning – somehow meaning squeezes itself out of each seemingly purely musical or descriptive line; an atmosphere of implication expands as we read, and though we may not be able – ever – to put that implication into straightforward propositions or claims, nonetheless when we finish the poem, when we REACH it, we realize that its accretion of detail has not been mere accretion, but has culminated in thoughtfeelings about the human condition.

Again, is this not the great value, the great gift to us, of poetry? That it brings us to actuality, carries us through feeling to the way things really are? Poems are not bloodless propositions or hypotheses about what it means to be a living human being in a glorious, crushing, and enigmatic cosmos; they are dispatches from the front; they are you are there chronicles of the moment to moment reality of our mind and our body moving through existence. I’ve said, along with Camus, that these dispatches also undermine us – that they may in some sense undermine us – but does it follow from this that we want, like the absurd people in “Niagara River,” to refuse to receive them?

Let’s consider first the Weldon Kees poem (remember that both the Kees and Justice poems are in the Materials section of this screen) titled “That Winter.”

Kees recalls, as his title suggests, THAT winter, one particular winter when something happened to him during a snowstorm, something that generated feelings which, on examination, enlightened him about himself, about all human beings. So it’s a lyric poem – short, personal, capturing one moment – but it incorporates a little narrative, the poet having had a vision, an experience, while walking, in the past, through a snowstorm.

Note that like Auden’s poem, another winter poem, “Brussels in Winter,” the Kees poem is in the second person – YOU. The choice of you transmits the poet’s conviction that this is not his experience alone, but has resonance for the reader – you know what I’m talking about; you’ve been in the same sort of existential moment. But the second person also conveys, in the Kees poem, the poet’s self-alienation, his rather disgusted confrontation with his naïve past self: you see yourself, a fool with smiles… So you because he’s literally addressing a different person – the person he was, but the person he no longer is. Essentially, in this poem, Kees has a vision of his youthful happy trusting self, springlike and fully alive; and to this vision he brings the full force of his current bitterness, coldness, frigidity…

So let’s look more closely at this poem.

Cold ground and colder stone
Unearthed in ruined passageways,
The parodies of buildings in the snow –
Snow tossed and raging through a world
It imitates, that drives forever north
To what is rumored to be Spring.

This is not a sentence; it is a series of descriptive phrases, listing one after the other the things the sees as he walks in a city buried under heavy snow. All is white except for some soil and stones visible now at a spot in a “ruined passageway” that the snow hasn’t covered. The snow, by blanking out the warm, busy, in motion, distracting world, and allowing the unearthing of some signs of the true gravelike deathliness of existence (cold ground, colder stone), has plunged the poet into the condition of intellectual and emotional clarity – coldness – that will generate the poem.

Parodies, imitations – that’s what the world is. It pretends to be a world of life, of buildings and movement, but it’s really as deadwhite as the snow itself. The snow shows – to quote Philip Larkin in one of his deathly poems – what’s really always there, unresting death.

The snow is “raging,” and that raging will return in the last line of the poem: And snow is raging, raging, in a darker world. Note that the poem is three six-line verses of more or less iambic pentameter; but note also that the poem ends in one freestanding line, which carries most of the weight of the poem, sitting out there at the end all by itself. And what it carries is the poet’s full emotional realization of his own rage, his rage at the conditions of human existence. The snow rages in the first stanza; by that final line, the poet, now in a darker world from the vision of his early self that he sees during the storm, also rages.

If winter comes, asks Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind,” can spring be far behind? In the bleak depths of winter, in the depths of sorrow, we project the return of life, joy, spring… Yet Kees is cynical: the snow drives “forever north / To what is rumored to be Spring.” But it is not spring; spring is mere parody, mere imitation, mere covering over of the permanent icy deathliness of life.

The next two stanzas will describe his vision during the snowstorm of a lighter younger world:

To see the faces you had thought were put away
Forever, swept like leaves among the crowd,
Is to be drawn like them, on winter afternoons,
To avenues you saw demolished years before.
The houses still remain like monuments
Their windows cracked, For Sale signs on the lawns.

He doesn’t see his own particular younger self yet; he sees the younger, more innocent world he grew up in, the faces of family and friends suddenly swirl around him, and he finds himself drawn to them, to his past – and this is what I meant earlier by the retrospective thoughtfeeling procedure of so many poems – the poem so often seems a backward maneuver, a present moment rather quickly pressing the poet back, back, back, into the past, so that he or she can compare past and present.

The literal ruined passageways of the first stanza become in the second the demolished avenues of the poet’s past – demolished literally, in that those old streets have fallen into disrepair to the point of unrecognizability; but also demolished in their having been crushed by the poet, pushed into a past he no longer wants to think about. Yet they are still avenues – ways to get somewhere – and the poet will, whether he likes it or not, go back, in feeling and thought, to the past.

The houses on the street where he grew up have “cracked windows” – a nice image, consonant with his current world of snow and ice … yet rather than follow his thoughts forward again to his current cold conditions, the poet will now, in his third and final stanza, deepen that memory, move further down that avenue to youthful innocence:

Then grass upon those lawns again! – and dogs
In fashion twenty years ago, the streets mysterious
Through summer shade, the marvelous worlds
Within the world, each opening like a hand
And promising a constant course. – You see yourself,
A fool with smiles, one you thought dead.

So – the fully realized vision. Snow is gone, and grass is again upon the lawns of his childhood avenue. Yet – and here I think is the heart of this retrospective, undermined, thoughtemotion, utterance – what the poet really sees in this vision is not the sentimental business of I once was young and now I’m old; rather, he sees the world not boringly monotonal under the white of snow but fascinating, mysteriously rich and multidimensional under dappling “summer shade,” marvelous with imaginative possibility (worlds within the world), each new world “opening like a hand / And promising a constant course.” This generative palmy human flowering is not the snowy world that “drives forever north / To what is rumored to be Spring,” but rather a constant course, like the course of a river in spring – instead of icy motionlessness, or a hard driving snow which we deludedly hope is heading for spring, the poet’s vision here culminates in a past feeling, a conviction, that some constant pulse, or flow, of life energy, imaginative energy, the capacity to imagine and maybe even generate, new worlds, persisted through time and seasons.

The poet sees himself, his past self, “a fool with smiles,” a person he thought dead; and yet this retrospective capacity to feel again the life possibility suggests that the poet retains some of that earlier capacity. Still, the poem ends by returning, in that last single line, to the snow, with intensified rage at what the past has lost: snow is “raging, raging, in a darker world.”

Donald Justice, an admirer of Kees, wrote a similar retrospective thoughtfeeling – a poem titled “Absences.”

Of course we’ve already read a poem with this title – “Absences” by Philip Larkin, in Lecture 11. And a quick Google search turns up other poems with that title. Again I’d suggest that much of poetry amounts to a current feeling of loss measured against a past feeling of abundance, with the substance of the poem amounting to nothing less than an effort to conjure in real time this temporal depletion, the way it feels to live every day with death – again in the words of Larkin – a whole day nearer now, with the depletion of our physical, imaginative, and spiritual energies more and more intimately apparent to us.

Yet when is life, really, anything other than a variation on this theme? When we were young and welcomed by hand after hand of possibility, were we actually able to reflect and act on that abundance? Only when we get past unmindful, heedless, youth, are we capable of reflection and action, even if that action is compromised in various ways by the content of that reflection, by the undermining melancholy and bitterness that reflection may generate.

So that is a complex place to be in; but it’s real enough, and poetry is there – some poetry is there – to place us with clarity in that situation, to offer it to us as an insight so that we can know more about the truths that reside in our feelings. And even if this sort of prompt to thought is, as Camus suggests, undermining, this does not make it killing; it makes it an honest challenge to our tendency to deny our nature, and the nature of reality.

Okay, so let’s look at Justice’s “Absences.” (Scroll down.)

It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote.

So we’re in the snow yet again, but this is a more sedate snow than Kees’s – it’s not a blizzard driving itself into his face, but rather a quiet and remote sound of falling. No flowers, of course, it’s winter; but Justice is in fact writing in Florida, so the snow is not only mild – and unusual – but there’s still plenty of natural life around.

The snow elicits a childhood memory – same deal as in the Kees poem – but here again things are softer:

Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano.

So the gentle remote music of the ticking snow reminds the poet of his piano practice as a child, working his way down the scales – using only the white (snowy) keys.

Outside the window – palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white

So he recalls a bizarre day of snow in Florida, its mix of dead white and the persisting green of the palms – instead of Kees’s clear distinction between white and green, we have a strange meld; and yet the feeling tone seems about the same – green youthful memory, current “no flowers” snowing.

Now the cactus flower “cereus” is a pretty inspired choice of flower on the part of Justice, and not merely because when you recite the word it sounds exactly like serious, as in being a serious person, or as in truly meaning something (“I’m serious.”). The poet recalls, as a young man, practicing at his piano during a freak snowfall, looking out the window and seeing not merely palms, but the cereus flower, a yellow/white bloom that typically blooms only for one night – as in night-blooming cereus – or one day. So here the poet conveys the fragile transience of that glorious past to which both poets retrospectively return in their poems.

The heavy head of the cereus – pressed under the weight of snow, and in any case soon enough to “let down its white or yellow-white…” It is soon, like the poet, to be pressed into serious life, or the kind of life in death that is this compromised adult aftermath sort of life.

In his second stanza, he brings himself back to the flowerless present, to this current snowfall.

Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down…

So the fallen bloom, which makes a domed shape on the ground, reminds the poet of an innocent bridal gown cast down … This is poetry, deeply suggestive language… It takes us many possible places… So that if one wants to read this white dress cast down as an image of initiation into the adult world, the stripping off of the innocent garment in preparation for deflowering, one can certainly do that. But the poet won’t pursue the metaphor – he will simply move from feeling to thought, to the idea

So much has fallen.

This statement, again, can be read both literally – so much snow – and figuratively – I have in so many ways fallen away from what I was… Or, if you want to give it a Kees twist, the world has so much fallen away from what it once was… At least that’s how I feel, that’s what I think this feeling that my poem is trying to capture – nostalgia, a sense of the heaviness of life, the end of innocence – is ultimately about.

And here is how the poem concludes:

And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory.

I think we can read that word “step” musically, given the piano practice context of this; I mean, I think on first reading we read this as the poet listening for the step of a human being, and certainly the poem allows for this reading. But let us at least double it and suggest that the poet has been trying to recall, all afternoon, a certain interval between two notes that he played when he was a child; a particular one/two sound that now haunts him. He hears it now; but, as is the nature of these retrospectives, always undermined and undermining lyrics; they are always temporally slipping away even as the poem is being written. The interval once found is quickly lost, already falling away, already in memory.

And now the poet concludes with a lovely paradox, a mystery, an impossibility:

And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.

It’s a summation; in the final line the poet gathers all of the significant elements of the poem: piano, snow, flowers. The scales he remembers having played are now “terrible” because of their descent, their movement down the piano – a musical passageway of the sort – the ruined sort – Kees talks about. Those scales are temporality itself, as music is time, meter, played in time, and their descending character in his memory is linked to images of fallen flowers and cast down white dresses and inclining cereus heads – everything falling, fallen. The scales, you might say, have fallen from the poet’s eyes, and this is terrible as it is also terrible for Weldon Kees. The current piano is silent, yet it shakes with the descent of those remembered scales; the snow is flowerless and yet also abounds with the recalled – now absent – flowers that withstood – barely- the earlier snow.

Absent flowers abounding. – This paradox gets at the thoughtfeeling that in the case of Justice sustains him: imagination, emotion – these sustain and even proliferate the flowers, for after all the mind is creative, is itself generative, and can from the dead past reanimate some life. The mind, if you will, can go through that undermining emotional knowledge and come out still holding flowers, still somehow garlanded.

To think is to begin to be undermined – yes. But to go underground, to mine one’s memories, is not only unavoidable for thoughtful, feeling people, but potentially revitalizing, as indulgence in these heavy feelings may help you clarify where they came from, and how they might be put to less bitter use than Kees puts them.

The beautiful completeness of the realized poem is itself reassuring evidence of our capacity to retain strong feeling, to retain openness to the world, even as we feel beneath us our inescapable processes of erosion. Once again, poetry arrests life, suspends the erosive nature of temporal being, and exhilarates us with the truth of exactly where we are at this moment.

Working on my next Udemy lecture today…

… which I’ll be filming and posting this afternoon. It’s a discussion of poems by Weldon Kees and (his admirer) Donald Justice.

I’ll post the lecture here when I’m finished with it. I know some of you have subscribed to the lecture series; for those of you who haven’t, I thought you might like a taste of what I’ve been doing.

I’ll also post on some university stories. But all of this later this afternoon, after I do my MOOC.

Totally Fucked Post-Romanticism…

… is UD‘s category for the terrific poetry of D.A. Powell. (Read earlier UD takes on Powell here and here.) UD and her friend D (also a poet) are excited that Powell has won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. Powell shares Charles Wright’s long sly metaphysical line, but Powell’s voice is broken down, debilitated, old before its time, and quite pissed off. Powell’s a little like Richard in that Joni Mitchell songcynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe – only he has somehow surgically removed the boredom from this cliched body. These dark cafe days, sings Mitchell, and that’s a lot of Powell’s poetry — dark, post-AIDS, cafe days… The rage of the young romantic suddenly dragged by disease into dying.

Here’s the title poem of the book for which he won the award.

Useless Landscape

A lone cloudburst hijacked the Doppler radar screen, a bandit
hung from the gallows, in rehearsal for the broke-necked man,
damn him, tucked under millet in the potter’s plot. Welcome
to disaster’s alkaline kiss, its little clearing edged with twigs,
and posted against trespass. Though finite, its fence is endless.

Lugs of prune plums already half-dehydrated. Lugged toward
shelf life and sorry reconstitution in somebody’s eggshell kitchen.
If you hear the crop-dust engine whining overhead, mind
the orange windsock’s direction, lest you huff its vapor trail.
Scurry if you prefer between the lime-sulphured rows, and cull
from the clods and sticks, the harvest shaker’s settling.

The impertinent squalls of one squeezebox vies against another
in ambling pick-ups. The rattle of dice and spoons. The one café
allows a patron to pour from his own bottle. Special: tripe today.
Goat’s head soup. Tortoise-shaped egg bread, sugared pink.
The darkness doesn’t descend, and then it descends so quickly
it seems to seize you in burly arms. I’ve been waiting all night
to have this dance. Stay, it says. Haven’t touched your drink.

Nothing grows in this alkaline potter’s field; the poet’s eye ranges, with acidic exactitude, over the useless landscape of himself. All diseased, the earth here ends by taking the shape of a tumorous tree burl which seizes the speaker in its arms and spins him into a death dance. But before that sudden final descent, the poem’s all been variations on the same thing – the earth dessicated, deformed, chemically fouled, death-bearing. The genius of Powell allows a sick particular self to infiltrate these earthy lines; the clearing, for instance –

its little clearing edged with twigs,
and posted against trespass. Though finite, its fence is endless.

This is the specific private space of the speaker’s own demise, his certain end (finite) infinitely closed off, as experience, from anything he could share. Dying, the best he can hope for now is a paltry

shelf life and sorry reconstitution

which is to say no life at all, closeted away, only half-mended.

There’s no escape, in this landscape, from death — If you’re lucky enough to flee the fumes of the crop-duster, you’ll find yourself

between the lime-sulphured rows

- that white graveyard generating only lifeless sticks and clods for harvest.

Dopplers and squeezeboxes remind us we’re in the very immediate present, though gallows and millets and clods and conversations with devilish (sulphurous) death offer a grotesque medievalism for counterpoint, and for a reminder that nothing in the way of suffering and treachery changes. Squeezebox – again the brilliance of Powell – at this point in the poem seems a medieval word for grave, no? Dark little buried thing just big enough for the shrunken body of the sick man. Rattle of bones, rattle of dice and spoons – no one does associational thinking as well as Powell, no one so well conveys with this sequential array the movement of the bitter and sorrowing mind.

As we all begin swigging olive oil…

… because we’ve lately been told that the Mediterranean diet is the only way to go, let us note that poets have long been swigging olives and their oil and the trees that hold the olives, and there must be a reason for this olive-love on the part of so many poets. The most recent of poetic olivephiles, A.E. Stallings (read UD‘s appreciation of a poem of hers here), has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize, and the name of the nominated book is … Olives.

olive

A quick read of a bunch of poems featuring things olive confirms that poets like the olivesque because… Well, let’s go to the tape! Let’s do five olive poems! I bet we’ll discover that all poets – at least all the poets on our list — i.e., Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Karl Shapiro, Rachel Hadas, A.E. Stallings — like the same stuff about olives.

Pour la première, M. Wilbur, “Grasse: The Olive Trees.” (Go here for the complete poem.) So the poet’s in the south of France, marveling at the incredible lushness – almost to excess – of natural bounty there:

… the grass
Mashes under the foot, and all is full
Of heat and juice and a heavy jammed excess.

… The whole South swells
To a soft rigor, a rich and crowded calm.

But no – not everything around the poet is like that:

… olives lie
Like clouds of doubt against the earth’s array.

And why? Well, they look different, for one thing, all gray and gnarly and oldish and “anxious,” says the poet, in their thin arthritic presence.

What’s their problem? Their problem is that they’re at odds with their lush relaxed just let the rain drip all over me and the sun warm me up setting; they don’t trust the natural generosity of the cosmos; or, rather, they – like Kafka’s Hunger Artist – know that no matter how generous the universe, the lives it gives us are finite and difficult, and we will always be hungry and thirsty, wanting more joy, and more life. The olive is

a tree which grows
Unearthly pale, which ever dims and dries,
And whose great thirst, exceeding all excess,
Teaches the South it is not paradise.

So the olive is there to remind us that even in our most famous paradises – here, the south of France – the reality of life and death pertains: Our lives are treacherous, we’re barely getting by, and we grow unearthly pale, asking of existence compensations and fulfillments that will never occur. This is earth, not paradise, says the olive tree, and this is an important message, worth the poet’s notice…

Just so in James Merrill, the olive features in a poem about the frustration of being mortal, of having too little time to overcome one’s convoluted beginnings and break through to the elemental paradisal person one wishes to be (see Philip Larkin’s Aubade: “An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never…”). In “After Greece,” Merrill describes coming back to the States, back to his personal history, back to the story that made him and that he’ll never – however many times he leaves for Greece – escape. It’s an earnest New Englandy sort of inheritance – Christian, or maybe if not Christian at least animated by “Art, Public Spirit…” But Merrill wants neither of these – neither the moral piety of the religious life, nor the moral piety of the post-religious public spirited life. He wants essentials:

how I want
Essentials: salt, wine, olive, the light…

The poet is – in Wilbur’s words about the olive tree – “rooted hunger wrung.” His hunger for essentials has him calling out to the olives, begging their sun-laden natural fulfillment for himself; but “I have scarcely named you” when instead of that idealized earthy plentitude, what materializes is the gradually killing radiance of the Greek sun, turning things “unearthly pale.”

Shapiro? Same old same old.

The fruit is hard,
Multitudinous, acid, tight on the stem;
The leaves ride boat-like in the brimming sun,
Going nowhere and scooping up the light.
It is the silver tree, the holy tree,
Tree of all attributes.

Now on the lawn
The olives fall by thousands, and I delight
To shed my tennis shoes and walk on them,
Pressing them coldly into the deep grass,
In love and reverence for the total loss.

All attributes, multitudinous, holding on to life tightly; and yet the olive is going to fall to the ground, pregnant with nothing, and the poet celebrates this reverent opportunity the fall gives him to press his feet into the “cold pastoral” grave of his own abundant nothingness.

Next up, Rachel Hadas, who just says it:

Ideas of the eternal,

once molten, harden; cool.
Oil, oil in the lock.

The door to her country house gets old and stiff and hard to open, so she softens it with olive oil to make it young again. But as she gets older ideas of infinitely available regeneration “harden; cool.”

oil in the lock; the key
dipped in lubricity
the boychild’s shining skin
me tired to the bone

And finally Stallings herself – perhaps the most evolved of the poets – finds in the olive a rich equivalent to her acceptance of limitation, her understanding that to be always hungry is not the ideal human outcome. Of the poets, she’s the only one who claims the olive:

These fruits are mine -
Small bitter drupes
Full of the golden past and cured in brine.

That is, Stallings seems to have arrived at the proper attitude to take toward the olive. Not morbid, like Shapiro, or somewhat puling like Merrill. Not somewhat hectoring or lecturing, like Wilbur, who concludes a bit too authoritatively with his reminder to us; and not meanderingly wistful like Hadas (I mean, they’re all fine poems; I just think Stallings is the best). But rather with a toughed-up wisdom, and even a joy based on that difficult knowledge.

Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet…

for the truth, the bitter truth, that is, and the olive contains it. Its gradually darkening skin “charts the slow chromatics of a bruise,” the gradual process, also chronicled in the Hadas poem, of one’s recognition of mortality. The olive is

Daylight packed in treasuries of oil

Paradigmatic summers that decline
Like singular archaic nouns, the troops
Of hours in retreat.

So learn to love that fact of decline and retreat, that singular fast-becoming-archaic thing which is you, packed tightly with your daylight memories into the skin of an indehiscent mind, a mind strong enough not to split when it arrives at maturity.

Trademark PUSHKIN

News from Russia.

An applicant recently filed a trade mark application for Пушкин (Pushkin) to provide catering services… The Patent Office declined the registration, arguing that the word Пушкин is the name of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and registration of his name as a trade mark would not be in the public interest.

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