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.

University of Louisville Singalong

LOUISVILLE U

folks you’ve heard of scandalous schools
history is full of scandalous schools
but you ain’t heard nothing til
you’ve heard about louisville

it’s a place that’s crawling with thieves
has a board that trustees try to leave
till you’ve seen dorm rooms rockin’ with whores
you ain’t even darkened their doors

they call the campus louisville u
what a fucked up campus can do!
it’s the lowest graduatingest, med school on probationest
school the world ever knew

the ed school dean’s in the pen
med’care fraud hits again
pitino petrino mcgee
sexy sexy whooooeeeeee!

they keep their audits on the down low
about their bank accounts nobody knows
secret foundations funnel the cash
the u of lou has made itself absolute hash

lots of low-lifes among their teams’ lads
and even the president’s paid to be bad
so here’s my warning to you
keep away from louisville u

Franqui Francisco Flores-de Freitas.

A well-born drug-runner whose name is two poetry lectures in one: Alliteration and iambic pentameter.

The Future Course Unfolds

THE FUTURE COURSE UNFOLDS

Wired, fake, and weaponized
The future course unfolds
On vast autumnal campuses
Of russet tones and golds

The lit professor eyes her flanks,
Her subject matter Brownings.
She makes her students versed in blanks
And fine machine gun mountings

The front rows rifle through their text
Back text beside their rifle
“It’s Sorrows of Young Walther next
Read or face reprisal.”

Glockean Rights are all the rage
In fields of poli sci
The classroom has become a stage
On which you live or die

To Chapel Hill’s fake courses
And laptop domination
Add in a military force
To public education

For the last few spooky days, I’ve been looking for a really scary poem.

It’s been difficult, probably because, as Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, “The fear that goes with the writing of verse is about … our mysterious awe in the face of existence.”

Frightening poems don’t typically narrate frightening things. That’s Stephen King’s job. They’re more about evoking one human being’s basic awe/terror at being itself.

And while this is scarier than a prom queen with telekinetic powers, it’s also harder to convey.

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

Here’s the winner of UD‘s Scariest Poem contest. It’s by Weldon Kees.

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

Homage to Arthur Waley

Seattle weather: it has rained for weeks in this town
The dampness breeding moths and a gray summer.
I sit in the smoky room reading your book again,
My eyes raw, hearing the trains steaming below me
In the wet yard, and I wonder if you are still alive.
Turning the worn pages, reading once more:
“By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.”

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

It’s a moment. A passing moment only, but one profoundly under construction for awhile, during those weeks of Seattle rain. You move through a gray mothy setting like that for weeks without responding much, but it’s working on you latently; within you the Seattle rain has been guttering and muttering, until a random moment comes when you’re sitting around reading a book and the morbid stream suddenly finds an outlet.

Since you’re recording a brief moment, a flash of fear, your poem will be brief. Since you’re conveying your flinty emotionally suppressed modern consciousness, you’re going to write casually and neutrally, as if sketching a few notes: Seattle weather: — That colon after the phrase tells the reader You’re not getting expansive descriptive lyrics out of me. If you want Romantic brooding upon damp weather, read Wordsworth.

Indeed, breeding moths and gray summer echoes T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land: breeding lilacs out of the dead land. But Kees’ later modernism will dispense even with the ironically recycled motifs of Romanticism (lilacs) that you find in Eliot.

On the poem’s title, by the way: You and I probably have no idea who Arthur Waley might be; he could be a fiction, like the fictive personality “Robinson” who appears in many Kees poems… But the poet will conclude the poem with a line apparently taken from the work of Waley, so maybe he’s real. Don’t know yet.

This poem is an homage, and on top of that, it’s a direct address to this Arthur Waley: reading your book. And reading it again. Like the Seattle rain, that book has been working on the poet. He reads its “worn pages” repeatedly.

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

This is also a claustrophobic poem. Driven in by incessant rain, the poet exhibits a double interiority – he’s inside a room, and he’s inside a book. His dialogue is with a fellow writer, a specter – “I wonder if you are still alive.” He is talking to words on a page, or to a ghostly projection of whoever wrote those words. The larger nimbus of obscurity he’s evoking throughout the poem (“smoky room”) deepens yet more the sense that we’re in a mysterious and somehow malign world in which people are driven in on themselves.

“My eyes raw” – The only dry things in this poem are the poet’s eyes as he reads and reads the worn pages. The world storms without; within, the poet, in a protective, banked-in mode, reduced to mere debilitated sight, seeks repeatedly to focus on poetic fragments that seem to convey something of great value to him.

The “trains steaming” in the “wet yard” are let’s say the poet’s fevered – angry? – consciousness rolling through a hopelessly mysterious outer world.

I wonder if you are still alive. In the pulled-back, depressive, barely-there atmosphere of this poem, that line can be read not merely as a direct address to Waley’s ghost, but as self-inquiry. Am I still alive? (For readers who know about Kees’ mysterious last days – or were they his last? did he commit suicide? his body was never found – this line will be especially eerie.)

Now, with his last line, Kees quotes directly from the text he keeps rereading:

By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.

Let’s look that up, shall we?

Waley was indeed a real person, an important translator of Asian poetry, and part of the Bloomsbury set. Ezra Pound was among the first to publish his translations. He was also a close friend, as it happens, of T.S. Eliot. (The woman with whom Waley spent his life is described, wonderfully, as “the veteran of three failed Platonic and vegetarian liaisons.”) Kees’ final line, the line that gathers up the symbolic hints of his poem and takes them to a conclusion, is taken from one of the poems Waley translated.

Doubly interiorized, intersubjective, interpoetic on three different levels (Waley is himself translating the work of yet another poet), intercultural (west and east), intertextual… Homage to Arthur Waley‘s got it all if you’re looking for ontological creepiness, for a fully evoked sense of the frightening convolution of the world, the self, and other selves. (Want more? Don’t even go there…) With great recurrent effort, the poet begins to sense and admire (“homage”) the capacity of Waley’s rendering of his own ghostly poetic precursor’s effort to articulate the horrible ominous fact of the curtain of the world becoming more, not less, occluded (“My eyes raw” – those rainy sands making the yellow dusk are throwing sand in the poet’s eyes) as we mature toward the end of our existence. The yellow dusk thickens. Life narrows. The veil of rain darkens.

“The sting of reason / The splash of tears / The northern and the southern hemispheres / Love emerges and it disappears…”

A totally random reminder that not many people write lyrics as well as Paul Simon.

Chinese Checkers…

… as in real actual fact checkers… might have helped here; but, really, in a context of close to zero critical capacity in regard to contemporary American poetry, plus an eagerness for ethnic balance, what do you think is going to happen?

Ol’ Yi-Fen is refreshingly honest:

“As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems, [using as Asian name in place of my all-American name] has been quite successful for me,” [Michael Derrick Hudson] said, noting that “The Bees” had been rejected 40 times under his own name but only nine times under the pseudonym before it was printed by the journal Prairie Schooner.

And then picked up for this year’s Best American Poetry collection.

Will it make Best of the Best?

UD doesn’t think so. UD notes that the poem and the poet have given the poetry world major tsuris. Yi-Fen Chou Michael Derrick Hudson looks headed for inclusion in Least-Liked American Poets 2016.

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

A far more elaborate Asian-author hoax is discussed here (the discussion includes a quotation from Margaret Soltan UD SOS). It’s also mentioned here, in connection with this latest Let’s Pretend.

Yet more on the Araki Yasusada hoax here. Funny how everyone’s reminded of it.

(My 2000 article on Yasusada is here, but you need to have/buy access.)

(Plus I wrote a follow-up to that piece:

“The Bicameral Mind: Response to Bill Freind’s ‘Just Hoaxing’.” Angelaki 6.3 (2001): 221-24. MLA International Bibliography. Ames Lib. 31 Mar 2008.)

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

A limerick? Must I?

Okay.

I cannot help noticing how
When I put words like Yi, Fen, and Chou
At the top of my page
I become all the rage
But everyone’s mad at me now

The Moody Blues

Joseph Brodsky, honored yesterday with a plaque in London, wondered, like Seamus Heaney, if the careful, vulnerable, reflective, poetic voice could make any difference in a cruel, violent, and possibly meaningless world. His poem “A Part of Speech” broods on past (his own past, in Russia), present (he’s now an émigré, finding himself at the moment in Munich), and future (“when ‘the future’ is uttered, swarms of mice / rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece / of ripened memory which is twice / as hole-ridden as real cheese” — which is to say that for the poet the very concept of a future is an absurdity).

This past/present/future suggests a temporally dynamic poem, but “A Part of Speech” is Oblomov in successive sonnets, a chronicle of immobilism:

As regards all that parallel-
line stuff, it’s turned out true and bone-clad, indeed.
Don’t want to get up now. And never did.

That immobilism suggests an answer to the question of poetry’s function: It doesn’t have one.

Or it doesn’t have much of a public function. Consciousness it can do a lot for. The reader’s and the poet’s:

A novel or a poem is not a monologue, but the conversation of a writer with a reader, a conversation, I repeat, that is very private, excluding all others – if you will, mutually misanthropic. And in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness. It remains with a person for the rest of his life in the form of memory, foggy or distinct; and, sooner or later, appropriately or not, it conditions a person’s conduct. [A] novel or a poem is the product of mutual loneliness – of a writer or a reader… [V]erse writing [and reading] is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe…

From his perch in comfortable Western Europe, the poet recalls silent dead village life in the east, where the poetic voice is a whisper of speech, or not even that, between the sound of the waves, a

wan flat voice
that ripples between them like hair still moist,
if it ripples at all.

He recalls (in a beautiful line) “A nowhere winter evening with wine,” and then evokes all the emptiness of that earlier place (“wind battering the limp grass / that submits to it,” “Silvery hoarfrost has transformed the rattling bell / into crystal,” “rows and rows / of swamp in a pine-wooded territory where no scarecrows / ever stand in orchards,” “a tram rattles far off, as in days of yore, / but no one gets off at the stadium anymore.”). And then we get this marvelous stanza:

As for the stars, they are always on.
That is, one appears, then others adorn the inklike
sphere. That’s the best way from there to look upon
here: well after hours, blinking.
The sky looks better when they are off.
Though, with them, the conquest of space is quicker.
Provided you haven’t got to move
from the bare veranda and squeaking rocker.
As one spacecraft pilot has said, his face
half sunk in the shadow, it seems there is
no life anywhere, and a thoughtful gaze
can be rested on none of these.

So there we have, mid-poem, the possibility that it’s all nothingness, no life anywhere. At best a mere ripple of it here. Or as Brodsky once said to one of his memoirists: “You know in the end, none of it matters, what happens to you in your life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.”

But there’s more poem, so let’s see…

Well, there’s love:

A voice
pitches high, keeping words on a string of sense.
… The heart, however grown savage, still beats for two.
Every good boy deserves fingers to indicate
that beyond today there is always a static to-
morrow, like a subject’s shadowy predicate.

The voice of his lover trills with meaning, and however nihilistic the heart, it seems hardwired to exist in a world of mutuality – a mutuality that promises a future, however “static” that future in fact turns out to be.

And there’s poetry itself (“the pen that puts up these limping / awkward lines”), which can at least hear and record humanity’s voice:

On occasion the head combines
its existence with that of a hand, not to fetch more lines
but to cup an ear under the pouring slur
of their common voice

For after all

What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

The poet concludes that he is “tired of summer,” tired of the warmth of Munich, and drawn to memories of frozen villages. Echoing the famous first lines of The Waste Land, the poet finds that he prefers the nihilistically appropriate eastern winter to the annoyingly lifelike western summer:

If only winter were here for snow to smother
all these streets, these humans; but first, the blasted
green. I would sleep in my clothes or just pluck a borrowed
book, while what’s left of the year’s slack rhythm,
like a dog abandoning its blind owner,
crosses the road at the usual zebra.

And then he concludes the poem with a bracingly realistic definition of freedom:

Freedom
is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name
and your mouth’s saliva is sweeter than Persian pie,
and though your brain is wrung tight as the horn of a ram
nothing drops from your pale-blue eye.

Freedom is nothing glorious and fine and uplifting and large; it is simply the gradual Oblomovlike forgetting of enslavement. It is the capacity to experience despair – as this poet is experiencing despair – without weeping. The capacity to bear the metaphysical weight of the world – east and west – without collapsing.

A poem, from 1943, by William Jay Smith …

… who has died, age 97.

ELEGY

O flots abracadabrantesques,
Prenez mon coeur, qu’il soit lavé

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

Look to the heavens, Heliotrope.
Follow the sun. Sun, shine!
The streets are numbered, shelled, and soft:
Eleventh, Olive, Chestnut, Pine.

Mannikins puff pale cigarettes,
club girls clench calypso-colas;
from verdant rooftops yeomanettes
succinctly sigh: Sobre las olas.

You shipped him off address unknown
you shipped him far beyond Endurance
I cannot reach him on the phone
He left me all his life insurance.

Look to the heavens, Heliotrope.
Follow the sun. Sun, shine!
The streets are numbered, shelled, and soft:
Eleventh, Olive, Chestnut, Pine.


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

The epigraph is from Rimbaud, a very grotesque poem of his in which “the poet’s heart is puking over the poop of a ship.” He asks the waves – the magical, transformative, abracadabra, waves – to take his heart and wash it, clean it, make it no longer a heart that has been “depraved” by a depraved world. So let’s say that Smith has taken from Rimbaud the idea that the world is so nauseating and sordid (he’s writing this poem in the midst of yet another war) that our desperate desire to escape it becomes downright suicidal. Maybe it’s better to be dead.

The poem itself – a brilliantly condensed, weirdly suggestive and associative lyric – seems to address a soldier killed in the war (You shipped him off…), a young man to whom the poet softly and sympathetically speaks.

You, a young plant, a lover of the light, a follower of the sun – as you lie there dead, look up in the sky and see that sun. Follow it heavenward, to a cleansed realm of light. Throw off your casket (Pine), your dead body, your “shelled” body (bombed, eviscerated), and leave the degraded world, the realm of finitude and division, where the streets, like your days, “are numbered.”

And now there’s a stanza about that world left behind, with its indifferent partying semi-human (mannikin) cigarette and club girls who lean back in their chaises and briefly note the absence of the dead man (Over the waves extends the Rimbaudesque waves).

And now the voice shifts, and a mother or a wife angrily mourns his loss, and again an image from the sea appears in a reference to the famous ice-entrapped ship, Endurance. He could not survive the extremity to which he was subjected, and his survivor cannot fathom the distance now put between them.

Note how, like T.S. Eliot and many other modernists, Smith melds very high spiritual language (Look to the heavens) with very low modern/commercial language (He left me all his life insurance). The party girls, and his survivors, remain in a dark degraded world, while the heliotrope twists toward the sun.

And now this strange unsettling little song repeats its first verse, presses on the dead soldier its insistence that he cleanse himself entirely of this world, and ascend.

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

That was one way of putting it, to quote Eliot. Like most great highly compressed lyrics, this one is wide open to interpretation.

To Mark Philip Larkin’s Westminster Stone


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it hourly for two days or so.
Maybe at last, a Philip Larkin fan,
I must be satisfied with life sucks, although
Morning and night as this verse began
His other old familiars were on show:
Don’t reproduce. Money and fame are rot.
Death scares my pants off
and the Lord knows what.

What did he but enumerate old themes,
First Yeats-inspired (as all close readers know),
Then, through The Movement, all our shattered dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
The ways that poetry turns into prose;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, loving this bridesmaid who poked at brides.

His masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that his life is gone
He must lie down within Westminster’s heart.
At the pantheon of the poet’s art.

The remedy for bad poetry is good limericks.

The London Review of Books publishes, in its June 4 issue, a rivulet of consciousness by the poet Craig Raine. “Gatwick” expresses the thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season (speaking of which, read this if you want a good poem about being a dried up old guy), and readers are not only grossed out by this dirty old man poem, but they rightly note that in any case it’s a very bad poem. (Nothing wrong with its subject matter, by the way. Great prose as well as poetry has been written about being horny.)

The poet’s passport control agent at the airport tells him she studied his poetry. He writes:

We are close. We are both grinning.
We have come
together by a miracle.
Two sinners simultaneously sinning.
In passport control. No shame.

Miracle? Sinning? Where in this grubby meandering poem is there anything to justify language like that? Nor does it come across as ironic, as it might in, say, T.S. Eliot. It’s just there, lazily wanting to lift the meaning of the encounter, and of the poem, to someplace higher than the merely horny.

Rather than just complain about the LRB printing this poem, one reader wrote a limerick about it.

There once was a poet who went
To very great lengths to invent
An excuse for his boner
Which shamed its poor owner
And turned his shorts into a tent.

Now that’s great poetry.

The Poetry Foundation lists UD’s MOOC…

… on its Learning Lab page.

A poem by Yvor Winters for Memorial Day

AN EPITAPH FOR THE AMERICAN DEAD

Who should dare to write their praise
Do so in the plainest phrase.
Few names last, where many lie;
Even names of battles die.
These will stand for many more:
Wake, Bataan, Corregidor,
Attu, and the Coral Sea,
Africa, and Sicily;
Callahan, who ran his ship
To the very cannon’s lip.
Men, devoid of name and hour,
With direction gathered power;
Stripped of selfhood, each must be
Our hostage to Eternity.

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