… let us consider poetry as self-comforting. Poetry as an effort to thaw, somewhat, the cold dark late days. You know that feeling, after you’ve been skiing or hiking in the snow for hours, of gradually warming beside a fireplace? It’s one of life’s great feelings, the chilled body quickening back to life with a tea or a brandy… Quickening – as in that beautiful entreaty from the heavens to the windy world, in a Phillip Larkin poem:
And in their blazing solitude
The stars sang in their sockets through
`Blow bright, blow bright
The coal of this unquickened world.’
To feel your limbs radiating again under the familiar low flame — the body, frozen, has been reanimated, and it’s a gift, a reassurance, a confirmation of your warm-blooded flow.
So in these two poems – On a Dark-Blue December Morning, and Lullaby – you have writers spending most of their poem evoking the cold dark late December world, and then, at the end, insisting on their human – aesthetic – capacity to make something beautiful and glowing out of it.
Aleksandr Kushner’s 1974 poem describes a glacial Leningrad dawn:
On a dark-blue December morning
We leave the warmth of our homes
And go out silently into the frost.
The wooden kiosk is covered with ice,
Steam rises steeply into the sky.
A damp shudder runs through the trees
And you, my lovely friend, are wide awake
Rubbing your cheeks with your mitten.
I think that lovely friend is a cat the poet spies, animals being less undone by rough climate than human beings. Animals just get on with it; they’re not compelled to make anything glow, to reassure themselves that the world isn’t entirely dead.
Snow fell last night. People are scraping it away,
Some gently, others more busily.
Drowsy kiddies, warmly wrapped,
Are carried past in tears.
Those children’s tears signal, at the very middle point of the poem, a shift from unweighted to emotionally heavy description. The cat’s cheeks are dried by its mitten; children’s cheeks run with tears in the stinging cold. But of course tears signal sadness as well.
How unlike a pleasant stroll
Are these excursions towards the river!
In the dark narrow streets
We shiver in the Leningrad draft.
The “damp shudder” that runs through trees is the city’s cold wet wind, provoking not merely tears and shivers, but a feeling of deathliness: those dark narrow streets are coffins, that shiver rattling bones, and the sad silent communal movement toward the river a funereal ritual, some sort of ultimacy.
Here’s the final stanza:
And I, in my usual dogged way,
Try to restore their beauty to
The houses, the indifferent squares,
And the pedestrian on the bridge.
Deliberately I miss my bus,
And freeze now, stranded in the snow.
But I cannot live until
I’ve learnt how this trick is done.
Da, so now we’ve got the poet stubbornly assuming the poet’s role:
Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
That’s Shelley talking to the wind, but it’s the same stubborn poet, insisting on quickening the petrified world. How is the trick done? How can Kushner take all that dead stuff – houses, squares, pedestrians – and make it living beauty? Both poets expose themselves to the forces of the universe – wind, cold – in order somehow to prompt those forces not to destroy (“freeze”) them but to share with them the trick, the incantation, of their vibrancy. This is the poet begging nature to make him a verbal transmitter of its radiance. I cannot live until I figure out how to transform my extraordinary need for extraordinary intensity of life into poetic language that will quicken all those who read it.
Second poem coming up.