Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Last Poem du Jour

Good friends:

This will be the last entry in this blog. I've run through all 99 surviving emails (yes! this one is Old Hundredth!) and while I would be perfectly content to go on writing light prose about good poems forever, it simply wouldn't be the responsible thing to do. I have a living to make and literary immortality to earn. So I can't afford to indulge myself.

As a farewell, however, I thought I'd break with precedent and write an original letter covering something that wasn't discussed in any of the emails to Sean and his friends. Here it is, and a great poem, too. It's from William Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Lovely stuff, innit? The play becomes life, the world becomes the Globe, and in a handful of words Shakespeare renders the essential tragedy of human life beautiful. It's yet another poem that I'm tempted to simply put before your eyes and then silently step back from without comment.

But the formula for this series of letters has been simple: The poem is presented in a non-threatening way. The reader is encouraged to simply read it and let the words wash over him or her, without getting too analytical about it. And then I drop in some easy tid-bit of insight into the poem which any English major would know already, but is worth hearing nonetheless. Followed, sometimes, by a light observation taken from my own life, and then something not entirely dissimilar to a moral.

Here's the tid-bit: The poem doesn't exist in the above form in the play itself. It's part of a speech which in its entirety goes:

You do look, my son, in a mov'd sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.--Sir, I am vex'd:
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled.
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity.
If you be pleas'd, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.

Wait! Wait! you say. Do I mean to say that the first excerpt isn't really a poem? Not a bit of it. Shakespeare was a poet and so he would write poems and then place them into the speeches and dialogue of his lowbrow hackwork. (What you and I would call the immortal and divinely inspired blah blah blah. Shakespeare wrote plays because he needed to earn a living. Given an independent income, he probably would have stuck entirely to verse.)

And here's the autobiographical bit: I swiped the poem and dumped it whole into the end of my novel Bones of the Earth, to make explicit what I was doing there. Which is to say I was using the poem for my own practical purposes, exactly as Shakespeare did when he included it in The Tempest.

Finally, here's the lesson I want you to take from this: Poems are useful things. They can give you courage. They can make you look witty. They can help you punch up a monologue in your lastest play. Pick one up the way your Australopithecine ancestors might have picked up a stick or a rock. Then use it as a tool. To what purpose is entirely up to you.

Now I take my bow.

Good night,


Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Poet of Rags and Tatters

Dear Everybody:

We return today to that poet of rags and tatters, Archilochos, once as famous as you can get, and now... Well, be honest now. Had you ever heard of him? Me neither.

But is he useful, you ask? Divorce the poems of his history and what remains? For one...

To His Soul
by Archilochos

Soul, my soul, don't let them break you,
all these troubles. Never yield:
though their force is overwhelming,
up! attack them shield to shield,

nor victorious rise exalted,
vaunting you can never fall,
nor defeated lie in endless
grieving, as if loss were all.

Take the joy and bear the sorrow,
looking past your hopes and fears:
learn to recognize the measured
dance that orders all our years.

Okay, you probably had a little trouble with the poetic diction (i.e., speech which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard come out of a real person’s mouth) in the middle. Easily resolved. Vaunting means boasting. So he’s saying, “Nor, when things are going your way brag that you can’t be defeated. And when you are defeated, for Chrissake, don’t wallow in it!”

So... useful? You betcha. Next time you’ve really screwed up, and things are looking bleak, try murmuring it to yourself. “Soul, my soul, don’t let them break you...” All the way to that end that recognizes that sorrow and joy are recurrent in our lives and that if you take the long view it all looks like a dance.

Or, in other words: Courage.

Your friend,


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Archilochos? Who He?

Dear Everyone:

If you were an ancient Greek, in need of entertainment, and a wandering rhapsode came to town, you'd of course want to hear something by one of the Big Two, the monsters of verse, the Snoop Doggy Doggs of their age – either Homer or Archilochos.


Yep. Archilochos came the Aegean island of Paros. He left there after a citizen named Lycambes went back on his promise to give his daughter Neobule in marriage to Archilochos. Who did what any poet would do, and vented his wounded feelings in satiric verse. So scathing was his poem that Lycambes and all his daughters hung themselves.

Which is why he had to leave town, go to Thasos, and become a professional soldier. Here's what he wrote about the glorious battle he fought against the Saians:

Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.

After leaving Thasos, he is said to have visited Sparta, but to have been immediately once banished for his cowardice and the smutty character of his poetry. Eventually, he made his way back home to Paros, where he was slain by a soldier named Corax, who was for this excommunicated by the Oracle for having slain a servant of the Muses.

Of his works only 500 lines remain, as of a week ago.

Did you catch the qualifier? Yes, thanks to the scholars at Oxford, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been decoded (really a fascinating story there; you know how to use Google), and we now have 30 more lines of his poetry!

In celebration of which, tomorrow you'll get another poem by him.

All best,


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Plain, Simple, Hard to Figure OUt

Hey, Everyone!

Today we've got a poem that goes right to the heart of what we're trying to do here. Which is to get everybody comfortable enough and familiar enough with poetry to understand it.

Paradoxes and Oxymorons
by John Ashbery

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

Okay, so a poem walks into a bar, right? It strikes up a conversation with you. Only you don't get it. It's hard to figure out. Maybe the poem assumes you know things and have done things that you haven't. It's nobody's fault. It's as much the poem's fault as yours.

The poem's sad. Being understood is its raison d'etre, its reason for existing.

And here's where the poem gets difficult to follow. That's an oxymoron (terrific word; it literally means "bright dim," signifying something that's self-contradictory). Because the poem's about clarity and simplicity of language. But when you're talking about language, its descriptions get very complicated very fast.

So Ashbery says that he considers poetry to be a form of play. Which is true. But that he considers that form of play to be an immensely serious thing. This playfulness can easily be lost in the "chatter of typewriters." Which means it's a tough thing to do.

But Ashbery has done it again! In this poem! And it makes him wonder (playfully) if you, the reader, only exist in order to coax this poem out of him. But then the "you" that he imagined doesn't exist, does it? And, completed, the poem doesn't distinguish between you and him. He's just another reader now.

Finally, he says "The poem is you." Or "you." He's never met you, after all. The person he addresses really exists only within the poem. The person he's addressing is not you, is not the reader, is the poem. And thus, paradoxically, if you "get" the poem, you are the poem.

That's only one interpretation, of course. You can roll your own if you like.

So is the poem any good? Sure it is. How good? That's up to you to decide.

All best,


Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Courageous Stride, the Ridiculous Slippers

Hi, All:

Okay, it's been more than a day. But here's your second poem on the subject:

by Anne Sexton

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

You all noticed, of course, that the poem contains a lifetime. That it begins with a child's first steps and proceeds chronologically to end with old age and death. And Sexton tells you up front that it's about courage.

Courage is an everyday thing, Sexton says. Imagine the courage it took for you to stand up and walk for the first time, an event "as awesome as an earthquake." And I'm sure you can still remember the courage it took to endure schoolyard taunts. Nobody ever forgets them.

The next stanza moves courage into the arena of war, and refers specifically to the Korean War. "Waitaminute," you say. "Women weren't allowed in the war arena back then." Absolutely right. But your teachers misled you when they said that poetry was about self-expression. Sexton is speaking about the world and she's speaking for everyone.

Herein is the most subversive aspect of the poem: She converts the act of a buddy dying to save you from the martial rhetoric of Homer and the USMC to a quotidian (that means "everyday") reality. It's as simple as "shaving soap." Simultaneously here, she has undone the glory of the act while elevating it to the status of love.

So it goes, for two more stanzas. At the end of life, Sexton says, we are the most courageous of all. And when at last you can't stave off death for even an instant longer, "you'll put on your carpet slippers and stride out." Picture that in your mind: The courageous stride, the ridiculous carpet slippers. Fools on the outside, but heroes within. This is the human condition glorified.

Life is tough business, Sexton says. It's not for sissies. We're not sissies, you and I. We're human beings.

All best,

P.S. So why shaving soap and not hand soap? To defend herself from the charge that she's trying to "feminize" men. She's just trying to reflect on the way things really are.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Should We Kill Kipling?

Dear Everyone:

Today I offer one of the most popular and sneered-at poems every written. There's much to be said on both sides. But to begin with, read the poem with an open and sympathetic mind. Try your best to hear and appreciate it exactly as Kipling meant you to:

by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And–which is more–you'll be a Man, my son!

So... what do you think? Moving? Ripe? Both? These are all valid reactions. The two most common reasons for disliking this poem are 1) overexposure, and 2) a dislike for people who offer advice at length. For the first, there is no cure – people do pass this around too much, and once you've heard "In A Gadda Da Vida" five hundred times, you'll never want to hear it again. But for the second, it helps to remember that Kipling is trying to be helpful. He's offering the distilled wisdom that a lifetime of being knocked down and getting right back up again has taught him.

The big criticism of Kipling, though, is that he was the mouthpiece of the British Empire, the jingoistic sloganeer, the man who perceived and embodied the Victorian spirit in all its brave, foolish, world-conquering bulletheadedness. When applied to his best (and usually early) work, this is cruelly unfair. But there's no getting around the fact that success turned him into the guy who wrote "The White Man's Burden" and such lines as, "Oh, it's Tommy this and Tommy that, And shove ‘im out, the brute. But it's savior of ‘is nation, When the guns begin to shoot."

And certainly, in this poem, you can see the distilled essence of the shared values and attitudes that allowed the British to conquer half the world in, as one historian put it, "a fit of absent-mindedness." There's a story of a seven-year-old Victorian English girl in India who fell out of a tree while playing and broke her arm, but went on playing for another half-hour because she knew she was expected to not show weakness before the natives. If you read George MacDonald Fraser's wonderfully comic Flashman novels, you'll see that exact same attitude examined by somebody who finds it kind of weird and creepy.

On the positive side, the poem is clear and lucid – and isn't that a relief after some of the stuff we've plowed through? We know exactly what Kipling was trying to tell us. And his formal command of the language is astounding. The rhyme scheme (ABAB, repeated endlessly) ought to make the poem sound singsong and yet it doesn't. How did he do that?

There are lots of cunning bits of craft hidden in the poem so openly that you probably missed them entirely. To mention just one: The fact that the poem is addressed to the narrator's son isn't revealed until the very final word. Which, since the reader has been receiving the poem as a direct admonition directed at him, turns him into the poet's son, and Kipling into his father. A very powerful relationship has thus been imposed, and absolutely without resistance on the reader's part!

But the key question is, does the poem work? That is, is it of actual help in the messy business of living? And the answer is, I think, on balance, yes. Not as a self-improvement program -- it contains a near-infinite number of goals and no advice on how to reach them -- but as a way of making the reader brave. I'm sure there have been any number of times when somebody faced adversity and defeat and drew strength from these lines in the form of a determination to be THAT kind of man, one who can force his "heart and nerve and sinew" to act hopeful, courageous, and strong, long after hope, courage, and strength have left him.

Yes, it's a hokey poem. Yeah, if you successfully internalize it, you'll be a massively repressed Type-A personality. But anything that helps you when times are hard is to be cherished. And, even at its worst, it's like the parson's egg – parts of it are excellent.

So, on balance, I think we'll let Kipling live.

Tomorrow, a rather different poem on the subject of courage

All best,


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cat! Poem (What Could Be More Commercial?)

Dear Everybody:

I having been away so long, at various times in Australia, in my own thoughts, and in fluenza, I'm getting you back into the swing of poetic things easily with:

To a Cat
by Jorge Luis Borges

Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

Borges is respected as a poet, but revered as a writer of prose. (He's the guy who wrote about an infinite library containing not only every book written but every book possible; a man who forgets nothing and another who sets out to write Cervantes' Don Quixote four hundred years after Cervantes; the Alef, which contains within it all things; the Lottery of Babel, which is indistinguishable from life itself; and many, many other intellectual mind-benders.) So his poetry is more cleverly-constructed than profoundly-felt.

Note here how the cat is a thing of absences, defined by negatives ("not more silent nor... more secretive), never seen or described, identified with mirrors, the dawn, a long-forgotten time, the Ganges, a setting sun, a dream. All of which are absolutely unlike the physical thing that is a cat. In fact, what Borges has evoked here is a day, from sunup to sundown and sleep, and a world, through at least two continents. No furs, no claws, no eyes. Only, in fact, a "haunch" pushing up against "the love of a distrustful hand."

"You know my methods," as Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson. What am I getting at here?
Two things: The poem is in the second person, so the poet is addressing a cat. The haunch and the hand place the cat in the poet's lap. Borges is feeling contemplative, dreamish. That's one. The other is that "distrustful" hand. The word leaps out at the reader. You'd expect "distrusted." But no, that word reveals that the poem is not about the cat at all. It's about the poet himself, the member of the race that distrusted the cat's wild ancestors, and somehow, so long ago the facts are forgotten, tamed it anyway.

So the poem's not really about a cat at all. It's about how the poet feels about cats. It's about the idea of a cat.

That's all for today. But we'll have more soon.