Saturday, June 28, 2008

Glistery, Glittery, Gold

Dear Everybody:

Quick and easy one today, both narrative and clear as clear. Here it is:

On a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
by Thomas Gray

Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purr'd applause.

Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What Cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled.)
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd:
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

And what can we learn from this? (Aside from the fact that poets feel free to replace syllables in words with apostrophes in order to maintain scansion, I mean.) We learn that popular quotations, the ones we can quote without having ever read their sources, are often wrong. Gray was actually paraphrasing Shakespeare here at the end: "All that glisters is not gold," from The Merchant of Venice.

In the original, Portia is being wooed by the Prince of Morocco and gives him his choice of three caskets, one of which contains her picture. If he chooses rightly, she'll marry him. The first, of gold, is inscribed, Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire. The second, silver, reads Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves. And the third, dull lead, has, Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath. You've all read fairy-tales. You all know how this one plays out.

The prince doesn't. He chooses gold. There's a poem inside, which reads:
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:

Many a man his life hath sold

But my outside to behold:

Gilded tombs do worms infold.

Had you been as wise as bold,

Young in limbs, in judgment old,

Your answer had not been inscroll'd:

Fare you well; your suit is cold.

Which is to say, don't judge by appearances. Well, at least the (mis)quotation gets the meaning right. Many don't. That "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech that everybody quotes so approvingly? They overlook the fact that Polonius, who made that speech, was a blatant fool.

All best,

p.s. Notice how every line of the Shakespeare poem rhymes with "gold?" Try to imagine what's in the silver cask. "All that glimmers is not silver..." And then eight more rhymes for "silver." I don't think even Will could have made that into something decent.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Clarity of Marianne Moore

Hey, everyone. Another poem by the estimable Marianne Moore:

By Marianne Moore

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.

[Poem removed because it’s still in copyright]

Note the clarity. Note how all the high-flown, elevated poetic diction of Coleridge has been scraped away. It might have made sense to write like that in Coleridge's day, when an old man might still remember people who talked like that. But contemporary poets who use words like "o'er" and "enow" are really pushing it.

All best,


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Solace and Magic

Dear Everyone:

Here’s the poem I promised you yesterday. It’s pretty clear if you just make allowances for changes in diction. Read it through slowly, and I’ll give you a straightforward synopsis of it afterwards.

On His Blindness
by John Milton

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.

Non-poetical rephrasing: When I think about how I’m blind, though I’m not even old yet, and how I dare not write, though I desperately want to and am sure God requires it of me, I foolishly [“fond” used to mean foolish] ask myself, how can God demand that I do something I cannot do? But the patient part of my soul replies: God doesn’t need anything you can give Him. Those who are content with whatever happens to them serve God best. He has thousands of servants to do His bidding. They who patiently wait for the orders that never come serve Him as well.

And if you got the politics of that one, you’re already a Milton scholar! Here’s what was going on. Milton was a Cromwellian. He not only served under Cromwell in an important government post, he spent all his energies writing political tracts, including a defense of Cromwell’s execution of Charles I. Then, when Cromwell died, came the Restoration -- Charles I’s son, Charles II, returned from France and was given the English throne again. Milton was thrown in jail and in serious danger of losing his life.

So there he is, desperate to fight the godless forces of Monarchy and unable to do so. It shows the strength of his character that he was able to find humility in such a fix.

It’s only rarely that a personal decision of morality can be objectively proved the right thing to do. But it happens. Exiled from the political arena which he loved, he went on to write Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, two of the greatest poems in the English language. And even today people who find themselves unable to do that which meant everything to them -- the injured athlete, the defeated politician, and myriad more -- find solace in this poem.

Oh, and you’ve heard people talk about “the magic of words,” I’m sure. Consider this: People can find solace in the poem who would shrug off my rephrasing of it as a pep talk. Why is that? Magic.

All best,


Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Political Richard Wilbur

Okay, guys! We've got an easy one today. I sincerely doubt you'll have any trouble figuring out what this one is all about.

A Fable
by Richard Wilbur

Securely sunning in a forest glade,
A mild, well-meaning snake
Approved the adaptations he had made
For safety's sake.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Yep, it's political. To figure out the specifics, you have only to go to the copyright date, which turns out to be 1987. Which means that the President of the United States was ...?

Don't everybody raise your hands at once.

That's right, Ronald Reagan. So this was an anti-SDI ("Strategic Defense Initiative," better known as "Star Wars") poem -- note the penultimate (this extremely cool word means simply "next to last") line. Not exactly subtle. Nor is it meant to be.

Now we're not going to go into the pros and cons of SDI -- intelligent people of good will may disagree on this issue. But I wanted to point out that (a) this poem is political as hell and that (b) many poems are political as hell. Including some which were so well made that they outlasted the common knowledge of just what those politics were.

One of those tomorrow.

All best,


Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Narrative Poem Brief Enough to Enjoy

Hi, Everyone.

I've been reading the Oxford Book of Narrative Verse lately, and all I could think was: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!" Narrative poetry is, quite simply, poems that tell a story. We're talking about "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" or "The Goblin Market" or pretty much anything by Chaucer. These things used to be way popular. Families gathered together in the evening to listen to them being read. Narrative poetry was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of its time.

So what happened to it? First radio, then television, now computers. Today, with the best will in the world, you'd find it tedious going to wade through even so jaunty a piece as Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" ("The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees/The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas") on a computer screen.

But -- lucky you! -- I found a narrative poem brief enough for you to enjoy. And here it is:

An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog
by Oliver Goldsmith

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene'er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

Pretty straightforward, eh? Did you catch the bit about Friedrich Nietzsche? Well, a good thing you didn't, because it isn't there. When I went looking for the poem on the Web, though, I discovered that a lot of sites solemnly explain that the "good man" was Nietzsche (best known for his proclamation of the Super-Man and for the statement "God is dead!"), the poem a satire on him, and the poison from which the dog died his philosophy. Which is a good trick, because Goldsmith died seventy years before Nietzsche was born!

This shows you the dangers of over-analysis. Even if the poem was a satire on some specific individual (and it might have been), its success and longevity depend on its being enjoyable to those of us who aren't in on the original joke.

Incidentally, I've seen the first four lines:

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot keep you long.

reprinted in books of nursery rhymes. As Bill Gibson once wrote, "The street finds its own use for things."

All best,


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Something Emotional

Okay, Everybody! You're back in form and ready to tackle something emotional.

Theodore Roethke suffered from depression -- depression the disease, not just unhappiness -- and said that he used the times when he was hospitalized to examine his own thinking. The result superficially resembles the Angst-y stuff that teenagers write, but differs from it in its clarity and (a word on this afterwards) honesty.

Note his dedication to form:

by Theodore Roethke

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue,
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Form first: Rhyme scheme ABABCC. You'll notice that while some of the rhymes are strong and clear (tongue/swung, eyes/disguise), others don't quite rhyme (aloud/house, cry/agony) -- there are various terms for this, but let's not bother learning the jargon. To understand why Roethke did this, we have to look at the substance of the poem.

I'm going to tell nothing but the truth, the poet says. No disguise, no evasion. I'm naked, the doors of my house are open. BUT THEN he says that the anger of the things he's talking about doesn't go away... and that rage silences him and turns his poems into "witless agony" -- expressions of suffering that don't actually offer insight.

To write as he wants, he says, he has to work through and get beyond the anger. Rage sheds heat, but not light.

Roethke suffered a lot. All right, he said, that's what I've got to work with, so I'll make poetry out of it. Even if, as here, the insight offered is how hard it is to do that very thing.

And those off-rhymes? All for truth. Roethke loved the formal aspects of poetry. He sacrificed the rhymes in service of the truth.

Tomorrow: An optimistic poem!

All best,


Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Rather Choleric and Wholly Admirable Dean Swift

Hi, Everyone:

To get you guys back in the habit of reading poetry, I'm starting out with an easy, easy, easy one.

It is:

Swift's Epitaph
by William Butler Yeats

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

Jonathan Swift, known to the literati as Dean Swift (because he was dead of St. Patrick's) is buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. There's a plaque there expressing solemn approval in even more solemn Latin. So why did Yeats feel the need to write his own epitaph? To create a memorial that would honor the man's most important aspects (you'll notice it says not a word about his clerical honors), one that could be carried in a person's head and thus was infinitely portable, and one that would outlast the plaque, the grave, the cathedral, possibly even Dublin itself.

Swift is best remembered today as the author of Gulliver's Travels, possibly the greatest work of satire ever written. In his day, however, he was deeply embedded in politics. He was an angry, intemperate man -- think Howard Dean crossed with Bob Dole on a very bad day and you've got Dean Swift on a good one. But he chose sides well. Though he was English and regarded his position in Ireland as a kind of exile (he desperately wanted an important gig in England), he was one of the greatest defenders ever of the Irish people. This hurt him -- there's always a lot more reward for stroking the ego of those in power than for telling them they're wrong -- but he followed his conscience.

His single greatest moment was when, in response to exploitative English policies directed against the Irish people, he wrote "A Modest Proposal," in which, mimicking the reasonable and pious voice of those defending government policy, he suggested that the Irish should raise babies for their meat and sell them to their British overlords, in one stroke reducing overpopulation and providing the British with a tasty dish which their current policies suggested they would be in no way averse to consuming.

People are still shaking their heads over that one. And you can be sure it didn't help Swift's chances of getting a nice, cushy gig in London. He knew it, too.

So, really, he earned Yeats's admiration ten times over.

All best,


Thursday, June 12, 2008

toujours gai toujours gai

Dear All:

Remember Don Marquis? Archy the cockroach? Of course you do! And here it is, the single most famous poem of the lot:

the song of mehitabel
By Don Marquis

this is the song of mehitabel
of mehitabel the alley cat
as i wrote you before boss
mehitabel is a believer
in the pythagorean
theory of the transmigration
of the soul and she claims
that formerly her spiritwas incarnated in the body
of cleopatra
that was a long time ago
and one must not be
surprised if mehitabel
has forgotten some of her
more regal manners
i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell
do you think that i would change
my present freedom to range
for a castle or moated grange
wotthehell wotthehell
cage me and i d go frantic
my life is so romantic
capricious and corybantic
and i m toujours gai toujours gai
i know that i am bound
for a journey down the sound
in the midst of a refuse mound
but wotthehell wotthehell
oh i should worry and fret
death and i will coquette
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
i once was an innocent kit
wotthehell wotthehell
with a ribbon my neck to fit
and bells tied onto it
o wotthehell wotthehell
but a maltese cat came bywith a come hither look in his eye
and a song that soared to the sky
and wotthehell wotthehell
and i followed adown the street
the pad of his rhythmical feet
o permit me again to repeat
wotthehell wotthehell
my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
wotthehell wotthehell
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
the things that i had not ought to
i do because i ve gotto
wotthehell wotthehell
and i end with my favorite motto
toujours gai toujours gai
boss sometimes i think
that our friend mehitabel
is a trifle too gay

Well, perhaps she is. A lot of people find a lot to admire in Mehitabel, though. I’ve heard this performed as a country-western song (without Archy’s editorial comment at the end, though) and I gather there have been other versions. There’s a great deal of courage in the old dame, and you have to respect that. On the other hand, her life is an endless series of disasters and you have to deplore that. I’ve known women like this and, well ... who am I to judge? Right? Wrong? Damnfino. But if you lead your life with brio (Italian for, roughly, zest), it probably doesn’t matter what other people think.

So, on reflection... pretty deep poem for a cockroach, eh?

All best,


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Whitman's Learn'd Astronomer

Dear Everybody:

I went looking for something by Walt Whitman, everybody's favorite ecstatic and all-round good guy (during the civil war, he volunteered as a nurse at military hospitals, though it broke his heart to see the damage done, and spent a great deal of time reading to the young men, writing letters home for them, and so on). The trouble is that something like "I Sing the Body Electric" or "Song of Myself," among his greatest works, is long, long, long. But here, down a step perhaps, is one of his shorter works:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Now, I would argue that ol' Walt is being a little hard on the astronomer. Properly understood, there is a great deal of beauty and, yes, even poetry in those equations. I remember how I felt after a college astronomy class in which we ran through the cascade of equations showing the nuclear reactions starting at the sun's core and carrying heat all the way up to its surface. Absolutely floored. The thought that a human brain could comprehend such great energies in so few symbols, working from a limited number of observations, made me proud to be a hominid.

But Whitman was a feeler, not a thinker. He didn't get off on analysis but experience. He was, as they used to say, high on life! So, really, it's only two ways of looking at the same thing. And if he can't understand the astronomer, well... the astronomer couldn't have written this poem.

All best,

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Life Falls Short of Perfection

Dear Everybody:

Okay, today we have a Russian poet -- in fact, during the Cold War pretty much the only Russian poet American had ever heard of. I never really knew what to make of Yevtushenko... It was a truism that honest artists suffered under the Soviet Union, while lackies, toadspittles, and people willing to write what they were told to write thrived.

Still, Yevtushenko seemed like an okay guy. He visited America and got drunk with Alaskan pipeline workers. He laughed a lot. He didn't hang out much with politicians.

Here's one of his poems:

Monologue Of A Broadway Actress
by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Said an actress from Broadway
time had pillaged like Troy:
'There are simply no more roles.
No role to extract from me all my tears,

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Okay! Not bad! Especially for a translation. The voice is quite good (but then, Updike was one of the translators). The story is clear. The actress starts out bemoaning the fact that there are no roles -- there are, of course, but not for her -- but as he diatribe continues, we see that by roles she means something larger than parts in a play. She means a role in life. Something meaningful to do. Everybody needs something meaningful to do, and finding it is one of the most important things you have to do in life.

Buried in the poem, incidentally, is the line, "Where are the great writers! Where?" In Russia, the arts are taken far more seriously than they are here, and in the Soviet Union they were taken far more seriously than they are now in Russia. Eric Hoffer, "the longshoreman philosopher" (he really was both), wrote that intellectuals in a free society envy those in an oppressive state because though they might be persecuted they're at least taken seriously. Which statement I would have thought populist demagogery if I hadn't heard an intellectual give a speech in which he said exactly that.

So we've got liberty and that means that writers aren't as important. Good! Still, I persist in believing that their works are important in proportion to the degree to which life falls short of perfection. In Paradise there is no poetry. Here, it can be of genuine assistance, if you let it.

All best,


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Allen Ginsberg in the Supermarket

Dear Everybody:

Speaking of visions and visionaries, here’s a poem from the late, great visionary Allen Ginsberg. In it, he imagines a vision of Walt Whitman in a supermarket. Enjoy!

A Supermarket In California
by Allen Ginsberg
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Okay, the first thing you have to know is that Ginsberg didn’t really see Whitman in a supermarket. Maybe he saw somebody who looked like Whitman and that touched off this poem. But in whatever case, he was firmly in touch with reality.

The next thing you have to know is that Ginsberg was obsessed with Whitman. He loved the poems, loved the ecstatic quality of them, loved Whitman’s love of life and diversity (and what better model for diversity than a supermarket?), loved the fact that Whitman loved America, loved the fact that Whitman was gay. There was a similarity there (one of Ginsberg’s most famous lines was “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”) and boy howdy, didn’t Ginsberg know it!

So in his imagination Ginsberg sees Whitman, his role model. “Where are we going?” he asks. Meaning himself, meaning his country. No answer, of course. But he thinks of the America of his childhood, lost in the past, and then of Whitman’s America, lost in his past. So it all resolves in a vision of America as ever-changing and yet still there when the old poet is dead and still there again when the young poet is dead. So it’s a love poem, really, to a country that is no more and yet remains.

I don’t need to tell you that Charon ferries the dead across the River Lethe to the afterlife.

All best,