Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mr. Toad's Imaginary Garden

Okay, Guys:

Here’s a poem with explication that I put together months ago, left unfinished on my computer and completely forgot. Just ran across it today, and here it is:

by Marianne Moore

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

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

Wow! Okay, we’ve got a defense of poetry here that begins by conceding the case to those who hate poetry. I don’t like it either, says the illustrious poet. There are things far more important than fiddling around with words. Even so, you have to admit that we should value our hands, eyes, and hair -- not for any esoteric reason that has to be explained in class, but because they’re useful. So, too, with poems. If they’re just imitations of other poems, they become incomprehensible, and if we can’t understand them, what use are they?

That business about "business documents and school-books," though... what’s that all about? Well, Moore is playing a more esoteric game here than she lets on. Under that aw-shucks folksiness, she’s engaged in a deep argument about poetry with her great predecessors. Tolstoy wrote in his diary, “Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies, I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books,” and Moore had been impressed by the passage. (How do I know all this? I read a footnote.) Moore’s reply: Let’s not deny the possibility that a business document or school-book might be poetry without actually looking at it.

Similarly, “the literalists of the imagination” came from something Yeats wrote about Blake. (Another footnote.) But let’s ignore that. Back to Ms Moore! She concludes with another backhand slap at “half poets” (they’re not even bad poets!) and concludes that what makes for good poetry is “real toads in imaginary gardens.” Within the artifice of the poem, the poet has to say something real.

Anybody here disagree with that? I didn’t think so.

Your assignment, class is to cut the poem down to three lines, for a total of no more than two dozen words. Can you do that? Well, don’t bother. Marianne Moore has already done it for you.
That poem tomorrow.

All best,


Monday, October 27, 2008

A Useful Vintage

This should have gone up Saturday. My apologies. I was out of town.

Dear Everyone:

Today, a few words of wisdom from Dick Lovelace:

The Vintage To The Dungeon
Richard Lovelace

Sing out, pent souls, sing cheerfully!
Care shackles you in liberty:
Mirth frees you in captivity.
Would you double fetters add?
Else why so sad?

Besides your pinion'd arms you'll find
Grief too can manacle the mind.

Live then, pris'ners, uncontrol'd;
Drink oth' strong, the rich, the old,
Till wine too hath your wits in hold;
Then if still your jollity
And throats are free—

Triumph in your bonds and pains,
And dance to the music of your chains.

Okay, so this is metaphoric, right? Prisoners are used as a metaphor for all mankind – because we're all prisoners of something, if only of infinite space. There are, alas, limitations. I am not allowed to walk on the surface of the sun, nor to live forever. And don't think it doesn't grinch me!

But Lovelace says... well, you know what he says. It's right there in black and white. "And dance to the music of your chains." A guy who spent hard time told me how one day he'd dropped acid in prison. He spread his arms wide and said ecstatically, "And I was free!" He meant it. So did Lovelace.

Note that in the title the poet refers not to "wine" but to "the vintage." This is a figure of speech called synecdoche, wherein a part represents the whole. As in "a fleet of fifty sail," when "fifty ships" is meant, or "We polled the best brains in the business" when "most intelligent people" is meant. The wine/vintage usage is a slightly rarer usage in which the whole (the year's totality of wine) represents the part (the specific wine brought into the prison). That's synecdoche too, as is the representation of the specific for the general or the general for the specific, as in, "He was a Croesus" for "He was a rich man." This example being...? Let's not all raise our hands at once. That's right: the specific for the general.

Useful word, synecdoche. Impresses the hell out of people. But if you're going to use it in speech, I recommend you look up how it's pronounced. Not the way its spelling would have you suspect.

All best,


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

War! And Baseball! And War

This, a little early, is Thursday's Poem du Jour. I leave at five a. m. tomorrow for an asteroid deflection symposium, so I won't have time tomorrow. And tonight? I'm giving up the very beginning of the World Series. That's how seriously I take this thing.

I know you'll understand. Because all intelligent people appreciate baseball and poetry. Sometimes they're the same thing.

But not today! Here's the post:

Dear Everybody:

Two poems today! But fear not – they’re easy.

First, from Siegfried Sassoon:

Song-Books Of The War
by Siegfried Sassoon

In fifty years, when peace outshines
Remembrance of the battle lines,
Adventurous lads will sigh and cast
Proud looks upon the plundered past.
On summer morn or winter's night,
Their hearts will kindle for the fight,
Reading a snatch of soldier-song,
Savage and jaunty, fierce and strong;
And through the angry marching rhymes
Of blind regret and haggard mirth,
They'll envy us the dazzling times
When sacrifice absolved our earth.

Some ancient man with silver locks
Will lift his weary face to say:
"War was a fiend who stopped our clocks
Although we met him grim and gay."
And then he'll speak of Haig's last drive,
Marvelling that any came alive
Out of the shambles that men built
And smashed, to cleanse the world of guilt.
But the boys, with grin and sidelong glance,
Will think, "Poor grandad's day is done."
And dream of those who fought in France
And lived in time to share the fun.

No explication needed here, eh? Except for the fact that he was dead wrong. This poem was published in 1918, so it was about WWI (then known as the Great War or, rhetorically, the “war to end all wars,” meaning that many expected it to be the last one ever), which was so grim and desperate that even today nobody fantasizes about fighting in it. His point is still valid, though. There are WWII re-enactors today, and lots of people who fantasize about it. My father was in that war. He never talked about it. He was a farm kid who owned guns and hunted. He never fired a gun again in his life. Draw your own conclusions.

The second poem is as follows:

The Butchers At Prayer

Each nation as it draws the sword
And flings its standard to the air
Petitions piously the Lord—
Vexing the void abyss with prayer.

O irony too deep for mirth!
O posturing apes that rant, and dare
This antic attitude! O Earth,
With your wild jest of wicked prayer!

I dare not laugh . . . a rising swell
Of laughter breaks in shrieks somewhere—
No doubt they relish it in Hell,
This cosmic jest of Earth at prayer!

Not exactly subtle. You’ve noticed I left off the poet’s name. Well, it was Don Marquis. Wait... you say. That sounds familiar. Yep. He was the guy who wrote Archy and Mehitabel, the lighthearted stories about an alley cat and a vers libre cockroach. Funny man. Bitter poem. Draw your own conclusions.

All best,


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Day Without Poetry

Hi, guys!

No poem today. I almost clipped you one, though. [NAME WITHHELD] posted an "editor's choice" poem and I was going to send it out to remind you guys of what bad poetry looked like. I was thinking about [NAME WITHHELD], who was a serious poet before she turned to writing science fiction, looked pained when I asked her opinion of science fiction poetry and said, "It's rather like the Special Olympics, isn't it?" I had a rhetorical point to make.

But after fourteen lines, I said to myself, "Life is too short," and also, "These guys were in high school. They know from bad poetry."

So today we skip the poem entirely and go straight to the rhetorical point. Which is to posit one of those questions we all should ask at the beginning of an enterprise but somehow never do. Usually because we're too polite.

First, the answer. In Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard (which, incidentally, you can skip with a clean conscience; it has moments, but it's not very good; if you want to try Vonnegut, start with Slaughterhouse Five; best thing he ever wrote, and short to boot), the protagonist, an abstract painter, says something like, "People ask me how I can tell a good abstract painting from a bad one. I tell them to go out and look at ten thousand paintings. Then they'll never be fooled! Never!"

So, too, here. Even the poems you don't like teach you things about your own taste. And who knows? Decades hence you might find some of the stuff you thought was crap are actually great. Happened to me.

Oh, and the question: "Why should we bother reading all these poems you send us? What's the point?" A rude question, but a good one. You get an A-plus for asking it.

All best,


Monday, October 20, 2008

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

Good friends:

Today’s poem is clarity itself in all matters but one, and that one I will clear up right now. “Terence” herein refers not to the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer, as you might easily assume if you hit up a one-volume deskside encyclopedia, but to Housman himself. He always called himself Terence in his poems. Dunno why.

Here’s the thing itself:

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff
by A. E. Housman

"Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, 'tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad."

Why, if 'tis dancing you would be
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh, many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie god knows where,
And carried half-way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt
- I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

So. A defense of depressing poetry. I was gonna synopsize it (beginning, “In the first stanza, the poet’s friend says, ‘Fred, your poems are such major gloom-cookies...’”) but let’s be honest, you read it, you got it, you bought the t-shirt, you went home and puked on the rug. Let’s not flog a dead horse. Or cow, as the case may be.

But here’s the major irony of the poem: It’s remembered chiefly not for its laborious observation that great poetry is, like nasty medicine, unpleasant but good for you, but for a throwaway couplet early on, “And malt does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to man.” Which must be quoted by literate sots literally every day of the year with the first word lopped off:

Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

Note the literate reference to the line early on in Paradise Lost stating Milton’s major theme. By breaking it out of Housman’s gloom-cookie, a million anonymous but well-read boozers have created a work of found-poetry. It states a major truth in an absolute minimum of words. And it rhymes too!

Just keep in mind the wisdom of our major advertisers and Don’t Drink to Excess. Housman lies when he says it cheers you up, but he wasn’t kidding about lying down in the muck.

Your pal,


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Andrew the Marvellous

Dear Everyone:

Okay, you guys signed onto this because you were feeling uncultured? Well, today we make a quick jaunt into the heartland of our culture. Here, painlessly, you get to feel superior to your post-slacker Gen Borg buddies, and get a valuable lead to a major epic poem you might want to look into someday!

Let's set the stage. Clipped from the Web, a bit about Marvell:

Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) was a close friend of Milton's and his associate (after Milton lost his vision) in the office of Latin Secretary in Cromwell's Protectorate. Marvell's poem was the first important criticism of Paradise Lost, published along with a Latin tribute by Samuel Barrow in the second edition of the epic (1674). It is interesting to note how Marvell characterizes his early doubts about Milton's project and just what he later comes to value in Milton's achievement.

And now the poem:

On Mr.Milton's Paradise lost
by Andrew Marvell

When I beheld the Poet blind, yet bold,
In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the Argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent,
That he would ruine (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song,
(So Sampson groap'd the Temples Posts in spight)
The World o'rewhelming to revenge his Sight.
Yet as I read, soon growing less severe,
I lik'd his Project, the success did fear;
Through that wide Field how he his way should find
O're which lame Faith leads Understanding blind;
Lest he perplext the things he would explain,
And what was easie he should render vain.
Or if a Work so infinite he spann'd,
Jealous I was that some less skilful hand
(Such as disquiet alwayes what is well,
And by ill imitating would excell)
Might hence presume the whole Creations day
To change in Scenes, and show it in a Play.
Pardon me, Mighty Poet, nor despise
My causeless, yet not impious, surmise.
But I am now convinc'd, and none will dare
Within thy Labours to pretend a Share.
Thou hast not miss'd one thought that could be fit,
And all that was improper dost omit:
So that no room is here for Writers left,
But to detect their Ignorance or Theft.
That Majesty which through thy Work doth Reign
Draws the Devout, deterring the Profane.
And things divine thou treats of in such state
As them preserves, and Thee in violate.
At once delight and horrour on us seize,
Thou singst with so much gravity and ease;
And above humane flight dost soar aloft,
With Plume so strong, so equal, and so soft.
The Bird nam'd from that Paradise you sing
So never Flags, but alwaies keeps on Wing.
Where couldst thou Words of such a compass find?
Whence furnish such a vast expense of Mind?
Just Heav'n Thee, like Tiresias, to requite,
Rewards with Prophesie thy loss of Sight.
Well might thou scorn thy Readers to allure
With tinkling Rhime, of thy own Sense secure;
While the Town-Bays writes all the while and spells,
And like a Pack-Horse tires without his Bells.
Their Fancies like our bushy Points appear,
The Poets tag them; we for fashion wear.
I too transported by the Mode offend,
And while I meant to Praise thee, must Commend.
Thy verse created like thy Theme sublime,
In Number, Weight, and Measure, needs not Rhime.

What we've got here (it is obvious to me, who's written so many of them) is a foreword, one of those brief praise-essays you find at the beginnings of books, written by somebody with enough celebrity to be familiar to the book-buying public, hinting at personal intimacy and providing a little helpful spin to put the reader in a receptive frame of mind for what's coming.

And what a great intro! Andy really knew his business. He sat down and figured out what Joe Public's knee-jerk negative reactions to the poem were going to be, and addressed ‘em. "Wait... you've written something more ambitious than the Bible? Not possible, man," and "This sucker doesn't even rhyme!" are answered smoothly and with assurance. If you go into the poem with a bad attitude after reading this introduction, then there's something personal going on. Maybe Milton shot your dog.

And the poem itself, Milton's great Paradise Lost – what's that like? Well, here I have a confession to make. I haven't read it yet. Plan to someday. But, like you, I've been busy, and it looks long and daunting, and I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

But here's the very opening:

OF Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos. Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great Argument
I may assert th' Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

Ignore the difficulties here, and listen to that voice: deep, resonant, authoritative, trustworthy. In radio, they call this "the voice of God." By his phrasing, Milton assumes a gravitas and authority second only to the Bible itself.

There's a lot more stuff to be said about even this small passage than you could tolerate today. I'll content myself with one brief observation, one brief anecdote, and a teaser for tomorrow's poem.

The observation: Note how at the beginning Milton invokes the Muse. This is a Classical piety; most long Greek poems began this way. Milton, however, was writing a specifically Christian poem, and so the lines "Thou from the first/Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread/ Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss/And mad'st it pregnant" identify the Muse as the Holy Spirit. Note how he pops in "Dove-like" for those Christians who are rather dimmer than most (but still go to church where the Holy Spirit is always painted as dove), so that they'll get it. Craftily done!

The anecdote: The early parts of the poem dealt with Lucifer's rebellion against God and his banishment to the Infernal depths, where he famously declared, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n." Many feel that Lucifer is the true hero of the poem. As Blake observed, "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."

The teaser: That final line, "And justify the ways of God to men" neatly encapsulates Milton's great theme. Tomorrow we hear from the other side.

Fiendishly yours,


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Babe Ruth of Poetry

Dear Everyone:

Today, echoing the line in yesterday’s poem that Robert Hass was so taken by, we have a poem by the all-time heavyweight champion of English literature, Big Will himself!

Let’s set the scene: Macbeth, after an inglorious reign that begins with a regicide and goes rapidly downhill from there, is on the castle walls, under siege by his enemies. He’s outnumbered, outclassed, and he knows he’s not going to survive this one. Things can hardly get worse. Then they do. A cry is heard from within the castle, and Macbeth learns that his wife has just killed herself. In a bleak way, it’s almost a Zen moment: He becomes fully enlightened as to the futility of human life.

Here it is, from Macbeth, act five, scene five:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
by William Shakespeare

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Great speech! And a great poem, too. It’s written in blank verse (technically speaking, unrhymed iambic pentameter) which is a form that the second-greatest playwright of Elizabethan times, Christopher Marlowe (but his buddies get to call him Kit Marlowe) adapted to playwriting. Then Shakespeare took what Ben Jonson, himself no slouch as a playwright, called “Marlowe’s mighty line” and ran with it.

Blank verse is a very natural form for the English language. In the hands of a great poet, speech becomes poetry. Note how natural that speech sounds when read aloud. Note how poetic it looks on the page.

This is a terrific piece to memorize. When a friend is feeling down, you can recite it and annoy the hell out of him. But my favorite use of it was in a Hoppity Hooper cartoon. Hoppity Hooper was a naive young frog in a traveling medicine show made up of his uncle Waldo Wigglesworth, who was a fox, and Filmore, the Strongest Bear in Captivity, Wisconsin. Waldo Wigglesworth was obviously a former Shakespearean actor and at the beginning of one episode something Hoppity says causes Waldo to launch into the above soliloquy, at the end of which a solitary tear falls from his eye to the ground with a sharp clink. Which had absolutely nothing to do with the cartoon, of course. That’s what made it so funny.

Sean and his mother are absolutely convinced that I invented The Hoppity Hooper Show, simply because almost nobody else has ever seen it. Absolutely untrue. It was the creation of Jay Ward, who was also responsible for Crusader Rabbit and (more famously) Rocky and Bullwinkle. I had nothing to do with it at all.

Would I lie?

All best,


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sylvia By God Plath!

Dear Everyone:

A guest commentator today, the poet Robert Hass. He knows this material better than I do. Well, as a former poet laureate of the United States he oughta. Still, he doesn't just jot these things down off the top of his head the way I do.

Here, from a sampling of his poetry column posted on the Web is:

A Poem by Sylvia Plath
By Robert Hass
"Poet's Choice," March 15, 1998

[Essay removed because it’s still in copyright; but Google it, and there it'll be.]

By Candlelight
By Sylvia Plath

This is winter, this is night, small love --
A sort of black horsehair,
A rough, dumb country stuff
Steeled with the sheen
Of what green stars can make it to our gate.

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

Michael here again. We’ll revisit that line tomorrow (or tomorrow or tomorrow, creeps). Right now I just wanted to say, as I am your friend, don’t pick up a copy of Birthday Letters. Worst poems Hughes ever wrote. Pick up his volume Crow instead. Or Plath’s Ariel. Either one of them will sear the little hairs off the backs of your hands.

All best,


Thursday, October 9, 2008

An Incantation

Hi, Everybody!

Today’s poem is by Octavio Paz:

Wind and Water and Stone
by Octavio Paz
The water hollowed the stone,
the wind dispersed the water,
the stone stopped the wind.
Water and wind and stone

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

Wow. Sounds like an incantation, doesn’t it? Well, check out the following:

He knew the arteries of fire, and the beat of the great heart. He knew what to do. It was in no tongue of man that he said, “Be quiet, be easy. There now, there. Hold fast. So, there. We can be easy.”

And he was easy, he was still, he held fast, rock in rock and earth in earth in the fiery dark of the mountain.

That’s from a story by Ursula K. Le Guin, and it’s a scene where a wizard steps into a mountain and gentles it, stopping an earthquake and (as it happens) imprisoning himself therein forever. When I reviewed the story, I wrote of that exact passage, “Here, at the story’s climax, the elegantly simple prose reaches through eloquence to become, for one sentence, incantatory.”

Tolkien once observed that once you could say, “The grass is green,” you had the power to work magic, to imagine things otherwise, to say, “The sun is green” or “The grass is orange.” So this connection between spells and poetry is very basic and goes right back to the roots.

All best,


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Snob Time!

Dear Everyone:

Okay, it’s snob time. Today we have a poem by Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Who he, you ask? Only one of the greatest lyric poets of all time is all. We know him simply as Horace.

Everybody’s heard of Horace. How many people do you know who’ve ever actually read anything by him? Invest a couple of minutes on the lines below and it’ll be you!

Let me set the scene. It’s a spring day in Italy 2,000 years ago, and Horace's friend Lucius Sestius is worried about money, his social position, and his love life. To which Horace replies:

To Sestius
by Horace

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their
caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattleAre restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the
early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth
has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He's going to knock at a rich man's door or a poor man's.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don't put your hope
in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto's shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love
with Lycidas,
This or that girl with him, or he with her?

Did you note the translator’s use of “revenant”? Cool word. It means “One who returns” or, more to the point, “One who returns as a spirit after death,” meaning, usually, a ghost. I looked it up for you. Alas, I cannot tell you what Latin word Horace used, but from the context it almost certainly translated roughly as “creepy-scary spirit.” The gamers among you may want to remember this word.

Here’s what poet Robert Hass had to say about Horace:

“He was born when Rome was emerging as a world power. He fought, as a young man in those turbulent years, in the wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and wrote most of his poems in the age of Augustus.

“With Catullus and Virgil and Ovid, he's one of the four great lyric poets of ancient Rome. For English poets from Shakespeare's time to the end of the 19th century, he was the man. Horace spent most of his life in retirement on a modest farm in the country outside Rome. He wrote immensely civilized, poised, exquisitely polished, and apparently casual poems about the countryside and the Roman seasons, about not living in the Augustan equivalents of the corridors of power and the feeding frenzies of the media and the fevers of the deal. His values were the gentleman farmer's ideals. Balance was what he admired, independence, privacy, friendship, a sensible prosperity, good wine, the fruits of the season.”

And now you’ve read him! Don’t you feel ever so cultured? Trust me, nothing makes you feel scornfully superior to your fellow man like reading the classics.

All best,


Monday, October 6, 2008

Do I Contradict Myself?

Dear Everyone:

Here’s a companion piece to yesterday’s poem

A Poem for the End of the Century
by Czeslaw Milosz

When everything was fine
And the notion of sin had vanished
And the earth was ready
In universal peace
To consume and rejoice
Without creeds and utopias,

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

Okay, and rather than make my usual pontifications (great word! but you already know what it means, right?), I’m gonna give you the word straight from the Man himself. Here’s what Milosz had to say about yesterday’s and today’s poems. In that order:

The two poems placed here together contradict each other. The first renounces any dealing with problems which for centuries have been tormenting the minds of theologians and philosophers; it chooses a moment and the beauty of the earth as observed on one of the Caribbean islands. The second, just the opposite, voices anger because people do not want to remember, and live as if nothing happened, as if horror were not hiding just beneath the surface of their social arrangements.

I alone know that the assent to the world in the first poem masks much bitterness and that its serenity is perhaps more ironic than it seems. And the disagreement with the world in the second results from anger which is a stronger stimulus than an invitation to a philosophical dispute. But let it be, the two poems taken together testify to my contradictions, since the opinions voiced in one and the other are equally mine.

Or, as Walt Whitman put it: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” (Great quote! Memorize it, use it on people who smugly tell you you’ve just contradicted themselves, and watch them squirm with annoyance. But don’t use it on English majors. They’ve heard it a million times.)

All best,


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Conversation with Jeanne

Dear Everyone:

I learned just the other day that Czeslaw Milosz had died. Admirable man. Anti-fascist, and then anti-Communist. Like so many Europeans he experienced the lash of history first-hand. Which is why he died in America.

An oeuvre is an artist’s entire body of work. Those of you who paint or draw or write (I think that’s everybody) already have an oeuvre. The rest of your life will be spent trying to make it larger and better. I’m not sure what la prune de Cythere (I’ve removed the accent from the penultimate – great word! look it up – e, because it so often gets scrambled by email programs) is exactly. Not mango. Maybe breadfruit. Some tropical fruit, anyway. Prune is French for plum.

Conversation with Jeanne
by Czeslaw Milosz

Let us not talk philosophy, drop it, Jeanne.
So many words, so much paper, who can stand it.
I told you the truth about my distancing myself.
I've stopped worrying about my misshapen life.
It was no better and no worse than the usual human tragedies.

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

So, okay, at first glance this looks to be your standard letting-go-of-the-world poem: I accept my own unimportance and the inevitability of death and so it makes me free. The sea’s gonna be here long after I’m gone.

Only that doesn’t work, does it? And deliberately so. The voice is too weary, too petulant. If Milosz were really trying to sell you the party line, he’d make it more convincing. Instead, he says right at the beginning, “drop it, Jeanne.” He’s drinking “rum with ice and syrup,” and the phrasing tells us that he’s not only self-medicating but that it’s joyless drinking. And it ends with death, the graveyard imagery of purple-black earth, and dwindling into an infinite ocean. Which I should not have to tell you is an off-the-rack symbol of death.

So what is he free of? Life.

What a downer. But that’s not the whole story. Stay tuned tomorrow.

All best,