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,