Tuesday, April 29, 2008

William Shakespeare

Dear Everybody:

The other day, I kicked around the A. E. Housman rather harshly for making his poetry over-"poetic," and suggested the reason so much rhymed-and-scanned poetry of the twentieth century was bad was that it was written by second-rate poets. Second-rate poetry is not a new phenomenon. Take a look at this great extract I just now pulled from the Web:

If he be learned, and that he be able to write a verse, then his pen must ply to paint his mistress's praise; she must be a Pallas for her wit, a Diana for her chastity, a Venus for her face; then she shall be praised for her proportion: first her hairs are wires of gold, her cheeks are made of lilies and red roses, her brows be arches, her eyes sapphires, her look lightnings, her mouth coral, her teeth pearls, her paps alabaster balls, her body straight, her belly soft, from thence downward to her knees, I think, is made of sugar candy, her hands, her fingers, her legs, her feet and all the rest of her body shall be so perfect, and so pure, that of my conscience, the worst part they will leave in her, shall be her soul.

-- Barnaby Rich (1578)

I don't know who Barnaby Rich was, but the man was a mean satirist. Well-griped, BR! Now here's a take on the same phenomenon by Billy-the-Kid Shakespeare, who was quite a decent poet and (his contemporaries all agreed) a fast man with a comeback. From his sonnets:

My Mistress' Eyes
by William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Props to the Big Shake. The sonnet functions simultaneously on two levels. Secondly it's a critique of bad poetry. First and foremost, it's a great love poem, neatly calculated to soften a woman's eyes and resolve. Which is, let's never forget, one of the reasons poets get into the business in the first place. (When asked why she became a minister, our friend Pastor Marcia wryly said, "I got in it for the money." And poets can only envy a minister's salary.) Here are all the cheapjack things a lesser poet would throw at you, he says; I tell no lies, have no illusions, see you exactly as you are, and love you truly. Tell me that wouldn't work.

So why was Shakespeare's poem so much better than Housman's were? Because he was looking directly at what he wanted to say and using words to further the purpose. Housman let the words push him around. "The question is," as Humpty Dumpty said, addressing this very question of author versus words, "which is to be the master -- that's all."

Lewis Carroll, though "only" a satirist, was a good enough poet to get into all the definitive anthologies. So, okay, tomorrow we'll have something from him.

All best,


Friday, April 25, 2008

Anonymous, Pinsky, Auden, Hopkins, Housman


Dear Sean, dear Cynthia :

A short one today, by our old friend Anonymous:

Western Wind
by Anonymous

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! If my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Short but lovely, eh? I've also seen it as "Christ! That my love were in my arms" and to be honest prefer it that way. No matter. Rain and romance, rain and loneliness, a strong dash of sex mingled with the warmth and drowsiness of slumbering abed on a rainy day. That's a lot of recomplication for four lines! And it's a hopeful poem, too -- "when wilt thou come?" asks the poet, so it's only a matter of time, the separation is not permanent. Poe, thinking on a dead love, wrote "The Raven" with its obsessive "Nevermore." Here, though... melancholy and patience.

Dad, Michael


Dear Sean, dear Cynthia, dear Jason:

And welcome aboard, Jason! In honor of this being your first poem, I present a rather simple one, by a man who became famous as America's most telegenic Poet Laureate, a guy whose presence on Public TV became a commonplace, Robert Pinsky. If you've ever heard him read on Channel 12, then you'll hear his voice in the following:

by Robert Pinsky

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians [. . .]

[The rest of this poem has been removed because it’s still in copyright; but you can probably find it on the Web.]

First some background: Maybe you guys don't know about the Triangle Shirt Factory fire in 1911. My mother was born in NYC, so I sure do. A terrible tragedy which killed 146 sweatshop workers, mostly women. All the doors were locked to make sure that nobody sneaked out early.

As for Ossian, well, in the 1760s one James Macpherson published fragments of what he claimed was an ancient epic poem he had translated from the Gaelic. The poem recounted the heroic undertakings of the legendary warrior-bard Ossian. It was a smash hit, and a complete fraud. Macpherson had written the fragments himself.

Which is to say that MacPherson wrote real poems which were simultaneously forgeries.

As for the poem itself: Pinsky, our recent Poet Laureate, writes in a clear and simple voice meant to be heard aloud, so its workings show a little more obviously than most. You'll note here the careful research, the catalogs (a device that goes back to Homer and beyond) of specific items, the internal rhyme ("presser, cutter, wringer; mangle, needle... treadle"), the reference to three separate poets (George Herbert, Hart Crane, and -- though not by name -- Macpherson) in order to anchor the poem to the Great Tradition, and so on.

And my judgment on the poem as a whole: Very good, not great. It's a meditation on a shirt, which seeks to express the wealth of associations and web of moral connections that the simplest and most quotidian (that means "everyday") of items can evoke. At which task it succeeds. But it returns us to where we started when it ends, "The shirt." It's an entertainment, and a very good one, which hasn't transcended itself.

But it does show us some of the tricks, eh?

All best,


Hi, Gang!

Jason's asked if a friend of his can also receive these poems, so my daily letter has become something of a (very short) listserv. In recognition of which, I went to the Oxford Book of English Verse and copied out the very earliest poem there, one that's almost eight hundred years old, and which will prove somewhat annoying to us all. Patience! I'll make it all worthwhile in the end, I promise.

Here's the poem, by one of our favorite authors:

Cuckoo Song
by Anonymous

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth me,
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!

Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu, cucco:
Ne swike thu naver nu;
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cucu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!

Phew! Sounds like it was written in another language, eh? Well, it was. The English language has something like a ten-percent attrition rate per century. After five centuries, half the words have been lost and replaced! So for a poem apparently composed in 1226 (it was probably the lyrics to a song), this is surprisingly clear. Here's a rough translation:

Summer is a-coming in,
Loud sing cuckoo!
Seed grows, and blows me,
And springs the wood now –
Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleats after lamb
Lows after calf cow;
Bulls start, bucks leap,
Marie sing cuckoo!
cuckoo, cuckoo, well sings thou, cuckoo:
Nor cease thou never now;
Sing cuckoo, now, sing cuckoo,
Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!

A little better, eh? Remember -- it's a song. You wouldn't want our culture to be judged by the lyrics to Michael Jackson's "Beat It," now would you? Still... it's worth reflecting that the first poem in the O.B.of E.V. is a joyful one, and a paean to summer.

Early English poets for some reason thought that cuckoos were just the coolest things ever. De gustibus non disputandum or, as my mother used to say, "There's no accounting for taste, said the old woman as she kissed a cow." But here's the educational bit, a useful word: onomatopoeia. (Pronounced ON-ah-mah-tah-PEE-ah.) Sounds great, eh? It means forming a word by imitation of a sound associated with something. Splash! Croak! Thud! Zoom! Comic books are full of onomatopoeia. So you've got a glorious, chrome-plated word to describe something that likely as not you'd better not be caught with in class.

Oh, and I said I'd make all the effort worthwhile? Here's another poem, one I have by heart, from, believe it or not, Ezra Pound:

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing goddam!

He must've felt great when he scribbled that one down.

All best,


Dear All:

Today's poem is by Gerard Manley Hopkins, ostensibly a Victorian (he lived from 1844 to 1889) but in common regard the first modern poet, a guy who was writing twentieth-century poetry far ahead of its time. And what makes it so modern? It's difficult to read! Traditionally, poetry was thought of as clarified language, which brought out complex ideas in astonishingly easy-to-follow form. Those archaic poems we find so difficult to follow weren't hard for their contemporaries; we only find them so because the language has changed. The past century changed all that, along with the notion that serious music should be pleasant to listen to and serious novels easily comprehensible. So why should we bother? Well, read the following and see.

Before you do, though, it will help you to know that a "windhover" is a kestrel, that "minion" here means darling, a "dauphin" is an heir, and a sillion the ridge between two furrows of a plowed field. Also that, because accented letters so often don't survive emails, I removed two from the poem, so that "sheer plod" wouldn't come out as shéer plód. Oh, and that Hopkins was a Jesuit. Hence the dedication immediately after the title.

To Christ Our Lord
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I CAUGHT this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Well, I warned you it would be work. But great stuff, innit?

So what makes this poem so difficult? First, GMH's invention of "sprung rhythm." Instead of a traditional poetic rhymed meter, so many stresses in so many syllables, DUM-da-da, DUM-da-da, DUM-da-da-DUM, the rhythms are more varied and variable, musical but not necessarily singable. I could go on and on about this, but it would put you to sleep.

Second, Hopkins was trying to intensify the meaning of each line to "squeeze the water" out of the language. This meant, among other things, that he eliminated all words that he regarded as mere grammatical signs, helpful little signifiers there only to make the meaning clear. Also intensifying the meaning are clashes of sound and various puns, some involving languages very few people are familiar with. So -- this must be emphasized -- if you had to read the poem more than once to get it clear in your head, the problem is NOT WITH YOU.

Gerard Manley Hopkins never tried to publish in his lifetime. He thought his religious superiors would disapprove. But in 1918, almost thirty years after his death, a collection of his poetry came out and was a smash hit not so much with the general reading public as with a whole generation of brilliant young poets. W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas thought he was the bee's knees. And so the idea that poetry should be brilliant-and-difficult came to dominate our literature.

There are many, many interpretations of this poem (before Hopkins, people were always pretty sure of what a poem was about; whether they were right or not). Most think it's about a priest's heart soaring, love of God, etc. All that's valid and probably intended. But we can read the poem for just the surface rapture and come away the better for it.

And why should we bother reading him? Well, just look at that poem. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. A lot of effort, but well worth it.

All best,


Hi, Gang!

Yesterday, Gerard Manley Hopkins revolutionized poetry. Did everybody take his example to heart? Not bloody likely. Take, for instance, the highly-regarded and extremely popular A. E. Housman:

When I Was One-and-Twenty
by A. E. Housman

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

Phew! That is one ripe poem! The ironic thing is that every word of it is true -- but that thump-thump rhyme, the scattering of poetic words (guineas... bosom.. rue... 'tis...) like flower petals, and most particularly that hand flung up to the brow as the last line is declaimed discredit what Houseman is saying entirely.

Am I being unfair? Well, here's another of his verses, taken from the Norton Anthology of English Literature:

With Rue My Heart is Laden
by A. E. Housman

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipped maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipped girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

And the verdict is -- envelope please! -- No, I am not being unfair. A perfectly honest sentiment, that of an old man reflecting on how many good friends of his are dead, has been painted and prettified like a doxie's corpse laid out for a public viewing. "Golden" friends! "Rose-lipped" maidens! Somebody kick this poet.

J.D. Salinger once said that sentimentality is "loving something more than God does." So here.

Housman was deploying the traditional tools of poesy that Hopkins eschewed. Which raises a question of why there were so many poems built with those same tools pre-1900 that still live and breathe today, and so few after. My theory is that after 1900 the very best poets moved away from those tools, and so such poems were being written largely by second-raters. But that's only a theory.

We could go in many directions from here. Tomorrow we revisit Shakespeare.

All best,