Friday, May 30, 2008

The Suicidal Ms Sexton

Hi, Everyone!

Today’s poem is by Anne Sexton, who dutifully took on the role of suicidal female poet only to be upstaged by Sylvia Plath.

What’s with the whole suicidal female poet thing? Well, in a word, sexism. Poetry, said the male poets, was intrinsically masculine. Women couldn’t handle it. It was too wild, too dangerous; it took a man’s strength to grapple with the raw stuff of reality, blah blah blah. And when some young woman in the back of the room timidly raised her hand and said, “Well what about Anne Sexton?” Or Sylvia Plath, or whoever. “Her poems were real, weren’t they?” why, then, the male poets could say, “Yes, and look what happened to her! She allowed this primal male force into her mind and it broke her.”

And why did female poets play along with this twisted little game? Two reasons: (1) Peer pressure, and (2) it was the only game in town.

Anne Sexton’s “Starry Night” begins with an epigram from Van Gogh:

Starry Night
by Anne Sexton
That does not keep me from having a terrible need of -- shall I say the word -- religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.
--Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
[The rest of this poem has been removed because it’s probably still in copyright. But you'll have no trouble finding it on the Web.]

Okay, did you understand that? Not if you haven’t seen Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting, “Starry Night.” It’s a wonderful painting, and most of the poem simply describes it. The sky boiling with eleven enormous stars, the moon bulging, the sense of rush and drama... It’s an ecstatic painting. It’s the night sky as a mystic caught in mid-vision might see it.

To this greatest of Van Gogh’s accomplishments, Sexton adds her own suicidal impulses. “The old unseen serpent” is the darkness, the wrongness she feels in the universe, that which calls for her to die, and she gives it full credit for making the painting so alive. (Van Gogh, however, would not have agreed; he would have told you the painting was cheerful and upbeat.) She lets you see how she feels about death: It would be an exciting rush into the unknown, an ecstatic surrender of “flag” (this can be interpreted any number of ways, but I’ll guess either responsibility or joy), “belly” (appetite, both for food and for sex), and “cry” (pain, obviously, but also emotions of all sorts).

So we’ve been given a glimpse into a part of life most people don’t experience -- an almost orgiastic urge to die. Well, you don’t have to agree with the impulse to admire the execution. After a suicide, one question the survivors ask themselves over and over is “Why?” How could he do that? Why did she do that?

This poem is a response. “Speaking strictly for myself,” Sexton says, “Here’s why.”

But if you haven’t seen the painting (especially you, Jason!), go to the library and find a book of Van Gogh’s oils and look at it. Not at all depressing. Quite wonderful, in fact.

All best,

The Curmudgeonly Mr. Frost

Happy New Year, everybody!

Today's poem is an easy one, pleasant to read and pretty much self-explanatory. Here it is:

A Considerable Speck by Robert Frost
A speck that would have been beneath my sight On any but a paper sheet so white Set off across what I had written there

[The rest of this poem has been removed because it’s probably still in copyright. But you should be able to find it on the Web easily enough.]

Neat, eh? Note how the poet provokes your curiosity through the first 29 lines ("Where the heck is he going with this?" you wonder; and, "Is he going to squash the bug?") and then resolves it all in a joke. He stays his hand against the smaller creature with a lofty Olympian kind of mercy, while simultaneously taking a swat at the larger creatures (all other poets) in a low and mean-spirited (but fun) manner.

Frost was a curmudgeon, no doubt about it. A neighbor of mine in Winooski encountered him once. She was out in the country, paused at a stop sign and started through the intersection. A big black car shot through the same intersection without stopping for its stop sign, they both braked, and she barely missed hitting it. Robert Frost was at the wheel of the black car. He glared at her, and then sped on. She stayed in the intersection for another moment, shivering. All she could think of, she told me, was how close tomorrow's headlines had come to reading WINOOSKI WOMAN KILLS ROBERT FROST!

May your year be good. May you find evidence of human mind on the printed page.

All best,


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mo Better Yeats

Dear Everybody:

Oh, no! Not ANOTHER Yeats poem!

Yep. I like Yeats and I’m doing all the work here, so I call the shots. This time, though, after you’ve read the poem but before you read my comments, stop a minute and try to figure the thing out. It’s not the easiest poem in the world, but it’s not all that difficult either.

by William Butler Yeats

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, strands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like a stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Okay, before we get to the poem proper, a little historical background. The reference to aeroplanes and Zeppelins (Zeppelin is always capitalized because it was named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, its inventor) locate this poem firmly in WWI. They were, at the time, terror weapons, since they could drop bombs on you even if the enemy couldn’t get an army anywhere near your city. Which was particularly terrifying in London, where Yeats lived off and on (why? Because he was a literary man, and that’s where all the poetic action was), which previously had always been protected by the English Channel. When planes were spotted (or, on cloudy nights, heard) headed for London, the entire city would be “blacked out” so that with luck they couldn’t be found. Very scary for the citizenry.

To work! “Hysterical women” (which is a little sexist, but cut the guy some slack; he had the Girlfriend From Hell) immediately establishes whose side he’s on. This is a defense of poetry. How can you waste your time writing science fiction, the hysterical women say, when Homeland Security has declared a Code Orange Alert?

So Bill sneers: You think you’ve got it bad? There’s nothing special about our suffering. So many terrible things have happened that tragedy “cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.” Entire civilizations have fallen, and all their works been destroyed! Yet those who came after them rebuilt and knew joy.

Then he shows them an ancient Chinese carving. Note the flaws, he says. See how the artist has made them part of a work of beauty. Similarly, “Lear” and “Hamlet” take real tragedy and make something beautiful of it. The actors playing the parts are not miserable; they’re having a great time.

You knew, I hope, that “gay” here predates the meaning “homosexual,” much less “lame.” It pops up four times in the poem, gaining significance each time, until the poem concludes with the word, as good as saying: Here’s the moral. Get it?

Yeah, we get it. And it’s not that old art-is-immortal wheeze that Yeats liked to work either. (The lines about Callimachus told us that.) Artists are gay. The tragedians are gay. The survivors are gay. The ancient Chinese men are gay. So should we be. By gay Yeats means not just “merry,” mind you, but filled with an artist’s zest for life. The tiny figures have wrinkles about their eyes -- they’ve known tragedy. But they don’t let it crush them. That would be giving it more than its due.

So there you are. Eyes wide open, but happy anyway.

Maybe Next, but in any case Soon: Different War, Different Poet, Same Horror.

All best,


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dickens in a Quatrain

Dear Everybody:

Merry Christmas! I went searching for a Christmas poem and found myself caught between the Scylla of sentimentality and the Charybdis of gruesome Angst. Never invite an unhappy poet to write about Christmas! So I’ve come up with an associational poem (“associational” here means “associated with,” not perfectly pertinent but living next door; a detective novel by a famous science fiction writer will get reviewed in the SF mags with a warning that it’s associational). And what could be more associational than Charles Dickens? Serious social historians claim that “A Christmas Carol” invented Christmas as the holiday we know and celebrate.

So here’s the poem:

Charles Dickens
by Dorothy Parker

Who call him spurious and shoddy
Shall do it o'er my lifeless body.
[The remaining two lines of this poem have been removed because it’s possibly still in copyright; but you should be able to find it on the Web easily enough.]

Good old Dotty! Immensely witty (challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence, she said, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think”), deeply bitter (if you doubt me, read some of her wonderful stories; start with “The Big Blonde”), and a savage book reviewer (writing under the nom de plum Constant Reader, her review of Winnie the Pooh read in its entirety, “Tonstant Weader fwowed up”), she nevertheless had a good heart. As witness here.

But can something this brief and this light be a real poem? It can when it’s this well done.

Ho, ho, ho!


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pablo Nerdua at his Angstiest

Dear Everyone:

We’ve traveled this far and I’ll bet some of you are thinking, “Hey, this doesn’t sound like poetry at all! Where’s the Teen Angst? Where are the weepy lines about lost love?” Well, don’t panic. Poetry is versatile; it can do that too.

Here’s all of that, but done well:

Saddest Poem
by Pablo Neruda

I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.

Write, for instance: "The night is full of stars,
and the stars, blue, shiver in the distance."

[Rest of poem removed because it’s still in copyright but I'm sure you can find it on the Web.]

Good stuff. Note how the particular irony in the last couplet, that for him the saddest thing is that he’s finally getting over her, casts a revising (or re-visioning) light over all the poem before it. That’s what gives this poem legs (“legs” is a technical term meaning “staying power”); without it, you’d only have, “My girlfriend left me, and I am soooo bummed-out.” Neruda goes a little deeper than that. And every word of what he says is true.

All best,

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Byzantium Road Trip!

Dear Everybody:

Remember “Sailing to Byzantium,” the other week? Well, three years after he wrote it, Yeats went back and wrote it again! Here’s the revised and re-visioned version:


by William Butler Yeats

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Not as easy to follow as “Sailing to Byzantium” was, is it? But there’s that bobbin, that city, that golden bird! Same poem revised and re-visioned.

What’s going on? Well, this is what we who work in the field of the fantastic call a posthumous fantasy, one which supposedly occurs after death. The narrator in “Sailing to Byzantium” hasn’t arrived there, imagines the city, is on a boat. The narrator here has arrived, sees the city, and arrived not by boat but by dolphin. Dolphins carry the spirits of the dead out of “the fury and mire” of life into purifying spiritual fire. Here, if I read him right, Yeats is thinking not of his poetic legacy but of the real afterlife.

When Marianne and I were in Yeats Country in the West of Ireland, we visited Yeats’s grave and Thoor Ballylee, the renovated medieval tower in which he lived. Afterwards, talking with our landlady (who was a respectable, middle-aged lady), I said something like, “Yeats was deep into mysticism, crucifying cats in the graveyard at midnight and things like that.” And, very bitterly, she replied, “Aye, well, he was one of the fortunate ones. He had money. Some of us had to work for a living!”

But let’s look at that last line, which contains a good example of assonance. Exactly what is assonance? Well, alliteration, you’ll remember is having two or more words in a line beginning with the same consonant sound. “Veni, vidi, vici,” or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Assonance is having two or more neighboring words containing the same vowel sound; here, it’s “dolphin-torn... gong-tormented.”

Both of which, incidentally, are Yeats’s invention, in imitation of Homeric epithets. Which, as I mentioned yesterday, is a tag-line consistently attached to a person or thing. “Swift-footed Achilles” is one and “earth-shaking Poseidon” another. “Rosy-fingered dawn.” “The wine-dark sea.” All of which frequently appeared in the Iliad and the Odyssey. For perfectly good reasons which I’ll skip over right now.

The late fantasist, Avram Davidson, who, like Shakespeare, had his coarse side, would often in his more humorous works, refer to “the dolphin-torn, the dong-tormented sea.”

There’s much more I could add, but I’ve gone on too far already.

All best,


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rap Master Yeats

Dear Everybody:

Another poem from one of my favorites, William Butler Yeats. Why do I favor him? Two reasons: First, I’m Irish, and so was he. Second, he was one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century. Possibly the greatest. Here’s the poem:

Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer longWhatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

So Yeats was a cyberpunk! He wanted to upload his body into a machine! Well... not quite. He was a mystic, remember. So here, Byzantium isn’t just the ancient center of empire that stood where Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) now stands but a poetic, elated, Paradisial state. Byzantium is “no country for old men.” You can see that Yeats is feeling old and sorry for himself. Here, he’s saying that he wants to be young and live forever. Sorry, Bill, not allowed. BUT once he’s passed “out of nature” (which is to say, when he’s dead), he wants to be an artificial, beautiful, and undying bird, singing “of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Which is to say, he wants to live on in his poems.

You know how rappers get up and brag about themselves in their songs? Yeats is doing the same thing here, in a subtler way. “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, “ he says, “unless Soul clap its hands and sing.” Which his does here.

Yeats also had a weakness for archaic words. Take “perne in a gyre,” for example.
Perne is the Gaelic (or, as they call that language in Ireland, Irish) for bobbin and gyre is a circular or corkscrew motion. The phrase thus means spinning bobbin and probably refers to one’s life spinning itself out. (Keeping always in mind that Yeats – busy man! – was also a mystic and gyres figured prominently in his occult theories.)

Oh, and one last thing. That reference to “mackerel-crowded seas” is a poetic epithet. A poetic epithet is a descriptive tag commonly applied to a thing or person. Homer used lots of ‘em: “Swift-footed Achilles, earth-shaking Poseidon, rosy-fingered dawn, wine-dark sea,” to name but four. Originally, they were conveniences for aural poets who had to memorize hundreds and even thousands of lines and make them scan. After the establishment of print, they became a way of evoking the ancient poetic past.

More on epithets next.

All best,

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Don Marquis's Artistic Creed

Hi, Everyone.

Here it is, the poem I promised you yesterday. It’s light, but legitimate. And it’s a major part of my own artistic creed.

archy confesses
by Don Marquis

catches the crowd
and I
are often
low browed

the fish wife
and the laugh
of the horse
and I
are frequently

in bill s behalf
are adduced
to refine
big bill s
coarse laugh

but bill
he would chuckle
to hear such guff
he pulled
rough stuff
and he liked
rough stuff

hoping you
are the same

And this time, mirabile dictu (which is Latin for “miraculous to relate”), I will let the poem stand on it own, without any exposition from me.

All best,

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Immortal archy


Dear Everybody:

Tomorrow I’m going to give you a poem titled “archy confesses.” But some of you are so unfortunate as to be unfamiliar with Don Marquis and his brilliant creations, Archy and Mehitabel. So today I’m going to give you Archy’s first appearance, extracted from the Sun Dial column of the New York Sun.

the coming of archy
by Don Marquis

Dobbs Ferry possesses a rat which slips out of his lair at night and runs a typewriting machine in a garage. Unfortunately, he has always been interrupted by the watchman before he could produce a complete story.

It was at first thought that the power which made the typewriter run was a ghost, instead of a rat. It seems likely to us that it was both a ghost and a rat. Mme. Blavatsky's ego went into a white horse after she passed over, and someone's personality has undoubtedly gone into this rat. It is an era of belief in communications from the spirit land.

And since this matter had been reported in the public prints and seriously received we are no longer afraid of being ridiculed, and we do not mind making a statement of something that happened to our own typewriter a couple of weeks ago.

We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning and discovered a giagantic cockroach jumping about upon the keys.

He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of poems which are always there in profusion.

Congratulating ourself that we had left a sheet of paper in the machine the night before so that all this work had not been in vain, we made an examination and this is what we found:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay.
most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it
i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he wont be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then
dont you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven't had a crumb of bread for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy

Is that a beautiful piece of whimsy or what? Archy, it becomes clear over the course of several collections of these columns, is Marquis’s alter ego. Marquis had the soul of a poet, too, in the body of a newspaperman, which he must have often felt was not all that many karmic levels higher than a cockroach. Of Archy, E. B. White wrote, “The details of his creative life make him a blood brother to writing men. He cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward. So do we all. And when he was through his labors, he fell to the floor, spent. He was vain (so are we all), hungry, saw things from the under side, and was continually bringing up the matter of whether he should be paid for his work. He was bold, disrespectful, possessed of the revolutionary spirit (he organized the Worms Turnverein), was never subservient to the boss yet always trying to wheedle food out of him, always getting right to the heart of the matter. And he was contemptuous of those persons who were absorbed in the mere technical details of his writing. ‘The question is whether the stuff is literature or not.’”

It is. The Archy and Mehitabel books are in print today. Bookstore stock them in the poetry section.

Oh, and vers libre, to belabor the obvious, is “free verse.” Archy was reborn as a cockroach for the sin of writing free verse.

All best,


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tennyson Redeemed

Note: I was out of town and unable to access the Web Saturday, so I missed posting this then. It won't happen again.

Hi, Gang!

Two days ago, I kicked around Alfred, Lord Tennyson pretty bad for being a jingoistic tub-thumper and foister-off-on-the-public of rhymes as repetitive and annoying as a television advertising jingle. All deserved, of course.

But with the exception of the immortal McGonagal, artists should not be judged by their worst work, but by their best. So I ask you to contemplate the following poem. It’s called “a Fragment,” but so far as I’ve been able to learn, that’s all there is to the work. Tennyson just thought that a proper poem should be larger.

The Eagle
(a Fragment)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Now is that impressive or what? That’s as beautiful a picture as was ever drawn in thirty-nine words. Note how the stillness of the first five lines converts to action and speed in the last. Note how unexpected that is. You’ve been set up. The whole thing is structured like a joke: Buildup, misdirection, punchline. The poem is as elegantly constructed as a mousetrap, and like a mousetrap it closes with a snap.

All best,


Thursday, May 8, 2008

War! Hunh! What Is It Good For?

Dear All:

Yesterday, I mentioned how a generation of young Brits went off to World War I with the noble words of Horace ringing in their ears: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. You have no idea how upbeat those guys were. They went in thinking it would be fun.

That belief didn’t last long.

Wilfred Owen expressed the bitterness many felt, their belief that they had been lied to and betrayed, in the following poem:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wow! What a malcontent! This guy just was not a team player. And yet many people consider him to be the finest “war poet” ever. Why? Well, because he knew whereof he wrote. Owen was a soldier in the British Army. He went off to WWI and, along with 3, 076, 387 of his mates, never returned. He died for his country. But not before he let it be known that he (and all the rest) would rather not have.

All best,

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What's It All About, Alfie?

Here we go, guys! We have a ripe one today from one of Queen Victoria’s finest – Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In an age when poets ruled the Earth, he was the biggest, meanest celebredon ever. Imagine if you combined Stephen King’s popularity with Umberto Ecco’s intellectual prestige... You wouldn’t come anywhere near Tennyson’s repute. He was bigger than Star Wars! Bigger than Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Bigger than The Matrix would be if the second two movies hadn’t sucked!

And how is he regarded today? Well, he’s still thought of as a great poet. On the other hand, he did write stuff like “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” And in order to explain what’s wrong with it, I first have to tell you about the historical event.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a cavalry charge which occurred during the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War. The Light Brigade was commanded by the Earl of Cardigan. In response to (possibly garbled or misunderstood) orders from Lord Raglan, he led 673 men in a charge straight up a valley, between Russian forces, at the massed Russian artillery one mile distant. Which gave the gunners lots of time to mow down both the cavalrymen and their horses.

The light brigade actually reached the guns and forced the Russians back from them. But the Russian forces had superior strength and re-took the artillery, forcing the Light Brigade back in their turn. 118 of their men were killed in the charge, 127 were wounded, and more than half their horses were killed. History has given the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet the last word. Witnessing the heroic and stupid charge, he was heard to murmur “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre” (“It’s magnificent, but it is not war.”)

The British public, of course, ate it up. Pointless heroism? They thought it was just the coolest thing ever. Tennyson read a newspaper account and wrote the following extremely famous poem expressing exactly that sentiment.

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

And yet their glory has faded. George MacDonald Fraser, in Flashman at the Charge (the Flashman books are brilliantly funny and recommended to all who would like to painlessly absorb a little history) has Flashman, suffering from a heroic case of flatulence, unwillingly take part in the famous charge, farting and screaming in terror every foot of the way.

So why the big shift in attitude? World War I. Multitudes of young British men went off to war impelled by one of Horace’s odes to think that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”), and discovered that it was anything but. They died in droves and suffered horribly -- look up a good article on mustard gas if you really want to be grossed out -- and all for no sensible reason that anybody’s been able to discover.

More on that tomorrow. And the day after, a word or two to rehabilitate Tennyson’s rep.

All best,

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ezra Believe It Or Not Pound!

Okay, gang, here we go. A defense of Ezra Pound!

As you may recall, I don't much like traitors or anti-Semitic hatemongers, and Pound was both. But, awkwardly enough, he was a great poet -- sometimes.

Not as great a poet as he started out to be. The young Pound was brilliant, innovative, and despite having a good education, an autodidact (great word, autodidact! It means "a self-educated man or woman") and a self-taught polyglot ("one who speaks many languages") as well. His life's work was The Cantos, many books of poems meant to form as a whole a sort of Divine Comedy for our time, a single all-embracing work that would sum up pretty much everything that mattered about the twentieth century.

What went wrong? Two things. One is over-intellectualization. Pound used to say he was writing for the Common Man (one reason why he scornfully spelled "culture" as "kultur"), but as time went on he kept raising the bar on how good an education he expected the Common Man to provide for himself (an undergraduate degree from Harvard certainly wouldn't suffice). A lot of the Cantos are so clotted, dense, and obscurely referential that even with a trot sheet, you can't follow ‘em. Not everybody read Chinese as well as Ezra.

The second thing that went wrong was that he began dabbling in Economics. Pound decided that he knew exactly what was wrong with the world economically and how to fix it. The problem was usury -- lending money at interest, rather than out of simple good will. Which led him into anti-Zionist conspiracy theory. (During the Middle Ages, usury was forbidden to Christians; still, people needed to borrow money and it turned out the sort of people who would lend money out of the goodness of their hearts tended not to have any to lend. So Jews were allowed to lend money; and since they weren't allowed to do a lot else, many got into finance. Thus, by the beginning of this century, any financial problems were the fault of -- all together, class -- the Jews.) Which ultimately led to him making hate-filled propaganda broadcasts (I was particularly struck by his suggestion that the war was going so badly for the US that butchers in NYC were selling "long pork") for Mussolini.

And yet -- again -- some of what he wrote was honest-to-gosh great poetry. How do we separate the man and the work?

As it turns out, Pound has the answer.

The Pisan Cantos, book six of The Cantos, was written in 1945 while Pound was in an American military detention center near Pisa. Shamefully, he was imprisoned for weeks in a wire cage open to the elements, and as a result suffered a nervous and physical collapse. It would take a colder man than I to say that this clarified his thinking. But here, from the heart of his suffering, come a few sane words:

by Ezra Pound

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

To which I need only gloss that in classical Greek mythology, Elysium was the abode of the blessed after death, and hence poetically means any place or state of perfect bliss.

Tomorrow -- brace yourselves -- Tennyson!

All best,


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lewis Carroll

Hi, Everybody!

I was going to give you one of Lewis Carroll's nonsense poems today, "You Are Old, Father William," perhaps, or the immortal "Jabberwocky." But then I ran across the following, a poem in seven sets of rhymed triplets, and though it is not great per se (it's a good example of "occasional poetry," rhymes writ for an occasion, as for example a small yet graceful poem to be written in the house diary of one's host in thanks for a dinner or weekend's hospitality), I thought it worth your seeing for two reasons. The first is that, as Professor Dodson (LC's real name) loved riddles, puzzles, and word-play of all sorts, he embedded something similar in the poem itself. The second I'll tell you afterwards.

Here it is:

A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky
by Lewis Carroll

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July -

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear -

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream -
Lingering in the golden dream -
Life, what is it but a dream?

All right, here's the second reason I gave you this poem: It was written (and published as a sort of afterword-dedication) to Alice herself. Alice Pleasance Liddell was the original for the Alice books, which he originally made up as a series of stories he told her on a succession of summer days. The first day of which -- the one when he came up with the idea of Wonderland (though, typically for a Victorian, he called it Fairyland then) -- is immortalized in the poem above.

Go back and re-read it now. MUCH better now that you know what it's about, isn't it? And wouldn't it be great if all the times that in retrospect were so momentous, the first e-mail for example, had been celebrated in poetry by their instigators?

So did you get the big of wordplay? It's an acrostic poem. If you take the first letter of each line and read straight down, they spell out... Ahhh, now you see it.

All best,