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I was an English major, and how anyone can survive that is a miracle. It is only through love that I have survived: love of the language I speak and write, a love that was nearly extirpated by those who explain literature and write the prefaces to anthologies. The experts, that is. 

It was nurtured, however, by many a teacher and professor, who also love the language and its productions. I don’t remember ever having an English teacher who propounded such gobbledygook as the professional explainer class regularly emits. (This, by disclaimer, is a class of which I was once a member, having made my living as a critic.)

I tried my best to write clear prose with understandable ideas, but my fellow guild members too often do the opposite. They can take something so simple and direct, so unimpeachably beautiful and clear, and turn it into a tangled knot of impenetrable theory, catching the flying sparrow in the fine mesh net of academic verbiage. I was, more particularly, an art critic, and I always said that I couldn’t read art criticism, that doing so was like eating an old mattress. 

It is the same for much buncombe written about literature and poetry. Something that should be read for pleasure, understanding or solace turns into a midterm exam, the kind that you have in your recurring dreams when you discover you aren’t wearing any pants. 

I am pretty sure such explainers are cases of arrested development, stuck in the sorrowful stage of the sophomore. The memory of having been once a sophomore myself gives me pause. There was a time when I, like so many other young minds, sought to “decode” a poem, finding the hidden meaning in the symbols therein. As if a poem required an enigma machine to untangle its “true”meaning, found in footnotes at the bottom of the page. 

Is Billy Budd a Christ figure? A victim of patriarchy or capitalist oppression. Perhaps he is a Marxist hero. Maybe, he is just a handsome sailor, like Melville tells us. What we are meant to glean from the story’s reading is inherent in the story itself. 

As Archibald McLeish put it: “A poem must not mean but be.” 

Any good work of literature explains itself, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention and to stay within the work and not require a university seminar to unpack. All this comes to mind because of a short discussion recently about an eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams. And a comment by critic Dave Wolverton who wrote: “The poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story…” 

Such ideas raise the hackles. 

The poem in question couldn’t be simpler, more complete, more self-explanatory, but no, Mr. Wolverton tells us we need to take a secret decoder ring to it, to find out what it is “really” about. 

The back story he refers to is of the poet-physician, who was attending the hospital bedside of a dying young girl and happened to look out the window to see a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. First problem: Williams was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, where it is quite unlikely to find chickens outside a hospital window. More likely a traffic jam. 

Second problem is that despite the widespread retelling of this dying-girl tale, Williams himself tells us the genesis of the poem. It “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”

It was first published in 1923, and one head-scratching comment I found suggested the poem was a comment on women getting the vote. How the critic got there from the contents of the poem, I leave to you and perhaps your bong. 

Another sees it as a celebration of the proletariat. This is the kind of stuff that turns high-school students away from poetry and literature and toward auto repair. 

To wit: “The wheelbarrow is an enduring and universal tool, used by people for thousands of years. It is most commonly associated with farming and construction—arguably, the foundation upon which civilization is built. In the poem, the wheelbarrow and its surrounding environment could also nod specifically towards agricultural workers and rural communities. As such, the poem’s contemplation of the wheelbarrow can be read as a meditation on the link between humanity and the natural world—as well as an assertion of the importance of respecting the latter.”

Where is that assertion? Show me the line. 

Elsewhere: “By extension, the wheelbarrow here might be taken to represent the value of the working class. This class — the people actually performing said manual labor, such as farmers, miners, construction workers, etc. — is often stereotyped as being unskilled and unintelligent. Physical work, in general, is often misclassified as ‘lowly’ or ‘simple,’ which ignores the complexity that goes into planting, pollinating, etc. Seeing as this work is often undervalued despite its importance to human survival, the attention given to the wheelbarrow (and, through it, the people who use wheelbarrows) could act as a subtle acknowledgement and celebration of the working class.”

Where do manual laborers spend their time “pollinating?” Et cetera. 

It might be noted that none of any of that shows up in the 16 plain words that comprise the poem. What there is, is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. They are not symbols, they do not require a gloss. They are, in fact, a wheelbarrow and chickens. It is the ability to see them as just that that is the gift of the poem. They have been separated out of the rest of existence and shown to us as something worthy to be noticed. 

My acquaintance was remembering a common friend who had recently died, who had introduced him to the poem.  

“With my spotty poetry background, I’d never read this gemlike summing up of the power of first impressions. We were probably talking about things that seized our imaginations when we were very young.”

I always took it not as about first impressions, but about the importance of noticing, i.e., paying attention, even to the things you ignore in quotidian life. Paying attention is, for me, tantamount to being alive — I mean really alive, as opposed to merely existing. That is what so much depends on. 

It is also the importance of the senses, as opposed to rationality. So much of what we think is merely done in linguistic categories. House, bird, horse. We tend to value logic and think it is what we hold in opposition to irrationality. But logic has its own pitfalls: It is also thinking in linguistic categories, and so much of what is “logical” is only so in words. Zeno’s paradox never actually prevents Achilles from overtaking the tortoise in a single step. 

As Stephen Fry says over and over, the counter position to superstition and irrationality is not logic, but empiricism. Empiricism is paying attention. In that sense, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. Without it, Galileo is put under house arrest. In this sense, paying attention and sense data are a bundle, inseparable. 

Paying attention to our senses — looking carefully, hearing intently, touching, tasting, smelling — is also the key factor in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this brief moment we spend on the planet (seeming briefer with each birthday). In Keat’s words: “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine.” 

So much depends… 

Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves.