April 28, 2011

National Poetry Month. Oops.


I had such plans for this month.  And of course I got distracted, because that’s what I always do, get distracted.

But it’s not quite May yet.  So I thought I’d hastily shove a few favourite poems at you.

                Every now and then I am reminded that my formal education was not a total loss.  I first met Theodore Roethke in school.  Probably The Waking:  http://gawow.com/roethke/poems/104.html which I also love–and everyone knows ‘I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow . . . I learn by going where I have to go.’  It’s a poem to live by.  I try to live by it.  Some days it’s easier than other days.*  And My Papa’s Waltz http://gawow.com/roethke/poems/43.html was in one of the dumber anthologies I suffered through in high school, from whose pages it shown like a star.

                  But it’s Elegy for Jane that absolutely blew me away.  And where did I see it for the first time?  Sitting my Advanced Placement English test my senior year of high school, so I could escape Remedial Lit 101 in college.  Imagine, if you will, sitting in a classroom at a non-standard day and time with a few other sweating hopefuls, opening your test booklets to see what you were going to have to read and comprehend sufficiently to write a coherent, judge-impressing-in-the-right-way essay on.  And here was this perfectly amazing poem.  I have always been a visceral reader, and for all my tendency to run on and on** I tend to go blank and speechless when I’m moved.  Words flow in later.  I have no idea what I wrote in this case, but whatever it was it got me out of Lit 101, for which I owe it (and Roethke) a major debt of gratitude. 

Theodore Roethke 

Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse) 

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

 * * *

* The ‘waking slow’ part I have down really well. 

** Ahem.

Philip Larkin


This is not the only poem Philip Larkin ever wrote: 


 . . . although there was an era in my young wanting-to-be-a-rebel life when it seemed like it was, and that was fine.  Okay, and this one too:  


But that isn’t all he wrote.  He wrote this, for example: 


And this: 


And (ouch) this: 


He is not, I grant you, the jolliest of poets.  But I personally respond to the combination of what looks like the poetry you studied in school—or I studied in school, which did not include Larkin—and the slang, the rude language, the sex and bodily functions.  It brings the poetic stuff closer, and gives it an edge that makes you bleed.  I have always approached Larkin slightly warily—and the periodic reminders of or revelations about his personal life don’t help at all, especially as I am someone who thinks that the life does matter.  If you were an emotional two-year-old who liked pulling wings off flies, it undermines your work, I don’t care how gigantic your talent was.*  And while I suspect the women in Larkin’s life brought their own issues to their relationships with Larkin, still, I don’t think I’d’ve wanted to go there, and I don’t think Larkin is blameless.  And yes, I think there is a colossal misogynistic streak in his work which is insufficiently explained by the era he lived and worked in.  Reminds me of my youth—I came to sexual maturity not so very much after the infamous 1963**—and not in a good way.  I’ve told you before, I think, that my slightly-late-to-the-party impression of the so-called sexual revolution is that us girls were still expected to make the coffee, we were just supposed to be permanently sexually available too, and if we weren’t, we were frigid—this is a paraphrase of someone who was in the thick of it a lot more than I was, but I’ve forgotten who it was, I just remember shouting YES! when I discovered the quote.  Anyway.   I’ve fallen into the habit of thinking of Larkin as, well, mean-spirited.

            And then The Paris Review, whom I follow on Twitter, posted this a few days ago:

First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God. – Philip Larkin http://tpr.ly/ihMVWa 

I loved the interview and while I don’t think Larkin missed anything by not having met me (ahem) I recognise, perhaps sometimes a trifle ruefully, a lot of fellow curmudgeonliness,*** and could imagine, because I’m an overimaginative sort of git, another world and another century where he and I would have found a good deal to talk about, probably down t’pub.  Most of this interview, in fact, inspired a running (muttered) commentary from me, starting with Larkin’s declining to be interviewed in person and insisting on doing it by post, and the huffing and puffing from PR about this and other things. I’ve excerpted a few of my favourite bits with complementary bits of muttery commentary here—now please click on all the links I’ve diligently and industriously supplied.  It’s National Poetry Month, you know. 

LARKIN:  I shouldn’t normally show what I’d written to anyone: what would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, “I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson.” Tennyson replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.” That’s about all that can happen.

Yep.  I’m there.    For most of the process of writing, the story is the only authority I do or can afford to listen to.  Anyone else putting their oar in would or will provoke the response, Do shut up!  I’m trying to hear the story!  —I would also like to think this is a story of Tennyson manifesting a sense of humour, but I think I’m fantasizing again.

LARKIN . . . The short answer is that you write because you have to. If you rationalize it, it seems as if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people. The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it.

Yes.  I don’t know how ingenuous he’s deliberately being here—my impression is that he’s tweaking the interviewer when he can while trying to maintain apparent perfect po-facedness.  Part of the force of a lot of Larkin’s poems is their apparent naked intimacy—not always about sex—but I also completely believe that they’re not straightforward self-expression.  You don’t get anything as sharp and sinewy as Larkin’s poetry under the bulgy banner of self-expression.† 

INTERVIEWER:  Is Jorge Luis Borges the only other contemporary poet of note who is also a librarian, by the way? Are you aware of any others?

LARKIN:  Who is Jorge Luis Borges?

LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE.  Again, I wish I knew if this were true or tweaking.  Larkin does keep saying he’s not very interested in the wider world;  maybe he really didn’t know Borges.  I grew up half admiring Borges and half resenting the requirement to go all awestruck about him.   He’s fascinating, yes, but I have also found him a trifle fey and self absorbed.  You may pelt me with squishy rotten fruit now.

[Larkin continues] The writer-librarian I like is Archibald MacLeish. You know, he was made Librarian of Congress in 1939, and on his first day they brought him some papers to sign, and he wouldn’t sign them until he understood what they were all about. When he did understand, he started making objections and countersuggestions. The upshot was that he reorganized the whole Library of Congress in five years simply by saying, I don’t understand and I don’t agree, and in wartime, too. Splendid man.

Yes.   (Including that Larkin knows how to tell a story.) 

[Larkin:] . . . Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience . . . When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him.

I love this too.  Vindication.  I am not a huge fan of listening to poetry read aloud, for all that (again) this was what my schooling taught me:  that you really MUST hear poetry read aloud.  Well.  Um.  But the reader does drag you along at their pace, and force you to take in their interpretation because you haven’t got time and space to create your own.  Hearing poetry read aloud can be a great enhancement, especially to a poem you already know well, but if I’m choosing, I’ll take the words on the page every time. 

LARKIN:  Sometimes I think, Everything I’ve written has been done after a day’s work, in the evening: what would it have been like if I’d written it in the morning, after a night’s sleep? Was I wrong? Some time ago a writer said to me—and he was a full-time writer, and a good one—“I wish I had your life. Dealing with people, having colleagues. Being a writer is so lonely.”

Yes.  You’re always wondering about the other guy.  Although I find one of the problems of being able to organise my own day is trying to figure out when the sweet spot might be.  Straight out of bed in the morning is not it.  But I think mine moves around.  I think possibly it lives in another dimension . . . not accessible from this one.  So I’m always writing at some wrong time or other.  Sigh.  Although I can’t say I’ve spent much time feeling lonely.  Whoever said that should have learnt to ring bells.  Being forced to get up early at least one day a week is also good for your character.

[Larkin:] . . .  having a job hasn’t been a hard price to pay for economic security. . . .it’s worked for me. The only thing that does strike me as odd, looking back, is that what society has been willing to pay me for is being a librarian. You get medals and prizes and honorary-this-and-thats—and flattering interviews—but if you turned round and said, Right, if I’m so good, give me an index-linked permanent income equal to what I can get for being an undistinguished university administrator—well, reason would remount its throne pretty quickly.

And some things never change.

LARKIN:  Are you suggesting there’s no sense of class in America? That’s not the impression I get from the works of Mr. John O’Hara.

INTERVIEWER:  O’Hara overstated.

::Hysterics::  Larkin wins that round.  DING.

INTERVIEWER:  You mention Auden, Thomas, Yeats, and Hardy as early influences in your introduction to the second edition of The North Ship. What in particular did you learn from your study of these four?

LARKIN:  Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn. At the end of it you can’t say, That’s Yeats, that’s Auden, because they’ve gone, they’re like scaffolding that’s been taken down. 

Or Tolkien, Kipling, Heyer, Nesbit.  Or . . .

* * *

* Thus the self-righteous cry of the genre writer who gets up every Sunday morning to ring bells.  Eh.  You do what you can.  I think it’s important to do what you can. 

** I say nothing about any other kind of maturity. 

*** I am also reminded of his reputation as a witty and skilful letter writer. 

† And my heroines aren’t me, either, as I keep saying.  We share certain traits in common.  I’m in love with Ebon too, for example.

Day Two of National Poetry Month


Today has been nowhere near as bad as anticipated after comprehensively doing myself in yesterday* but I’m still pretty tired.  And chiefly thanks to knitting (‘just one more row!’)** I’m getting to bed later . . . and later . . . and later.  And Sunday mornings are Sunday mornings, which is to say a semblance of function and coherence by 8:45 am (shudder).  I need a night off.

            Meanwhile it’s National Poetry Month.  http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/41  If I’d noticed it was coming*** I’d have got myself a little bit organised.  Well.  Maybe. 

             But I thought tonight I’d at last give you the poem Peter wrote me—gak—thirteen years ago, when I’d finally had the glandular fever† diagnosis.  I’d had ‘flu’ for two months, and still felt like . . . slime mould and old fish fingers.  And had compromised my principles to the extent of going to the doctor, who said ‘hmm, glandular fever’, took a blood test and . . . yes. 

            At the time it was the most enormous load off.  Little did I know.††  But the poem still makes me giggle.  Especially the golden retriever.†††    

Ode to an Ailment

For weeks I have felt like an under-achiever

I have lacked all the bounce of a golden retriever

And moped round the house, a mere groaner and griever.

Though in orthodox medicine I’m no believer,

I went to the doctor.  Was she a reliever!

She said “Dearie me, you have glandular fever.”

I have a disease!  Not a husband-bereaver,

But a dear little, mild little glandular fever.

It is real.  So I am not a sympathy-thiever,

Not a weakling or wimp, not a self-centred diva,

Nor a hypochondriacal fantasy-weaver.

No more at my desk I will toil like a beaver,

But lie on the sofa and watch Ralph the Reiver

And really enjoy having glandular fever.

(All right, yes I know it is called Ralph the Rover.

You can tell me all that sort of thing when it’s over.) 

* * *

 * I posted to the forum that while our New Arcadia tenor rings perfectly nicely you still have to pull the freller off its perch.  Vicky, who is about half my size, can do it, so it’s not a matter of brute strength, but the knack is elusive, and I seem to have sproinged quite a bit of my front, chest and stomach.  This reminds me of learning to sit the trot by strengthening your stomach muscles.  I wonder if improving my singing, which is (partly) another belly-strength thing, will also improve my pulling-off of large bells?  There’s no holding-your-horse-up-on-the-bit upper-body equivalent in singing however.  I don’t think.

** Well, I have to read too, you know.  It’s not like I’m going to give up reading in the bath just because I want to get into bed^ and knit.  

^ Having fed hellhounds their final snack.  Siiiiiiiigh.  Hellhounds periodically take against one particular meal, for unfathomable reasons+, and lately they’ve taken against their final snack.  A certain amount of hanging around waiting for the stars to align is not a bad thing++ but eventually the temptation to look for a cereal-free-kibble sized funnel starts becoming rather oppressive.  Last night was one of those nights.  Predictions for tonight are that it will be epic.  I don’t have time for epic.+++ 

+ I keep remembering my homeopathic ex-vet saying gravely that sighthounds are ‘psychologically the most complex’ dogs.  Snork. 

++ Hint:  knitting 

+++ Remember that letting them merely skip a meal, as one would do with less psychologically/digestively complex dogs, tends to produce a storyline which is a kind of cross between Ragnarok and Rambo VVIX: Universal Meltdown. 

*** Okay, so it started in 1996.  I’m a slow learner. 

† AKA mononucleosis 

†† Well, yes, little did I know, but this is a classic good-from-ratbaggery story too.  I’d been riding the spare hunter of a friend to keep him fit for when she needed him, and had had to stop . . . permanently as it turned out.  So this became one of the several occasions when I gave up riding because I couldn’t be relied on.  Which is why, then, six or eight months later, I decided to give learning method bell ringing a try.  Bells don’t need to be kept fit.  And yes, I gave up bell ringing too when regularly-recurring glandular fever morphed into ME, as it is inclined to do, and I didn’t go back for five or six years.  But I did go back, and given my state of mind when we first moved out of the old house and into town, if the Bell Virus hadn’t also already nobbled me I’m not sure that even being only two garden walls over from that glorious noise would have roused me to action.  

††† You may get some more poetry before the month is out.  

http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/Classic%20Poems/Southey/the_inchcape_rock.htm I’ve wasted a little time trying to find out if anyone made a film out of it, but my limited google skills aren’t bringing anything up.  I imagine Peter was just grabbing the rhyme.^  And it should be Buffy anyway.  But ‘Slayer’ really doesn’t rhyme.  

^ He’s gone to bed.  I can ask him tomorrow.

And here’s another one you weren’t expecting


Yaaay!  Free night* to get on with PEG II, sing, knit. . . .


* Not that it wasn’t an expensive afternoon, a week or two back, writing it.  But it feels free now, for the delay.

Consolation and the Lack Thereof*


I made the more important of my two deadlines today . . . and the other one is going to have to wait till tomorrow morning.  Siiiigh.  Which probably means I’m not going to get Oisin’s miniatures done for tomorrow’s cup of tea with possible keyboard accompaniment either.   And then there were handbells.  SIIIIIGH.  We were trying something only slightly new—a jiggered-up version of bob minor, bob minor being More or Less the One Thing I Can Ring on Handbells, and in this variant you are basically doing it backwards—and we were making very heavy weather of it** and ran most of a half-hour over time.  And then I bolted outdoors to plant a dahlia.  And a few snapdragons. . . .

            It’s good in one way:  there’s a strong life-going-on feeling*** while I’m a trifle preoccupied with various lives that are not going on the way they should.  But before I mash my stiff upper lip totally back in place I wanted to give you a few more poems about life and not going on.

 Several people posted poems to the forum in response to my blog about sequoia trees.  They’re all worth rereading† but these are the two that are haunting me.  Glinda posted this first one and I thought yes, exactly, why hadn’t I remembered it?   I love Millay—I feel she does a kind of heightened ordinary reality;  something you understand completely, but with a light on it you wouldn’t have been able to shine all by yourself.   This one blew me away the first time I read it, probably pushing forty years ago, and before I knew much about incurable wounds and death. 

“Dirge without music” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

NotLonely posted this one, which was new to me.  I am not resigned—nor am I consoled—and I clearly don’t listen to things enough.  But I am still moved by the message. 

Forefathers (Birago Diop, Senegal)

Listen more often to things rather than beings.
Hear the fire’s voice,
Hear the voice of the water.
In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees,
It is our forefathers breathing.
The dead are not gone forever.
They are in the paling shadows
And in the darkening shadows.

The dead are not beneath the ground,
They are in the rustling tree,
In the murmuring wood,
In the still water,
In the flowing water,
In the lonely place, in the crowd;
The dead are not dead.

Listen more often to things rather than beings.
Hear the fire’s voice.
Hear the voice of water.
In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees.
It is the breathing of our forefathers
Who are not gone, not beneath the ground,
Not dead.

The dead are not gone forever.
They are in a woman’s breast,
A child’s crying, a glowing ember.
The dead are not beneath the earth,
They are in the flickering fire,
In the weeping plant, the groaning rock,
The wooded place, the home.
The dead are not dead.

Listen more often to things rather than beings.
Hear the fire’s voice,
Hear the voice of water.
In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees.
It is the breath of our forefathers.

A friend sent me this one, saying that she would have posted it to the forum, but felt that since it was still under copyright, probably better not.  It’s all over the web however—I found a good half dozen copies, and stopped looking merely when I found one that didn’t have an incredibly icky advertisement slap next to the text you’re trying to focus on.  But I also really want you to read it, so I’m risking copying and pasting the whole thing, not just the link.

            I’m ashamed to say I don’t know Kate Ryan, current US poet laureate http://www.loc.gov/poetry/laureate_current.html  But I’ve just added The Niagara River to my want list.†† 


Poem: “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” by Kay Ryan from The Niagara River. © Grove Press. Reprinted with permission.
Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

And then to finish, one from Siegfried Sassoon. †††  After muttering and cruising bookshelves and web for a while I said to Peter, I need a poem about joy.  Peter’s who thought of this one, and it’s perfect—it’s the right kind of joy—the fragile, hopeful, surrounded-by-sorrow kind of joy. 

Everyone Sang 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears;  and horror

Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone

Was a bird;  and the song was wordless;  the singing will never be done. 

* * *

* Possibly mostly the lack

** Something like lightning, hail and mudslides. 

*** Critters are, of course, built for this duty.  They know the schedule.  Moping is not on it. 

† You don’t have to join the forum^ to read the threads, you know.  You only have to join if you want to comment. 

^ Although it’s really easy to join.  Even I could do it. 

†† “£$%^&*}#!!!! Frelling Waterstones doesn’t frelling have The Niagara River!  ARRRRRRRRGH. 

††† You can also find it on http://www.bartleby.com/137/34.html

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