A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, April 30, 2010

Poem of the Day: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Spring and Fall 

Márgarét, áre you grieving 
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leáves, like the things of man, you 
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Áh! ás the heart grows older 
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you will weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name: 
Sórrow's springs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It is the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Poem of the Day: C. Day Lewis

Almost Human 

The man you know, assured and kind, 
Wearing fame like an old tweed suit --- 
You would not think he has an incurable 
Sickness upon his mind. 

Finely that tongue, for the listening people, 
Articulates love, enlivens clay; 
While under his valued skin there crawls 
An outlaw and a cripple. 

Unenviable the renown he bears 
When all's awry within? But a soul 
Divinely sick may be immunized 
From the scourge of common cares. 

A woman weeps, a friend's betrayed, 
Civilization plays with fire -- 
His grief or guilt is easily purged 
In a rush of words to the head. 

The newly dead, and their waxwork faces 
With the look of things that could never have lived, 
He'll use to prime his cold, strange heart 
And prompt the immortal phrases. 

Before you condemn this eminent freak 
As an outrage upon mankind, 
Reflect: something there is in him 
That must for ever seek 

To share the condition it glorifies, 
To shed the skin that keeps it apart, 
To bury its grace in a human bed -- 
And it walks on knives, on knives. 
--C. Day Lewis 

The poet was 53 when his wife gave birth to a son who would become a famous actor, and father and son were never close. But there's something in this poem that seems to me to link them: the theme of playing with masks, of the mutability of identity. Day Lewis père was a communist who became that most establishmentarian of things, the poet laureate. And Day-Lewis fils (he resumed the hyphen that his father had dropped) is the most chameleon-like of actors.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poem of the Day: Thomas Hardy

The Convergence of the Twain 

          In a solitude of the sea
          Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

          Steel chambers, late the pyres
          Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

          Over the mirrors meant
          To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

          Jewels in joy designed
          To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

          Dim moon-eyed fishes near
          Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?"

          Well: while was fashioning
          This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

          Prepared a sinister mate
          For her -- so gaily great --
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

          And as the smart ship grew
          In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

          Alien they seemed to be:
          No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

         Or sign that they were bent
         By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

         Till the Spinner of the Years
         Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Yes, it's hokum, this personification of the Titanic as human pride and the Iceberg as nature's might. But is it any hokier than James Cameron's version?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Poem of the Day: Richard Eberhart

 The Groundhog   

In June, amid the golden fields, 
I saw a groundhog lying dead. 
Dead lay he; my senses shook, 
And mind outshot our naked frailty.
There lowly in the vigorous summer 
His form began its senseless change, 
And made my senses waver dim 
Seeing nature ferocious in him. 
Inspecting close his maggots' might 
And seething cauldron of his being, 
Half with loathing, half with a strange love, 
I poked him with an angry sstick. 
The fever arose, became a flame 
And Vigour circumscribed the skies, 
Immense energy in the sun, 
And through my frame a sunless trembling. 
My stick had done nor good nor harm. 
Then stood I silent in the day 
Watching the object, as before; 
And kept my reverence for knowledge 
Trying for control, to be still, 
To quell the passion of the blood; 
Until I had bent down on my knees 
Praying for joy in the sight of decay. 
And so I left; and I returned 
In Autumn strict of eye, to see
The sap gone out of the groundhog,
But the bony sodden hulk remained. 
But the year had lost its meaning, 
And in intellectual chains 
I lost both love and loathing, 
Mured up in the wall of wisdom. 
Another summer took the fields again 
Massive and burning, full of life, 
But when I chanced upon the spot 
There was only a little hair left, 
And bones bleaching in the sunlight 
Beautiful as architecture; 
I watched them like a geometer, 
And cut a walking stick from a birch. 
It has been three years, now, 
There is no sign of the groundhog. 
I stood there in the whirling summer, 
My hand capped a withered heart, 
And thought of China and of Greece, 
Of Alexander in his tent; 
Of Montaigne in his tower, 
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
--Richard Eberhart 

This is probably Eberhart's most famous anthology piece -- except maybe for "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment" -- as well as a member of a curious subgenre: the mock-heroic meditation on a dead animal. In fact, I can think of only three examples: this one, Thomas Gray's "On the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes" (one of the most misquoted poems in English), and this last, which is one my favorite poems of all time.

The Death of a Toad

          A toad the power mower caught, 
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got 
     To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him 
     Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade 
          Of the ashen heartshaped leaves, in a dim, 
               Low, and a final glade.

          The rare original heartsblood goes, 
Spends on the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows 
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies 
    As still as if he would return to stone,
          And soundlessly attending, dies 
               Toward some deep monotone, 

          Toward misted and ebullient seas 
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies. 
     Day dwindles, drowning, and at length is gone 
     In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear 
          To watch, across the castrate lawn, 
               The haggard daylight steer. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Poem of the Day: Algernon Charles Swinburne

The Sundew 

A little marsh-plant, yellow green,
And pricked at lip with tender red.
Tread close, and either way you tread
Some faint black water jets between
Lest you should bruise the curious head.

A live thing maybe; who shall know?
The summer knows and suffers it;
For the cool moss is thick and sweet
Each side, and saves the blossom so
That it lives out the long June heat.

The deep scent of the heater burns
About it; breathless though it be,
Bow down and worship; more than we
Is the least flower whose life returns,
Least weed renascent in the sea.

We are vexed and cumbered in earth's sight
With wants, with many memories;
These see their mother what she is,
Glad-growing, till August leave more bright
The apple-colored cranberries.

Wind blows and bleaches the strong grass,
Blown all one way to shelter it
From trample of strayed kine, with feet
Felt heavier than the moorhen was,
Strayed up past patches of wild wheat.

You call it sundew: how it grows,
If with its color it have breath,
If life taste sweet to it, if death
Pain its soft petal, no man knows:
Man has no sight or sense that saith.

O red-lipped mouth of marsh-flower,
I have a secret halved with thee.
The name that is love's name to me
Though knowest, and the face of her
Who is my festival to see.

The hard sun, as thy petals knew,
Colored the heavy moss-water:
Thou wert not worth green midsummer
Nor fit to live to August blue,
O sundew, not remembering her.
--Algernon Charles Swinburne

Poets love to write poems to birds (Shelley's skylark, Keats's nightingale) and flowers (Wordsworth's daffodils). But leave it to kinky old Swinburne to glorify a carnivorous swamp-dwelling plant. And in a love poem.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Poem of the Day: Louis Zukofsky

Tall and singularly dark you pass among the breakers --
Companionship as of another world bordering on this;
To the intelligence fastened by the senses you are lost
In a world of sunlight where nothing is amiss:

For nothing but the sun is there and peace vital with the sun,
The heaviest changes shift through no features more than a smile,
Currents spread, and are gone, and as the high waves appear,
You dive, in the calming are as lost awhile.

How in that while intelligence escapes from sense
And fear with hurled human might darkens upon bliss!
Till as again you stand above the waters
Fear turns to sleep as one who dreamt of falling, an abyss!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Poem of the Day: Christina Rossetti

In an Artist's Studio 

One face looks out from all his canvases,
     One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
     We found her hidden behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
     A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
     A saint, an angel -- every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
     And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
     Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
     Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
--Christina Rossetti

Yes, it's a poem about the obsession of Christina's brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with his model and wife, Elizabeth Siddal, the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite woman. But it's also a poem about objectification, about what feminist critics refer to as the "male gaze." A fascinating lot, those Rossettis.

Christina Rossetti, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Friday, April 23, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Plomer

In the Snake Park 

A white-hot midday in the Snake Park.
Lethargy lay here and there in coils,
And here and there a neat obsidian head
Lay dreaming on a plaited pillow of its own
Loops like a pretzel or a true-love-knot.

A giant Python seemed a heap of tyres;
Two Nielsen's Vipers looked for a way out, 
Sick of their cage and one another's curves;
And the long Ringsnake brought from Lembuland
Poured softly through an opening like smoke.

Leaning intently forward a young girl
Discerned in stagnant water on a rock
A dark brown shoestring or discarded whiplash,
Then read the label to find out the name,
Then stared again: it moved. She screamed.

Old Piet Vander leant with us that day
On the low wall around the rocky spacee
Where amid broken quartz that cast no shade
Snakes twitched or slithered, or appeared to sleep,
Or lay invisible in the singing glare.

The sun throbbed like a fever as he spoke:
"Look carefully at this shrub with glossy leaves."
Leaves bright as brass. "That leaf on top
Just there, do you see that it has eyes?
That's a Green Mamba, and it's watching you.

"A man I once knew did survive the bite,
Saved by a doctor running with a knife,
Serum and all. He was never the same again.
Vomiting blackness, agonizing, passing blood,
Part paralysed, near gone, he felt

"(He told me later) he would burst apart;
But the worst agony was in his mind --
Unbearable nightmare, worse than total grief
Or final loss of hope, impossibly magnified
To a blind passion of panic and extreme distress."

"Why should that little head have power
To inject all horror for no reason at all?"
"Ask me another -- and beware of snakes."
The sun was like a burning-glass. Face down
The girl who screamed had fallen in a faint.
--William Plomer

Perhaps Plomer oversensationalizes the otherness of snakes here, but they do seem to inspire a primal fear, as D.H. Lawrence suggested in a somewhat more subtle poem.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Poem of the Day: Emily Dickinson

The Bible is an antique Volume --
Written by faded Men
At the suggestion of Holy Spectres --
Subjects -- Bethlehem --
Eden -- the ancient Homestead --
Satan -- the Brigadier --
Judas -- the Great Defaulter --
David -- the Troubadour --
Sin -- a distinguished Precipice
Others must resist --
Boys that "believe" are very lonesome --
Other Boys are "lost"--
Had but the Tale a warbling Teller --
All the Boys would come --
Orpheus' Sermon captivated --
It did not condemn --
--Emily Dickinson

To understand the unsettled consciousness of nineteenth-century writers, you have to know a little about the higher criticism, and how it shook their world view. Treating the Bible as a man-made text was faith-shattering for many of them, Dickinson included. Thomas Hardy had a different view of it:

The Respectable Burgher on "The Higher Criticism"

Since Reverend Doctors now declare
That clerks and people must prepare
To doubt if Adam ever were;
To hold the flood a local scare;
To argue, though with stolid stare,
That everything had happened ere,
The prophets to its happening sware;
That David was no giant-slayer,
Nor one to call a God-obeyer
In certain details we would spare,
But rather was a debonair
Shrewd bandit, skilled as banjo-player:
That Solomon sang the fleshly Fair,
And gave the Church no thought whate'er,
That Esther with her royal wear,
And Mordecai, the son of Jair,
And Joshua's triumphs, Job's despair,
And Balaam's ass's bitter blare;
Nebuchadnezzar's furnace-flare,
And Daniel and the den affair,
And other stories rich and rare,
Were writ to make old doctrine wear
Something of a romantic air:
That the Nain widow's only heir,
And Lazarus with cadaverous glare
(As done in oils by Piombo's care)
Did not return from Sheol's lair:
That Jael set a fiendish snare,
That Pontius Pilate acted square,
That never a sword cut Malchus' ear;
And (but for shame I must forbear)
That —— —— did not reappear!...
— Since thus they hint, nor turn a hair,
All churchgoing will I forswear,
And sit on Sundays in my chair,
And read that moderate man Voltaire
--Thomas Hardy

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Poem of the Day: Countee Cullen

Yet Do I Marvel 

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Poem of the Day: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

From The House of Life

19. "Silent Noon"

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass --
     The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
     Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
     Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
     Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragonfly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:
     So this winged hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
     When twofold silence was the song of love.
--Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This selection from Rossetti's sonnet cycle is maybe best-known for the setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which gives me an excuse to include this version by John McCormack, recorded in 1941. A miraculous recording, considering that McCormack was in his 60s and ill with emphysema. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

Poem of the Day: Stevie Smith

Was He Married? 

Was he married, did he try
To support as he grew less fond of them
Wife and family?

He never suffered such a blow.

Did he feel pointless, feeble and distrait,
Unwanted by everyone and in the way?

From his cradle he was purposeful,
His bent strong and his mind full.

Did he love people very much
Yet find them die one day?

He did not love in the human way.

Did he ask how long it would go on,
Wonder if Death could be counted on for an end?

He did not feel like this,
He had a future of bliss.

Did he never feel strong
Pain for being wrong?

He was not wrong, he was right,
He suffered from others', not his own, spite.

But there is no suffering like having made a mistake
Because of being of an inferior make.

He was not inferior,
He was superior.

He knew then that power corrupts but some must govern?

His thoughts were different.

Did he lack friends? Worse,
Think it was for his fault, not theirs?

He did not lack friends,
He had disciples he moulded to his ends.

Did he feel over-handicapped sometimes, yet must draw even?

How could he feel like this? He was the King of Heaven.

... find a sudden brightness one day in everything
Because a mood had been conquered, or a sin?

I tell you, he did not sin.

Do only human beings suffer from the irritation
I have mentioned? learn too that being comical
Does not ameliorate the desperation?

Only human beings feel this,
It is because they are so mixed.

All human beings should have a medal,
A god cannot carry it, he is not able.

A god is Man's doll, you ass,
He makes him up like this on purpose.

He might have made him up worse.

He often has, in the past.

To choose a god of love, as he did and does,
Is a little move then?

Yes, it is.

A larger one will be when men
Love love and hate hate but do not deify them?

It will be a larger one.
--Stevie Smith

Smith's wry catechism hinges on a conundrum: Can god, not being human, truly comprehend man? And the only answer to it is that man creates god in his own image, and not the other way around.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poem of the Day: Matthew Arnold

Dover Beach 

The sea is calm tonight. 
The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light 
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, 
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. 
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray 
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, 
Listen! you hear the grating roar 
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, 
At their return, up the high strand, 
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, 
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring 
The eternal note of sadness in. 

Sophocles long ago 
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought 
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow 
Of human misery; we 
Find also in the sound a thought, 
Hearing it by this distant northern sea. 

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! for the world, which seems 
To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
So various, so beautiful, so new, 
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 
And we are here as on a darkling plain 
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
--Matthew Arnold 

A great poem, perhaps the only great poem Arnold ever wrote. And a quintessentially Victorian one in its disillusionment and its mourning for lost belief. Still, Anthony Hecht's cheeky response to the poem deftly takes the wind out of Arnold's rhetorical sails:

The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life 

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl 
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them, 
And he said to her, "Try to be true to me, 
And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad 
All over, etc., etc."
Well, now, I knew this girl. It's true she had read 
Sophocles in a fairly good translation 
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea, 
But all the time he was talking she had in mind 
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like 
On the back of her neck. She told me later on 
That after a while she got to looking out 
At the lights across the channel, and felt really sad, 
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds 
And blandishments in French and the perfumes 
And then she got really angry. To have been brought 
All the way down from London, and then be addressed 
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty. 
Anyway, she watched him pace the room 
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit, 
And then she said one or two unprintable things. 
But you mustn't judge her by that. What I mean to say is, 
She's really all right. I still see her once in a while 
And she always treats me right. We have a drink 
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it's a year 
Before I see her again, but there she is, 
Running to fat, but dependable a they come, 
And sometimes I  bring her a bottle of Nuit d'Amour.
--Anthony Hecht

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Poem of the Day: Langston Hughes

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

     Go home and write 
     a page tonight. 
     And let that page come out of you -- 
     Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me -- we two -- you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me -- who?

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records -- Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white --
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me --
although you're older -- and white --
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.
--Langston Hughes

There is something restrained about Hughes' verse, something guarded, even when he's trying to write in the idiom of jazz or blues or in the voices of Harlem. Here, where he's assuming a persona based on his own experience as a young black man in a white college, he doesn't let go even though the instructor has asked it of him: the anger is muted, ironic. The sense of a powerfully restrained tension born of the necessity of self-concealment haunts every line. It's the voice of someone always doomed to be an outsider, not only a black man in a white world, but also perhaps a closeted gay man, which many think he was. "I like to ... be in love," he writes -- not "I like to love" or "I like to make love," but something more passive: being but not doing.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Poem of the Day: Walt Whitman

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my way,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade -- not a tear, not a word,
Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,
And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.
--Walt Whitman

Whitman's mastery of the long breathless sweep of verse (and despite what his detractors say, this is verse, not prose) was never better shown than in this poem. Both rhapsody and dirge, war-poem and love-poem, it is broken only by commas and a sole semicolon, until it reaches a full stop after the devastating final six-word line.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poem of the Day: Laura Riding

With the Face 

With the face goes a mirror
As with the mind a world.
Likeness tells the doubting eye
That strangeness is not strange.
At an early hour and knowledge
Identity not yet familiar
Looks back upon itself from later,
And seems itself.

To-day seems now.
With reality-to-be goes time.
With the mind goes a world.
With the heart goes a weather.
With the face goes a mirror
As with the body a fear.
Young self goes staring to the wall
Where dumb futurity speaks calm,
And between then and then
Forebeing grows of age.

The mirror mixes with the eye.
Soon will it be the very eye.
Soon will the eye that was
The very mirror be.
Death, the final image, will shine
Transparently not otherwise
Than as the dark sun described
With such faint brightnesses.
--Laura Riding

Time, mortality, identity, memory -- such grand themes. And they're all here in a poem that's both simple and intricate, as it would have to be to contain them. The obvious comparison is to Emily Dickinson, but though Riding is also inevitably linked with the Fugitives and with Robert Graves, she is her own considerable poetic self.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poem of the Day: Herman Melville

A Requiem (April 1862)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
     The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
     The forest-field of Shiloh --
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
     Around the church of Shiloh --
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
          And natural prayer
      Of dying foemen mingled there --
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve --
     Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
     But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
     And all is hushed at Shiloh.
--Herman Melville

Amid the historical and moral stupidity of politicians proclaiming Confederate History Month, it's good to turn to poets like Melville for sanity and truth.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poem of the Day: Yvor Winters

Time and the Garden 

The spring has darkened with activity,
The future gathers in vine, bush, and tree:
Persimmon, walnut, loquat, fig, and grape,
Degrees and kinds of color, taste, and shape.
These will advance in their due series, space
The season like a tranquil dwelling-place.
And yet excitement swells me, vein by vein:
I long to crowd the little garden, gain
Its sweetness in my hand and crush it small
And taste it in a moment, time and all!
These trees, whose slow growth measures off my years,
I would expand to greatness. No one hears,
And I am still retarded in duress!
And this is like that other restlessness
To seize the greatness not yet fairly earned,
One which the tougher poets have discerned --
Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Greville, Raleigh, Donne,
Poets who wrote great poems, one by one,
And spaced by many years, each line an act
Through which few labor, which no men retract.
This passion is the scholar's heritage,
The imposition of a busy age,
The passion to condense from book to book
Unbroken wisdom in a single look,
Though we know well that when this fix the head,
The mind's immortal, but the man is dead.
--Yvor Winters

It's funny how a writer can be both out of the mainstream and square in the middle of it. No matter how much Winters might have honored tradition -- heroic couplets, for God's sake! -- he couldn't help being a modern poet. Which is what makes his poetry so engaging, and, as in this poem, reminds us that we are what our times make us. The question is whether it's nobler to fight 'em or join 'em. Winters makes a good case for the former.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Poem of the Day: Emily Brontë


Hope was but a timid friend --
She sat without my grated den
Watching how my fate would tend
Even as selfish-hearted men.

She was cruel in her fear.
Through the bars, one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there
And she turned her face away!

Like a false guard false watch keeping
Still in strife she whispered peace;
She would sing while I was weeping,
If I listened, she would cease.

False she was, and unrelenting.
When my last joys strewed the ground
Even Sorrow saw repenting
Those sad relics scattered round;

Hope -- whose whisper would have given
Balm to all that frenzied pain --
Stretched her wings and soared to heaven;
Went -- and ne'er returned again!
--Emily Brontë

Even if you didn't know she wrote it, wouldn't "Emily Brontë" be a good guess? The obvious poem to pair it with is by the other Emily:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me. 
--Emily Dickinson

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Poem of the Day: Allen Tate

Last Days of Alice

Alice grown lazy, mammoth but not fat,
Declines upon her lost and twilight age;
Above in the dozing leaves the grinning cat
Quivers forever with his abstract rage:

Whatever light swayed on the perilous gate
Forever sways, nor will the arching grass,
Caught when the world clattered, undulate
In the deep suspension of the looking glass.

Bright Alice! always pondering to gloze
The spoiled cruelty she had meant to say
Gazes learnedly down her airy nose
At nothing, nothing thinking all the day.

Turned absent-minded by infinity
She cannot move unless her double move,
The All-Alice of the world's entity
Smashed in the anger of her hopeless love,

Love for herself who, as an earthly twain,
Pouted to join her two in a sweet one;
No more the second lips to kiss in vain
The first she broke, plunged through the glass alone --

Alone to the weight of impassivity,
Incest of spirit, theorem of desire,
Without will as chalky cliffs by the sea,
Empty as the bodiless flesh of fire:

All space, that heaven is a dayless night,
A nightless day driven by perfect lust
For vacancy, in which her bored eyesight
Stares at the drowsy cubes of human dust.

-- We too back to the world shall never pass
Through the shattered door, a dumb shade-harried crowd
Being all infinite, function depth and mass
Without figure, a mathematical shroud

Hurled at the air -- blessed without sin!
O God of our flesh, return us to Your wrath,
Let us be evil could we enter in
Your grace, and falter on the stony path!
--Allen Tate

"Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas -- only I don't know exactly what they are," said Lewis Carroll's Alice about "Jabberwocky." I feel that way about Tate's poems. He was a conservative's conservative: a Fugitive, an agrarian, and, later in life, a Roman Catholic, and I think that this poem expresses a kind of moralizing rage against a world that finds its only values in contemplating itself in the looking glass. Still, I like it for the itchiness of its enigmas.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Poem of the Day: Henry David Thoreau

I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
          By a chance bond together,
     Dangling this way and that, their links
          Were made so loose and wide,
               For milder weather.

A bunch of violets without their roots,
          And sorrel intermixed
     Encircled by a wisp of straw
          Once coiled about their shoots,
                    The law
               By which I'm fixed.

A nosegay which Time clutched from out
          Those fair Elysian fields,
     With weeds and broken stems, in haste,
          Doth make the rabble rout
                    That waste
               The day he yields.

And here I bloom for a short hour unseen,
          Drinking my juices up,
     With no root in the land
          To keep my branches green,
                    But stand
               In a bare cup.
--Henry David Thoreau

Friday, April 9, 2010

Poem of the Day: Hart Crane


We make our meek adjustments, 
Contented with such random consolations 

As the wind deposits 
In slithered and too ample pockets. 

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know 
Recesses for it from the fury of the street, 
Or warm torn elbow coverts. 

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk 
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb 
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us, 
Facing the dull squint with what innocence 
And what surprise! 

And yet these fine collapses are not lies 
More than  the pirouettes of any pliant cane; 
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise. 
We can evade you, and all else but the heart: 
What blame to us if the heart live on. 

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen 
The moon in lonely alleys make 
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can, 
And through all sound of gaiety and quest 
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness. 
--Hart Crane 

True, there are poems by Crane that seem to me to be nothing more than word salad, but this is not one of them. I think it perfectly conveys both the comic and the sentimental Chaplin, even if like all of Crane's poems it's really about Hart (see "heart" above).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Poem of the Day: Robert Browning

A Toccata of Galuppi's 

Oh Galuppi, Baldassare, this is very sad to find! 
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind; 
But although I take your meaning, 'tis with such a heavy mind!

Here you come with your old music, and here's all the good it brings, 
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings, 

Ay, because the sea's the street there; and 'tis arched by ... what you call
... Shylock's bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival: 
I was never out of England -- it's as if I saw it all. 

Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May? 
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say? 

Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red -- 
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bellflower on its bed, 
O'er the breast's superb abundance where a man might base his head? 

Well, and it was graceful of them -- they'd break talk off and afford 
-- She, to bite her mask's black velvet -- he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh, 
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions -- "Must we die?" 
Those commiserating sevenths -- "Life might last! we can but try!" 

"Were you happy?" "Yes." "And are you still as happy?" "Yes. And you?" 
"Then, more kisses!" "Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?" 
Hark, the dominant's persistence till it must be answered to! 

So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say! 
"Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay! 
"I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!" 

Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one, 
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun. 

But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve, 
While I triumph o'er a secret wrung from nature's close reserve, 
In you come with your cold music till I creep through every nerve. 

Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned: 
"Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
"The soul, doubtless, is immortal -- where a soul can be discerned.

"Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology, 
"Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree; 
"Butterflies may dread extinction -- you'll not die, it cannot be! 

"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop, 
"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop. 
"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

"Dust and ashes!" So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold. 
Dear dead women, with such hair, too -- what's become of all the gold 
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.
--Robert Browning 

Memento mori. Ubi sunt. Où sont les neiges d'antan? This is Browning's essay into the genre, and a poem I've always rather liked. But I guess I'll have to spoil it for you the way someone did for me, by pointing out that trochaic octameter makes for a rather unwieldy poetic line, even if you drop the last unstressed foot -- as Browning does here, and as Tennyson did in "Locksley Hall." And that the resulting fifteeners in both poems (and Poe's "The Raven") can be sung to the tunes of both "Clementine" and the "Ode to Joy" from the last movement of Beethoven's ninth. (And, of course, you can sing "Herring boxes without topses sandals were for Clementine" to the tune of "Freude, schöne Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium," and vice versa.) But you wouldn't want to do that, would you?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Poems of the Day: Robert Graves

The Cool Web 

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of the evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
--Robert Graves

A prolific poet, Graves is probably better known today for his prose, including the harrowing war memoir Good-bye to All That, the historical novel I, Claudius, and his idiosyncratic interpretations of Greek myth. In short, he knew his way about the web of language -- hence, the ambivalence about mediated experience expressed splendidly by this poem. For good measure, here's another wonderful Graves poem about innocence and experience:

Warning to Children

Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this:
Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
Red and green, enclosing tawny
Yellow nets, enclosing white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where a neat brown paper parcel
Tempts you to untie the string.
In the parcel a small island,
On the island a large tree,
On the tree a husky fruit.
Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
In the kernel you will see
Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
Red and green, enclosed by tawny
Yellow nets, enclosed by white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where the same brown paper parcel --
Children, leave the string alone!
For who dares undo the parcel
Finds himself at once inside it,
On the island, in the fruit,
Blocks of slate about his head,
Finds himself enclosed by dappled
Green and red, enclosed by yellow
Tawny nets, enclosed by black
And white acres of dominoes,
With the same brown paper parcel
Still untied upon his knee.
And, if he then should dare to think
Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
Greatness of this endless only
Precious world in which he says
he lives -- he then unties the string.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Poem of the Day: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapors weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
     Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man --
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seemed
To his great heart none other than a God!
I asked thee, "Give me immortality."
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant worked their wills,
And beat me down and marred and wasted me,
And though they could not end me, left me maimed
To dwell in presence of immortal youth.
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, though even now,
Close over us, the silver star thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go; take back thy gift.
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?
     A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born,
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renewed.
Thy cheek begins to redden through the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, an the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosened manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.
     Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.
     Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts."
     Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch -- if I be he that watched --
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dark curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimsoned all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kissed
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.
    Yet hold me not for ever in thine East;
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy bowers of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground.
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave;
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn,
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I've always thought that immortality has its downside. Imagine spending eternity in the company of the kind of people who are supposed to merit it, with no one to gossip with and no one to gossip about. The Greeks imagined it differently in the Tithonus myth: an immortal soul in an ever-aging body. If Tennyson had had a sense of humor, he might have made more of that premise, but his poem does have some lovely sounds and images.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Poem of the Day: Jean Toomer

Georgia Dusk 

The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
     The setting sun, too indolent to hold
     A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night's barbecue,

A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
     An orgy for some genius of the South
     With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
     And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
     Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.

Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
     Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
     Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
     Race memories of king and caravan,
     High priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

Their voices rise ... the pine trees are guitars,
     Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain ...
     Their voices rise ... the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars.

O singers, resinous and soft your songs
     Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
     Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.
--Jean Toomer

A great, strange talent, Toomer almost got lost in the infamous "tragic mulatto" myth, becoming a kind of one-book-wonder after the success of Cane. (He lived for 44 years after its publication, never producing another book to be compared with it.) But what gives a poem like this one its unique power is its sense of double consciousness: looking at a scene that's almost a Southern stereotype from both inside and outside, and reporting it in a voice that (as Toomer was himself able to do) merges black participant with white observer.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Poem of the Day: Edgar Allan Poe

Sonnet--To Science

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
     Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
     Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise?
     Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To search for treasure in the jeweled skies,
     Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
     And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
     Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
--Edgar Allan Poe

Well, okay, Diana and the Hamadryads and Naiads have pretty much bought it. But wouldn't Poe, and the other Romantics who decried the inroads of science on the territory of the mythic be surprised that, at the beginning of the 21st century, our bestsellers are about vampires and wizards and more Americans reportedly believe in angels than in evolution?              

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Poem of the Day: E.E. Cummings

my father moved through dooms of love 
through sames of am through haves of give, 
singing each morning out of each night 
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where 
turned at his glance to shining here; 
that if (so timid air is firm) 
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which 
floats the first who,his april touch 
dove sleeping selves to swarm their fates 
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots 

and should some why completely weep 
my father's fingers brought her sleep: 
vainly no smallest voice might cry  
for he could feel the mountains grow.

Lifting the valleys of the sea 
my father moved through griefs of joy; 
praising a forehead called the moon 
singing desire into begin 

joy was his song and joy so pure 
a heart of star by him could steer 
and pure so now and now so yes 
the wrists of twilight would rejoice 

keen as midsummer's keen beyond 
conceiving mind of sun will stand, 
so strictly (over utmost him 
so hugely ) stood my father's dream 

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood: 
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn't creep one mile 
uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel; 
his anger was as right as rain 
his pity was as green as grain 

septembering arms of year extend 
less humbly wealth to foe and friend 
than he to foolish and to wise 
offered immeasurable is 

proudly and(by octobering flame
beckoned) as earth will downward climb, 
so naked for immortal work 
his shoulders marched against the dark 

his sorrow was as true as bread: 
no liar looked him in the head; 
if every friend became his foe 
he'd laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree 
(and every child was sure that sprin 
danced when she heard my father sing) 

then let men kill which cannot share, 
let blood and flesh be mud and mire, 
scheming imagine,passion willed,
freedom a drug that's bought and sold 

giving to steal and cruel kind, 
a heart to fear,to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am 

though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet, 
maggoty minus and dumb death 
all we inherit,all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth 
--i say though hate were why men breathe--
because my father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all
--E.E. Cummings 

I'm not, I fear, a Cummings fan. But many are, so this is for them. And for me it's one of the few Cummings poems that truly justify his typographic trickery and syntactical twists. They depict the struggle to articulate a deep and genuine feeling. (And no, he didn't insist on spelling his name with lowercase letters.)