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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Catch of the Day

The Fish 

I caught a tremendous fish 
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook 
fast in a corner of his mouth. 
He didn't fight. 
He hadn't fought at all. 
He hung a grunting weight, 
battered and venerable 
and homely. Here and there 
his brown skin hung in strips 
like ancient wallpaper, 
and its pattern of darker brown 
was like wallpaper: 
shapes like full-blown roses 
stained and lost through age. 
He was speckled with barnacles, 
fine rosettes oflime, 
and infested 
with tiny white sea-lice, 
and underneath two or three 
rags of green weed hung down. 
While his gills were breathing in 
the terrible oxygen 
-- the frightening gills, 
fresh and crisp with blood, 
that can cut so badly -- 
I thought of the coarse white flesh 
packed in like feathrs, 
the big bones and the little bones, 
the dramatic reds and blacks 
of his shiny entrails, 
and the pink swim-bladder 
like a big peony. 
I looked into his eyes 
which were far larger than mine 
but shallower, and yellowed, 
the irises backed and packed 
with tarnished tinfoil 
seen through the lenses 
of old scratched isinglass. 
They shifted a little, but not 
to return my stare 
-- It was more like the tipping 
of an object toward the light. 
I admired his sullen face, 
the mechanism of his jaw, 
and then I saw 
that from his lower lip 
-- if you could call it a lip -- 
grim, we, and weaponlike, 
hung five old pieces of fish-line, 
or four and a wire leader 
with the swivel still attached, 
with all their five big hooks 
grown firmly in his mouth. 
A green line, frayed at the end 
where he broke it, two heavier lines, 
and a fine black thread 
still crimped from the strain and snap 
when it broke and he got away. 
Like medals with their ribbons 
frayed and wavering, 
a five-haired beard of wisdom 
trailing from his aching jaw. 
I stared and stared 
and victory filled up 
the little rented boat, 
from the pool of bilge 
where oil had spread a rainbow 
around the rusted engine 
to the bailer rusted orange, 
the sun-cracked thwarts, 
the oarlocks on their strings, 
the gunnels -- until everything 
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 
And I let the fish go.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Why the GOP Keeps Winning the Blame Game

Blogger Dennis G. at Balloon Juice nails it
Look, I know that we face many difficult challenges. A lot of things have gone wrong and more will go wrong. This is to be expected because Republicans have been in charge for most of the last four decades.
Do you really think that you could have Anti-Government Republicans in charge for 30 plus years and actively working to destroy the infrastructure of government without causing system failures? If you do, then you are living in candy land (or a tea infused lotus dream).
The oil spill in the gulf is is just another result of snorting deregulation fairy dust with a Markets-Are-God hi-ball chaser night after night for decades. When you let industry capture regulators and dismantle effective governance, you guarantee a catastrophic failure. The spill is evidence of this, so was that mining disaster in West Virginia, same thing when it comes to that financial meltdown and the same thing will be true when the next system fails.
And when it does, like idiots, we will not blame the failed philosophy of the modern Conservative movement. Nope, we will blame President Obama, liberals and Democrats—because that is what we are used to doing. More than that, we will ignore facts and worry whether or not the optics of the response are right. We will all ask: is we yelling loud enough yet?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From Here to Felinity

     Strong and slippery, 
built for the midnight grass-party 
confronted by four cats, he sleeps his time away -- 
the detached first claw on the foreleg corresponding 
to the thumb, retracted to its tip; the small tuft of fronds 
or katydid-legs above each eye numbering all units 
in each group; the shadbones regularly set about the mouth 
to droop or rise in unison like porcupine-quills. 
He lets himself be flattened out by gravity, 
as seaweed is tamed and weakened by the sun, 
compelled when extended, to lie stationary. 
Sleep is the result of his delusion that one must 
do as well as one can for oneself, 
sleep -- epitome of what is to him the end of life. 
Demonstrate on him how the lady placed a forked stick 
on the innocuous neck-sides of the dangerous southern snake. 
One need not try to stir him up; his prune-shaped head 
and alligator-eyes are not party to the joke. 
Lifted and handled, he may be dangled like an eel 
or set up on the forearm like a mouse; 
his eyes bisected by pupils of a pin's width, 
are flickeringly exhibited, then covered up. 
May be? I should have said might have been; 
when he has been got the better of in a dream -- 
as in a fight with nature or with cats, we all know it. 
Profound sleep is not with him a fixed illusion. 
Springing about with froglike accuracy, with jerky cries 
when taken in hand, he is himself again; 
to sit caged by the rungs of a domestic chair 
would be unprofitable -- human. What is the good of hypocrisy? 
It is permissible to choose one's employment, 
to abandon the nail, or roly-poly, 
when it shows signs of being no longer a pleasure, 
to score the nearby magazine with a double line of strokes. 
He can talk but insolently says nothing. What of it? 
When one is frank, one's very presence is a compliment. 
It is clear that he can see the virtue of naturalness, 
that he does not regard the published fact as a surrender. 
As for the disposition invariably to affront, 
an animal with claws should have an opportunity to use them. 
The eel-like extension of trunk into tail is not an accident. 
To leap, to lengthen out, divide the air, to purloin, to pursue. 
To tell the hen: fly over the fence, go in the wrong way 
in your perturbation -- this is life; 
to do less would be nothing but dishonesty.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ukiah Is Haiku Spelled Backward

Four Haiku
     A balmy spring wind 
Reminding me of something 
     I cannot recall. 

     The green cockleburrs 
Caught in the thick wooly hair 
     Of the black boy's head. 

     Standing in the field, 
I hear the whispering of 
     Snowflake to snowflake. 

     It is September 
The month in which I was born, 
     And I have no thoughts. 
--Richard Wright
     Most haiku are just 
Trifling Japonaiserie
     Wright's, however, aren't.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Poem of the Day: Ezra Pound

A Study in Aesthetics 

The very small children in patched clothing,
Being smitten with an unusual wisdom,
Stopped in their play as she passed them
And cried up from their cobbles:
                    Guarda! Ahi, guarda! ch' è be' a!

But three years after this
I heard the young Dante, whose last name I do not know --
For there are in Sirmione, twenty-eight young Dantes
     and thirty-four Catulli;
And there had been a great catch of sardines,
And his elders
Were packing them in the great wooden boxes
For the market in Brescia, and he
Leapt about, snatching at the bright fish
And getting in both of their ways;
And in vain they commanded him to sta fermo!
And when they would not let him arrange
The fish in the boxes
He stroked those which were already arranged,
Murmuring for his own satisfaction
This identical phrase:

                                          Ch' è  be' a.

And at this I was mildly abashed.
--Ezra Pound

I think if Pound had written more poems like this one and fewer Cantos, I'd like him a lot more. The Italian says, "Look! Oh, look! How beautiful she is!" and sta fermo means "stand still."          

Friday, May 21, 2010

Poem of the Day: Louis MacNeice


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was 
Spawning snow and pink roses against it 
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible: 
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think, 
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion 
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel 
The drunkenness of things being various. 

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world 
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes --- 
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -- 
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Poem of the Day: D.H. Lawrence

Bavarian Gentians 

Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and dark stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Poem of the Day: Theodore Roethke

I Knew a Woman 

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, 
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them; 
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: 
The shapes a bright container can contain! 
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak, 
Or English poets who grew up on Greek 
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek). 

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin, 
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand; 
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin; 
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand; 
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake, 
Coming behind her for her pretty sake 
(But what prodigious mowing we did make). 

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose: 
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize; 
She played it quick, she played it light and loose; 
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees; 
Her several parts could keep a pure repose, 
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose 
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved). 

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay: 
I'm martyr to a motion not my own; 
What's freedom for? To know eternity. 
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone. 
But who would count eternity in days? 
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways: 
(I measure time by how a body sways).
--Theodore Roethke 
I don't think any twentieth-century poet caught the spirit of Donne or Marvell or Herrick better than Roethke did in this wonderful, sexy poem. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Carlos Williams

As the cat
climbed over
the top of 

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty

Monday, May 17, 2010

Poem of the Day: W.H. Auden

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters: how well they understood 
Its human position; how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting 
For the miraculous birth, there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood: 
They never forgot 
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course 
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot 
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse 
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. 

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away 
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, 
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone 
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green 
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen 
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, 
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 
--W.H. Auden 

Auden's wryly observant poem is maybe the most familiar example of poetry as art criticism, and has been widely imitated. Some of the imitations are direct homages to Auden's poem, like Billy Collins's:

Musée des Beaux Arts Revisited 

As far as mental anguish goes, 
the old painters were no fools. 
They understood how the mind, 
the freakiest dungeon in the castle, 
can effortlessly imagine a crab with the face of a priest 
or an end table complete with genitals. 

And they knew that the truly monstrous 
lies not so much in the wildly shocking, 
a skeleton spinning a wheel of fire, say, 
but in the small prosaic touch 
added to a tableau of the hellish, 
the detail at the heart of the horrid.

In Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony
for instance, how it is not so much 
the boar-faced man in the pea-green dress 
that frightens, but the white mandolin he carries, 
not the hooded corpse in a basket, 
but the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch; 

how, what must have driven St. Anthony 
to the mossy brink of despair 
was not the big, angry-looking fish 
in the central panel, 
the one with the two mouse-like creatures 
conferring on its tail, 
but rather what the fish is wearing: 

a kind of pale orange officer's cape 
and, over that, 
a metal body-helmet secured by silvery wires, 
a sensible buckled chin strap, 
and, yes, the ultimate test of faith -- 
the tiny sword that hangs from the thing, 
that nightmare carp, 
secure in its brown leather scabbard.
--Billy Collins 

I'm sure William Carlos Williams also knew Auden's poem, but he found a particularly musical way to evoke his chosen painting:

The Dance 

In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess, 
the dancers go round, they go round and 
around, the squeal and the blare and the 
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles 
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound) 
their hips and their bellies off balance 
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about 
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those 
shanks must be sound to bear up under such 
rollicking measures, prance as they dance 
in Breughel's great picture, The Kermess.
--William Carlos Williams           

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Poem of the Day: Wallace Stevens

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind; 
But it was she and not the sea we heard. 
For she was the maker of the song she sang. 
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea 
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing. 
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew 
It was the spirit that we sought and knew 
That we should ask this often as she sang. 

It if was only the dark voice of the sea 
That rose, or even colored by many waves; 
If it was only the outer voice of sky 
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled, 
However clear, it would have been deep air, 
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound 
Repeated in a summer without end 
And sound alone. But it was more than that, 
More even than her voice, and ours, among 
The meaningless plunges of water and the wind, 
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped 
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres 
Of sky and sea. 
                        It was her voice that made 
The sky acutest at its vanishing. 
She measured to the hour its solitude. 
She was the single artificer of the world 
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, 
Whatever self it had, became the self 
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, 
As we beheld her striding there alone, 
Knew that there never was a world for her 
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. 

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know, 
Why, when the singing ended and we turned 
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights, 
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there, 
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea, 
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, 
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. 

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon, 
The maker's rage to order words of the sea, 
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, 
And of ourselves and of our origins, 
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. 
--Wallace Stevens
I guess it's worth noting here that the poem's Ramon Fernandez is not the Philippine basketball player, and that Stevens claimed he wasn't the literary critic of the same name, but just a Hispanic name he picked at random. So that's one enigma in this poem you don't have to deal with.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Empson

Missing Dates

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It s not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequences a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month's desires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
--William Empson 

Empson's reputation rests largely on his literary criticism, and especially on his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity (which, as a professor of mine once remarked, constitutes an eighth type of ambiguity all on its own). But he was a provocative poet, too, as this strangely morbid villanelle should demonstrate.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poem of the Day: Edward Thomas

Lights Out 

I have come to the borders of sleep, 
The unfathomable deep 
Forest where all must lose 
Their way, however straight, 
Or winding, soon or late; 
They cannot choose. 

Many a road and track 
That, since the dawn's first crack, 
Up to the forest brink, 
Deceived the travelers, 
Suddenly now blurs, 
And in they sink. 

Here love ends, 
Despair, ambition ends; 
All pleasure and all trouble, 
Although most sweet or bitter, 
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter 
Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book 
Or face of dearest look 
That I would not turn from now 
To go into the unknown 
I must enter, and leave, alone, 
I know not how. 

The tall forest towers; 
Its cloudy foliage lowers 
Ahead, shelf above self; 
Its silence I hear and obet 
That I may lose my way 
And myself. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Poem of the Day: Vernon Watkins


Always in that valley in Wales I hear the noise 
     Of waters falling. 
                              There is a clump of trees 
          We climbed for nuts; and high in the trees the boys 
               Lost in the rookery's cries 
                    Would cross, and branches cracking under their knees

Would break, and make in the winter wood new gaps. 
    The leafmould covering the ground was almost black, 
          But speckled and striped were the nuts we threw in our caps, 
               Milked from split shells and cups, 
                    Secret as chestnuts when they are tipped from a sack, 

Glossy and new. 
                         Always in that valley in Wales 
     I hear that sound, those voices. They keep fresh 
          What ripens, falls, drops into darkness, fails, 
               Gone when dawn shines on scales, 
                    And glides from village memory, slips through the mesh, 

And is not, when we come again. 
                                                  I look: 
     Voices are under the bridge, and that voice calls, 
          Now late, and answers, 
                                              then, as the light twigs break 
               Back, there is only the brook 
                    Reminding the stones where, under a breath, it falls. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Poem of the Day: Robert Frost

Spring Pools 

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to brink dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods --
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
--Robert Frost
This is the Frost I most admire: the observer, not the ironic moralist.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Poem of the Day: Samuel Beckett

what would I do without this world faceless incurious 
where to be lasts but an instant where every instant 
spills in the void the ignorance of having been 
without this wave where in the end 
body and shadow together are engulfed 
what would I do without this silence where the murmurs die 
the paintings the frenzies towards succour towards love 
without this sky that soars 
above its ballast dust 

what would I do what I did yesterday and the day before 
peering out of my deadlight looking for another 
wandering like me eddying far from all the living 
in a convulsive space 
among the voices voiceless 
that throng my hiddenness 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Poem of the Day: Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes --
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
     We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
     We wear the mask!
--Paul Laurence Dunbar

In his day, Dunbar was best known for dialect poems like "When Malindy Sings," which black poets were expected to produce. He wore the mask, but not happily. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Betjeman

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel 

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
     As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
     Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
     Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
     That shone on his unmade bed,

"I want some more hock in my seltzer,
     And Robbie, please give me your hand --
Is this the end or beginning?
     How can I understand?

"So you've brought me the latest Yellow Book:
     And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
     Is as false as a well-kept vow.

"More hock, Robbie -- where is the seltzer?
     Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
     Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

"One astrakhan coat is at Willis's --
     Another one's at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
     And bring them on later, dear boy."

A thump, and a murmur of voices --
     ("Oh why must they make such a din?")
As the door of the bedroom swung open

"Mr Woilde, we 'ave come for tew take yew 
     Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
     For this is the Cadogan Hotel."

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
     He staggered -- and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the palms on the staircase
     And was helped to a hansom outside.
--John Betjeman

I like to imagine the encounter of Oscar Wilde, the consummate aesthete, and John Betjeman, the laureate of British nostalgia, in heaven. Betjeman treats the great injustice of Wilde's arrest with slyly sympathetic humor, which may, after all, be the way Wilde would like to have seen it treated.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Poem of the Day: Edwin Arlington Robinson

New England

Here where the wind is always north-north-east
And children learn to walk on frozen toes,
Wonder begets an envy of all those
Who boil elsewhere with such a lyric yeast
Of love that you will hear them at a feast
Where demons would appeal for some repose,
Still clamoring where the chalice overflows
And crying wildest who have drunk the least.
Passion is here a soilure of the wits,
We're told, and Love a cross for them to bear;
Joy shivers in the corner where she knits
And Conscience always has the rocking-chair,
Cheerful as when she tortured into fits
The first cat that was ever killed by Care.
--Edwin Arlington Robinson

Well, what else would you expect from the author of those cheery little ditties "Richard Cory," "Miniver Cheevy" and "Mr. Flood's Party"?  

Friday, May 7, 2010

Poem of the Day: Kenneth Rexroth

Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk's head and the letters
B.P.O.E. -- a chip from
A small town Elks' Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling "Beautiful Dreamer,"
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks' Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
Slow horses and fast women.

This poem is in honor of my one hundred and seventieth consecutive day of reading Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. I don't think there were any Elks' Clubs in Combray.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Poem of the Day: Ernest Dowson

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine 
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed 
Upon my soul begtween the kisses and the wine; 
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
     Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head; 
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat, 
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay; 
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet; 
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, 
     When I awoke and found the dawn was gray; 
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind, 
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng, 
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind; 
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, 
     Yea, all the time, because the dance was long: 
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine 
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire, 
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine; 
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion, 
     Yea hungry for the lips of my desire: 
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
--Ernest Dowson 

What is there to say about a poet whose two most famous poems are famous for having given titles to works more famous than the poems themselves? In this case, a certain novel by Margaret Mitchell and a song by Cole Porter. The other one is in a poem called "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam." The titles of both poems come from Horace's odes: This one means "I am not what I was under the reign of the good Cynara."        

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Poem of the Day: Stanley Kunitz

The War Against the Trees

The man who sold his lawn to standard oil
Joked with his neighbors come to watch the show
While the bulldozers, drunk with gasoline,
Tested the virtue of the sil
Under the branchy sky
By overthrowing first the privet-row.

Forsythia-forays and hydrangea-raids
Were but preliminaries to a war
Against the great-grandfathers of the town,
So freshly lopped and maimed.
They struck and struck againt,
And with each elm a century went down

All day the hireling engines charged the trees,
Subverting them by hacking underground
In grub-dominions, where dark summer's mole
Rampages through his halls,
Till a northern seizure shook
Those crowns, forcing the giants to their knees.

I saw the ghosts of children at their games
Racing beyond their childhood in the shade,
And while the green world turned its death-foxed page
And a red wagon wheeled,
I watched them disappear
Into the suburbs of their grievous age.

Ripped from the craters much too big for hearts
The club-roots bared their amputated coils,
Raw gorgons matted blind, whose pocks and scars
Cried Moon! on a corner lot
One witness-moment, caught
In the rear-view mirrors of the passing cars.
--Stanley Kunitz

There's a poignant and prophetic quality to this poem, more than fifty years old, and it's somehow best evoked for me in Kunitz's decision not to use the capital letters that commercially belonged to Standard Oil. For oil became standard in our way of life, and we have certainly paid the price for it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Butler Yeats

Among School Children 

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way -- the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy --
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age --
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler's heritage --
And had that color upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

Her present image floats into the mind --
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once -- enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts -- O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolize --
O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;

Labor is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
--William Butler Yeats

Modernism is over. We are now postmodern, whatever that means. And we now approach the landmarks of modernism -- the novels of Proust and Joyce, the poems of Yeats and Eliot -- armed with the tools of exegesis: concordances and glosses, commentaries and footnotes. We illuminate the obscurities and explicate the personal myths. And certainly the snarls and gnarls of a poem like this one need all those external aids if we want to understand them fully. But sometimes the scholarship imposes its considerable bulk between the essence of the poem: the feeling and the emotion, the sheer mystery of a human experience. So it's gratifying to return to this poem having worked it all out, having figured out its allusions and tracked down its personal references and unsnagged its syntax, and just to appreciate it for what it is simply at heart: a meditation on the antagonism between beauty and mortality, a remembrance of things past and an acceptance of things present. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Poem of the Day: Robert Penn Warren

Bearded Oaks

The oaks, how subtle and marine,
Bearded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous tread of light:
The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,
Unmurmuring, of polyp made,
We rest; we are, as light withdraws,
Twin atolls on a shelf of shade.

Ages to our construction went,
Dim architecture, hour by hour:
And violence, forgot now, lent
The present stillness all its power.

The storm of noon above us rolled,,
Of light the fury, furious gold,
The long drag troubling us, the depth:
Dark is unrocking, unrippling, still.

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay
Descend, minutely whispering down,
Silted down swaying streams, to lay
Foundation for our voicelessness.

All our debate is voiceless here,
As all our rage, the rage of stone;
If hope is hopeless, then fearless is fear,
And history is thus undone.

Our feet once wrought the hollow street
With echo when the lamps were dead
At windows, once our headlight glare
Disturbed the doe that, leaping, fled.

I do not love you less that now
The caged heart makes iron stroke,
Or less that all that light once gave
The graduate dark should now revoke.

We live in time so little time
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour's term
To practice for eternity.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Poem of the Day: A.E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now 
Is hung with bloom along the bough, 
And stands about the woodland ride 
Wearing white for Eastertide. 

Now, of my threescore years and ten, 
Twenty will not come again, 
And take from seventy springs a score, 
It only leaves me fifty more. 

And since to look at things in bloom 
Fifty springs are little room, 
About the woodlands I will go 
To see the cherry hung with snow.
--A.E. Housman 
To those of us who are tired of the bogosity of "threescore years and ten" and who may have just seen their seventieth spring, I offer this response by Emily Grosholz to Housman:

Putting On the Ritz 
(For William Jules-Yves) 

After a long, cool winter, 
at last in May a suite 
of warm days wakes the sleepers 

One covered from crown to root 
in thick crepe skirtlets stops 
me, back from hibernation: 

Loveliest of trees, 
big as the Ritz's balletic 
vases charged with bloom.

Not bought, not concocted, 
only improbably real. 
Why am I not surprised? 

My hair is snowed with silver, 
evidence how little room 
fifty springs allow. 

And yet midwinter someone 
burst to life inside me, 
and lately started dancing. 

Just so improbably 
snow hung along the branches 
changed suddenly to flowers. 
--Emily Grosholz

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Poem of the Day: Patrick Kavanagh

Lecture Hall 

To speak in summer in a lecture hall
About literature and its use
I pick my brains and tease out all
To see if I can choose
Something untarnished, some new news

From experience that has been immediate,
Recent, something that makes
The listener or reader
Impregnant, something that reinstates
The poet. A few words like birth-dates

That brings him back in the public mind,
I mean the mind of the dozen or so
Who constantly listen out for the two-lined
Message that announces the gusto
Of the dead arisen into the sun-glow.

Someone in America will note
The apparent miracle. In a bar
In Greenwich Village some youthful poet
Will mention it, and a similar
In London or wherever they are

Those pickers-up of messages that produce
The idea that underneath the sun
Things can be new as July dews --
Out of the frowsy, the second-hand won ...
Keep at it, keep at it while the heat is on

I say to myself as I consider
Virginal crevices in my brain
Where the never-exposed will soon be a mother.
I search for that which has no stain,
Something discovered vividly and sudden.